We began our journey through Belgium in Antwerp – which is in the Flemish part of Belgium. For those who are not in the know – Belgium is country of about 11 million people divide by language, culture and attitude. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1830 and has remained a country ever since, through wars (much of World War I was fought here and it was a World War II battlefield) economic devastation, and the creation of the European Union. It is the border-land between the dominant French culture, language and Catholicism to the south and the northern European Protestantism, values and languages in the North. Belgium is mostly Catholic with religious iconography, statutes etc on every corner. The Protestant work ethic does not seem predominant here, but don’t get me wrong there is lots of industry and business going on and I am sure there are lots of hard working people. Walking around Antwerp and Brussels, we had this sense of Soviet era attitudes – new nice shiny projects were everywhere but the old was left to crumble and not maintained. Refurbishing and maintenance did not appear to be line items in the budget here, because the towns and cities seemed drab, unkempt, rather grimy and essentially untidy. I must say though, regardless of the state of the towns and cities, the people we met in Belgium were friendly, helpful and very welcoming.
The drabness of Belgium was also related to the weather, which has been grey cool and damp (and at times darn right monsoon like) for most the two weeks in August that we have been here. August has been a bit of a wash out as we have only sat out on our back deck about six times. So much for summer!
After our adventure in the marina in Antwerp, I was feeling a bit like packing it all in and going to England. The weather was iffy but still warmish, but the turbulent sea voyage and the danger I had felt after we had been set adrift made me much less enthusiastic about our trip. I was fed up. The harbour master (very nice man who obviously loved his job) was most apologetic and concerned about what had happened to us, but was not at all interested in calling the police – too many forms to fill out and we were OK anyway. As compensation he did not charge us for electricity!
Antwerp is an amazing place – a huge port and very arty. The marina is a good walk through narrow streets to the Grote Markt – a lovely square with a huge city hall (built in 1564 in a Flemish-Italian Renaissance style) surrounded by incredibly restored guild houses.
On the way to the central square (Grote Markt) we looked into the Cathedral of Our Lady dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
This magnificence Gothic cathedral was started in 1352 and completed in 1521. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by 1559. The battle between Catholics and Protestants was fought in these Flanders fields and the Cathedral was under threat until around 1816 when the Catholic diocese restored peace and the Pieter Paul Rubens masterpieces to the cathedral altars. Rubens was a native of Antwerp (as was Van Dyck) who painted in a similar style to the Dutch masters, during the period 1590 – 1610.
I was still feeling a bit blah, despite my awe and calm after visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp. I decided I needed to have a ‘me’ day – I have seen so many buildings, engineering works and monuments (all very ‘man’ stuff) so I invited Martin to the Antwerp Fashion Museum (de MoMu). Fashion is a major industry in this town, which is home to fashion names like Dries Van Noten and Diane Von Furstenberg.
The exhibit at the museum focused on the use of plumes and feathers in fashion – there were some unique pieces like the swan down coat made for Marlene Dietrich.
The ‘Birds of Paradise’ exhibition included fans, dresses, hats, shoes, bags and some feather sculptures.
I was on a roll, so we headed down to the Central Station – this magnificent building (called a cathedral to trains) was also in the heart of the diamond district.
I planned to spend time in the Diamond Museum because Antwerp is one for the four major diamond markets in the world (In case you are wondering the others are Tel Aviv, New York and Singapore). Hassidic, Jews with their distinguishing tendril curls are still commonplace in the diamond district. Antwerp was already the centre of the diamond world in the fifteenth century, and the Jews that lived in the city were limited to certain occupations. Diamond cutting was one of them, so the Jewish community developed a level of expertise in working and shaping diamonds, which they had taken with them through their Diaspora.
We discovered that the Diamond museum was no longer there, but we wandered into a jewellers shop called ‘Diamondland’ (one of the many) where a kind jewellery designer took us through their small exhibition and explained about the cut, colour, clarity and carat of diamonds. We asked of course about the ‘Blood Diamonds’ issue. She explained that they always bought from DeBeers and all diamonds were certified and sourced from non-conflict areas. I proudly showed off my Canadian diamond engagement ring– but our designer seemed unimpressed and had not heard of the Canadian diamond industry nor our diamond mines.
That means the North West Territories need get on it, and raise the profile of their diamond mines.
I must say looking at all that bling made me feel quite poor and a tad avarice.
The feeling did not last long as we were beside a ‘Media Mart’ – a huge European chain store specializing in electronics and electrics ( a sort of Futureshop). I had a computer on life support, which was rapidly losing life, and Martin was unable to save it. So, he decided to buy me a new computer for my birthday (which was last May). Now my blog from now on is being prepared on and presented by my 11” MacBook Air – I don’t think the quality will change, but you will hear from me. We are still very dependent on finding WIFI ( and Martin as you know is ‘WIFI hunter’ par -excellence)in order to get the wordpress out. We paid a bit more for the Air than we would have in Canada (more taxes here) but I think Martin believes that personal computers are just that – personal and not easily shared. My ‘me’ day ended with supper cooked by Martin and a lovely evening on the back deck.
Our last day in Antwerp was spent provisioning, cleaning up the boat and visiting the Mas. Before we leave -just a few more facts about Antwerp, hopefully they will not bore you. I found this city quite fascinating despite our rocky start.
In addition to being the sixth largest port in the world, Antwerp is a city of ‘firsts’, many which we did not explore, but they include the publishing of the first newspaper ever in 1605 by Abraham Verhoeven, the first ocean liner company – the Red Star Line sailing in 1872, and the first skyscraper in Europe built in 1927 – 32. The city has hosted a few EXPOs and the Olympics. A half million Antwerpians (she writes tongue-in-cheek) come from 168 nationalities currently inhabit this cosmopolitan city. Architecturally it is very varied (according to my architect husband), from Gothic to Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Modern, Post-Modern to the Mas.
This building was completed in 2012 and is 60 meters high. It represents stacked museum boxes and has a most amazing 360 degree view of the city on the 10 floor.
It houses a variety of exhibits but again time was not on our side so we left without seeing the commemorative exhibition – don’t forget it is 100 years since the outbreak of World War I and the Belgium people are in a reflective mood.
Interestingly there were many Belgium refugees who went to the UK in 1914. Some lived in Martin’s home town of Richmond – and he remembers the clock shop on the high street.
We were on our way to Brussels so we took the Schelde river until we turned off onto a small canal at a place called Boom. The bridge was out so we had to wait until the next day to get to Brussels. The Royal Brussels Yacht Club is a marina in the north of the city luckily close to a tramline (with brand new Bombardier trams). The weather had turned and was cold, wet and grey – yes we were truly back in Belgium.
Brussels is predominantly French (Wallonian) speaking and Wikipedia indicates that 86% of its 1.9 million inhabitants speak French. The predominance of the Wallonia culture in Belgium is changing, according some Brits we met in the Netherlands. It was a country without a government for five years, yet this Constitutional monarchy survived – even thrived. Don’t forget Bruxelles is location of the European Parliament and Administration, as well a NATO head quarters and home to the Parliament and King of Belgium.
We hopped the bus (you can buy a 10 journey ticket for 14 euros) and went into town with Kerry. She is a bit of a limiting factor, because many museums don’t see the value in educating dogs so they are not allowed in (LOL). The central square and surrounding buildings were full of tourists – and no wonder, as it was quite a place; very photogenic and full of chocolate shops, dessert shops, beer shops (selling 250 different Belgium beers). So yes we stopped for lunch – a small beer with our soup/bread and a hot chocolate for dessert. It was a bit pricey but tasty.
We also found ourselves in the land of high-rise glass buildings – we thought it was the EU district but it turned out to be the administration area for the Belgium government.
Our quest at the time was to find a train station to book a ticket for Dordrecht – we were travelling back to the Netherlands to say goodbye to our friend Heather, who was relocating back to Toronto. Heather, who is quite a bit younger than I, is Canadian born and bred, although I had lived in Canada longer (in terms of years) than she had, she is much more of Canuck than I could ever be.
The trip on the train was fun –we met a guy from Kamloops, and the weather even cooperated (sunshine in Dordrecht – what a concept). Being back in Dordrecht with friends (and their family who we have met several times over the last couple of years) gave us a sense of rootedness. The party was lots of fun – Heather was very excited – her kids and husband less so, as they were staying in the Netherlands for the next while. We stayed in a local hotel, did some paper work on the car, and then returned in Scarlet (our Toyota Starlet) to Brussels.
Martin was very interested in returning to the Atomium (a word that is a combination of Atom and Aluminium) as he had visited Brussels in 1958 when it hosted the World’s Fair (and again in 1984 when it was derelict).
The central feature of the Expo exhibits was this facsimile of an atom. The lands and some of the exhibits had fallen into disrepair but were eventually rescued by the government, renovated and turned into a tourist attraction in 2002.
It is quite an imposing feature on the landscape, and we were able to take the elevator to the top to look around over the now grey damp city.
The view from the central tower was quite impressive so we stopped for a drink and a chat with some Aussies who were also enjoying the experience. There were about five of the balls of the atom open with exhibits. It is interesting looking at the optimism of the Worlds Fair of 1958 – science could accomplish anything. I guess they were right – and then some. I still wonder however where all our cleverness and technology is taking us – I am not convinced that our scientists, bureaucrats or business people have a vision for the future and I sometimes think we are too clever for our good.
We then hopped the tram to the EU district of Brussels, came out of the station to be met by a torrential (and I mean, soaking through clothes to the skin, buckets from the sky, level 7++ on the rain scale) downpour. This drove us into a little bar where we had a warming cup of coffee but decided to give up on Brussels and leave town. Having a car meant we could do some serious provisioning (heavy bottles of water, milk, beer and wine) – so we filled up the boat and got permission to leave Scarlet at the Brussels marina and headed out of Brussels.
Of course the sun shone for a few minutes as we set off for deepest darkest industrial Belgium for some engineering adventures on our way to Champagne country.