Flemish street art

Street art seems pretty popular in Flemish Belgium. In Antwerp and Ghent I came across a wide variety, ranging from the stylish, to political, to the vulgar and obscene. One of the joys of viewing street art is the knowledge that tomorrow, or next week, it will be gone, replaced by something else. The lack of permanence makes seeing it exhilarating.

Sometimes this is just irritating. A building near where I lived in London had a really lovely Banksy, the girl releasing a red balloon into the air. The building was bought for redevelopment and, presumably without knowing what it was, they painted over it. A small piece of urban beauty vanished under a coat of emulsion.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

I like street art with purpose, whether biting social or political satire, or just making the place look a bit more pleasant. I’m less keen on the whole ‘tagging’ form of street art, which I always associate with graffiti. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to distinguish between the two, or if there’s anything to distinguish between.

Belgium has some internationally renowned street artists. Ghent is home to mysterious muralist ROA, whose work I stumbled upon down a side street just outside the centre of town. ROA seems to be something of a Belgium Banksy, shrouded in secrecy.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Elsewhere in Ghent there’s an alleyway devoted to street art not far from the medieval centre. Werregarenstraat is known as ‘Graffiti Street’ by the tourist board – less guerilla art than sanctioned by the state. Ever changing, it’s fun to stroll along and see stylish and amusing paintings. I also found some interesting pieces on my walk to and from Ghent’s train station.

I didn’t come across anything quite like Graffiti Street while in Antwerp, but at a skate park near the docks there is a treasure trove of street art. Some way out of the centre, a lot of skill, effort and paint has gone into turning an ugly multiple lane road bridge into a living, breathing canvas. Enjoy.

Historic Ghent, all day and all of the night

It’s not difficult to see why Ghent has a reputation as a top destination. It’s chock full of beautiful medieval buildings, relaxed squares, excellent restaurants, good museums and several dozen bars stocking hundreds and hundreds of different Belgian beers. It was here I heard the phrase ‘beer tourism’ for the first time. The town is supposed to have some of the best bars in the country. It seemed rude not to try a couple.

Ghent is an architectural ‘moveable feast’. The city has more than its fare share of medieval buildings, particularly around the historic centre of the Graslei harbour. All this fine architecture is the result of Ghent’s stranglehold over the medieval textile trade, which flooded the city with riches. For a time, in the Middle Ages, Ghent was the second largest European city after Paris.

Medieval buildings on the Graslei harbour, Ghent, Belgium

Medieval buildings on the Graslei harbour, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

St. Nicholas' Church, Ghent, Belgium

St. Nicholas’ Church, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent’s wealth and power made it independent, so much so that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, himself born in Ghent, decided to teach the townsfolk a lesson in humility. Not for nothing are the good people of Ghent known as Stroppendragers, or ‘noose wearers’. Charles V’s less than subtle response to Ghent’s refusal to pay tax was to have the most prominent citizens paraded before him, barefoot and wearing nooses.

That the town’s people proudly adopted the name Stroppendragers should tell you a lot about them. That independent spirit lives on and Ghent feels like a town that cares little for what others think of it. The large population of university students adds to that, although in August students are definitely outnumbered by tourists.

After a coffee at one of the restaurants overlooking the Graslei, I headed to the imposing Belfry to get the lay of the land. Constructed in the early 14th Century along with the attached cloth hall, the Belfry is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 91 metres in height, and more steps than you’d care to count, the views from the top are spectacular. Luckily, there’s an elevator to take you up.

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

This area is home to an array of extraordinary buildings. Around the Belfry are the giant Stadhuis, with a strange mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture; the beautiful St Bavo’s Cathedral, home to van Eyck’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; and the equally dramatic St. Nicholas’ Church. It’s quite a triptych of buildings.

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

For a bit of contrast to the grand architecture I walked over the river to the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval Patershol district. The buildings may not be so grand but the district is full of beautiful houses, dating back to the 12th Century, some excellent restaurants and well stocked bars. I decided to come back to have dinner here, at night the area is very atmospheric.

Ghent at night, Belgium

Ghent at night, Belgium

Ghent Market Hall and Belfy at night, Belgium

Ghent Market Hall and Belfy at night, Belgium

Market Hall at night, Ghent, Belgium

Market Hall at night, Ghent, Belgium

Shop windows at night, Ghent, Belgium

Shop windows at night, Ghent, Belgium

On my way out of the Patershol I discovered the 12th Century Gravensteen. Castles don’t come much more picturesque than this. Towering over the moat are fairytale turrets guarded by arrow slits; it’s straight out of a Disney film. Remarkable to think that in the 19th Century it was turned into a cotton mill. Adding to the drama, the castle stands in the middle of the town.

I may be painting Ghent as little more than an open museum, but that would be unfair. This is a town with a pulse, actually a thumping heart, and on a warm summer night the streets buzz with activity. There are good restaurants and more bars and cafes than you can shake a stick at, my guidebook claimed over 280, several had live music.

Discovering the glories of Ghent

If New York is ‘so good they named it twice’, what does that say about Ghent? Or Gant, as the French call it? Or Gent, if you’re Dutch?* This thrice-named town may have a tourist infestation at this time of year, but it’s an historic and fascinating place with much to recommend it. Compact enough to explore on foot over a couple of days, it’s large enough to feel like you’ve seen only part of what the town has to offer.

Not for nothing is Ghent referred to as “the pearl between Brussels and Bruges“. One of the nicest things about the old city is that much of it is pedestrianised. You can wander narrow lanes, stumble across pretty, restaurant-filled squares and stroll alongside ancient canals without fear of being mown down. Bikes and trams have replaced cars, the result makes for a far more pleasant experience.

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

The Europe-wide Monday closure of museums remains one of the Universe’s great mysteries. It meant that when I arrived on Sunday there were a couple of places that would be closed the next day that I wanted to visit. I walked from the train station through Citadel Park to the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter, which sits on one side of the vast Sint Pietersplein square.

Sint Pietersabdij, Ghent, Belgium

Sint Pietersabdij, Ghent, Belgium

Once the wealthiest and largest Abbey in Flanders, Sint Pietersabdij and the attached Sint Pieterskerk, is hugely impressive. Founded in the 7th Century, the Abbey flourished for centuries before the Reformation and subsequent religious wars tore Flanders apart. It acquired land, property and power, and a reputation for indulgent monks living in opulence.

Visitors are issued a handheld video tour narrated by the ghost of a former monk. It’s as odd as it sounds, and not just because the monk’s name is ‘Alison’, or that he goes on and on about how devastated he is over the death of a young monk with whom he was ‘friends’. I was thinking the obvious when Alison revealed that he was just one of the many monks who had a mistress living in the Abbey. Who knew?

As my guidebook put it, Alison is the “tangential musings of a ghost monk guide in a medieval love triangle.” I also learned that the monks considered milk a health risk, and drank wine instead. Nice work if you can get it.

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Messing about on the river, Ghent, Belgium

Messing about on the river, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

The Abbey’s importance reflected the wealth and importance of Ghent. It grew until the 18th Century when catastrophe struck in the form of the French Revolution. The Revolutionary army occupied the Abbey, evicted the monks, and confiscated anything of value, including the well stocked wine cellar (a particular blow to Alison). In 1796 the Abbey was abolished.

I ventured into Ghent’s historic centre and spent a leisurely hour over some delicious mussels in white wine sauce, and then headed to the MIAT textile museum to discover Ghent’s history as a cloth manufacturing centre. It isn’t entirely obvious today, but Ghent was once a major industrial city full of wool, flax and cotton mills.

MIAT, Ghent, Belgium

MIAT, Ghent, Belgium

The excellent MIAT is suitably housed in a former 19th Century mill. Fine woollen cloth made medieval Ghent wealthy, its products were in such demand Flemish traders had to import wool from England and Scotland. Which might explain the ‘Scottish Pub’ I came across. It definitely explains all the medieval guild buildings dotted around the town.

In the 19th Century it was flax and cotton that brought Ghent wealth. The museum is full of machines that once drove the economy, and explains the impact industrialisation had on the town. Ghent was the first city in Flanders to experience the Industrial Revolution after factory owner, Lieven Bauwens, smuggled a Spinning Jenny out of England. The original machine can still be seen.

Ghent hardly fits the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ stereotype, and today it’s hard to guess at this history as you walk around. Tourism has replaced cloth manufacturing, the industrial past is barely recognisable in the medieval centre. Many of the ancient buildings that were once converted into mills in the 19th Century, have been transformed again into restaurants and gift shops.

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium


*As a side note, there are seven US States that have a town called Ghent. I thought this a bit odd, then I remembered that the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom was signed on Christmas Eve 1814 in Ghent.

Gallivanting in Ghent

What to say about Ghent? There’s no doubt it’s a lovely place, but maybe I was expecting too much after reading so many glowing reviews and blog posts extolling its virtues. It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy myself, I did. It’s just that Ghent is mobbed by tourists. Big unwieldy packs of day-tripping tour groups rampage through its medieval centre.

As I type, I’m speeding across northern Belgium towards the Netherlands. There is a spectacular sunset illuminating the late evening sky with oranges and pinks, all of which makes me feel warmer towards this part of Belgium. Still, I’m shocked by the commercialism of Ghent. I should probably never go to Bruges.

St. Pieters station, Ghent, Belgium

St. Pieters station, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

For the record, tourists are not “surprisingly thin on the ground”, and Ghent is most definitely not “Bruges without the tourists”. Whatever the Lonely Planet guide might say. I knew there’d be tourists. It’s August. In Europe. But it’s as if the town has prostrated itself to the idol of mass tourism.

The town seems overwhelmed. I certainly was. Tourism brings in a lot of money, but still Ghent feels a bit shabby. It’s rare to see so much litter, dog crap and general uncleanliness in a town in the Netherlands. Move out of the centre, and the town feels dilapidated. Roads and pavements are in bad shape. There are far too many drunks.

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Detail from the Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

Detail from the Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

A defining moment came when I walked into the cathedral. A spectacular building in its own right, it’s most famous for housing Van Eyke’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This enormous altar piece comprises several panels depicting biblical scenes and two wondrous pictures of Adam and Eve. It’s Van Eyke’s  great masterpiece, something of extraordinary artistic value.

'Graffeti' on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

‘Graffeti’ on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

'Graffeti' on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

‘Graffeti’ on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Probably best then to keep it in a really small room because hardly anyone will want to take a look. Why not charge people who do €4 to squeeze uncomfortably into the really small room, jostling with approximately 42 other people (I counted) to glimpse the painting. Most of your fellow sufferers will be listening (at top volume) to audio tapes which, collectively, makes a sound that can only be described as ‘tortured cat’.

Who wants to be sardined into a room listing to the disembodied tinny soundtrack of dozens of audio tracks? Seriously, save yourself the pointlessness of trying to see a masterpiece and take a look online. Alternatively, should the ecclesiastic authorities be reading this, limit the number of people allowed to visit at any given time and, when the room is already full, don’t allow another tour group inside.

Interior of Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Interior of Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Harp player in Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Harp player in Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

House, Ghent, Belgium

House, Ghent, Belgium

I don’t want to go on because there is much that is wonderful about Ghent, but I confess to some disappointment. It’s probably a town best enjoyed in the autumn or spring, when there’s more chance of bad weather but less chance of becoming infuriated by the crassness of it all.

I arrived at Ghent’s lovely Sint Pieters Station late on a Sunday morning after a slow start from Antwerp. The sky was overcast, the weather humid and airless. The walls of my not inexpensive hotel seemed infested with mosquitoes – there’s a problem with mosquitoes in this part of Europe right now. I added insecticide to my mental list of items to buy.

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol district, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol district, Ghent, Belgium

The Castle of Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

The Castle of Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

Outside my hotel was a canal. I followed it towards the centre and was suddenly at the city’s famous St. Michael’s Bridge, which offers fabulous views over the picturesque Graslei, the town’s medieval port. The Graslei is lined by beautiful ancient buildings, and is also home to numerous restaurants with tables overlooking the water. This is the heart of the ancient city, and the perfect place to to start exploring…

History lessons in Maassluis

A string of historic port towns, dotted along South Holland’s Nieuwe Maas River, bear testimony to the importance of the trade that has flowed for hundreds of years down this extension of the Rhine. Today Rotterdam overshadows the other towns, but in places like Delfshaven, Schiedam and Maassluis you can still see past glories.

I was cycling from Schiedam, home to the tallest windmills in the world, along the banks of the Nieuwe Maas towards the Hook of Holland. From there I’d take the scenic route along the North Sea Coast back to The Hague. It was a gloriously sunny day and Maassluis seemed like a good place to stop for an ice cream.

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Maassluis, Netherlands

Maassluis, Netherlands

Maassluis has a history stretching back to the early 14th Century, and while it has a pretty centre of historic buildings crowded around the harbour, it would be fair to say that today it wouldn’t detain you for more than the time it takes to eat an ice cream and have a little walk around.

Maassluis does have one contemporary (ish) claim to fame, it was the setting of Paul Verhoeven’s 1980 film Spetters. The film is a Dutch coming of age tale, and the small amount of success it had in the United States is credited with helping launch the Hollywood career of Rutger Hauer. Only two years later Hauer starred alongside Harrison Ford and Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Maassluis, Netherlands

Maassluis, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

We should be grateful to Spetters, without it we may never have got to see Hauer on a murderous (if righteous) rampage around a dystopian future Los Angeles, before running around in tight fitting underwear and releasing white doves into the skies.

Leaving Maassluis behind, I cycled along the Nieuwe Maas towards the Hook of Holland. I’ve visited this area before, exploring the Atlantic Wall fortifications. On my previous visits I’d missed a sculpture that bears witness to another, terrible reminder of the Second World War: a statue dedicated to the Kindertransport.

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Boats in Maassluis harbour, Netherlands

Cycle path near Maassluis, Netherlands

Cycle path near Maassluis, Netherlands

Cycle path near Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle path near Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Designed by Frank Meisler, Channel Crossing to Life, commemorates the Dutch role in saving the lives of Jewish children fleeing Nazi oppression. It was unveiled in 2011, on the 73rd anniversary of the first Kindertransport to leave Europe. The last ship to leave the Netherlands for Britain was on May 14, 1940, the day the Netherlands surrendered to the invading German army.

The Kindertransport movement rescued Jewish children during the nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Some 10,000 children were evacuated to Britain. These child refugees were often the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.

Statue to Kindertransport, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Statue to Kindertransport, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Statue to Kindertransport, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Statue to Kindertransport, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

After the infamous Kristallnacht, the British government finally (and reluctantly) eased restrictions for some Jewish refugees to flee Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Germany refused to allow the children to be shipped from German ports, so most went by train to the Netherlands and then onwards to Britain via the Hook of Holland. There is a matching statue at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the majority of the children arrived.

Cycle path near Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle path near Hook of Holland, Netherlands

North Coast Cycle route, Netherlands

North Coast Cycle route, Netherlands

North Coast Cycle route, Netherlands

North Coast Cycle route, Netherlands

It’s a memorial to a period of European history that should never be forgotten. Yet today, Europe stands accused of denying men, women and children, fleeing persecution from other parts of the world, refuge and safety for themselves and their families. The atrocities that forced these people from their homes didn’t happen in Europe, but that’s not an excuse for Europe to forget its obligations – or its history.

Schiedam, home of Dutch Courage

The Industrial Revolution is rarely remembered fondly, mostly with good reason. It may have brought great progress for humanity, but from William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” to Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, the Industrial Revolution was the loss of innocence that sank the poor into a man-made hell. Creating an underclass crammed into inhumane conditions in insanitary city slums.

Walking Schiedam’s picturesque streets today, it seems implausible that during the Industrial Revolution it earned itself the nickname Zwart Nazareth, or Black Nazareth, thanks to the filth created by industrialisation. Unlike much of the Netherlands, Schiedam’s ‘Golden Age’ came not in the 17th Century but in the 18th Century when the making of jenever, or Dutch gin, flourished.

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

WIndmills, Schiedam, Netherlands

WIndmills, Schiedam, Netherlands

The centre of Sheidam, Schiedam, Netherlands

The centre of Sheidam, Schiedam, Netherlands

Jenever advertisment, Schiedam, Netherlands

Jenever advertisment, Schiedam, Netherlands

There were hundreds of distilleries in Schiedam, all producing the – in my opinion – horrid tasting jenever. The thick smoke from the distilling of gin gave the town its nickname, and I imagine the smell must have been a similar hazard. English troops, allied to the Netherlands in the 18th Century, didn’t mind though. They got jenever to stiffen their nerves before battle – the original Dutch Courage.

Celebrating this boozy history is the National Jenever Museum, located in one of the old distilleries alongside the main canal. It’s a small, informative museum, which includes a well stocked bar just in case you fancy a quick taste test. It may be the ancestor of gin, one half of the refreshing G&T beloved of England, but it tastes nothing like it. I’ve tried both ‘young’ and ‘old’ jenever, neither is very pleasant.

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

Jenever advertisment, Schiedam, Netherlands

Jenever advertisment, Schiedam, Netherlands

A bar in Schiedam, Netherlands

A bar in Schiedam, Netherlands

In the Netherlands I’m definitely in the minority. It’s one of the nation’s most popular drinks, and there is fierce rivalry with Belgium for bragging rights to who makes the best version. Although there are a couple of areas in France and Germany that make jenever, it’s the national drink of both Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Dutch market it as “essentially Dutch”; the Belgian’s as “the spirit of Belgium”. The Dutch say it was a Dutch doctor, Franciscus Sylvius, who invented the drink while working in Leiden in the 1700s; the Belgian’s claim it was invented in Flanders a century earlier.

The Belgian jenever creation myth claims that were it not for the German occupation in the First World War, which brought jenever production to a standstill, and a misguided ban on the spirit after the war, it would be known globally as a Belgian drink. The implication being that the Netherlands cheated by not being occupied by the German army.

In Schiedam they care little for Belgium’s claims, proudly referring to the city as the jenever capital of the world. Towards the end of the 18th Century, the Dutch were exporting 4.2 million gallons of the stuff annually. At that time there were over 200 distilleries in Schiedam and they sent their juniper tinged spirit to every region of the world.

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

A smell test at the Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

A smell test at the Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

The Jenever Museum, Schiedam, Netherlands

There’s a festival every June celebrating the spirit, with over 5,000 people visiting from around the world. Of course, there are ‘rival’ jenever festivals in Belgium, including a big one in Hasselt every October. The EU might have to intervene at some future juncture to settle matters. Although this would most properly be resolved in a good old-fashioned bar fight.

Boats and canals in Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats and canals in Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

The legacy of jenever’s popularity over the centuries is evident in the old warehouses and beautiful town houses that line the canals of Schiedam. There was definitely money in jenever. The Dutch barges that still line the canals are reminiscent of the days when vast quantities of grain would arrive by boat to feed the distilleries. Bottles of jenever would head in the opposite direction.

This is a lovely little town, well worth a visit. Perhaps in June when the gin festival’s in full swing!

Schiedam, land of giants

The Netherlands, land of windmills. It’s a cliché that has conviction because it’s also true. There are more windmills in this country than any other, yet some windmills are more equal than others. The windmills and magnificent rural scenery of Kinderdijk are well-known to the world; as are the working windmills of Zaanse Schans close to Amsterdam. Schiedam, home to the tallest windmills on the planet, goes largely unnoticed by comparison.

The benefit of Schiedam’s relative obscurity is that, even on a weekend at the height of the tourist season, there is a noticeable absence of visitors. Certainly not the tour bus hordes that can be found elsewhere in the Netherlands. Even as midday approached, Schiedam was eerily quiet, as if the residents had decided to go to nearby Rotterdam for the day.

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Old harbour, Schiedam, Netherlands

Old harbour, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

This seems a great shame. Schiedam is a beautiful small town with an historic centre full of centuries-old buildings and canals, and a pleasant main square with some good restaurants and cafes. It also has a good museum dedicated to one of the town’s major industries – the making of jenever, the ubiquitous Dutch gin which, when consumed by English troops during the 30 Years War, gave rise to the term ‘Dutch Courage’.

If that wasn’t enough, there are the world’s tallest windmills, in fact the world’s five tallest windmills, a couple of which open for visits. Walking from the station to the centre of town you can see the windmills towering gracefully over surrounding buildings. I’ve seen a lot of windmills in the last 18 months, but standing underneath Schiedam’s giants is a humbling experience.

The windmills were built tall to better catch the wind. The tallest, De Noord, stands an imposing 33.3 metres, and is officially the tallest windmill in the world. It looks like it could still grind the grain that went to make jenever but today it houses a restaurant, where at least you can try Dutch gin. Windmill De Walvisch (The Whale) is the only working windmill, producing a range of flour and flour-based products for sale.

Arriving mid-morning we found our way to the main square and, after a gruelling 25 minute journey from The Hague, ordered some refreshments from one of the restaurants. Revived we wandered around the canal-side streets until we found ourselves confronted by a man wearing traditional Dutch costume.

Guild of Porters, Schiedam, Netherlands

Guild of Porters, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main square, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main square, Schiedam, Netherlands

Bikes, Schiedam, Netherlands

Bikes, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats passing down the main canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boats passing down the main canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main square, Schiedam, Netherlands

Main square, Schiedam, Netherlands

This, it turned out, was one of the ten people who now make up the once mighty Guild of Porters. The old Guild building was open and we could go inside and have a guided tour. From the 14th Century onwards, the porters were the preeminent guild in Schiedam. When a ship needed unloading a bell would ring and members of the guild had seven minutes to reach the building to be allotted work.

They used to carry barrels full of grain that weighed 80kg, which is basically the same as carrying me (perhaps with an additional kilo or two!). It was well paid and a prized job to have. Like all guilds, entry was difficult and strict, but once in you were looked after for the rest of your life. Essentially it was an early contributions-based welfare system.

Guild of Porters, Schiedam, Netherlands

Guild of Porters, Schiedam, Netherlands

Advertisement, Schiedam, Netherlands

Advertisement, Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Boat jam on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

Boat jam on a canal, Schiedam, Netherlands

A fabulous history is just one of many reasons to visit Schiedam. My personal favourite is that this lovely town is also home of the Patron Saint of Ice Skaters. This may seem like a pointless thing to be patron saint of, but the Dutch take ice skating very seriously. Saint Lidwina was 15 years old when she fell ice skating, her broken rib never healed and she was confined to bed for the rest of her days.

Afterwards she’s alleged to never have eaten or slept – some 38 years – but happily shed bones and internal organs while bleeding copiously from the ears, eyes and mouth without harm. When she wasn’t doing this, she was giving succour to the poor and being a mystic who visited the Holy Land during ‘visions’. History is silent on the role of jenever in these visions.

Antwerp, of saints and sinners

Walking around Antwerp you might find yourself feeling like you’re being watched. Look upwards as you wander the cobbled streets, and gazing down benignly (at least I think they’re benign) will be one of the many statues of saints that are found on buildings around the city. Perhaps they’re there to keep an eye on the people who’ve been drinking beer made in the local monasteries?

When monks are making the beer – and they make some spectacular and spectacularly strong beers – it’s hard to tell who’s saint and who’s sinner.

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp’s the sort of town that invites you to partake of its hospitality. There are lots of wonderful little cafes, bars and restaurants with outside tables to idle away an hour or two, possibly a day or two, sampling the hard work of the monks. Add to this a rich history, wonderful culture and excellent food, and Antwerp makes for an energising destination.

This makes my next confession all the more surprising. I ‘misspoke’ (as idiot politicians might say) in my previous post on Antwerp. I do know someone who doesn’t like Belgium’s second city and cultural lodestone. One of my colleagues isn’t a fan, and this isn’t a Dutch-Belgium rivalry thing, he’s British. Strange but true.

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Settled in the 3rd Century by Germanic sailers, Antwerp’s location on the Scheldt River has been the driving force behind its long and often bloody history. The Romans settled here and, when the Scheldt was the boundary of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemange built a fortress here. The Vikings came up the river in the 9th Century and destroyed everything, as Vikings tend to do.

After that setback Antwerp went on to become an economic powerhouse, with a spectacular Golden Age in the mid-16th Century. The bloody religious wars unleashed by the Reformation, and the Protestant Dutch uprising against the fanatical Catholic rule of Spain’s Philipe II, brought this period of prosperity to a brutal end.

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian chocolate, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian chocolate, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Violence engulfed the city when Antwerp’s Protestants unleashed the Iconoclastic Fury in 1566, destroying many Catholic icons in Antwerp Cathedral. This was viciously put down by Spanish troops who, after a decade of war, unleashed the Spanish Fury on the city in 1576. For three days they ransacked the city and murdered over 8,000 people.

The Spanish were back laying siege to Antwerp in 1585. The city eventually surrendered after a year. The surviving Protestants fled the devastated city to the Netherlands, taking trade and skills with them. Antwerp was forced to remain under Spanish control as a Catholic city. Which probably explains all the saintly statues staring at you from on high.

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

Restaurant menu, Antwerp, Belgium

Restaurant menu, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

The Protestant Dutch had the last laugh though. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, closed the Scheldt to all non-Dutch ships. The Dutch strangled Antwerp’s economy, and the city sank into relative obscurity, only reviving in the 19th Century.

It was badly bombed during World War II, but much of ancient Antwerp survived into the 21st Century. The glorious Grote Markt is surrounded by magnificent medieval Guild Halls, golden statues on their roofs glinting in the sun. In the middle of all this grandeur is a large statue-cum-fountain of a man throwing a severed hand – water gushing from it like blood. This is the legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo that gives Antwerp its name.

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Antigoon was a giant who terrorised people wanting to cross the River Scheldt by forcing them to pay a toll. If you refused to pay he’d chop your hand off and throw it in the river. People were, naturally, unhappy about the whole ‘pay a toll or lose a hand’ thing. When a young Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, was offered the choice he killed Antigoon, chopped his hand off and threw it in the river.

This is what the statue commemorates and where Antwerp got its name, the Dutch hand werpen means to ‘throw a hand’. Pretty literal stuff for such an inventive myth.

Antwerp, the ancient and the modern

Northern Belgium feels a lot like the Netherlands. Antwerp is only an 80 minute train ride from The Hague and less than 10km from the Dutch border; although you hear people having conversations in French, mostly people speak Dutch; street and shop signs, which I’d assumed would be Dutch and French, are predominately Dutch; the buildings don’t look dissimilar to their Dutch counterparts; and there are cycles and cyclists everywhere.

What could be more Dutch than that? If there were a few more canals it would be the Netherlands.

I Love Antwerp, Belgium

I Love Antwerp, Belgium

The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium

The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium

Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium

Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium

You only really see a difference with food. With the exception of a few die-hard bitterballen fans, no one would claim that the Netherlands has a world beating cuisine. Belgium on the other hand benefits from a French influence that differentiates its food from its northerly neighbour, and comes as welcome relief to the taste buds of those who live over the border.

This was my first visit to Antwerp and it came with high expectations. Everyone I know told me it was wonderful; every travel article I read praised its history, restaurant scene, vibrancy and culture. That may all be true, but Belgium is also the greatest beer nation on the planet. I was keen to sample some of the finest beers available to humanity.

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Busker, Antwerp, Belgium

Busker, Antwerp, Belgium

Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

The reverential and excited way people talk about Antwerp, and the rash of gushing travel articles about the city, you’d almost think it was having a second Golden Age. The first Golden Age in the 16th Century was driven by trade in spices and precious metals, bequeathing the city a glorious medieval centre rammed full of beautiful buildings and atmospheric, cafe-filled streets. It’s a spectacularly attractive town.

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium

Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp’s modern revival has been driven by cutting-edge fashion and design, arts and and culture, and creative industries that include a huge clubbing scene (whatever that is). According to my guidebook, Antwerp is Belgium’s ‘capital of cool’.

Luckily Antwerp gives substance to the hype. It’s a fascinating city, full of life and energy. I already know I’ll be going back. When the sun shined, and it didn’t always, cafes in the pedestrianised centre were packed with people. The whole place seemed to have a happy buzz. There was a big food market when we were there, cue sampling lots of different specialities.

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium

Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium

We’d bought Antwerp City Cards for €32, giving us access to lots of museums and historic buildings, including the interior of the extraordinary cathedral. We were sorely tempted to spend our time outdoors while the weather was good; ‘luckily’ on Sunday morning it was raining, forcing us to find indoor entertainment and to make good use of the cards. We visited several historic buildings housing collections of art or museums, but the newish MAS museum was the must see highlight.

The MAS is a daring modern building, not as glamorous as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but still pretty wonderful. It’s the centrepiece of a redevelopment of the Eilandje, the old port area. This was Antwerp’s main port for hundreds of years and is full of history. Had it not been raining, we’d have spent much more time exploring the area.

Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium

Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium

Statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Statue, Antwerp, Belgium

The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium

The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium

The port regeneration is clearly ongoing, in the meantime it retains a rough edge. Walking to the museum on Sunday morning we found ourselves in the middle of Antwerp’s red light district. Strangely it was’t marked on my tourist map, but this is a port area after all. I can honestly say, there are few more dispiriting sights than a red light district on a wet Sunday morning.

*A bitterballen to anyone who can spot the hidden film reference (to one of my favourite British films) in this blog…

Walking the street of historic Haarlem

In the days when New York was known as New Amsterdam, Haarlem gave its name to the district of Harlem, the Anglicised version of the original Dutch, Nieuw Haarlem. That was back in 1637, when Nieuw Haarlem was little more than a few wooden houses and it’s twin back in Europe had a long and fascinating history.

Granted city status in 1245, Haarlem dates from the 10th Century. By the 17th Century it had grown wealthy from the manufacture of cloth and was one of the most important towns in the Netherlands. Being there today is like stepping back into the past.

Wigbolt Ripperda and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Wigbolt Ripperda and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old meat hall, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old meat hall, Haarlem, Netherlands

Walking through the city’s Grote Markt and the narrow lanes of the old town, much of which is pedestrianised, history seems to be all around. Haarlem remains the commercial centre of North Holland, but many of its contemporary industries have long histories. A statue of Laurens Jansz Koster hints at one of its major industries – printing.

Laurens Koster was born in 1370, and Haarlem controversially claims he invented printing in 1423. This was a good 16 years before Gutenberg is alleged to have invented printing. The truth may be clouded by time, and quietly ignores the fact that China actually invented printing, but one thing is certain, printing remains part of the local economy.

Laurens Jansz Koster statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Laurens Jansz Koster statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

IMG_8357

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Surrounding Koster’s statue in the Grote Markt is a wondrous array of historic buildings, including the 15th Century Grote Kerk; the Staadhuis, or town hall, dating from the 13th Century; and a variety of buildings from the Dutch Golden Age. Car free and on a day without a market, it’s a great place to start an exploration of the town, although probably only after having a coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Haarlem suffered devastating fires and natural disasters over the years, but it’s the seven month-long siege at the hands of Spanish forces in 1573 that has left an indelible mark on the city’s collective consciousness. The town sided with Dutch rebels against the Spanish crown during the Eighty Years War and paid a terrible price for doing so. Months of siege saw the city starving.

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem has a red light district but this is just bizarre, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem has a red light district but this is just bizarre, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

The siege only ended with the city’s surrender and payment of a huge ransom to the Spanish to prevent looting. This didn’t stop over 2,000 of Haarlem’s defenders being massacred. This history confronts anyone arriving at Haarlem’s central station. A statue of Wigbolt Ripperda, Haarlem’s governor, and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a city merchant, who defended the city during the siege, stands near the station.

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Broek or Trousers, Haarlem, Netherlands

Broek or Trousers, Haarlem, Netherlands

Tourist shop, Haarlem, Netherlands

Tourist shop, Haarlem, Netherlands

Historic Haarlem is only part of the attraction though. It’s a refreshing and vibrant place with with a fantastic cultural life, and good restaurants and bars dotted all around. Visit on Saturday and the Grote Markt will be full of market stalls, and a lively atmosphere engulfs the town. Head down narrow side streets and you’ll find a wide variety of shops, cafes and bars. It’s only perception, but Haarlem seems to specialise in upmarket independent shops. It’s a relief from the relentless conformity of the high street.

As cold as your Ex's heart, Haarlem, Netherlands

As cold as your Ex’s heart, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem is a fabulous town, something that isn’t lost on the increasing number of tourists who visit. It’s home to 150,000 people and attracts around three quarters of a million visitors each year. Walk over to the area south of the Botermarkt and you’ll find plenty of beautiful streets, good restaurants and nice bars, but you’ll not see many tourists.

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

This area is worth a visit, if for no other reason than to make a pilgrimage to the Jopenkerk, Haarlem’s church of beer. The Jopen brewery is something of an institution in Haarlem, and this modern microbrewery has its origins in centuries of brewing tradition. Its location inside a former church only adds to the fun of trying a few of the dozens of different beers they brew. The perfect way to round off a visit to the town.