ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 139


BENELUX NEXT TIME!

We left Luxembourg City behind today bound for France. As the scenery rolled past the train window we spent some time reviewing all our photos from the past month in the BeNeLux region and reflecting on what we’ve seen and done since leaving the UK behind. Obviously a few days in each country is hardly enough to form more than a basic opinion of what it means to be a visitor in Belgium, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands, but we’ve still managed to pull together our general impressions from each country. So here it is: an overview of our* experiences in the BeNeLux region.

*Emphasis on the fact that these musings are based on OUR experiences. Everyone has a different experience of a place when they visit and we’re certainly not expecting that our view of the world is shared by all.

 

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One of the first things that strikes us about the BeNeLux region is that, whilst these 3 little countries share a lot in terms of history and geography, they’re also very different. We saw this in the architecture, which changed gradually as we travelled South from the typical tall, narrow townhouses that dominate cityscapes in the Netherlands and Flanders in Northern Belgium, to the more Germanic homes we saw in the Ardennes region of Belgium and all over Luxembourg.

 

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The architecture of this region was one of the highlights for us, without a doubt. The Medieval towns of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders were even more magnificent than we expected. And despite the hordes of other tourists we encountered in these towns, we would still rate them as top destinations in Europe. If nothing else just because they’re so well preserved, and there’s no denying that they’re pretty, with all the canals that criss cross the towns.

 

 

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If the canals in Bruges and Ghent are pretty, then those of Amsterdam are stunning. The canals in Amsterdam bring a sense of space and open-ness to the city that stops the densely populated city from feeling overly crowded and closed in. Brussels, by comparison, felt so much more oppressive; mind you, that may have had a lot to do with all the graffiti, dog shit, and dirt everywhere as well*!

*In case you missed it: we didn’t really like a lot of Belgium. Bits of it were nice, but the overall vibe wasn’t a nice one. The bigger towns and cities often had an air of unkempt disregard about them that just made it seem like no one cared. In both the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however, basic civic pride was evident everywhere. From the cleanliness of the streets, to the flowers in every window, and beautifully landscaped public gardens. There just wasn’t much of this in Belgium.

 

 

 

 

For museums Amsterdam wins hands down again, though when it comes to grand churches, there Belgium surprised us. The Protestant churches in the Netherlands were very stark and austere; whilst the Roman Catholic ones in Luxembourg and Belgium were far more ornate.

 

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And castles – so many awesome castles in Belgium and Luxembourg!

 

 

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In all 3 countries, however, the highlights for us were often to be found in the small country towns; in the quiet towns where the pace of life is still slow enough that people take the time to say hello and get to know their neighbours. And where you see the best of that the landscape has to offer. In the villages of the Ardennes, for example, we saw the better side of Belgium and got to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery of the region.

 

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The countryside in the Netherlands is pretty awesome too. All the waterways bring life to the flat landscape there and adds immeasurably to its charm. The odd windmill helps with the charm too.

 

 

 

 

For beautiful scenery, however, Luxembourg has to be the pick of the bunch. The forests and hills of “Little Switzerland” are beautiful and, combined with the prevalence of schnitzel on the menu throughout the region, has made us keen to visit that part of the world again.

 

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Schnitzel wasn’t the only thing on the menus of Luxembourg we took a liking to. We found Luxembourgian food to be just great – like the best of rustic French and German cooking combined. Belgian food was a little OTT (i.e. other the top) for us – everything was always enriched with cream, drowned in melted cheese, or slathered in mayonnaise. Sure, the waffles and the chocolate are good, but you can’t live on waffles and chocolate alone (Shane tried, but the “sugar lows” he was getting after all the “sugar highs” were getting ridiculous so we had to get him back on to real food).

 

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A special mention also has to go out to Dutch cheese, in all its cheesy glory. So tasty….

 

 

One thing we will say is that Europe needs to WAKE UP when it comes to their definition of good coffee. Can we PLEASE ban push button coffee machines?! If all the skill required for someone to make my coffee is that they push a button, that’s NOT a real cappuccino, nor is it worth €3! We had the same issue with only being able to find push-button coffee throughout Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria a couple of years ago and we say IT HAS TO STOP (as for that percolated “American style” stuff, I cannot even bring myself to describe what THAT is; I tell you what it ISN’T: coffee!). We found a couple of cafés around the BeNeLux region that did real coffee, but it was a rarity and a little luxury we often missed…

 

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Last, but certainly not least, the people. Everywhere we’ve been it’s usually the people that help shape our experiences of a country the most. From the small, casual interactions with shop keepers, wait staff, and hotel staff, to the more in depth discussion we might strike up with locals we meet; it’s the people that make the most lasting impression. And the Dutch are AWESOME; a little crazy at times, but awesome. We loved how open and friendly people were, and how prepared they were to chat to us and share their thoughts and feelings with us. We also learnt to truly appreciate the Dutch approach to rules and regulations – i.e. don’t have so many of them and everything and everyone just works it out. It’s just great because, basically, they treat you like an adult and then it’s up to you to behave like one. It’s an almost Darwinian approach to rules/safety; if you’re too bloody daft to work out how to stay alive, then it’s your problem. It’s just about the opposite of Aus at the moment where those in power seem to think that we need rules for EVERYTHING, catering for the lowest common denominator every time and making us all feel like children wrapped in cotton wool (a favourite Aussie comedian of ours, Steve Hughes, does a great routine about this exact thing – very amusing). The Dutch do it much better – the lack of rules means the dumb ones get weeded out early.

 

 

 

 

Luxemburgians weren’t quite as open, but once past their initial reserve, they seem pretty friendly. A little “German” in their love for systems and order, but that’s OK. As for the Belgians we met…., well, suffice to say we didn’t really gel with any Belgian people. They seemed to begrudge us being there and we were glad to leave, so no love lost really.

 

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Overall it’s been a really interesting few weeks in the BeNeLux region. Before we started our travels in the region we only knew a little about Dutch, Belgian, and Luxembourgian history, art, and culture, but not much really. These aren’t “big ticket” countries, and living across at the other end of the planet we don’t tend to hear much about these smaller European nations – which is one of the main reasons we wanted to see them for ourselves! We’ve certainly learned a lot over the past month, and highlighted a few places we want to get back to one day. For now though, our thoughts are turning to France and what might await us there….

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 135


A DAY TRIP TO LA ROCHE-EN-ARDENNE

The Ardennes region is renowned for its thick forests, jagged cliffs, and many charming villages nestled in picturesque river valleys. The countryside is this area is popular with hikers too thanks to its hilly terrain and great views. After visiting so many towns and cities across the Netherlands and Belgium over the past few weeks, we were pretty keen to do some walking again and so made our way to the tiny town of La Roche-en-Ardenne for the today to explore some Ardennese forests and hills.

 

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This part of Belgium is named for the vast forest that covered the land in Roman times – the Arduenna Silva. Although that original forest is gone, this is still a very lovely part of the world. As our bus made its way down to La Roche, as the locals call it, the landscape unfolded around us and all we could see were tree-lined country roads, charming cottages, rolling farmland, and dense forests all the way to the horizon. The rural parts of the Ardennes are by far the prettiest parts of Belgium we’ve seen so far.

 

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We reached La Roche within a hour or so of leaving Namur and immediately fell in love with the little village under the shadow of a big rock.

 

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La Roche sits along the banks of the River Ourthe, beneath wooded hills and under the shadow of Deister Hill. As we’ve come to expect from this part of Belgium, there was a fortress on the rock above La Roche, and a beautiful church in town. There was also a lovely riverside promenade that we got to stroll along.

 

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Our first stop was the town’s 19th century church, which was nice enough, though a little PINK on the inside for our tastes.

 

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From the church we walked up the steep cobbled path to the town’s Medieval castle. There we found out that La Roche was first settled in the Neolithic era. It was the Romans who first built a fort there following their conquest of the Ardennes. After the retreat of the Romans the Gauls settled here and built the first stone fortress atop Deister Hill to guard the River Outhe and the trading town of La Roche below. The current castle was built in the 11th century and is made of large interlocking of pieces of local shale, held together by a mixture of chalk and sand.

 

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As we clambered around the various towers and ruined rooms of the castle we got some superb panoramic views of the town below and the Ourthe valley.

 

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While we were at the castle, there was a falconry display on. We joined the crowd of families watching the display of the falcon’s swooping and hunting abilities, and later got to see the falconer’s collection of birds of prey (which included a gorgeous eagle and a viciously ugly vulture).

 

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From the fortress we continued on uphill, taking our time as we hiked through the national park behind La Roche. The forest there was dense and very, very green. We got to see rabbits and squirrels frolicking amongst the undergrowth, and enjoyed a whole lot of peace and quiet.

 

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On way our back into La Roche we came across a tiny chapel which we later learned was built in the 16th century and dedicated to St Margaret. No longer in use, the chapel sits high above La Roche and made for a good place to stop and enjoy the views.

 

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Once we’d made our way back down into town it was well and truly time to eat so we went seeking sustenance. Knowing that this part of the Ardennes is renowned for its smoked ham and cured meats, we made a beeline for the large charcuterie (i.e. deli) in the town’s main square. Here we were able to select a few locally made cured meats and have it served to us with a generous salad in the small restaurant area next door. Needless to say it was AWESOME!

 

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After lunch we strolled through town for a little longer before catching the bus back here to Namur for our last night in Belgium (tomorrow we’re moving on to Luxembourg). We’ve had an interesting time here in Belgium, and although the architecture and history has been fascinating, we’ve struggled a little to “find our groove” here. Interactions with people have been… awkward and difficult; most people have been quite cold and unfriendly, and seem to resent having tourists around. It’s actually been a bit strange because, in most places we’ve been, the people have been one of the highlights. Here, the people have been one of the lowlights. Maybe it’s because it’s August and things are busy, so the locals are just sick of there being SO MANY tourists around; or maybe it’s because most Belgians seem to be holiday at the moment so the ones left working (serving us) just wish they were on holiday too. We haven’t quite been able to put a finger on it, but as much as we liked parts of Belgium, we just don’t feel like we LOVED it. Everyone’s experience is different obviously, but in all honesty we’re not sad at all to be leaving tomorrow! Hopefully Luxembourg will be a little more welcoming…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 134


WE DINANT KNOW BELGIUM COULD BE SO PRETTY!

Keen to explore more of the Ardennes around Namur we set out this morning to see Dinant, one of the regions most widely praised little towns for anyone that likes castles, churches, and river cruises. Throw in a Belgian waffle or 2 and we were sold! The town turned out to be a little gem, sandwiched (mmmm…., sandwhich) on the narrow strip of land between the cliffs of the Ardennes Hills and the River Meuse. With its Citadel looking over the town, the iconic Cathedrale de Notre Dame dominating the centre of town, and cafés lining the riverfront, it’s one pretty little town and well worth the visit.

 

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As we mentioned yesterday, Namur was ridiculously quiet yesterday; today being Sunday we suspected it would be even more desolate… which, in fact, it was. Imagine our delight, therefore, when we actually found a small boulangerie (i.e. bakery) open at the stupidly early hour of 9:00am on a Sunday! Such joy! Keen to start the day energised we decided to forgo the customary croissant or pastry and instead ordered some eggs for breakfast to go with café-au-lait. They came soft boiled, which is fine, but what was not so fine was HOW soft boiled they were. It was like trying to eat egg-flavoured snot! Not recommended. Next time we ask for them to be hard boiled – cook ‘em ‘til they’re rock hard I say! Anything to avoid a repeat of that that runny, eggy disaster. Still, we were fed and caffeinated, so the day could begin…

 

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A short 30 minute train ride* later and we were in Dinant. The sun was shining, it was a balmy 22C (i.e. virtually unheard of good weather for Belgium), families were out strolling along the river front, and right there in front of us stood the Dinant Citadel and the stunning Cathedrale de Notre Dame.

*Have we mentioned how much we love the extensive train network in Europe? Awesome! Public transport is scant, slow, and generally useless in Aus, so it’s a bit of a novelty for us when we’re in places (e.g. Japan, and pretty much everywhere in Europe) where the public transport networks are so extensive and (generally) work so well.

 

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Dinant is positioned in the Upper Meuse valley, on a narrow strip of land between the river and the Condroz Plateau where its Citadel sits. The valley around the town is rich due to the alluvial soils deposited there by the River Meuse, and the strategic advantage afforded by the high cliffs behind the town meant that the Dinant area was already populated in Celtic and Roman times. In fact, the name Dinant comes from the Celtic “div nant”, meaning “Luminous Gorge”.

 

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Dinant’s most famous export, and historically the source of its great wealth, was copper, mined from the surrounding hills. The city is also known in Belgium as the place where the Belgian monarch King Albert I died in 1934 when he fell whilst rock climbing*. For music lovers the town is famous as the birth place of Adolphe Sax, the 19th century inventor of the saxophone. For us, it will forever be all of these things, AND “that cute little village in Belgium with the cool fortress and the weird church”.

*The area is still popular with rock climbers – we saw lots of them clambering up the sheer cliffs around the town.

 

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Dinant’s Citadel was our first stop. This large fortress has been fought over, destroyed, rebuilt, and extended numerous time. The current structure dates from the 19th century; it replaced the ruins of the original fortification, which was built 1051 on the orders of the Prince Bishop of Liege to defend the River Meuse against invaders.

 

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The ascent up to the fortress is very steep and can be done on foot, via the 408 steps carved into the cliffside, or via the free cable car. We looked at the steps and thought about doing the climb, but the cable car was FREE and it was RIGHT THERE… So the cable car won out and in just a couple of minutes we were 112m above the River Meuse, admiring the views.

 

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The interior of the Citadel could only be visited as part of a guided tour (only run in French so not worth our while), so we made do with a quick look around the “free access” parts of the fortress and a visit to the special World War I exhibition, which was actually quite interesting. Turns out the Citadel was the sight of a bloody battle between invading German forces and defending French soldiers in the early days of World War I; interestingly, among the wounded was a certain Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle. A few days after this battle, 674 inhabitants were executed by German troops in what has been dubbed the Massacre of Dinant.

 

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Once back down at river level we visited the city’s landmark church. Built in the Gothic style, this 13th century cathedral replaced an older, Romanesque church that was destroyed when rocks from the overhanging cliffs fell on the building in 1227. Our favourite part of the church was its famous onion dome, which tops off the bell tower.

 

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Having seen the village’s 2 major sights, and strolled through the ENTIRE town, we decided to stop for lunch at one of the lovely little cafés lining the riverside promenade. After a hearty meal of local veal escalopes (served, of course, with the mandatory Belgian bucket of fries, slathered in mayonnaise*), we decided to see what river cruises were on offer for the afternoon.

*Belgium food seems to polarise people. Some people RAVE about the food – and not just the waffles, chocolate, chips/fries, mussels, and beer. Others, like us, may find Belgian food a bit on the rich and extravagant side. Our experiences have shown us that sauces here are often creamy, cappuccinos come not with frothed milk but with whipped Chantilly cream, chocolate comes as a side with EVERYTHING, and potato chips/fries come with EVERYTHING and they’re invariably slathered in mayonnaise. And salad or vegetables? Oh what I wouldn’t give for a simple carrot! *SIGH* Each to their own, right? Thank goodness we aren’t here for too long though, otherwise we’d be truly obese in a very short time!

 

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Seems there are a swathe of river cruises that you can do from Dinant; some go upriver towards Namur, most go downriver towards Freyr and the dramatic cliffs of the Meuse Valley. We chose one of the longer cruises that took us downriver, through a lock, all the way to the Château de Freyr.

 

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Just outside of Dinant we cruised past the Rocher Bayard, a large monolith said to have been split by the hoof of a mythical horse.

 

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Past farmlands and forest we went, through small villages that wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard.

 

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We eventually reached the Castle of Freyr, a 17th century château built in the French style and surrounded by formal French gardens. The château and its gardens were built on the fertile lands across the river from the Rochers de Freyr, the largest of which is said to look like a lion head (we didn’t really see the lion, but maybe we didn’t quite have our heads tilted at the right angle or something).

 

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The river cruise continued on along this vein for a little over 2 hours, which was a little too long for us but still made for a lovely afternoon’s entertainment. Eventually we found ourselves back in Dinant where one of the regular train services whisked us back here to the ghost town of Namur. Our quandary now is: where to go for dinner? The only places we’ve seen open in town this evening are McDonalds and a kebab* place.

*We’ve discovered that, thanks to globalisation, mass migration, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Turkish and other North African/Middle Eastern migrants, kebabs are the universal fall back food in Europe. There have been a few times on our travels, when all else has failed, and a kebab has served as a cheap, easy meal option!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 133


NAMUR EXCUSES – WE HAVE TO HEAD SOUTH…

Leaving Brussels and its gritty inner city vibe behind this morning we found our way to Namur, a small town on just 110,000 people in Belgium’s forested South. We’ve chosen Namur as our base for the next few days as it’s conveniently located near some of the best scenic spots near the beautiful Ardennes hills. The town itself also has an interesting history and a rather grand citadel, perched high on a rocky outcrop at the confluence of the Rivers Sambre and Meuse. Sounds like a good place to stop for a few days right?

 

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The Ardennes is a region of leafy forests, river valleys, and rolling hills in Southern Belgium. This is the greenest part of the country and has a reputation for being very scenic and pretty, unlike much of the countryside in the industrialised Northern parts of Belgium we’ve been in most recently. We’ve not seen much of the hills so far, but certainly the views from the train got a bit more interesting the further South we headed. The flat plains we’d become accustomed to through the Netherlands and Flanders gradually gave way to hilly farmland and forest, which was actually a nice change.

 

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Within an hour and a half we had reached Namur* and, keen to explore the town, we dropped our bags off and headed straight out. The city streets we encountered were pretty clean and orderly, especially compared to inner city Brussels, if a little quiet. Seems Namur is a small enough town that most shops shut at lunchtime on Saturday and don’t reopen until Monday morning!

*Belgium is pretty small – none of these intercity trains journeys take very long at all!

 

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Despite being the capital of Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium), Namur is actually quite small, so it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the heart of the city, at Place d’Armes. This central square is surrounded by beautiful old buildings and made for a good lunch stop.

 

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Continuing on through town we came across the town’s main cathedral, St Alban’s Cathedral (which was closed at the time unfortunately), and the oldest remaining building in town: the 15th century Meat Hall (once used as for storage and as a market hall,  now home to the tourist information centre – also closed).

 

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There aren’t too many old buildings left in Namur beyond these few as the city was heavily bombed during both World Wars, so what’s left is quite modern. It’s still quite a pretty town, though, and being a city built between 2 rivers, it is unsurprising that we found the prettiest part of Namur along the waterfront. We spent quite a while strolling along the banks of the Meuse and Sambre rivers, enjoying the sunshine and wondering where on earth all the people were?! We expected Namur to be a bit quieter than the far more touristy Ghent and Bruges; and sure, the city is home to almost 20,000 university students during the scholastic year and maybe with it being holidays, that could explain some of the tranquility. But it was so quiet that it was almost eerie*….

*We have since found out that most of Namur’s permanent residents are on holiday themselves, it being peak school holiday season here in Europe. There are lots of shops with signs up saying “Closed ‘til end of August”, etc. Nice for them! It has made our time in Namur a bit weird though as we feel like we’re just about the only souls alive in a virtual ghost town. Pencil that in for next time: beware August holidays when travelling Europe. Cities empty but the beaches and lakeside resort towns fill to the brim!

 

 

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After a few hours exploring we decided that Namur’s greatest gift, however, is its Citadel. Perched atop the towering cliffs of the Grognon (i.e. the limestone plateau at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Sambre), the Citadel towers over the rest of the town.

 

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The Citadel is an immense fortress, occupying the entire top of the Grognon plateau. Due to its strategic location, overlooking the rolling hills to the North and controlling both rivers, the Citadel has been fought over, attacked, besieged, rebuilt, and extended numerous times over the past 2,500 years.

 

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The earliest records of a fortress at the Grognon go back to the Iron Age, when the Celts built a stronghold here; it was reckoned to be one of the largest fortifications in Europe at the time. The Romans eventually made it their own, after defeating the Celts of this region in 57AD. After the Romans came the Gauls (it was the Gauls who gave Namur its name, as the settlement was first named after their god of war, Nam). As the Dark Ages gathered, the Merovingian kings built their own fort here in the 7th century.

 

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Given its strategic location as one of the few point where the rivers could be crossed to reach the riches of Bruges, Ghent and Brussels, as well as its own wealth as a trading town, the next few centuries saw Namur become a succession of armies focus their attentions on Namur. The French, Spanish, Dutch, then the French* again – they all controlled the city for a time and used it as a military outpost, adding the Citadel as they went.

*When the French were finally kicked out of the region, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Namur became part of, first, the United Kingdom of Netherlands, and then of the newly-risen Belgian nation, in 1830.

 

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Today peace reigns over Namur and the Citadel is really just a pretty place to go for walks through the forest and a great vantage point from which to admire the scenery. We spent most of our afternoon up in the Citadel, enjoying the views and the sunshine.

 

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On our way around the Citadel we came across another of Belgium’s weird and wonderful statues: a giant turtle with a guy on its back. Turns out this is an art piece entitled “Searching for Utopia”, by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Glinting in the sun, it was rather glorious in its strangeness.

 

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And so, having done our exploring, we can attest that Namur is a nice little city. It lacks the grandeur of Brussels, and the extensive old town of Ghent or Bruges, but it seems like a nice enough town to spend a couple of days in. It’s also a great spot from which to explore some of the beautiful valleys and hills of the Ardennes – which is where we’re headed tomorrow!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 132


24 HOURS IN BRUSSELS

After a short 35 minute train ride from Ghent we arrived into Bruxelles Central this morning ready for a day of sightseeing and prepared to be wowed by Belgium’s capital. Headquarters of the European Union, NATO, and many large multinational companies, this, we’d been told, is the Capital of Europe. Sounds awesome right?! Well, it is…, sort of. Brussels certainly has its own appeal, but we wouldn’t rate in our “Top Ten”. There’s an interesting mixture of architecture, some great museums, a swath of brilliant restaurants and eateries, and lots of stuff to see and do. There’s also an awful lot of dirt, grime, graffiti (and not the good kind), and corners that smell like urine. Let’s just say we have mixed feelings about Brussels after spending the day exploring the city!

 

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Brussels started out as a small settlement on a marshy island in the middle of the River Senne in the 6th century. Since then it has grown from a village to a fortified town, a prosperous trading city, and, today, into a busy modern city with a population of 2 million. Like the country it leads, however, it seems a city divided in 2 in many ways: there’s the gentrified Upper Town, with its palace, museums, wide boulevards and leafy parks, and the Lower Town, with its narrow Medieval lanes, bars, restaurants, and inner city ghettos. There’s also the division between the ultra-modern part of town, where all the EU, NATO and government offices are, and the older parts of town, where many of the beautiful old buildings are boarded up and covered in graffiti. Language is another obvious divide; officially Brussels is bilingual*, with all street signs and official signage in both Dutch and French (in the rest of Belgium however one language or the other prevails). The contrast between Brussels’ Upper Town and Lower Town; between its modern and old towns; and between its Flemish and Francophile citizens, all add to the city’s unique character, but also make it hard to get a sense of the city as a whole. Still, after just a day here, how we possibly hope to understand a city that is more than 1,500 years old?!

*Brussels straddles the 2 distinct (and often at odds) regions of Flanders in the North (the Dutch-speaking, Flemish part of Belgium), and French-speaking Walloon in the South. To help appease both Flanders and Walloon the capital was declared bilingual in the 20th century.

 

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Positioned as it is at the crossroads of Europe, Brussels has (like much of Belgium) been dragged into wars and destroyed numerous times, most recently during World War II. Due to these cycles of destruction and reconstruction, the architecture in Brussels is diverse, and spans from the Medieval constructions around the Grand Place, to the post-modern buildings of the EU institutions. It makes for an interesting cityscape in many ways.

 

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As well as just generally admiring the cityscape, we had a list of specific sights we wanted to see in our 24 hour sojourn in Brussels. Starting, first and foremost, with the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the city’s central Catholic cathedral (St Michael and St Gudula are also the patron saints of the city of Brussels).

 

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A chapel dedicated to St Michael was built on the site in the 9th century; over the years this was added to, rebuilt, and extended until, in 1519, the current structure was finished. Most of the cathedral escaped destruction during the wars of the 20th century and today stands as a testament to the resilience of the Belgians.

 

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The Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula stands in the Upper Town, once the abode of the Francophile ruling class. It was here the nobles built their palaces and mansions, churches and parks; still today the wide avenues and grand architecture of this aristocratic quarter – the bulk of which dates from the 18th and 19th centuries – lend the Upper Town a stately, dignified feel that’s markedly different from the bustle of the Lower Town.

 

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Today the Upper Town is home not only to the town’s elite, but also to the city’s museum quarter. And there sure are a lot of museums in Brussels, including the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Dutch) or Palais des Beaux-Arts (French) which houses numerous examples of Belgian fine arts; and the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), dedicated to all things musical and housed in a lovely art nouveau building high on the hills in the Upper Town. We could easily have spent another day or 2 here, exploring these , but alas, with just a single day here we chose to forgo them all and just marked a few to visit if/when we return here.

 

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One place we DID stop for a visit was the magnificent Royal Palace of Brussels, which is where the King and Queen of the Belgians holds audiences and holds state affairs (King Philipe and his family don’t live there – the royal residence is out of the city centre)

 

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The facade of the palace is fairly unassuming, but the few state rooms open to the public were VERY richly decorated and quite stunning.

 

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Leaving the palace we set out downhill to explore the Lower Town, stopping along the way to admire the views across the valley from the Upper Town.

 

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Despite the Upper Town’s noble roots, most of Brussels’  famous sights are actually down in the Lower town. Including its most famous statue and city mascot: the Mannikin Pis. This tiny (it really is small – just 60cm tall) bronze statue of a little boy peeing has to be one of the most unique town symbols we’ve ever seen, and for such a modest sculpture, it sure attracts the crowds! There were hordes of waffle and chocolate munching tourists crowded around the small statue this afternoon, all desperately trying to get their glimpse of the little guy. Not since visiting the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen have we seen so many go so crazy over a simple statue! It’s all about good marketing isn’t it?! Since he was placed in his little alcove in 1618, the Mannikin Pis has become so popular that there’s now a fence and security cameras to protect him (the statue has bene repeatedly stolen over the years – the current one isn’t even the original, just a replica made in the 1960s to replace the previous one when it was stolen).

 

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Why so much hype over a little boy peeing? Well, it’s certainly unique and you could say that the statue encapsulates both the quirky Belgian sense of humour and their general disregard for authority! Little Mannikin Pis was naked today, but to add to the quirkiness, often he’s dressed in one of his many outfits and sometimes they even hook him up to a keg of beer to help the locals celebrate significant events!

 

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Continuing on through the Lower Town we entered the general flow of pedestrian traffic headed towards Brussels’ iconic central plaza: the Grand Place. The square really is beautiful, fringed by the gorgeous City Hall, the lavish Breadhouse, and opulent guild houses dating from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

 

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Originally a modest market square, the Grand Place began to gain prestige ion the 14th century when local merchants and tradesmen, grown wealthy from their labours and keen to express their distaste for the nobles of the Upper Town, started expanding and renovating their guild houses to make them even richer and more ornate than the palaces of the city’s nobility!

 

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The guilds were soon engaged in a war of beautification, each trying to out do the other with the magnificence of their trade house. To top it all off, the Brussels City Hall was built on the south side of the square in 1455, ensuring the square would forever be seen as the heart of Brussels.

 

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To counter this display of wealth, in 1504 the ruling duke tore down the bread market building and built a large, very ornate building across from the city hall as symbol of their ducal power. Known amongst the nobles as Le Maison du Roi (The King’s House), the edifice was soon rebranded by the common people as the Broodhuis (Breahdhouse). Ah, the folly of it all… Still, the result of all that one-upmanship is stunning!

 

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After a bit more strolling around the streets, and a brief lunch stop, we found ourselves under the vaulted glass ceiling of the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert. This 19th century shopping arcade in Brussels was built to copy the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, and is similarly beautiful. The shops inside are also similarly pricey, with most of them specialising in high end fashion and “luxury chocolate” (not sure exactly who that differs to regular chocolate, except for the price tag!). We’re not in the market for any designer clothing, shoes, or handbags, and chocolate that costs around €100/kg is also not really in our budget, but we still had fun admiring the window displays.

 

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Just as we finished strolling through the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert it started raining, so we dashed back in our nondescript little hotel room where we’re now watching as a thunderstorm lashes Brussels. It’s been an interesting day in Brussels and whilst we really enjoyed some of the things we saw, we haven’t fallen in love with Brussels. Maybe the key to enjoying this town is to give it a bit more time – maybe it grows on you a bit more over time…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 131


IN BRUGES

For our final day in Flanders, we took ourselves to Bruges, one of the prettiest Medieval cities in the world! The historic centre of Bruges is delineated by canals and characterised by cobbled streets, typically Dutch/Belgian townhouses with stepped gables, and grand Gothic churches. It’s a beautiful town and a great place to visit for a day, though we could easily have spent a week there, losing ourselves in the narrow laneways and chocolateries.

 

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Bruges shares many similarities with its sister city Ghent (which is just 45km down the road): like Ghent, Bruges boomed during the Middle Ages and became a wealthy town thanks to the cloth trade. It also suffered the same economic downturns as Ghent (hence the a beautifully preserved Medieval town centre). The main differences between Bruges and Ghent, from what we’ve seen, is that Bruges is a little bigger and grander in scale, and far more touristy. Compared to the quiet streets and sedate pace in Ghent, our day in Bruges required a little more patience and a bit more elbow-work to encourage people to move over. Still, just a few turns out of the centre of town and things quietened down considerably. Away from the cafés, waffle shops, and big sights, we had Bruges virtually to ourselves and it was awesome!

 

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Bruges became an important trade city due to the access it had to the North Sea; the Zwin Canal began silting up around 1500 however and as the city lost access to the sea, so its importance as a port diminished. In the late 1800s, however, British and French aristocrats, looking for new places to holiday, discovered Bruges. They put the city on the tourist map, so to speak, and Bruges has been a popular destination for Europeans every since. All the tourist dollars (pounds, francs, etc) helped the original Medieval city flourish again and helped fund extensive restorations across the city*. The entire historic city centre of Bruges is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

*Ghent receives fewer visitors and one of the consequences of this is that many of the old buildings in Ghent has a more “worn” look to them. Many of the townhouses and grand buildings in Bruges have been repainted and renovated, giving it a more gentrified look, but Ghent seems a little more “real”.

 

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To get us started we hopped straight on a boat to do one of the ubiquitous canal cruises on offer. It was actually a great way to start as it gave us a sense of the look and feel of the town, and we got to see some of the facades of buildings that front onto the waterways and would not be visible from the streets.

 

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After the canal cruise we spent hours strolling through the streets of Bruges, with some of our favourite photo-stops being around the Grote Markt and Burg Square. The Grote Markt is the main square in Bruges and the focus of most tourists’ attentions. It’s busy, but beautiful, with Medieval buildings lining it and the Belfort (Bell Tower) at its centre.

 

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Not far from the Grote Markt is Burg Square, Bruges’ second town square. Although smaller than the Grote Markt, this was once the administrative heart of the city and so is encircled by some very grand historic buildings. Including the stunning 14th century Stadhuis (Town Hall) and 18th century Liberty House (once the mansion of a local noble, now the city’s records archive).

 

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In one corner of Burg Square, tucked away behind a decorated façade, we found the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek), by far Bruges’ best church. Originally built in the 12th century as the family chapel for the Count of Flanders, the church became a pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages as it houses a vial containing what is said to be the blood of Jesus. The vial was brought to Bruges after the sacking of Constantinople in the 1200s and, whether it really does contain the blood of Jesus or not, it quickly brought fame to the little church that housed it. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is beautifully decorated and, though small, a charming church to visit.

 

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A far busier church in Bruges was the 15th century Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), which attracts hordes of people due to its altarpiece: a white marble statue by Michelangelo entitled “Madonna and Child”. Meant originally for Siena Cathedral, it was purchased in Italy by two Brugean merchants and donated to the church in 1514. Though the subject is obviously different, the statue reminded us a lot of Michelangelo’s work “La Pieta”, which we saw at the Vatican years ago. The amount of detail and life that a good sculpture can carve out of stone is incredible (as usual no photos allowed inside – the image below is from their website).

 

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There were numerous other notable buildings that we stopped by to visit, including St Salvator’s Church, one of the oldest in town; and Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John’s Hospital), a Medieval infirmary that now houses a museum.

 

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It also made us laugh to discover that Bruges has a museum dedicated to chocolate, and one all about fries (which we cannot, in good faith, refer to as French fries any longer as we now know they are in fact BELGIAN fries!).

 

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After all the chaos and excitement of bruges’ town centre, it was really nice to stumble upon the Béguinage Ten Wijngaerde. Like the béguinage we saw in Amsterdam, this collection of buildings was once the home to women seeking to retire from “the outside world” and live a quiet, peaceful life, whilst doing charitable work. Founded in 1244, this béguinage was much larger than the one in Amsterdam, but still had the same air of quiet and serenity about it.

 

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The béguinage was our last stop in Bruges, and what a nice way to end our sightseeing day it was! After a short train ride back to Ghent we’re back here now and contemplating having to leave this corner of Belgium as we’re off to Brussels tomorrow to see what the Belgian capital has to offer.

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 130


CANALS, CASTLES & CHURCHES OF GHENT

After our initial look around Ghent yesterday we headed back out a bit earlier than usual today to catch a glimpse of the town before it got too busy. We were well rewarded for our early start with some lovely views across the canals and squares, sans tourists. It’s so nice seeing an old town like Ghent at your own pace like that, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a town awakening. Once the main sites opened their doors for the day (which seems to be around 10:00am here), we also managed to fit in a good day’s sightseeing too, with Ghent’s castle, Gravensteen, and its many churches our priorities for today.

 

 

We had yet another awesome day in this wonderful little Medieval town, with the first couple hours of our morning taken up with a self-paced tour of the city’s canals and old streets. Generally Belgians do not seem like early risers, so we had most of the streets and squares to ourselves until about 9:00am, which was lovely.

*It’s not quite as bad as Amsterdam here though – there anything before midday seemed too early for most people to venture outdoors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop for the day was Het Gravensteen (The Castle of the Counts), once the seat of the Counts of Flanders when they ruled this part of Belgium. The castle didn’t open until 10:00am though so we were forced to (joyfully) retreat to a nearby coffee shop for a morning shot of espresso and accompanying pastry*. In many ways it’s those moments which are the best of the day; just sitting back, relaxing and people watching and letting all that history and ambience soak in.

*Flanders, being closer to the Netherlands, is far more Flemish than other parts of Belgium. The French influence is still apparent here, though, especially in things like the food. For example, there’s a propensity towards rich sauces (which we’re not especially partial to), and morning croissants and/or pastries (which we ARE partial to). We seem to have acquired a pain au chocolat habit which could see us gain about 10kgs if we don’t get it under control. It’s just that they are SO GOOD here, and the chocolate in the centre is so very very delicious….

 

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Once Het Gravensteen opened its doors we abandoned our post and set about exploring the 12th century castle.

 

 

Built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace, Gravensteen was modelled after the crusaders’ castles. The castle served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. Since then it has been used as a courthouse, a prison, and a factory.

 

 

 

 

Over the centuries the castle crumbled; stones were taken from it to repair nearby houses, and by the end of the 19th century, the castle was a ruin fit only for demolition. Luckily a group of concerned citizens managed to convince the Ghent city council to buy the castle and restore it, turning it into the tourist attraction and landmark it is today.

 

 

 

 

Inside the castle there were displays set up showing how life would have been for the Counts of Flanders during the Middle Ages, as well as exhibitions of Medieval weaponry and torture instruments (pretty gruesome). There were also areas set aside for artistic exhibitions, currently themed around death and dying (all a bit sombre, but interesting enough).

 

 

 

 

The best part of the castle tour was the views from the top of the parapet across Ghent. Despite the haze, it was a great way to see the city.

 

 

 

 

After Gravensteen we stopped in to visit Sint Michielskerk (St Michael’s Church), a Gothic Roman Catholic* cathedral dating back to the 15th century. The Church’s interior was richly decorated with many Baroque paintings and marble statues.

*Religion is one of the reasons Belgium rebelled and seceded from the Kingdom of the Netherlands – the Dutch were predominantly Protestant, whilst the Belgians were mostly Catholic.

 

 

 

 

Crossing the River Leie we crossed the Kornmakt (once a the main market square of the town, now the hub of all things touristy in Ghent), and headed towards Sint Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’s Church). Built with donations from the wealthy guild merchants of Ghent in the 13th century, St Nicholas’s Church is one of the oldest and most prominent landmarks in Ghent. It’s 2 towers are visible from all points of the old town and are especially useful landmarks if you’ve gotten yourself (happily) lost down some narrow Medieval streets and need to orient yourself again!

 

 

 

 

Also prominent as a landmark is the belfry tower of Sint Baafskathedral (Cathedral of St Bavo). This is by far Ghent’s most visited cathedral, mainly due to its altarpiece by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck: “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (no photos allowed, so photo below from http://www.sintbaafskathedraal.be).

 

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After such a hectic (NOT) day of sightseeing we needed a place to chill and settled in at a local brasserie known as ‘T Oude Clooster (The Old Cloister) where Shane sampled a few of the 800 local Belgian brews* and I sipped iced tea. As the afternoon slipped into evening we ordered dinner (hearty Flemish beef stew and a burger – both highly recommended) and relaxed just a little bit more.

*They take their beer very seriously ‘round here: each beer has its own (branded) glass to go with it, and its own serving directions. Also, there’s no such thing as “beer o’clock” – when ever you want a drink, it’s beer time. Lots of café/bars are open 24 hours a day and there’s no problem getting a breakfast beer a say 8:00am, should you so desire.

 

 

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This long term holidaying business sure is fun, and Ghent is proving to be a pretty cool place to enjoy the balmy summer weather whilst enjoying the best of Belgian history and culture. If you’re thinking of passing by this way some time, we can highly recommend it!