Belgium has famous neighbours. France to the south with its art galleries, cuisine and national scarf obsession, The Netherlands in the north, windmills, cheese and funny smelling ‘coffee shops’, Germany to the east, where a sausage and a beer is a great meal.
It’s no wonder this small lowlands country enjoys a quiet, peaceful life. Whilst the tourists might clamber over each other, elbowing, biting and pulling hair to catch a glimpse of the Louvre’s venerable Mona Lisa in Paris, or want to prove their drinking mettle at beer Mecca (Oktoberfest), the Belgians happily sip a cold Trappist beer at a roadside cafe, letting the neighbors claim the tourists.
I have family in Antwerp, which is why it’s always first port of call for me whenever I have the chance to visit Belgium. Jeff met me at the bus stop. We had parted ways after Vietnam, and while I lingered in Asia, he had set himself up in an apartment in Antwerp. The singlets of South East Asia made way for warm clothing here in Europe.
The centre of the old town is clearly distinguishable with the gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, a sharp spike of a cathedral, intricately carved stone and adorned with a massive golden clock.
At its base the cobblestones pour over the Groenplaats, a social town square fringed by cafes and frituurs, serving the Belgian specialty, French fries (Belgian fries, to be honest) with mayonnaise.
A long walking street betrays the Belgian love for fashion with boutique clothes stores, and of course chocolatiers, ending near Antwerpcentraal, the main train station, domed and sprawling, monstrous in size and beautifully decorated with great glass windows.
Ghent is about 40 minutes west of Antwerp by train (Belgium really is a small country!), an under-appreciated city to rival well-known, medieval Bruges. At it’s charming old centre the houses with roofs like brick staircases huddle shoulder to shoulder.
Canals run by the roads, a slow and peaceful network spanned by small bridges, and occasionally sharing a bank with sheer walls of houses, plunged in the water.
A crisp morning air pricked our skin as we admired the high cathedrals filled with long rows of dark-wooded benches, stained glass windows and biblical statues and dioramas. The cathedrals were old, and I struggled to imagine how people almost a millennium ago, dressed in felt, puffy hats and long socks raised these structures.
Ghent had a cool castle, grey and blockish, with squared crenellations, round keeps, flags and gates. The kind of castle I used to draw as a kid, where stick figure knights with would kill fire-breathing dragons with big pointy swords.
We walked to the counter to buy the entrance ticket, taking advantage of being 26 or younger to claim the discount. When the lady decided I didn’t qualify and must pay full price, we left in a huff, refusing to be ripped off.
As we circumambulated (walked around…oh yes, i just used a big new word) the castle, we jokingly wondered if we could sneak in over the walls, scaling them to gain free entry to the museum inside…then realized this was a medieval castle…
…o O (Maybe we could build a catapult…)
My last night in Antwerp was spent with family for dinner, cousins for beers afterwards, ending in the Culminator with Jeff. This bar showed no sign of life until we reached the front door, when a warm trickle of light suddenly shone through the window.
The beer menu listed over a thousand choices, an unbelievable selection, but I knew what I wanted. A Kwak, served in a round-bottomed flask and held in a crude wooden frame. A Belgian seated beside me gasped and intervened when I removed the glass to drink. The wooden frame is used as the handle.
I liked the pride the Belgians had for the way their beer is served; more often than not, a beer comes with a particular glass with the brand emblazoned on the side. The Belgian beer glass is usually goblet shaped, and high in strength, with Bush beer at 12 percent being the strongest we tried.