Category Archives: Belgium

• Belfries of Belgium and France

Visits:

29th March 2008, 5th July 2009, 21st September 2014,

17th April 2016, 8th/9th October 2016

This expansive World Heritage Site consists of no fewer than 55 bell towers spread across Belgium and northeastern France. As well as being fine examples of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the belfries represent the emergence of local government as a force to be taken seriously in Europe. In most towns the tallest buildings were traditionally the church’s spire and the manor of the local feudal baron. As burghers and aldermen grew in stature from the 11th to the 17th centuries, belfries (often co-located with town halls) began to challenge the dominance of the other two institutions.

The WHS known as ‘Belfries of Belgium and France’ can be found in villages, towns and cities alike. They range in height from perhaps 100 feet to three times that.

I have held off from writing about the belfries for a while, but, having now ticked off eight of them on four separate trips it seems acceptable to do so.

Bruges

29th March 2008 & 5th July 2009

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Bruges’s belfry is 272 feet tall and is one of the most prominent on the list. It sits within the separately inscribed World Heritage Site city of Bruges which I went to in both 2008 and 2009. But it is most famous in Britain, perhaps, as a key filming location in the film In Bruges. If you recall, the climactic final scene is set in the belfry. I climbed it on both occasions I visited the city.

Ghent

21st September 2014

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Back in 2014 Natalie and I met up with my friend (who was then living in nearby Luxembourg) and his friends for a weekend in Ghent. My primary motivation for suggesting the city was to see Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, but it was handy that there was also a major belfry in the city. I think this one is more attractive than Bruges’s, and it is also the tallest belfry in Belgium, at around 300 feet.

Amiens

17th April 2016

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This one feels like a bit of a fudge because you have to squint to see the belfry in the picture above. It was in Amiens, which a group of friends and I drove to and spent a weekend in primarily to visit the ornate cathedral. I insisted we get closer to the belfry but was stymied by a faulty satnav, so we ended up never getting a good look at it.

Arras

17th April 2016

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On the way back from Amiens as we headed toward Calais and the Chunnel home we stopped for lunch in Arras. This belfry and town hall is located on the town’s main square, which is a pretty spot to spend some time. It is also home to one of the ‘Fortifications of Vauban’, a WHS consisting of various 17th century accomplishments of French military engineering.

Béthune

17th April 2016

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After Arras we stopped again in the small French town of Béthune. We drank a coffee in its square, which was less picturesque than Arras but still quite pleasant. This belfry is not nearly as ornate as the others I’ve described so far, but it has its own defiant character that I quite like. I should think this is one of the oldest belfries; it says on Wikipedia that a belfry has stood on this spot since 1346.

Antwerp Cathedral

8th October 2016

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In the mould of the Amiens visit we undertook a similar road trip in October 2016 to Antwerp. This Belgian city was one of the world’s most affluent in the Middle Ages, and it has a cathedral to match. We stayed in a hotel right next door to the belfry, but didn’t get a chance to walk up it because there was a service on when we attempted to visit.

Antwerp Town Hall

9th October 2016

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Antwerp actually has two belfries inscribed on the list. The second is this magnificent town hall, which is draped in flags. The belfry itself makes no attempt to soar as high as its counterpart at the cathedral, but fits nicely with the rest of the building.

Dendermonde

9th October 2016

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Dendermonde is a small Belgian town at the beginning of the Scheldt river (which flows onwards to Antwerp). We stopped off here on our way home, and were glad to have done so. This town hall was open to the public and free to enter, so we had a look around at its collection of paintings and the council chamber. The yellow flag with the black lion is the flag of Flanders.

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• Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum Complex

Visit: 8th October 2016

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The first foreign trip I ever took with friends was a 2008 visit to the World Heritage Site of Bruges. Of the five who were present on that trip, three (Ross, Chig and I) reprised the format of taking a car through the Channel Tunnel and driving to a historic Belgian city to for a weekend of eating, drinking and sightseeing.

This time, though, it was Ross – rather than me – at the wheel. We had two new lads along (Esteban and Nowell, pictured with Ross below) so it was a tight squeeze in the small hatchback as we sped down the E40 road towards Antwerp.

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On arrival we met up with Stef and Michael – two of Ross’s friends from Luxembourg. Our hotel was right by the city’s cathedral, which has an entrance portal of statuettes, rather like the celebrated cathedral in Amiens. It also features one of the best belfries in Belgium and northern France, towering an impressive 400 feet into the air.

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We spent the evening, predictably enough, enjoying the great variety of quality beers that Belgium has to offer. Old favourites making reappearances included Jupiler, Judas and Kwak. I found, however, that I seemed to have lost my taste for Belgian beer. They had begun to seem too strong and sweet to enjoy in the quantities that we were ordering them, so I switched with a heavy heart to asking for lagers or pilsners.

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The next day, and following a hearty lunch (with beer pairings) at Grand Café De Rooden Hoed, we headed to the World Heritage Site of the trip. The Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum Complex is the site of a former printing press – one of the most important in Europe, in its day. Set up by Christophe Plantin and passed on to his son-in-law Jan Moretus in the 16th century, it helped secure Antwerp as one of the three major centres for the printing of early books – along with Paris and Venice.

The presses ran for the best part of three centuries, printing their last books in 1867, before the building was turned into a museum. Recently refurbished, it is chock full of works produced by the family. Their specialisms included translations of the Bible and scientific works, complete with copper-plate illustrations. Whilst printing wasn’t invented here, the prolific output of this facility enabled the dissemination of knowledge throughout the known world, and contributed to what we now call the Enlightenment.

I won’t pretend it was the most thrilling place I could have taken a group of lads (several of them snuck out early and were found in a nearby bar) – and I didn’t find it the most interesting World Heritage Site either. I’m not used to the idea of WHSs being out-and-out museums, as I like them to have an air of the natural or the historic about them. The Plantin-Moretus is indeed a historic building, but it just didn’t feel very much like that from the inside.

That evening we spent another night on the town, before bidding farewell to our Continental friends and setting off in the direction of home. I was able to persuade Ross, however, to make a couple of detours for WHS-bagging purposes. On the outskirts of Antwerp is a Modernist house by Le Corbusier, which is part of a 17-part cross-border WHS inscribed in 2016 (I saw another of his buildings – the Museum for Occidental Arts – in Tokyo earlier this year).

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We then motored on to the small town of Dendermonde, known for its belfry. Like Antwerp, it sits on the River Scheldt, and was a quaint and picturesque place to have our Sunday lunch. Ross and Nowell treated themselves to a horse sausage, whilst I played it boringly safe with lasagne. As Chig hunted for shops selling mayonnaise to take back to his wife, the rest of us had a look around the town hall before heading back to Calais for the Channel Tunnel and home.

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• Flemish Béguinages

Visit: 21st September 2014

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By Tom

The Flemish Béguinages is a World Heritage Site made up of 13 separate communities spread across the northern Belgian region of Flanders. The Béguinages of Belgium generally consisted of houses grouped around a central courtyard, focused on a church and inhabited by members of a lay sisterhood – what we would probably call nuns. It seems they differed from ‘full nuns’ in that they did not seek to retire from the outside world, but remained part of the local community. There are two remaining Béguinages in Ghent, which was the city we visited on a one-night weekend trip to Belgium. Natalie and I were joined by Louise, Ross and four of his friends from Luxembourg (Stef, Delphine, Simone & Justyna). They (including Louise, who had been staying at Ross’s) drove up from Lux, whilst Natalie and I flew in to Brussels and caught a train onward to Ghent.

One of my favourite places is Bruges, and Ghent resembles Bruges in a number of ways – being its nearest city of reasonable size and having enjoyed the same status as a booming trading centre at around the same time (in the 13th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Europe, after Paris). It also shares Bruges’s passion for stepped building facades and canal waterways.

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St Bavo’s Cathedral

Unusually, the reason I picked this city to visit wasn’t primarily a WHS. Ghent’s most famous attraction is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – or the Ghent Altarpiece – by Jan van Eyck. After watching the series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark I took an interest in van Eyck and thought it would be good to see the altarpiece for myself.

We soon met up with Ross and the gang, but before that Natalie and I visited the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. Located near to the main railway station, it is a quiet museum that contains a very impressive and varied – though not overbearing – collection. You start off in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and, via Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism and other movements, end up at Modernism and a pile of tables and chairs that must either be installation art or the furniture storage heap of a scruffy janitor.

Some of the more notable works in the museum include an interesting ‘metallochrome effect’ Passion scene by Hieronymous Bosch and, notably, a section of the Ghent Altarpiece – which is undergoing restoration. The task, which is taking around five years, involves the removal of a portion of the altarpiece at a time, whereupon it is worked on by experts in a lab behind a glass screen in the Ghent Fine Art Museum. Compared to viewing the rest of the altarpiece in a hot, dark, crowded room behind glass in St Bavo’s Cathedral, the quiet, cool, white space of the museum allows for a much more pleasant viewing experience. But the best viewing experience of all is found online, at an excellent website the museum has created that allows you to view the altarpiece in phenomenal detail, zooming in dozens of times and comparing a normal photograph with infrared and x-radiography – both of which allow you to see the charcoal underdrawing. The work is noted for its fastidious attention to detail, and the website is probably the only way you can truly appreciate that.

So, after the museum and after meeting the others and seeing the inside of St Bavo’s, it was time to check into the hotel and hit the beers. Unfortunately the apartment I had booked didn’t have proper beds, meaning we had to improvise out of sofas. Still, this didn’t matter too much and we were soon outside trying the full range of brews Ghent has to offer.

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The next day, after a continental breakfast, we split up for a bit. Natalie and I went off to see the Béguinages whilst the others went to Ghent’s castle. The first Béguinage we visited was the grandest – the Grand Béguinage de Sint-Amandsberg, situated near to Dampoort station in the east of the city.

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The walled mini-town allows anybody to wander in nowadays, and I don’t believe it is still inhabited by Beguines. But it still retains an air of tranquility, and you lose the ambient city noise of engines and car horns once you get inside. We had a look inside the empty church that dominates the centre of the Béguinage and walked around the cobbled roads that surround it.

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Having seen the Grand Béguinage, we walked the mile or so to the Petit Béguinage, which lies to the south of the city centre. Along the way we tried to stop off at a number of recommended eateries, but because it was a Sunday almost everything seemed to be closed. Unlike in Britain, where town centres seem busier on Sundays than on weekdays, the people of Ghent still treat the Sabbath as a day of rest. Which is annoying.

The church at the Petit Béguinage is totally different in style to that at the Grand Béguinage. To me it resembled the Catholic churches of Old Goa (though the ones here in Ghent are presumably Protestant, so what do I know?).

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The houses of the Béguinages are reasonably old, with one bearing the date 1628 on its frontage. They are mostly in good condition, and all still inhabited – but by what appear to be ordinary people living ordinary lives, just in a slightly extraordinary setting. I say ‘mostly’ in good condition, because the term could not be used to described this wall, which we gave a wide berth when walking by!

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There isn’t a museum or anything at the Béguinages – just a sign or two informing visitors of their status as a WHS. So with little else to do we headed back to the group in the centre of Ghent. We bought some chocolates (obviously compulsory in Belgium) and ate a rather overpriced meal where we were forbidden from choosing more than four types of main course from the sizeable menu (presumably to save the chef from actually having to exert himself).

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St Nicholas’ Church

The brief trip was by now almost over, and all that remained was for us to say our goodbyes and head our separate ways. Ross was driven back to Luxembourg by Stef and Delphine, whilst Louise, Natalie and I were given a lift to Brussels airport by Simone and Justyna, who were catching a flight to Ibiza.

We arrived pretty early for our flight, and it was delayed an hour, leaving us to sit and talk in the airport bar for a pleasant few hours. Sometimes a flight delay can be annoying (as it was when flying back from Genoa in August), but in this instance it was more of a silver lining than a cloud because it prolonged our stay in Belgium by 3% and allowed us to drink another glass of beer (even if it was only Stella).

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• Historic Centre of Brugge

Visit: 4th – 7th July 2009

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By Ross

We visited Bruges back in the summer of 2009, between our 2nd and 3rd years of university. This was my first time in the city but Tom had been the previous year with family. Our trip was completely unrelated to UNESCO and was actually inspired by the film In Bruges, it was the first of our beer drinking holidays and set a good precedent for the rest.

Tom drove us in his parents’ Mazda and we went via the Channel Tunnel:

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The drive flew by with some predictably crude games of ‘would you rather’ and lots of list-based activities (a recurring theme on all our holidays). We arrived in the afternoon and were all very pleased with the weather. We parked in the underground car park and went straight to the hotel to drop our bags off. We’d managed to get a place just off the Grote Markt, this is a view of the Belfry from our room:

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For our first meal we went to a restaurant on the Grote Markt, it was just the kind of place you usually get in tourist-heavy areas with menus in at least 7 different languages and food that is about as authentic as a Mars bar, this place though was especially abysmal. Hungry for some traditional Belgian cuisine I was quite excited with the menu, I ordered frogs legs for starter and eel in chervil sauce for main. Unfortunately though the meal that followed was extremely disappointing – the frogs legs were completely insipid and the eel tasted like a bicycle tire that had been stuck at the bottom of a river for a few weeks. Garland’s rabbit ‘cooked on the Flemish way’ was equally overcooked and bland, what a shame!

Oh well, at least there’s still the beer we told ourselves! After a quick walk around the cobbled streets and bridges (not forgetting the alcoves) we headed to a bar on the Grote Markt where we would end up spending a lot of time (and money) over the next three days. It was right by the Belfry tower and served steins, the waiters were characters as well: one looked liked like Quasimodo and would call anyone who didn’t order a full Stein of beer a pussy and the other a Columbian who told us particularly lewd stories, one of which involved a transvestite!

As you would expect, pandemonium and vast amounts of beer drinking followed. We did take a few snaps though:

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The next day we sat in a park for a few hours before eating some Lasagne in a café, and getting told off for ordering tap water (unlike in the UK this is not served in most restaurants). We then tried lots more Belgian beer, some of the better ones were: Bruge Zot, Duval, Kwak, Leffe (Blonde & Brun), Jupiler (of which we took a keg home), Chimay, Stella Artois (it is definitely better in Belgium), Judas and many more which I can’t remember. We played lots of drinking games, one of which involved the infamous ‘Bruges rules’. I also had some great Moules frittes and a lobster which was served straight from the tank.

On the last day we climbed the Belfry tower which involves a very narrow spiral staircase which is nauseating to climb, not to mention with a hangover. The tower is actually part of the separate WHS of Belfries of Belgium and France, there are 31 other similar towers spread across the two respective countries. The view was impressive:

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Although the photos probably don’t do it justice I can assure you Bruges is a truly beautiful city, some would say that with all the canals and bridges it’s just like a fairy tale… It is a WHS because ‘Brugge is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement, which has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries, and where original Gothic constructions form part of the town’s identity. As one of the commercial and cultural capitals of Europe, Brugge developed cultural links to different parts of the world. It is closely associated with the school of Flemish Primitive painting.’

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Interestingly we all bought our girlfriends souvenirs (even Ant) with the exception of Chig who bought his girlfriend nothing. I bought Louise two presents, one of which was this white chocolate swan:

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