Belgium was never on my travel wish list. My visit last month, hastily put together for my sister’s benefit initially, and then rescheduled due to a family crisis, had me wondering why. Its appeal went far beyond the beer, chocolates, waffles and frite. Although they helped. A lot. The beer especially, not the waffles so much.
I know many people who have ‘done’ Belgium in under a week. Eight proved far too little for me. On hindsight, and with time for my usual pre-trip research, I would not have wasted the extra two nights we did have, on a side trip to Maastricht. Although we – my friend Rashmi (my sister didn’t make it after all) and I – loved Maastricht as much.
The reason Belgium was picked for such a short holiday in the first place, is the ease of train travel within the country. Our first of several train rides was from the airport to the Gare Central, the site of an explosion just the day before our arrival. We had been clueless until I opened a dozen or so frantic WhatsApp messages from my new Dutch friend (who I met on the streets of Chiang Mai earlier this year) to ‘please, please message back’. We learned later, that there had been no casualties and that the amateur ‘terrorist’ was shot dead by troops on station duty.
Prominent police presence at the Grand Place (Grote Markt in Dutch) as well as the heavily armed patrols at all train stations were disconcerting and comforting at the same time. We marvelled at the large number of seemingly unconcerned people on the square that evening. Do too many such incidents make us defiant or just plain blasé?
Brussels was beautiful, but hot – humid HOT like Chennai, on our first day! – and crowded. We caught a Steve Mc Curry exhibition at the Bourse one afternoon, a definite highlight, albeit a non-Belgian one. And in the limited time we had in the capital between train journeys, I hunted down a few Art Nouveau gems. But that’s a story for another day.
Bruges, or Brugge, was as charming as I had imagined, and our B&B even more lovely. Walking along those gorgeously picturesque canals was a highlight in itself.
As was fairytale like Ghent, that we explored on a day-trip (from Bruges) and that merits at least an overnight stay. We still managed to feast our eyes on the remarkable Ghent Altarpiece (Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) and climb (read ‘ride up on the lift’) the belfort, the tallest in Belgium.
We were both surprised by how much we enjoyed Antwerp, even though it wasn’t half as grand as Brussels, nor as romantic as the two smaller towns. The location of our B&B right on Vrijdagmarkt probably played a part. Also, an evening with our daughter’s friend Payal, who was born and brought up in Antwerp and now lives in Bangalore. Payal walked us around the old town and insisted on showing us an exquisite Jain temple near her parent’s home the next morning.
A walk through St.Anna’s pedestrian tunnel (beneath the river Scheldt) to the left bank is an experience in itself. The impressive view of the city from across, an added bonus. We loved the more intimate Grote Mrkt with its guild houses, and most of all, the marvellous Plantin-Moretus museum, the only (?) museum to be ascribed UNESCO heritage status. It is home to the 36 line Gutenberg bible, two of the oldest surviving printing presses and a sublime collection of antique books, bibles and atlases. We ended up delaying our departure until the afternoon, and did not regret eating into our already limited time in Brussels.