Category Archives: Belgium

Stumbling Upon a Country

I created our route south through Belgium based on the ‘prettiness’ ratings villages had received online. I expected (as its neighbour Germany) flowerboxes, profuse gardens around handkerchief lawns, paned windows with functional shutters and verdant verges.

The villages were almost the anti-thesis of that. There’s nothing like stretches of asphalt and stones around houses to impart a little starkness.

Belgium street

Belgium town

There were other surprises in store.

The roads were lined with youthful walkers toting maps, backpacks, sodden clothes and cheerful smiles. It seemed the local high schools had ordered a mass orienteering exercise. In mixed-gender groups of four to twenty they trod and cycled the roads, seemingly having the time of their lives (apart from that one girl pushing her bike up the hill with everyone else sailing off into the distance).

Others had more stationary pursuits. Fisher(wo)men huddled around a pond, stoic in the rain. Belgium, fishing competition

I surmised this was a competition: Who can sit the longest in unpleasant conditions? Who has the largest number of blue, fishing-related articles? Whose lure will a fish happen to swim past and find enticing enough to bite?

Belgium, fishing competition

In another town a policeman barred our way, directing us down a side road. A marching band, complete with several heraldic banners but virtually no audience, finally lead us to realise that this was a national holiday. This revelation also gave context to the closure of some town high streets for markets and festivities plus the previous night’s stunning fireworks. The former necessitated some quite lengthy and scenic detours.

Belgian marching band

In this vein, we meandered south and the country transformed our straightforward drive into an exploration of its traditions and past-times.

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What If? Exploring a Town While Not

We are in Belgium in the Ardenne, a hilly region in the French-speaking area. I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne as our overnight stop because it was proclaimed by several people on travel advice sites as one of the loveliest villages in the area.

The river Ourthe bends through a narrow flat-bottomed valley and the village nestles along its banks. Above, a medieval castle rises from a crag as though hewn from it.

La Roche-en-Ardenne castle

At first glance, the river appears brown but I see from the 100-200m elevation of our hotel that it is crystal clear; it is the rocks beneath the water that are brown with the silt of ages.

The banks are lushly wooded with dark deciduous trees, pines, a pale willow and smudges of burgundy, greys and browns. They are studded with the sun-bright whites of houses.

In the park ponds beside the river, six fountains spurt in changing heights like synchronized swimmers.

A youth with bare torso stands knee-deep in the middle of the river. In his hand is a long, thin stick. He is poking around beneath stones, as though concerned about lifting them. I wait for him to find something, to expertly stab a fish or pick something thrashing from the water but he does not. Quietly he walks back to the shore, past the bikinied girl lying with her dog on a blanket, up to the houses. Downstream, a younger boy wades with his fishing rod. The water skims past his thighs. Eventually, he too leaves empty-handed.

I am sitting next to a large, wooden-framed window swung open horizontally along its centre. The summer town rises through it to me. Voices carry over the water. Away to my left, Edith Piaf has replaced someone reminiscent of Dolly. Aeroplanes fly overhead. (The window as sound system.)

I think I must rush off and explore. That is the temptation. I am travelling so I must travel! I must walk. I must view. I must photograph and record.

But what if?

What if this listening and watching through a window on the outskirts of town, this ‘allowing’, is the exploration – of myself, my values, the town and the moment?La Roche-en-Ardenne

The waiter replies to my order by saying, “A glass of rosé for Madam,” in a most delightful and film-worthy accent. I feel as if I am here to write a novel. I feel as if I might saunter down to the promenade alongside the river. I might wander into town. And, if I did, I might encounter English guests with parasols ‘taking the air’.

I am offered first a small dish of peanuts and savoury rice tidbits. This is followed by an angel on horseback that is somehow the most delicious of the stuffed-prune genre I have ever tasted. (The word ‘Michelin’ on the front door is starting to make sense.) Next, a portion of quiche with feather-light pastry arrives. It is as though the chef is playing before dinner and sharing with whoever happens to be around. I have a lovely sense of inclusion and intimacy.

I save this post in my blogging folder under “Europe 2014” and feel profound gratitude that a) I am here and b) I have to differentiate between the years. The blessing of so much travelling brings with it the possibility of familiarity, not breeding contempt but bringing with it a dulling – of senses, of gratitude, of anticipation, of delight, of recollection of times when this was all a seemingly-impossible aspiration.

The velvety voice of a waiter in a foreign country is enough, however, to bring all these welling up. It is a rich and profound moment when even my physical body fills.

These moments are perfect; utter perfection.

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Our hotel was Les Genets.

Pinning Down Leuven

Nothing says happy anniversary like a beetle stabbed by a needle, I always think.

In 2000, Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, considered Belgium’s oldest university, celebrated their 575th year. They asked Pinning dartist Jan Fabre to create a statue to commemorate such longevity and dedication to the education of the nation’s finest minds. The story I heard is that they didn’t realise (or perhaps they did, and considered it all part of the fun ) that Fabre was going through a bug phase in his art. And so we have this in the square in front of the library:

Close by, Nemo’s Wash is open 24/7, so long as it’s from 7am – 11pm.

Lurking in Leuven

Leuven’s old city in Belgium is compact and delightful, (though it offers far fewer chocolate shops than Brugge).

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Countryside Collection – Belgium

The cattle are fat and muscular. They are full, like sacks at bursting point, like part-time weightlifters who have over-dosed on energy drinks.

Australian cows are bony. They are skin draped across skeletons with racks for hips, their flanks not hollowed so much as cavernous. Yet their bellies are often round and their coats glossy.

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BRUGGE BITES

Don't mind if I do.

Don’t mind if I do.

Chocolate shops abound in Brugge (Bruges in English). In something of the fashion of chocolates in a box, they fill the ancient streets. I am dumbfounded. Continue reading