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Belgium

Country:
Belgium
Dates:
Monday November 9th, 1998 to Monday November 30th, 1998
Author:
noah

I arrived in Antwerpen early enough to have a look around before heading to the hostel, but I soon ran into quite a significant problem: I couldn't withdraw money from any ATM. The most reasonable explanation I was able to get was that Belgian ATMs can't handle bank cards with embossed characters; whatever the reason, I was forced to fall back on my credit card and travellers' cheques (not until I found a Citibank in Brussels was I actually able to withdraw money). Since it was too late to change travellers' cheques that day, I was fortunate that the hostel accepted credit cards, and I enjoyed a nice dinner out knowing that the bill would be sent to Hannah in Thailand.

Antwerpen is a beautiful old city full of baroque buildings. It has a seedier side near the port, but the old city is mostly stone buildings, parks, and cobblestone roads. I spent a few days wandering the city, sometimes with a Dane and an American whom I had met at the hostel. The city's finest site is the cathedral (Onze Lieve Vrouwe), which houses Pieter Paul Rubens' famous Descent from the Cross; I was fortunate to be able to attended Remembrance Day mass there, since many Canadians, including at least one relative of mine, died in the Belgian mud during WWI (Flanders Fields refers to a region of northern Belgium). Other highlights were the a baroque chapel in the Church of St. Carolus Borromeus and the diamond museum (Antwerpen's Jewish quarter is home to the world's largest diamond industry).

Belgium is famous for chocolate, french fries (with mayonnaise), and beer. I was able to sample the latter 2, but the good chocolate was well beyond my means. After a 3 days in Antwerpen, I caught a ride part of the way out of the city on my Danish friend's motorcycle (a logistical nightmare — 2 people and 2 large packs on a small bike), and headed out to hitch to Brugge (Bruges). I ended up walking quite a ways, but eventually secured a few rides in quick succession, and I was in Brugge by late afternoon.

I checked in to one of Brugge's many hostels and set out to explore the town. I was soon in awe; with its 13th century square, cobbled streets, and stone bridges over meandering canals, Brugge is without a doubt one of the prettiest towns in the world. Unfortunately, quite a number of other people seem to have noticed this as well. Apparently the town is a zoo in the summer, and even in November there were more tourists there than anywhere I had been since London. The story of how Brugge came to be so beautiful (discounted by some) is that it was virtually abandoned when the Zwin River silted centuries ago; the old building thus weren't demolished to make way for new ones, and the result is the well preserved medieval town that exists today.

Brugge as a tourist destination is principally geared towards people with money, but the copious hostels are testament to its attraction to people on tighter budgets as well. I met some interesting people at the Snuffel Travellers' Inn, including a few Canadians and an American couple who had travelled overland from India to Beijing, China and then across to Europe.

Brugge isn't very big, and after 2 days I had pretty much seen everything I wanted to see (though much of it is so pleasant to look at that I probably could have just kept going back). I headed up Sint Amandsstraat (St. Amand Street) which runs off of the market square, and out to the highway. Following some misguided walking, I eventually caught a lift, and after a brief and uneventful stop in Ghent, I was in Brussels by late afternoon.

Belgium is not really a nation. It is, indeed, a country, but, not unlike Canada, it is a country made up of two nations. The language of northern Belgium, i.e., Flanders, is Flemish (Dutch), and the people of the north tend to have much more in common with the Dutch than they do with the French-speaking Wallonians to the south. There is apparently quite a bit of bickering between the two peoples, as well as an ongoing movement to split the country. The capital, Brussels, lies close to where the Flemish and French regions meet, and is basically trilingual — officially the city is both French and Flemish, but, perhaps owing to its position at the centre of European politics, most people there seem to be fluent English speakers as well.

When I arrived in Brussels it was raining steadily. I had the phone number of a friend from Canada who I had run into in Amsterdam, who was now living in Brussels, and who had offered me a place to stay; my attempts to contact her from Brugge had revealed that she was away in England, however, and so I headed for the cheapest hostel I could find. I went for a short walk in order to find some food, but I decided to put off sightseeing until the following day.

Brussels's Grand Place is said to be perhaps the most impressive central square in Europe; the ornate buildings that ring the square are former guildhouses, constructed by powerful craft guilds in the 15th century. Most of Brussels' important sites are close to the square, including the Galeries St. Hubert, the oldest glass-covered shopping arcade in Europe, St. Michel Cathedral, which was covered in scaffolding when I was there, and Manneken Pis, a famous statue of a small boy urinating. Shortly after I saw the statue, as I was heading towards the Royal Palace (where I unwittingly, but fortunately, stumbled upon a ceremony marking the king's birthday), a car pulled up beside me and a Japanese man jumped out and started jabbering incomprehensibly at me; the look on my face must have told him that I had no idea what he was saying, because he changed his tactic, and began to mime peeing in the street. I directed him to Manneken Pis.

There are a number of good musea in Belgium, but I unfortunately only had time and money enough to see 1. I decided to skip the City of Brussels Museum, the Ancient and Modern Art Musea, and the various brewing musea in favour of the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. Belgians take their comics very seriously, and Tintin, Asterix, and the Smurfs (Les Schtroumphs), integral aspects of any good French Immersion education in Canada, were created by Belgians. Further encouraging me to check out the Comic Strip Centre was the fact that the building that houses it was designed by the famous Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta.

Brussels was in fact the birthplace of Art Nouveau architecture, and Horta and Henri van de Velde (both from Brussels) are generally considered to have been the instigators of the movement. Old Brussels is somewhat less attractive than some other Belgian towns (Brugge and Antwerpen, to be specific), but from Art Nouveau onward Brussels' modern architecture is often quite impressive. Particularly stunning are the miles of reflective glass that make up the new headquarters of the European Union; I spent a couple of hours just walking among these enormous gleaming structures, which are located just outside of the city centre.

After a couple of days I managed to get a hold of my friend from Canada, and I moved out of the hostel and stayed with her on my last night in town. I had the rare pleasure of spending the evening at a local pub listening to a high ranking Irish dignitary (a friend of my friend's) dish dirt on various European heads of state. The next morning I headed south toward Namur.

The day I left Brussels was cold, but sunny, and I had no trouble getting to Namur, about 50km to the southeast. Namur is well within the borders of Wallonie, the French-speaking area of Belgium, and I was feeling a little more comfortable about my ability to communicate than I had been in Flanders.

Having arrived in Namur in the early afternoon, I decided to have a look around before checking in to the hostel. The old parts of the town, mainly centred around the River Meuse, are quite nice, though by no means spectacular. Aside from a comfortable cathedral, the only real tourist attraction in the area is the 15th century citadel that sits high on a cliff overlooking the town. I walked up to the citadel and had a look through the gate, but since it is closed from October to April, I figured that that was as much as I would see. It was getting to be late afternoon, so I headed to the hostel, which was a little ways south of the town centre, pleasantly situated on the river.

My real reason for stopping in Namur was not so much Namur itself as the small town of Huy, about 30km down the Meuse. Many Canadians died in Belgium during WWI, including my great great uncle (my mother's mother's mother's brother), who is buried in a cemetery in Huy. The morning following my arrival in Namur, I set out fairly early; I picked up a disposable camera in order to be able to send to my elderly and ailing third cousin some pictures of her father's grave (I got a camera without a flash, since I would only be using it outside and during the day), and I set out for Huy. During this trip I realized what a boon a large pack was to hitching. I suspect that upon seeing the pack drivers realize that the hitcher is a traveller rather than a local trying to scam a ride, and thus they are much more likely to stop. I came to this conclusion because on my way to Huy without my pack (I would be returning to Namur in the evening) I had more trouble getting a ride than at virtually any other time during my trip. In fact, I would have arrived in Huy sooner if I had simply walked the 30km (I ended up walking most of it anyway).

When I finally did arrive in Huy it was late afternoon, almost dusk. I found the town's tourist office, but they, of course, had no clue where I might find a Canadian WWI cemetery. They did, however, very helpfully direct me to the town's historical society, where they thought I might find someone who could help me out. The Huy historical society is a single room in an old building attached to the town library, and it fits just about perfectly my idea of a stereotypical historical society. I walked tentatively through the door into an ocean of books and papers; the room was ringed with overflowing shelves, and the three long parallel wooden tables in the centre of the room had piles on them ranging from a few cm to a over a metre. There were a number of people in the room, and when I posed my question of the woman who seemed to be in charge, a lively discussion ensued. After a couple of minutes it occurred to someone to ask an old man sitting in a corner of the room concealed by a pile of books. Strangely, he was the only person in the room who hadn't taken part in the previous discussion (I suspect that he didn't hear very well), but he was also the only person who knew exactly what I was talking about. As soon as someone explained to him what I was looking for, he took me outside to the road and gave me precise directions to the cemetery. He had an odd way of speaking, but I was able to understand enough to be fairly confident that I could follow his directions. I thanked him profusely, and headed off in a hurry, as darkness was fast approaching.

It took me about 15min to climb the hill behind the town to the cemetery; I found it easily by following the old man's instructions, and I actually arrived before dark. I located my great great uncle's grave (in a row consisting entirely of graves of Canadian soldiers who died in WWI — there are also a number of British soldiers in the cemetery), and immediately took copious photographs in hopes that a few would turn out; none did, however, and the only photograph I have of the cemetery is of a stone cross that stands at the end of the row of soldiers' graves, overlooking Huy and the Meuse.

Once I had taken photographs from every possible angle, I was able to relax (no longer stressed by the failing light) and reflect on the fact that I was standing in front of a gravestone commemorating a relative of mine who had died in this place 80 years previously. It was an odd feeling, but not an altogether sad one. It certainly brought home to me the reality of a war that usually seems impossibly distant both physically and temporally. That WWI took place in a different era and in a far away place is obvious, but visiting this grave made me realize that I am not as far removed from that era as I sometimes believe myself to be, and at that moment the place was no longer by any means far away. My only regret is that I was unable to send pictures home to my cousin, who passed away shortly thereafter.

It was almost completely dark by the time I headed back down the hill and into Huy. There was obviously no way I was going to be able to hitch back to Namur, so I grabbed a bite to eat at a local grocery store and then caught a bus back to within walking distance of the hostel. My intention was to leave Namur the following morning, but as I was checking out I noticed a sign beside the till indicating that the hostel was looking for temporary help. I had been thinking that the time had come to try to save some money, and I had only a very sketchy idea of what I wanted to do for the following 2 weeks (I had to be in Paris by the 5th of December), so I decided to stay.

For the ensuing week and a half I worked anywhere from 3 to 8 hrs/day in return for room and board; the whole experience was quite enjoyable, as the people who ran the hostel, and the people with whom I worked, were extremely easy-going and friendly. I even got to accompany them back to Brussels for the annual celebratory dinner for all the hostels in Wallonie, where we were fed excellent middle-eastern food and entertained by an African drum ensemble and a lot of old drunk people singing really bad French karaoke.

When I wasn't working I wandered up and down the Meuse and through the forested hills that surround the town. One day, while walking through the hills, I started to come across the ruins of ancient buildings. As I continued to walk the ruins became increasingly elaborate, and I was soon exploring various tunnels, towers, bridges, and other structures. I was fairly sure that I was in part of the citadel, but I didn't realize what part until I arrived at the gate that had kept me off the citadel grounds on the day I first arrived in Namur; this time, however, I was on the other side of the gate. I'm wasn't sure how I managed to get onto the grounds of the citadel, but I wasn't about to look a proverbial gift horse in the proverbial mouth, and I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours exploring the area without another soul in sight.

After a almost 2 weeks in Namur, I realized that I had better get moving if I wanted to be able to spend some time in Luxembourg before heading on to Paris, so I packed up and continued my journey south.

You might wish to look at the Belgium photos in the photo album.

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