2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

Taste the silence, drinking the ‘World’s Best Beer’ in Bruges

It’s hard to imagine that the small, sleepy town of Bruges (or Brugge to give it its more appropriate Flemish name) was once a major centre for international trade. Yet by the 14th century it was famous for taking English wool and turning it into some of the finest and most desirable cloth in the world. It was an immensely lucrative business and Bruges grew fabulously wealthy.

Just at it attracts tourists from all corners of the world today, at the height of Bruges’ power in the 15th century, goods from all over Europe passed through its port on the River Zwin. War and competition from other cities, particularly Antwerp, reduced Bruges’ influence and wealth; but its death knell came when the River Zwin silted up and ships could no longer reach the North Sea.

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

By the 1530s Bruges’ long, slow decline was complete, and something truly extraordinary happened. Bruges was deserted by its people and forgotten by the world. Houses were abandoned, industries closed down, the port was empty, the canals unused. Bruges became a ghost town. Bypassed by history, it slipped into obscurity.

Unimportant politically, economically or militarily, Bruges was saved the ravages of centuries of European conflict, preserving its medieval buildings, cobbled streets and canals until the present. Tourism is its lifeblood today and, bizarrely, it was tourism that saved Bruges from obscurity.

Early 19th century British tourists, on their way to view the battlefield of Waterloo, stumbled upon a medieval town frozen in time and barely touched by modern life. Word spread quickly and Bruges got the nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’. Its fate was sealed. Tourism has been growing ever since, and now a town of fewer than 120,000 people receives over 2 million visitors each year.

Bruges’ Golden Age has bequeathed posterity an historical treasure trove – its medieval centre has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The best way to see it is to stroll through its narrow streets, preferably with frequent stops to sample some of the extraordinary Belgium beers on offer.

If you’re in Bruges it would be rude not to try the beer. There is said to be a different bar for each night of the year, and at least two of them serve over 500 different types of beer. Faced with so much choice, decision making is very difficult, if not impossible. We headed to the delightful Cafe Red Rose which specialises in Trappist beers (motto “Trappist beer … taste the silence”).

It was here that I sampled the beer considered to be the best in the world, the dark, strong and decidedly tasty Westvleteren XII. At a hefty €15 per bottle it really had to be tasty. It’s not easy to get your hands on a bottle, the monks who make it only produce 126,000 gallons of the stuff a year and demand is high. They refuse to make more simply saying, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford to be monks.”

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Westvleteren XII is strong stuff, and we were a bit wobbly on our feet as we left. Back on the streets, we meandered until we came across the Sint-Janshospitaal Museum. This 800-year old hospital has a great permanent collection, including a number of Flemish Primitives, but had a special exhibition called ‘Bruegel’s Witches’. After drinking the Westvleteren, a bit of witchcraft seemed appropriate.

It was a fascinating exhibition (it runs until June 26th), less for the actual exhibits as for the story it told. Although the idea of witches had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1565 that the stereotype of a wart-covered ugly old woman with a black cat and cauldron took root in the popular imagination. This image was invented by Bruegel the Elder and is still with us 450-years later.

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

After that bewitching experience, we set off to sample some more Belgian beers and to indulge in some of Bruges’ fine cuisine before heading to France and the Loire Valley …

A weekend in medieval Bruges

Anyone who’s watched the expletive-filled Colin Farrell movie, In Bruges, about two hitmen hiding out in Belgium’s most visited tourist destination, knows that its medieval charms are completely lost on the film’s main protagonist. Ray, played by Farrell, says at one point, “At least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in f***in’ Bruges … maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f***in’ Bruges.”

When told that Bruges isn’t Ray’s ‘thing’, his gangster employer is incredulous: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*****g thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*****g fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

It’s a very dark, not very politically correct comedy, utterly out of place in an historic town like Bruges. Which is sort of the point, I suppose. Yet, even while Ray rails against the tedium of Bruges, the city provides a stunning backdrop to the film. The tongue-in-cheek tone of the abuse seems to be a matter of pride for Bruges’ inhabitants, who have adopted the film as their own.

Bruges really is a fairytale medieval town but it’s also small. Tourist numbers in the summer can overwhelm its perfectly preserved medieval centre. Ray was forced to spend two weeks in Bruges, most tourists come on day trips so don’t need to worry about entertaining themselves for too long. We were there for a couple of days and nights, and I can sympathise with him a little.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Some late Spring sunshine had convinced us to hire a car and set off on a road trip for a few days. We were headed for the Loire Valley in France, but Bruges has been on our wish list for a while and helped break the journey. Spring is a good time to visit the town, flowers are blooming and, even on a weekend, tourist numbers aren’t so great that it feels crowded.

We arrived late and hadn’t realised that almost every restaurant in Bruges is closed by 10pm. I can imagine what Ray might have said about that. We’d been driving for hours and were feeling a bit desperate, but the hotel receptionist told us about a restaurant open until 2am. We thought it would be an overpriced tourist joint, but Christophe had excellent food and great service.

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

The next morning we set off to walk Bruges cobbled streets, winding our way alongside and over beautiful canals, meandered past ancient medieval buildings and through picture-postcard-perfect squares. In the early morning, with just a few dog walkers for company and the sun reflecting ancient buildings in the mirror-like canals, Bruges is extraordinarily beautiful.

The remarkably well preserved highlight of Bruges is the Markt, the old market place. It’s a vast open space surrounded by gabled buildings, the Provinciaal Hof palace and the most dominant structure in town, the 83-metre high 13th century Belfort. It’s fabulous, and largely pedestrianised, but by mid-morning it was busy with tour groups.

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

The Belfort, and the 365 steps that take you to the top, inevitably feature in In Bruges. There is one excruciating scene when Ray is particularly unkind about an overweight American family’s chances of getting to the top of the tower. When challenged to go up and take the view himself, Ray responds: “The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.” We decided to take his advice and stayed on the ground.

Antwerp, past lessons for Europe’s present

Antwerp is a fascinating place. I had a free day and wanted to explore the area and museums around the old docks that I’d missed during our first trip here. This is one of the most historic parts of the town and is going through a ‘regeneration’. Restaurants and bars have sprung up on the side of wharfs that Napoleon ordered built; a couple of truly great museums are also found down by the docks.

The new and dramatic MAS museum is a symbol of the changes sweeping the area, but the Red Star Line Museum was my destination. In these dark days of European intransigence in the face of the tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing war, terror and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, the history of Europe’s own mass migration struck a chord with me.

Antwerp's ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp’s ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp's ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp’s ornate Central Station, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

The Red Star Line Museum is a microcosm of European history in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It offers a lesson to modern-day Europe about the plight of desperate people who want nothing more than the opportunity to improve their lives. The museum is, more than anything else, the story of how millions of Europeans fled the continent to seek opportunity elsewhere.

In the poisonous atmosphere of contemporary European politics, and the hate-filled anti-immigration mantras of the right, politicians should be compelled to confront the history told in the Red Star Line Museum. This was, after all, the place from which Albert Einstein departed Europe in 1933.

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Photo of Albert Einstein, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Photo of Albert Einstein, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

The museum has a photograph of Einstein and the letter the wrote resigning from the Prussian Academy of Sciences when the Nazis came to power. A letter he wrote while on a Red Star Line ship sailing to Antwerp. Einstein fled anti-Semitic persecution, as did many Eastern Europeans who suffered pogroms long before the Nazis came to power; many others were simply seeking economic opportunities that Europe couldn’t offer.

Between 1873 and 1935, Red Star Line ships transported around 3 million Europeans to a new life for themselves and their families in the United States and Canada. Today over 30 million US citizens can trace their origins back to the Red Star Line buildings in Antwerp.

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Musicians, Antwerp, Belgium

Musicians, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

A visit to the museum is an emotional experience, and the details of life on board these giant ocean liners is intimately told. Trust me, you didn’t want to be travelling in 3rd Class, but that’s all most people could afford. After a sobering and thought-provoking time at the Red Star Line, I headed into Antwerp’s medieval centre for some lunch and to wander its busy and entertaining streets.

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Hen party in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Hen party in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp is most famous for being the world’s largest diamond trading centre. Around 84 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through here, but this is a city that is full of surprises. The last time I was in Groenplaats, one of the city’s buzzing squares, there was a food market. This time there was a chess competition and several Hen parties, which made for an interesting contrast.

Living statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Living statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Museum gallery, Antwerp, Belgium

Museum gallery, Antwerp, Belgium

Picture and reflection, Antwerp, Belgium

Picture and reflection, Antwerp, Belgium

There is so much history, culture and life in the city that a day or two really doesn’t do it justice. Walking Antwerp’s atmospheric cobbled streets, sitting in peaceful cafes in hidden squares and admiring the historic architecture, are just some of the pleasures of this ancient city. Throw in wonderful food and an endless variety of Belgium beers, and you’ve got a winning combination. I’ve started planning our next trip already.

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…

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…