29th June – 5th July 2014
On a quiet Sunday morning in Paris we pack our bags and Pierre gives us a lift to the station. It is all carefully planned, and by the time we have traversed Paris and emerge into the cool and relative quiet of Gare du Nord, we have a comfortable 30 mins to spare.
The Thalys train hisses gently onto the platform, and we make ourselves comfortable. Soon it is whirring along, across the green, wet and fertile fields of the Marne and of Flanders. The border runs somewhere through this area, but does not register on this train – in less than ninety minutes we are in Brussels: not the cheapest of trips, but you are paying for utter convenience.
Following the instructions of our Brussels hosts we take the tram to St Gilles, and soon are sharing a cup of coffee in the beautifully renovated townhouse of our hosts Olivier and Sophie. The last weekend of the school year is busy socially for them, and they leave us to explore the area this afternoon. As the rain falls, we have lunch and later, as the evening turns sunny, we walk down to Place Flagey, and share two large cones of frites as kids kick a football around and a band entertains the end of the weekend.
The next day, setting a date for dinner with our hosts, we head toward the inner suburb around the Square Ambiorix, where Brussel’s busy Art Noveau architecture reaches it’s florid zenith. Nearby the children are more appreciative of a playground, and we chat with a German couple who, like so many in this town, have been drawn here by the gravity of the European administration. In the evening we feast on moussaka and Petit Os (herbed ribs) at a Greek restaurant in St Gilles.
Into the Centre
It takes until our third day for us to finally penetrate the maze like streets of the old town centre. We joined a ‘free city tour’, which is in reality operating on an industrial scale, and each red-shirted guide is followed by a somewhat unwieldy crowd of followers. The guides do their best to balance the tricky combination of the tourists, an entertaining presentation, and narrow streets and local traders: it’s awkward. The tour takes in the checklist of sites: the Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, various comic-themed murals. We bail out half way, thanking our guide and taking refuge in a cafe which serves delicious powdered-sugar waffles and a restorative coffee hit.
After a classic lunch of bread, cheese and fruit, we wander a little more and head home. Graham is soon off again, to the Parc Cinquatenaire with its colossal neo-classical domes, arches, and statues. He explores the immense and free Royal Army Museum. Inside the collection ranges from ancient cannons to archaeology from nearby Waterloo Battlefield and aircraft from Belgium’s doomed defence against the Nazi War machine. There are costumes and swords, tanks and cold war relics. It’s a testament to the the history of wars fought across this small but rich triangle of Europe.
Prunella cooks up a great dinner of baked pasta and salad and we all gather for a lovely meal and some great conversation. Olivier and Sophie are involved in hosting visitors through Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club and the Servas Network, and share their home and world view perspectives, in the meantime helping us challenge our own. It’s a great welcome in a multi-dimensional and surprising city, one which punches well above its weight on the world stage.
That evening it seems almost all of Brussels draws its breath: The national football team, the beloved ‘Red Devils’ have made it to the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, and tonight take on the USA in an epic clash. The game captivates our hosts and their friends – for ninety minutes both teams search for a way through their opponent’s defence, all to no avail. Ninety minutes have gone, a few chances missed, and the spectators are almost as exhausted as the guys on the pitch. Finally, as extra time opens up, Belgium strikes! And again! The USA – no football slouches themselves – marshal for a final but unsuccessful counterattack but one goal is not enough and the Red Devils are on their way forward.
Ghent/Gent (I never know which…)
On Thursday, our generous and enthusiastic couch surfing host in Ghent, Tieke, has arranged to collect us from Brussels and drive us to Ghent. It’s a relatively short distance but a helpful offer and much appreciated, given the size of our group and baggage train. In the end Tieke’s brother cheerfully arrives and we drive off, clearing the narrow streets and onto the highway in a comfortable Audi.
Soon we are in Ghent, a fine Flemish city, with a history of its own as a medieval city state and contributor to modern Belgium. Tieke’s home is modern and friendly – a meeting point for like minded people, always coming and going. Tieke herself is full of energy: she studies at Ghent’s University, manufactures customised jewellery for band merchandise, and still has time for this wandering family and other couch surfers.
Secure in our digs, we hand over a few euro for a tram ticket or ten, and explore the city, taking a boat trip and wandering the back lanes. Today the city is an intriguing combination of ancient and beautiful with canals, guild halls and cathedrals, yet heavily seasoned with the piquant spice of a large student population to keep it from becoming staid. There’s bikes everywhere, boats and trams, concert posters, street art and seventeenth century architecture – a cultural heritage that, in this generation as in so many stretching before, show that the city can be self sufficient and still look outwards.
For us a highlight is a visit to see the Ghent Altarpiece, a polyptych of stunningly painted wooden panels and the most famous work of the fifteenth century Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert. It has been stolen, hidden, copied and desired by a all star cast of noblemen and thieves over the centuries, but today resides securely in the solid but gloomily gothic interior of the St Bavo Cathedral.
It is a revelation, full of bright colour, stunning brush strokes which offer tantalising hints and double meanings in its depiction of various biblical scenes – as much as anything could be, it’s a window on the medieval mind. A splash of green here, a deliberate monochrome there; a mix of images, a cryptic pose. Is the central figure Christ or God himself? Who among the faces are real people? Is a painted view from the window that of van Eyck’s own studio? These are the questions which have challenged art historians since the work first went on display – a work which asks as many questions as it answers.
(Sorry, no photos of it. You’ve got to go and see this for yourself. Can’t take photos of it, and they don’t do it much justice anyway. Did I say go and see this?)
The next day we spent in Bruges, taking a local train from Ghent and walking from the station through unfolding streets. We marvelled at the cobbled lanes, ducked into courtyards, admired watery vistas, sighed at the houses which lean over the canals like the weeping willows beside them. As if to cap off the city’s grace, swans move majestically abroad, barely moving for the passing tour boats and their well-versed commentator/drivers.
We eat our lunch and watch the tourists crossing the bridge, wander through some quieter back streets and squares. It’s pretty quiet, almost as if the locals have moved on or moved out for the summer. Renaissance palaces merge into grand canal vistas of more recent centuries. Here and there are signs of a living city: elaborately camouflaged car parks, semi-sympathetic conversions, modern homages to barely interrupt the flow of older facades. In some places two older houses have been merged into one more suited for a contemporary lifestyle.
In many ways the smaller, more beautiful cousin of Ghent, Bruges rightfully basks in her place as a jewel in the crown of northern European tourism. Sitting back on the slow local train to Ghent, we reflect. Bruges is a beautiful Flemish city, rich and barely blemished (or at least well restored) but if challenged we would prefer Ghent – not as pretty, but in the end it comes down personality doesn’t it?
It’s Saturday, it must be England
This afternoon, we have a bus journey to England. In the morning there is time for a short trip back into the centre of Ghent to confirm our suspicions of the previous day, and to watch the city waking up. At the agreed time Tieke loads us into a large van she has borrowed, and drives us to the outskirts of town, the designated rendezvous point for our Megabus.
Soon the giant blue double decker looms out of the drizzle, we pile on board, find a decent seat and, as is the way of most coach services these days, plug in phone chargers and log on to the onboard wifi. The coach takes a circuitous route, back towards Brussels and Lille, and then west, eventually arriving at the vast embarkation plaza for the the Eurotunnel railway shuttle. We proceed through the French/UK border controls, one passenger left stranded by his somewhat foolishly surly indifference to the power and authority of the functionaries upon whose benediction access to entire countries rests.
Frankly, although the 30 minute crossing bus-in-a-train-in-a-tunnel system is drably efficient, we somewhat wistfully yearn for the days of the Dover-Calais ferry, which, on a day like this would have offered us pleasing vistas of England as we approached the famous white cliffs. Our driver confesses that he too is doing this version of the crossing for the first time, and thus has some anxiety at steering a brand new 500,000 GBP coach into a metal box (the railway wagon) with only a few inches of clearance on either side. His task accomplished, he struts around chuffed, and we sit in the coach, as it rumbles under the English Channel, the only sign our journey is complete being the sudden reappearance of second hand daylight via the coach windows and the wagon’s grubby portholes.
Barely stopping, we are soon on the motorway, zooming north west for London. It’s an anxious time – we are heading for Graham’s uncle’s place in Gloucestershire, and the Saturday evening connections are really limited. A healthy half-hour buffer between the scheduled bus arrival and a bus to Stroud is soon body-slammed by the London evening traffic, and we arrive at Victoria Coach Terminal with only a couple of minutes to spare. By the time we get to the departures, it’s too late, and we have to take a later coach.
Finally arriving in Gloucester at midnight, we join late night revellers on the last bus to Stroud, and soon we’re by ourselves, winding through sleeping villages. In a final twist, our bus passes through the village where Uncle John lives, and he cheerfully greets us out of the night, so that we can stroll the last hundred metres to a late night supper.
England, here we are.