2022 was the year when hopes were high that the world would return, if not to normal, to something more than a series of lockdowns and restrictions. As 2021 turned into 2022, in Belgium and much of Europe at least, the pandemic seemed under control. Just as we were about to accelerate into spring – always an optimistic time of year – a lunatic in the Kremlin decided to indulge 19th century Imperial Russia cosplay fantasies and invaded a sovereign nation.
It triggered a global political crisis and immense human suffering in Ukraine. Elsewhere, spiralling energy costs led to yet another cost of living and mini economic crisis. This winter as oil and gas companies raked in billions in profits for doing absolutely nothing, we all turned our thermostats down and tried to stay warm and financially solvent. I don’t even want to think about the fascist adjacent, man-child running Twitter, or the state of US politics.
Thanks to those geniuses in Moscow, in 2022 the world felt less secure than at almost any time in my lifetime … and as a child I remember TV adverts on how to survive a nuclear attack. The omens for 2023 are not good. Still, I remain hopeful that tolerance and understanding can be aided by the cultural exchange that travel facilitates. We may have been restricted to Europe again, but here’s a retrospective on travels in 2022.
This was our first full year living in Belgium, and it was not always easy. The post-Brexit world has meant having to get visas for residency. Fine for me with a Belgian work permit, but for the other half of our family, residency was initially rejected. Legal uncertainty and enforced separations at least gave us an insight into the experience for non-EU citizens. It’s really not pleasant.
Despite this, we still explored our new home. Belgium and its uniquely weird capital, Brussels, have lots to recommend them. Unearthing these delights takes a bit of work though. I’ve not written about all the places we visited this year, but highlights definitely include the historic Walloonian towns of Liege and Namur, the home of the Saxophone, Dinant, as well as industrial glories on the canals near La Louvière.
In Flanders, the highlight really has to be the several days spent walking the landscapes that witnessed the full horror of the First World War. Ypres, the town that was utterly destroyed, is an extraordinary place with an excellent museum to the war. Elsewhere, medieval Kortrijk was a revelation. As were playing card capital of Europe, Turnhout, and Hasselt, the home of the “Spirit of Belgium”.
Breaking new ground, a long weekend in neighbouring Luxembourg made it the sixty sixth country I’ve visited. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the eponymous capital Luxembourg City was absolutely stunning. It has an incredible history matched by its extraordinary geography. Afterwards we headed east, close to the border with Germany, where the dramatic castle of Vianden overlooks the River Our.
A springtime trip to Spain’s Andalusia saw birthday celebrations in Picasso’s birthplace, Malaga, followed by a road trip to the coastal Sherry Triangle towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Sherry, delicious food and warm sunny weather made this a much needed lift after a wet, cold and grey Belgian winter. We also stayed in the extraordinary Arcos de la Frontera, a once Moorish town built on a high cliff.
Three contrasting trips to France proved that it remains a country with a huge amount to explore – and living in Brussels means France is again on our doorstep. In the spring we went to Lille, a gorgeous town that combines Flemish and French culture. Using Avignon as a base, we made a first trip to Provence and followed in the footsteps of Van Gogh. Still in the south, the many charms of Nice and Menton awaited. Not to mention one of Europe’s great train rides to Tende.
There was yet another trip to France that took us to Lac du Bourget, Annecy, the Jura region and the delightful Besançon, but they still need to be written up. In the meantime, western Germany is far more accessible than it was from Berlin. Cologne, Charlemagne’s hometown of Aachen, and the delightful half-timbered town of Monschau have whetted our appetite for more explorations down the Rhine and Moselle valleys.
2023 may yet throw more ‘spanners in the works’ and expecting the unexpected seems a wise precaution, but at least it’s not a US presidential election year. Until then, have a happy and peaceful New Year.