A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Rotterdam and the Hague

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Our Airbnb in Rotterdam was a typical place for us, a bland apartment block behind a strip mall a fair distance from the center. Our need for parking and our disinclination to pay premium prices for accommodation meant that we rarely got to sleep in a historic building in a town center. Since we usually arrived at our apartment late and departed early this didn't make too much of a difference. Thanks to paying close attention to reviews and ratings our accommodations were almost always clean, comfortable, and quiet. Experiencing the authentic buzz of day to day life in working class Europe wasn't such a bad thing either.

Another small advantage of our location south of the center was that we didn't have to deal with morning traffic while driving to our first destination of Kinderdijk, the place where most of those idyllic photos of Dutch windmills emanate from. My search for the best breakfast on route took us to a shopping center called Winkelcentrum in the small suburb of Ridderkerk. As we arrived we were surprised by a small farmers market in the parking lot. This was a rather standard affair with produce and pastries but very welcome especially as it was unplanned. Inside the shopping center there was an array of gourmet food stores including the rotisserie chicken place that had drawn us there as well as a cheese shop and a butcher. Between the pastries and fruit we bought at the market and the grilled chicken and cheese from the shopping center we had an excellent breakfast. If this could be a regular morning routine in an unheralded residential suburb of Rotterdam then we were quite impressed at the quality of life in the Netherlands.

To visit Kinderdijk we had to park in a lot in Alblasserdam and hop on a shuttle bus but the ride was only a few minutes long. Although there are still over a thousand windmills in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk's nineteen represent the largest concentration and two of them still contribute to the elimination of water from the surrounding area. The word "windmill" technically refers to structures that use wind power to mill grain, but the meaning of the word has been expanded in English to include the use of wind power for any purpose including pumping water or generating electricity. The windmills at Kinderdijk were constructed in the eighteenth century to pump water from the canals into a reservoir from which it could be dumped into the Lek River at low tide. Many of the windmills remain functional although the heavy lifting is now provided by diesel-powered pumping stations. The gift shop near the entrance had a roof deck which provided an excellent view over the area.

Small boats ferried passengers to different windmills along the canal although the walking distance wasn't particularly long. Many of the working windmills are occupied by families, one of whom has been operating the mill for ten generations. We visited one windmill that had been converted into a museum. It had once been occupied by a family with seventeen children and it was amazing to see how they had efficiently packed such an enormous number of people into a crowded space much of which was dedicated to the pumping mechanism.

Outside the mill we got a good look at the enormous blades which swept within inches of the ground. From a distance their movement appeared slow and leisurely but up close their momentum was clear. Despite the protective fence I kept a close eye on the kids because I knew the odds of surviving a direct blow from one of those blades were not favorable. The array of majestic conical brick mills against the background of lush grass and gentle canals was truly idyllic.

Our last stop was the Wisboom steam-powered pumping station that was brought in to supplement the mills in 1848 but was finally retired in 1995 in favor of an electric-powered station that does the work of twenty-four windmills. In the canal in front of Wisboom is a bronze sculpture that commemorates the folk tale that gave Kinderdijk its name. In the fifteenth century the dikes broke in the face of an enormous storm resulting in the Saint Elizabeth flood that was responsible for thousands of deaths. The story goes that after the flood a cradle was seen bobbing in the canal with a cat jumping from side to side to keep it evenly balanced in the water. Once the villagers were able to retrieve the cradle they found a healthy baby inside. Wisboom is now a museum which is rather dry aside from an ingenious display that allows visitors to adjust the windmills to optimize wind and water management.

We had to limit our exploration of Rotterdam in order to make it to The Hague before the Haagse market closed. There weren't many sights in Rotterdam per se but the most interesting area seemed to be around the harbor in Oude Haven. We parked at a shopping center and admired more avant garde residential architecture at Schouwburgplein. The postmodernist ethos of the city center seemed to be a shout of defiance against the German bombing campaign in World War II that wiped out Rotterdam's medieval heritage. The dense rainclouds overhead gave the industrial-flavored square a somewhat gloomy atmosphere.

A few blocks away we came across Rotterdam's Chinatown, which was small but still the first Chinese neighborhood we had encountered on this trip through Europe. This area had more traditional Dutch buildings with a generous selection of Chinese restaurants and markets on the ground floors. We tried one restaurant and it was not very good at all.

At this point we planned to walk back to Markthal before moving on to The Hague but we serendipitously came across a street festival that I at first thought was African. It turned out to be a celebration of Surinamese culture. The South American country of Suriname was originally a Dutch colony and there was a mass migration to the Netherlands after the Surinamese were offered Dutch citizenship in the years leading up to independence. It was quite an unexpected burst of color and energy on an otherwise dreary afternoon. As we ate barbecued chicken at the festival the skies finally opened up for real and we had to scramble for cover from the deluge. Between the rain and the advancing hour we decided to scrap our plan to return to Markthal and proceed directly to the market in the Hague.

The Netherlands is a rather confusing country when it comes to nomenclature. For my entire life I'd never known whether the official name of the country was the Netherlands or Holland. It was only when doing my research for the trip that I discovered that Holland refers to just one of the original seven autonomous states of the Netherlands. After France conquered the states Napoleon converted them into a Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled by his brother Louis and they remained a kingdom after Napoleon was defeated. Because Holland was the most populous, wealthy, and strategically important of the states it was common to refer to the entire country by that name. Holland was eventually split into two provinces with North Holland containing Amsterdam and Haarlem and South Holland containing The Hague and Rotterdam. However the official name of the country is the Netherlands which was derived from the ancient description of the region as "low countries". In English the people and language of the country are neither Netherlandish or Hollandaise but Dutch, originally a common word to describe people from both Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch describe themselves and their language as Nederlander and Nederlands. The confusion extends to which city is the capital of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the official capital but the national government is located in The Hague, along with numerous multinational organizations such as the International Court of Justice.

Haagse Markt is known as Europe's largest outdoor market with approximately five hundred stalls and twenty-five thousand visitors every day of the week that it is open. Since markets are a primary focus of our travels I had added an extra day in Brussels so that we would be able to visit the market on a Friday, one of the four days of the week that it is open. Fortunately the bad weather didn't follow us from Rotterdam so there were no impediments to our exploration of the market. My only concern was that having left ourselves only two hours before closing we wouldn't have enough time to experience everything. This turned out not to be a problem at all because we were done with the market in about an hour. It was large but well over half the market was devoted to items we had no interest in whatsoever, such as clothes and electronics. The produce was good and generally inexpensive but the vendors were mostly resellers who had purchased it at a wholesale market. Most of the customers were of Middle Eastern or North African origin so of course there were the typical stalls devoted to olives, dried fruit, and spices. We had recently been to several similar markets in Belgium and this one didn't measure up in atmosphere to Marché de la Batte in Liége or the Molenbeek market in Brussels. The only place we saw anything that was completely new to us was the seafood market where they had an odd-looking armored fish from Suriname called kwie kwie. It didn't help that the market was set in a walled off rectangular area so that it didn't feel integrated into the city whatsoever. Finally, although there were places to get a quick bite, it was all greasy fast food that didn't appeal to us at all. All of this might make the market sound terrible, and we were certainly disappointed, but in reality it was a perfectly pleasant place to bumble around for an hour and watch a diverse crowd of people going about their daily lives. It was just nothing special or memorable.

Because we didn't stay in the market as long as we thought we had more time than we expected to see the rest of the city. Most of the activity in the center was in the network of pedestrianized cobblestone streets around the Het Plein square and the Binnenhof complex of government buildings. A plethora of outdoor cafes were crowded with customers enjoying a nearly cloudless sky in the late afternoon. In the cafes that lined the square all the tables were filled with people dressed in white, many of them wearing ID cards, who seemed to be affiliated with each other. At one point a huge cheer rang out from all of them. They had clearly participated in some kind of event but they didn't look dressed for sport. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I approached one table and asked them what was going on. Of course I don't speak any Dutch so I tried to be polite by asking if they spoke English but I felt like an ass anyway when they smiled and responded to me in perfect English. It reminded me my first day in Copenhagen when I tried to use a few words of Danish in the market and people looked at me in utter confusion before answering in English. The answer was that it was the aftermath of a protest by doctors against their low compensation. The cheer I had heard was actually intended ironically against the prime minister who had been observed walking across the square towards the Binnenhof.

Adjacent to the Binnenhof is the Hofvijver pond which is actually a natural lake fed by a creek that is hidden under the surrounding streets. The pond abuts the foundations of important government buildings like the Trêveszaal on the south side. On the west side of Hofvijver is a small square featuring a statue of Johan de Witt, a seventeenth century statesman who was lynched amid a political dispute centered on class warfare. This savage act concluded with the shredding of the bodies of De Witt and his brother and the distribution of their fragments. Various versions of the story even hold that parts of the brothers bodies were eaten. The Dutch people we met in The Hague betrayed no signs of cannibalistic frenzy so it would seem their society has progressed a great deal in the intervening three centuries.

On the way back to the parking garage Mei Ling spotted a Chinese gate that heralded the entrance to a Chinatown. We passed through and encountered a few Chinese restaurants and red lamps that were hanging from electrical wires but otherwise no evidence of Chinese habitation or Chinese culture. It seemed to be more of a Chinese commercial zone than a Chinatown, not much different from some we have encountered in American cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles.

It seemed we had likely encountered anything that would interest us in The Hague so we drove another forty minutes to the small Amsterdam suburb of Hoofddorp where our next Airbnb was located. Accommodations in Amsterdam proper were ridiculously expensive and Hoofddorp was just minutes from Haarlem which we planned to visit anyway. Our cottage was located within a cluster of buildings on a rural road just outside of the town. An archway of branches marked the beginning of a short path that led to the low hill where our cottage stood. At the bottom of the hill was a small trampoline that was shared with the other cottages in the complex. It was a pleasant change from the bland apartment blocks we had been staying in for the last week.

Since we still had two full days ahead of us to see Amsterdam we decided to have dinner nearby and just unpack and relax afterwards. Hoofdorpp was the quintessential planned suburb with all the restaurants and businesses located in in shopping centers sequestered from the residential areas, which consisted of rows of identical and featureless houses. It all seemed highly efficient, extremely safe, and utterly soulless. Almost every restaurant in town was clustered within a small commercial district. The bistro we chose was rather busy and boisterous and the food was edible and forgettable. At one point a rather inebriated patron came over and handed Spenser a telescopic pointer tipped with a red foam hand with an outstretched index finger. This might have been the high point of the trip for Spenser, who was careful to ensure that the pointer made it back to the car for every future leg of the journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:17 Archived in Netherlands Tagged road_trip family kinderdijk family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Brussels to Rotterdam

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Mechelen would have been an easy day trip from Brussels but since it was on the way to Rotterdam I left it for our departure day. Mechelen is just a small town these days, reduced to anonymity between the relative behemoths of Brussels and Antwerp, but it was a significant player in medieval and Renaissance times. As soon as we exited our parking garage in the town center we were overwhelmed by the breathtaking sight of the belltower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral. If this tower had been built to the original specifications it would have been the tallest church tower in the world to this day, but construction of its upper levels was abandoned due to a lack of funds. Its truncated shape and the absence of any other tall buildings around it give the tower a strong Middle Earth vibe. It seemed that Belgium was delivering one extraordinary medieval building after another almost as if to mock our complete ignorance of its architectural wealth.

On the far side of the cathedral was a small park with a bright yellow sculpture of a giant sprawled on his back with his arms and legs thrown into the air. I didn't know it at the time but this was a representation of the town mascot called Opsinjoorke. Apparently in medieval times there was an unsavory fellow who was in the habit of beating his wife in a drunken rage. One day his neighbors got hold of him and tossed him repeatedly on a linen sheet that they held between them. Somehow this tossing became a town tradition that was repeated on special occasions with a large wooden doll. A smaller version of Opsinjoorke is rendered in brass on a pedestal in front of the town hall. A rather unimaginative vandal had added a booger and other unflattering messages to the giant's yellow surface. It was quite surreal to watch our kids focused on the task of surmounting each of the outstretched limb against the background of this formidable five hundred year old tower.

We didn't have much time allotted for Mechelen since we wanted the kids to have a few hours of fun at the Technopolis Science Museum a that afternoon. We decided we would just stroll up the main street of IJzerenleen until we found a good place to have breakfast. This beautiful cobblestone street is so wide because there was once a canal that ran through the middle of it, although it was covered centuries ago. The street is lined with classic Belgian brick buildings and also contains the original Gothic town hall that is now a museum.

We walked as far as the Dyle River without coming across anywhere that we found tempting to eat. On the other side the town seemed to be getting more modern and commercial so we decided to turn back. The Dyle is closely identified with Mechelen and there is a popular promenade along the left bank of the river.

Once again TripAdvisor came through for us with an awesome breakfast at a hole in the wall restaurant we never would have found without the app. Even once we had a name and address we had some difficulty locating the entrance which was hidden between two boring sidewalk cafes. We were the only customers in the tiny restaurant and I was worried the kitchen wouldn't be open at that odd hour of the morning but they were happy to take care of us. The omelets were especially outstanding and we all ate enough to carry us through to dinner.

The town's Grote Markt was close to the cathedral but was filled with kiosks and carnival rides that had been covered with tarps to protect them from the drizzle. It seemed Mechelen might be having their own version of the Ommegang that week. Unfortunately none of the rides were open and none of the kiosks were selling anything tempting, so the only effect of all the paraphernalia was to spoil the effect of the beautiful old buildings around the main square. A burst of rain signaled the end of our visit to Mechelen and we hustled back to our underground garage.

Science museums have been a pretty good bet to entertain the kids throughout our travels with some of the best being in Osaka, Gothenburg, and Houston. Technopolis is just outside of Mechelen and was well-reviewed by travelers so we decided to check it out. It was a fairly large place and all the exhibits were in good working order so the kids were thoroughly locked in for all the time that we could spare for the place. The biggest hits were a machine that printed fake money with the kids' pictures and the "Chain Reaction" that propelled balls through a series of Rube Goldberg obstacles with some help from the attendant. Ian was able to figure out the trick to unlock a safe with an unconventional mechanism, which gave me some hope that he might have a promising future as a burglar. Eventually we had to drag the kids out once we were facing the prospect of missing Antwerp entirely if we stayed any longer.

It was chilly and gloomy when we arrived in Antwerp. Belgium's second city's journey to greatness was the inverse image of the decline of Bruges. As the Zwin channel that fed trade to Bruges from the North Sea silted over in the early sixteenth century, ocean trade shifted to Antwerp and the city's size and wealth grew rapidly. At the same time Spain and Portugal became major colonial powers and Antwerp became one of their preferred ports to trade their American and African sugar and spices for northern European wine, cloth, and wheat. Antwerp at one point was the wealthiest city in all of Europe. Although the city wasn't able to sustain its preeminent position for long the Grote Markt still testifies to Antwerp's days of financial glory. The square is dominated by the belltower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, which at 123 meters just squeaks by the Bruges version for the title of the tallest church tower in Belgium. The cathedral narrowly escaped the fate of the even taller Cathedral of Liège which was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Most of the belltower is currently shrouded in scaffolding but the intricate and ornate upper stages were still visible.

The square is surrounded by beautiful buildings including the Renaissance town hall and rows of dignified guild halls, most of which are nineteenth century reconstructions similar to Grand Place in Brussels. In the center of the square is an odd sculpture of a naked man gathering himself to hurl an amputated oversized hand as though he's competing in some bizarre Olympic event. The statue commemorates the local legend of Silvius Brabo, a hero who killed a giant that was terrorizing the town and cutting of hands of boatmen who refused to pay him a toll. Brabo cut off the giant's own hand and threw it into the Scheldt river. Part of the legend is that the town's name of Antwerp is derived from handwerpen, which means "hand throwing" in Dutch, although historians favor other etymologies.

The historic center was a bit of a ghost town when we arrived during the quiet period before the restaurants opened for dinner. The chill and the intermittent drizzle probably contributed to the lack of pedestrian traffic as well. It was a handsome, well-kept neighborhood that was probably filled with energy and charm during warm summer evenings. We made a point of exploring Vlaeykensgang, a narrow alley that winds through the middle of a city block between restored brick buildings from the Renaissance era.

The next time on my short list was St. Anna's Tunnel, the pedestrian tunnel under the Scheldt that was built in the 1930's. This tunnel remains popular with bicyclists although there are more modern tunnels for vehicular traffic. Part of the allure of the tunnel is that it retains the original wooden escalators that were a major novelty at the time. The tunnel itself appears to stretch infinitely into the distance as the cylindrical wall converged into a point. We could hear the bicyclists before we could see them, a low hum that increased in amplitude and frequency until they whizzed by us. There weren't many pedestrians, understandable since there wasn't a whole lot to do in the Linkeroever area on the left bank of the Scheldt.

We made it all the way across the tunnel and emerged on the other side. Linkeroever didn't seem very inspiring but there was a park at the river bank from which we could see the skyline of the old town which was completely dominated by the belltower.

By the time we got back to the old town it was raining in earnest so we found a couple more angles to take photos and hightailed it back to the car.

I had marked the Het Zuid neighborhood as being worthy of exploration but in the rain and gloom there seemed to be no point, even in the vehicle. Instead we drove slightly north of the old town to the Het Eilandje port area to see a couple of modern architectural marvels. The first of these was the MAS art museum which was built in 2010. The concept is a series of sandstone treasury boxes stacked in a spiral with the empty spaces connected by glass. At the top is a roof deck which offers views of Antwerp that could only be matched by ascending the cathedral belltower. Even if it hadn't been pouring rain the museum had already closed so the roof deck was out of the question. There was nowhere to park so we decided that Mei Ling would venture outside for photographs while the rest of us waited in the car. I pulled up to the curb behind another car that was also temporarily stationed there with its motor running.

At this point we had the most frightening and unsettling experience of the entire trip. Just as Mei Ling had gotten back in, the driver of the car which was idling in front of us decided he wanted to leave. Because of a lane divider we were blocking his reversal path so I began to reverse as well towards the open street. It seemed we weren't reversing quickly enough for the other driver's taste because he began to pick up speed and got uncomfortably close to our car. I should have simply ignored this behavior and continued to reverse through the darkness and rain at a speed I felt comfortable with, but I let myself get flustered and I accelerated to match his speed. Suddenly our car slammed to a jarring halt and I was sure I had struck another car or a barrier as all of us rocked back and forth in our seats. I quickly realized there hadn't been any sound of a crash and that it was the car's automatic braking system that had violently activated. I looked to my left and saw a shadowy figure scurrying off near the rear of our vehicle. Someone had decided to walk behind our reversing car despite the rain and extremely poor visibility and only the cameras and the automatic brake had prevented us from possibly killing him. This is a phenomenon I've marveled at in the United States and throughout the world, the apparent obliviousness of pedestrians to the danger of walking across the path of a reversing car. Rather than simply waiting a few seconds for the vehicle to complete its movement they prefer to force the driver to stop by entering its trajectory. That's all well and good when it's a good driver who isn't distracted and has optimal visibility, but it seems to me that eventually the pedestrian's luck will run out if he regularly pursues this strategy. In this rainy, gloomy twilight someone's luck had almost run out for good. We were so shaken we decided not to bother hunting down the Port House, the other famous modern building in the area.

Part of the reason we had been rushed in Antwerp was that we wanted to get to Rotterdam in time to eat at Markthal. Aside from having an awesome selection of food options the pictures indicated this would be one of the coolest buildings we had ever seen. It kept pouring as we crossed the border into the Netherlands and continued onward to Rotterdam. It was clear right away that avant garde architecture was a major aspect of the Rotterdam zeitgeist. Mei Ling was snapping photos constantly through the rain-splattered windshield as we drove past an endless series of daring geometric structures en route to the center.

Markthal was as beautiful as it had appeared in photographs despite the persistent drizzle and gray skies. The unique archway design effortlessly fuses the apartments and offices within the arch body with the market hall on the ground floor. The front and back of the archway are walled with enormous glass panes supported by a lattice of steel cables. The interior of the arch is covered by an enormous, colorful mural called "Cornucopia" which claims to be the largest artwork in the Netherlands. I can imagine that many developers would look at Markthal and cringe at what appeared to be wasted space in the interior but I could see the point that the architects were making that had won them the contract. A building can be much more than a device to cram as much living and work space as possible into the smallest footprint on the ground. The originality and open space of Markthal made it one of the few apartment buildings that I, a committed land owner, might consider living in.

My only criticism of Markthal was the early closing at eight PM. We arrived just as the food stalls were beginning to shut down and had to race around just to get a look at what was being offered. Fortunately the restaurants at the base of the arch stayed open later and we found a Japanese noodle place that turned out to be really good. Our four night stay in the Netherlands was off to a very good start.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:02 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp road_trip family family_travel travel_blog mechelen tony_friedman family_travel_blog technopolis Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Waterloo and Ommegang

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Our Airbnb was at the eastern end of the municipality of Schaerbeek. Brussels was once a much smaller walled city surrounded by villages. Once the walls were destroyed in the nineteenth century the city became contiguous with the villages but most of them retained their own independent government. A few municipalities to the north ultimately merged with Brussels leading to the large northern projection of the city border. The narrow southern projection results from the annexation of the land on which the Avenue Louise was constructed as well as the Bois de la Cambre park. Schaerbeek has historically been a lower income area with less expensive costs of living and was an attractive destination for eastern European and especially Turkish immigrants during the twentieth century. Schaerbeek's distinguishing characteristic in Brussels is its strong Turkish influence. The town acquired some notoriety in 2016 when the safe house of the terrorists behind a suicide bombing in Brussels was located there, but otherwise Schaerbeek is not well known for being a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Up to this point we hadn't spent any time in Schaerbeek aside from sleeping there but on Wednesday morning we went to the Chaussee d'Anvers weekly market at the western edge of the town. I was a little nervous after neither of our morning markets had materialized the previous morning but as soon as we reached our destination we saw the blocked intersection that marked the beginning of the shopping street. Although it was a sizeable market it turned out to not be very interesting since it was mostly produce resellers, clothing, and household items. There was no one at all selling prepared food so we had to roam around the area trying to find something to eat. All we could find was a bakery and bought some rolls for the kids to eat as we walked back to the car.

I now had to locate a good place for an early lunch which is not a trivial task in European cities. Few restaurants open for the midday meal before noon and at this point it was just after ten. I was able to locate a place using the "open now" filter on TripAdvisor and it fortuitously happened to be next to the Porte de Hal, the only surviving remnant of the city walls. Its current appearance as a Gothic castle is the result of a romanticized nineteenth century renovation of the original utilitarian tower. Although the gate seems somewhat incongruous in the midst of a modern city it is a beautiful edifice. I wondered how many of the locals basking in the park around the gate knew or cared that with respect to its status as a vestige of the medieval area it was an utter fraud.

I was excited about the next item on our itinerary, a Renaissance Village that was scheduled to begin at noon in Parc de Bruxelles. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this but it was one of the reasons I had extended our stay in Brussels from three night to four. The location was the main park in the center of the city, directly across from the Palace of Brussels. It was a nice park but there was no sign of a Renaissance Festival. We walked through every section hoping that we would find it in some out of the way corner but it was clear that there was nothing unusual going on in the park. Eventually we spotted a couple of guys working on some oversize carnival costumes and they informed us that the Renaissance Festival had been canceled. That was infuriating because the Brussels city website still had the event posted at that moment. They did tell us that the costumes were for a procession that would begin at the park that evening as part of the annual Ommegang festival.

So far this day hadn't been working out very well at all. The market had been a bust and now the main event of the day turned out to be canceled. We had no choice but to turn to our back ups, the first of which would be the museum and battlefield at Waterloo. I hadn't found this to be compelling enough to make room for it in our schedule but there was nothing else to fill up the afternoon. On the way back to the car we saw the carillon of the Mont des Arts, a clock with a set of bells and elaborate figurines that plays a melody every other hour. The figurines were designed to emerge from their niches at the strike of their designated hour but are now fixed in place, perhaps because the mechanism was prone to malfunction.

One of the historical truths that became apparent to me over this swing through Western Europe was how crucially important the period from 1789 to 1816 was in shaping the destiny of the nations that comprise the region. The French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon and the eventual defeat of Napoleon brought about the Congress of Vienna, which in turn settled the borders and sovereignty of several of the countries we were visiting. On one day in June of 1815, the future history of Europe balanced on the outcome of a single battle between Napoleon and the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands. The quiet village of Waterloo, a half hour drive south from Brussels, hardly seems to have been the setting of one of the momentous events in modern European history. I made the mistake of following the Google Maps and ended up driving on the narrow paved walkway to the monument, intended only for pedestrians and horse-drawn buggies. Fortunately I realized my mistake and dropped off Mei Ling and the kids before reversing back to the road under the glares of pedestrians who I forced off the path. The long path to the Memorial traverses the battlefield which has long since reverted to its original function as a field of pea plants. Up ahead was the Lion's Mound, the artificial hill erected in 1826 to commemorate the decisive victory of the Seventh Coalition. I passed the buggy that ferries visitors to the Memorial coming towards me and heaved a sigh of relief that I hadn't encountered it during my misadventure with the car.

I caught up with the family at the museum and we decided we might as well pay for the entry, mainly to view the panoramic painting of the battlefield that is housed in its own rotunda. In the museum I soon realized how little I knew about the story of Napoleon's rise to power and his incredibly successful military campaigns. I could have happily spent a couple of hours building my knowledge but the kids were too young to really get it so I could only browse quickly through the displays. The panorama was impressive and I tried to use the moment to educate the kids about the brutality of war and the cheapness of the lives of common people in that era. I think the world is making progress in that department but it's hard to be sure.

The Lion's Mound was the highlight of the Memorial. The climb doesn't look that bad from a distance but we were exhausted once we arrived at the enormous iron lion on its stone pedestal at the summit. The battlefield was a typical idyllic tableau of agriculture in geometric shades of green and brown, betraying no sign of the tens of thousands of combatants who never left the fields alive.

Waterloo had proven to be worthy of a visit and we hadn't even had to spend the whole afternoon there. We had time to see another of my Brussels nonessentials on the opposite side of the city. The Atomium is a remnant of the 1958 World's Fair that was spared from destruction due to its local popularity and success in attracting visitors long after the fair ended. The structure is designed in the form of a unit cell of an iron crystal standing on a vertex. It's a breathtaking sculpture both in terms of its magnitude and its unique architecture. We were surprised that the entrance was only sixteen euros for adults, and half that for the kids, so we didn't hesitate to buy the tickets to tour the structure. An elevator brought us to the central sphere from which a series of escalators brought us through the other four spheres that could be visited. The exhibits were rather sparse and forgettable but the kids really enjoyed the futuristic design that resembled an enormous play structure.

A disappointing day had been rescued by the unexpected success of my backup activities. For dinner we had another night market, this time at Marché du Châtelain in Ixelles. We were looking forward to it after the good food and positive energy at Place Van Meenen on Monday night. The atmosphere at Châtelain was similar with perhaps a few more families and a little less emphasis on wine consumption. It seemed like the young people of Brussels believe in taking full advantage of the summer months with these weekday night markets. I felt some regret we wouldn't have the opportunity to see the city in its most energetic form on the weekend but there was no way with our schedule to spend weekends in both Brussels and Amsterdam.

Remembering the advice of the men at the park we drove back towards the center to look for the parade. All the roads leading towards the park were blocked but eventually I managed to figure out a way to park fairly close to Petit Sablon. There was quite a lot going on in front of the Our Lady of Victories church with a procession of floats and groups of marchers in matching costumes emanating from Place Royale. We followed the parade up to the square which seemed to be the optimal vantage point.

The Ommegang originated in the fourteenth century in celebration of a bizarre episode in which a local woman in a religious fervor stole a statue of the Virgin Mary from the cathedral in Antwerp and brought it back to Brussels. The modern festival celebrates a variety of religious and historical events and involves over fourteen hundred people. This was the first Ommegang in three years after the two prior iterations were canceled due to the COVID epidemic. Ultimately the procession would end at Grand Place where a show would take place for those who had paid admission. It was a relatively low key event but for us the best part was that we had scheduled our visit to coincide with the Ommegang by pure chance. It was one of those fortuitous events that makes travel so satisfyingly unpredictable.

In the morning we packed up and prepared to depart our subterranean garage for the last time. This ten car dungeon had been the stuff of nightmares with its enormous support pillars and tight packing of cars that turned each exit into a feat of topology and engineering. It was one thing to park in a space but identifying the complex sequence of maneuvers required to exit was entirely another. More than once I found myself hopelessly stuck and had to find my way back to the original parked position in order to attempt a new approach. Once we eventually broke free I had to pause on a steep ramp while Mei Ling manually activated the garage door. Every morning one individual blocked the exit with his illegally parked car while he had his morning coffee at a nearby cafe. Mei Ling had found him the first morning by pure luck and he betrayed no remorse whatsoever as he moved his car. On the following mornings we at least knew where to look. I was sad to be leaving Brussels but never having to deal with that garage again was a consolation.

Our final Brussels market was in the municipality of Molenbeek, to the west of the city center. Like Schaerbeek this is a historically working class area with relatively inexpensive housing that attracted waves of immigration in the mid twentieth century. The predominant ethnic minority in Molenbeek is Moroccan and the Thursday weekly market had as strong a Muslim atmosphere as the Wednesday market at Chaussee d'Anvers. The market extended from the Art Deco church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste all the way to the square in front of the Molenbeek town hall, with plenty of action spilling into the side streets.

This was definitely a much larger and more interesting market than Chaussee d'Anvers with a heavy emphasis on fresh produce and Arabic specialties like olives and dried fruits. We did quite well on our usual diet of cherries and bread but once again we were frustrated by the absence of any cooked food. It seemed that either the customers preferred not to eat at the Muslim morning markets or some municipal regulation forbade preparing food in the markets of Brussels.

Four nights in Brussels had turned out to be a good call. I had never given much thought to this city but it turned out to be one of our favorite European capitals with just the right combination of elegance and chaos. We still had a couple of stops to make in Belgium before beginning our exploration of the Netherlands.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:47 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels atomium family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog molenbeek porte_du_hal Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Central Brussels

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Belgium was the third culturally mixed country of our trip after Switzerland and Luxembourg. All of these countries owe their existence to the Congress of Vienna of 1815, one of the most significant events in the history of Europe. During the reign of Napoleon the regions known as the Low Countries were occupied by France but after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo new borders were established for a United Kingdom of the Netherlands that incorporated present day Netherlands and Belgium. This kingdom lasted for only fifteen years before the southern provinces, united by their Catholic religion and disdain for King William I, announced their secession. The new country of Belgium was a union of the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north. We had already spent time in Liège in Walloonia and in Bruges and Ghent in Flanders. All that was left was the separate capital region of Brussels where Walloon and Flemish culture enjoyed equal influence.

We attempted to begin our exploration of Brussels with breakfast at a morning market. Unfortunately neither the markets at Parvis de St-Gilles or Place Flagey turned out to exist on Tuesday mornings. It seemed I hadn't done enough research to confirm the information I had gleaned online, perhaps because I was gathering information on so many cities that I had become careless. We had to eat croque monsieur sandwiches at a lackluster cafe near Place Flagey to fuel us for a walk around the Étangs d'Ixelles. These two elongated ponds are remnants of the wetlands that were drained in the nineteenth century as Brussels sought room for expansion. A small, lush park with a bike path and willow trees surrounds the ponds, which are livened by fountains and tiny islands.

Ixelles is another separate municipality, named for the forest of alder trees that once covered the area. It's a sizable and diverse area but the avenues around the ponds are especially well known for beautiful mansions in a variety of architectural styles.

Past the southern end of the ponds is the Abbaye de la Cambre, a former Cistercian Abbey whose buildings are now divided between various private owners. The grounds boast lush, well-manicured gardens that were originally created in the early eighteenth century. An ornate stone staircase leads to Avenue Louise, a prestigious boulevard that runs through the center of Ixelles. Ixelles objected strongly to the construction of the avenue to which Brussels responded by annexing the strip of land that Avenue Louise passes through. This resulted in the formation of an odd pseudopod of Brussels extending southeast from the center that divides Ixelles into two separate pieces.

The western section of Ixelles was also a classically beautiful urban neighborhood. I loved the way that adjoining townhouses could proudly display different colors, materials, and styles which was such a contrast to the typical uniformity of residential blocks in France or England. Of course both approaches can be used to beautiful effect but the diversity of residential architecture is one of the many pleasures of traveling. By this time we had found ourselves a mission to accomplish. We had arrived in Europe with a backpack full of books but they were on the verge of being exhausted and I did not want to concede the rest of the road trip to the iPads. Brussels would probably be our best bet for inexpensive English language bookstores and I had a promising candidate in Pêle-Mêle, a small chain with an outlet in Ixelles. We found the bookstore in a vibrant neighborhood of tree-lined streets filled with intriguing restaurants and curious little shops. There was a selection of English books on the upper level that was large enough to divide into categories and we came away with a much larger trove than I expected. I found some classic science fiction for Ian and a few literature classics I thought they might both enjoy as well as some light reading material.

We were relieved to find our car still at Place Flagey without evidence of having been tampered with or ticketed despite overstaying the allotted time. For lunch I suggested we return to Wolf since we were going to be exploring the center anyway and there weren't any objections. We'd all enjoyed our meal there on our first night in Brussels and there were still several of the mini restaurants we hadn't tried. We found it just as busy and energetic as the first time and the food was just as good.

The pedestrianized center of Brussels was packed with restaurants that were obviously geared to tourists with an emphasis on crepes and moules frites. On the main drag Rue de Bouchers virtually every diner at the outdoor tables had a heaping bucket of mussels in front of them. At the end of a narrow alley off Rue de Bouchers is Jeanneke Pis, a modern sculpture created in 1987 as a counterpart to the city's famous Mannikin Pis statue. Although the purported idea behind the statue of the peeing little girl is to advance gender equality, it was placed in a location designed to encourage pedestrians to enter the alley where the sponsor owns several restaurants. On another blind alley are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, two nineteenth century shopping arcades with large display windows divided by marble pillars. An arched glass-paned roof completes the elegant presentation of the galleries.

The main attraction of Brussels that ensures that all the moules frites restaurants in the center stay busy is Grand Place. The magnificent gilded Baroque buildings that surround this medieval square are mostly nineteenth century reconstructions of the original guild halls that represented the various associations of craftsmen and merchants in the city. The stone frame of the town hall and its Gothic tower are the only original medieval structures that survived bombardment during the Nine Years War of the late seventeenth century. At the time we visited the center of the square was cordoned off and filled with unassembled bleacher seating for the following night's Ommegang festival. The town hall had an interior courtyard which was free of unsightly debris and allowed a more pleasant perspective on the tower that loomed above us. We had seen so many amazing town squares in recent days, from Nancy to Trier to Bruges, that Grand Place hardly even stood out to us in comparison.

In my research on fun stuff for kids in Brussels I had uncovered something called the Underground Treasure Hunt at the Coudenberg. The Coudenberg is a museum located within the subterranean remnants of the original Palace of Brussels which was destroyed by fire in 1731. The existing Royal Palace was built adjacent to the ruins. The route here passed through the beautifully landscaped Jardin du Mont des Arts and Place Royal, a terrifying multi-lane rotary of speeding traffic surrounded by Neoclassical museums.

From my perspective the treasure hunt was a little disappointing, a self-guided scavenger hunt through a rather boring exhibit, but the kids were easily pleased by the challenge as well as their rewards of candy necklaces and paper crowns. Cleo posed with her crown in Place Royal and wore it occasionally for a couple of days afterwards.

A short walk southwest of Place Royale is the small neighborhood of Sablon which is notable for the beautiful Notre-Dame des Victoires church and the exquisite Petit Sablon park across from it. The central statue in the park depicts heroes of the Dutch Revolt against their Spanish rulers in the sixteenth century. The fence around the park, a landmark of the central city, contains forty-eight tall pedestals each topped by an bronze exemplar of a different historical profession. We found Sablon to be the most beautiful spot that we came across in Brussels.

On the opposite side of the church from Petit Sablon is a narrow triangular square called Grand Sablon. At the apex of the triangle was a busy rotary surrounded by interesting buildings including the flagship store of Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. For some reason the facade of the Marcolini store had been festooned with an array of colorful oversized cardboard hats. On our way back to the car we passed the Manneken Pis, the inspiration for the Jeanneke Pis statue we had admired earlier in the day. This four hundred year old sculpture has engendered numerous knockoffs around the world. The inspiration for the statue has been long forgotten but there are numerous legends pertaining to the importance of a urinating toddler in the history of Brussels. Due to a longstanding tradition of stealing the sculpture the original has been placed in the Brussels City Museum and its place has been taken by a replica, which is still protected by a tall fence. Not far from the Manneken Pis an erotic bakery boasted a large chocolate replica of the obnoxious child standing among a display of penis-shaped eclairs.

While Belgium was not one of the major colonial powers, King Leopold II managed to carve out a sizable area of central Africa as his personal fiefdom in the late nineteenth century. This was a particularly brutal and repressive colony until independence was achieved in 1960 and the nation of Congo was created. In the years subsequent to independence many Congolese migrated to Brussels to work and study. The foundation of a hostel for Congolese students in the northern part of Ixelles eventually led to the development of a substantial African community. Many Congolese and other Africans opened restaurants and businesses in the area which soon adopted the name of Matonge after the entertainment district of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Since Mei Ling and I love ethnic neighborhoods there was no way we could pass up the chance to see one of the few sub-Saharan African neighborhoods in Europe. We found a parking spot on the main drag of Matonge, Chaussée de Wavre, but the African restaurants we walked by weren't the most appealing. We struck gold on a pedestrian alley called Rue Longue Vie which was lined with colorful restaurants that displayed their specialties on outdoor banners. We passed by a busy barber shop and we figured it was a good opportunity to get me the haircut I desperately needed by that point. One of the barbers offered me a price that was too good to refuse, the equivalent of about ten bucks. I sat there for around fifteen minutes while he did away with most of my hair, laving me with a short fringe that was combed back to reveal about four inches of forehead. It didn't faze me much as I'm not too fussy about my appearance and I wanted a haircut that would last until I got home. I didn't have exact change and with some trepidation I handed the barber a larger bill and told him how much change I wanted. My concern proved to be warranted as my barber entered into an animated conversation with an individual at the back who might have been a manager or an owner. After a couple of minutes of back and forth, which appeared to me to be an act, my barber came back over and presented the ridiculous story that his manager wasn't allowing him to accept such a low payment for the haircut. I knew I was being scammed but the bill I had given wasn't large enough to make a big stink about. Of course I wasn't going to add any tip now so I was only out an extra seven euros. The experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth since I should have known better than to be in a position to need change. I quickly put it behind me and we sat down across the street at what seemed to be the most appealing restaurant with the most exotic dishes. African food can be a bit of a toss up with the unfamiliar textures and flavors but we enjoyed most of the dishes that we were served. We still haven't been to sub-Saharan Africa and it was a reminder that we need to fill that significant gap in our travel catalogue.

On the way back to the car we looked down a side street and saw a brightly-lit intersection where the sidewalks were filled with people eating at outdoor tables. Even though we had just eaten it was an irresistible scene and we needed to be part of that beautiful urban atmosphere. We found an open table and ordered a bucket of mussels and a plate of escargots, somehow finding enough room in our stomachs to consume them with a couple of glasses of wine. We were just a block from the African neighborhood but it seemed we had traveled between continents in a few steps. Brussels and especially Ixelles had given us one of our most satisfying days of the journey thus far. It had been a great way to cross the halfway point of our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:35 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family manneken_pis family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog ixelles matonge grand_place Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bruges and Ghent

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We'd had a few complications with accommodation but we'd never come close to being unable to access our Airbnb so we took the calculated risk of driving straight to dinner in Brussels rather than checking into our apartment first. This made for a much more dramatic arrival as we drove straight into the center of the city from the east, passing major administrative centers of the EU as well as numerous embassies and gleaming skyscrapers. It was clear that we were now in a metropolis that surpassed Lyon and Zurich in terms of population and global significance.

Our dinner destination was Wolf Sharing Food Market, one of two food halls I had identified in the city. We usually try the food halls in any major city because it's fun and enjoyable to mix different cuisines, it's easier to get an idea of the quality, and it's logistically simpler with the kids than dealing with a restaurant. We'd struck out with Food Traboule in Lyon but we've been to so many food halls around the world that this one bad experience didn't discourage us. The immediate area around Wolf seemed to be a financial district that was rather bleak and abandoned on a Sunday evening. The entrance to the food hall was the only sign of energy in the area and the interior was bright, spacious, and welcoming. The developers had really nailed the food hall aesthetic with a large central bar surrounded by about a dozen small restaurants that served a variety of cuisines from different continents. Everything we tried was good but we were especially pleased with the African and Italian options. Wolf Sharing Food Market was probably the best European food hall we'd been to outside of Copenhagen.

Our Airbnb was north of the center in the working class residential neighborhood of Schaerbeek. It seemed colorful and had a significant Turkish and North African immigrant population. We found our apartment building and I was able to use the keypad to open the front entrance. The next step required us to access a room in the basement containing lockboxes to retrieve the apartment key, but the code we had been provided did not work. We tried it several times and then started attempting to correspond with our host through the Airbnb app. We were getting responses but only after about a ten minute delay and it seemed like the person on the other end didn't understand the problem we were having. They offered all kinds of solutions that didn't make any sense when the only thing that could help was the correct door code. Eventually I realized that we weren't even communicating with a human but rather some kind of an automated response system. We then activated our iPhone international plan and Mei Ling called Airbnb directly, since no phone number had been provided for the host. Meanwhile I started scrolling through booking.com to find a hotel for the night just in case. Soon after that an actual human contacted us through the app and provided us with a door code that worked. The entire process took a little over an hour but it seemed like much longer with the kids sprawled out on the luggage in the hallway trying to sleep. Once we got inside the apartment was fine but I was absolutely furious that we had been treated so carelessly and forced to waste an hour stressing out in a hallway. We've had some difficult arrivals but that was the first time we've faced the possibility of not having a place to spend the night.

There was no market on Monday morning so we drove straight to Bruges. Ghent was closer but Bruges was the more essential city and I wanted to make sure we had all the time we needed there. I also had a promising lead for a dinner restaurant in Ghent and the timing might work out perfectly if we left Ghent until the end. Driving out of Brussels was an interesting experience as it was often unclear to me who had the right of way at intersections. If I was lucky there was a car in front of me and I would just follow it through but in many cases I had to slow down as I approached the crossing and check for oncoming traffic. I didn't want to stop completely if I had the right of way and create a confusing situation so I would slow down and wait to see if the car coming from the side was stopping before passing through. I was usually on the more major street and cars coming from the side would stop but it was unnerving not to be able to see any signage making the right of way clear. I never did figure this out no matter how hard I studied the intersections for some kind of clue. Traffic in Brussels was also more hectic and disorganized in general than it had been in the larger cities of France and Switzerland. We always left Schaerbeek via the same route and over time we became used to the landmarks of the neighborhood such as a cafe with reproductions of Greek statues on the outer wall.

After an hour and a half we arrived in Bruges and parked in a garage quite close to the center. The old town of Bruges is surrounded by an oval canal that is fed by two long canals that extend to Ostend and Zeebrugge on the North Sea. Several narrower canals penetrate into the old town and divide it into seven or eight quarters. Bruges was originally a coastal settlement that grew wealthy and influential through ocean trade, but in the sixteenth century the Zwin channel to the North Sea silted up and became impassable to ships. Over the next few centuries Bruges steadily declined in importance relative to Antwerp. The medieval architecture of the town remained well-preserved and by the end of the nineteenth century the city was popular with British and French tourists. Extensive restorations in the 1960's and onward helped to establish Bruges as a famous travel destination comparable to Venice and Amsterdam. I hadn't researched the city very thoroughly but I came armed with a list of the essential buildings and squares to be seen.

Our garage was just south of the central canal Dijver. I had chosen to visit Bruges on Monday in the hope that the crowds would be reduced but there was still a sizeable number of people roaming the streets at ten in the morning. I could only imagine what a zoo the city must be on the weekends. One of the highlights of Bruges is the views from the countless bridges over the canals that pass through the old town.

The first towering edifice of Bruges we came across was the thirteenth century Church of Our Lady, a Gothic masterpiece in brown and grey brick. The belltower is apparently the third tallest brick tower in the world. We had seen some impressive architecture on this trip but this church stood out as particularly majestic and intimidating.

As we moved deeper into the old town we were amazed by block after block lined with exquisite brick buildings, many displaying the classic crow-stepped gables that originated in Belgium in medieval times. While some elements of the architecture were consistent there were countless variations in the color of the bricks, their patterns, and the design in the masonry. The stories I had read about the beauty of Bruges were no exaggeration. This was the most remarkable city we had seen since the old town of Prague.

We followed the flow of pedestrians to the most iconic spot in Bruges, Grôte Markt. This market square is over a thousand years old and is ringed by unique and magnificent buildings such as the neogothic Provincial Court and the rectangular Bouckhoute House, a Renaissance era residential building topped by a golden globe that was used to synchronize the town clocks with the sun. Looming over the square is the intimidating mass of the Belfort, a thirteenth century tower that could be the home of an evil wizard from a Tolkien novel. Unlike most of the other tall belltowers we had seen on this trip the Belfort was never associated with a church. It has always been a municipal building that once housed the city archives as well as the bells that kept the residents apprised of the time. The octagonal upper stage that confers such a foreboding appearance on the tower was added in the fifteenth century.

For some reason we couldn't find a single restaurant in the center that opened before noon. To take our minds off our growling stomachs we wandered around the network of pedestrianized streets in the center. It began to drizzle but that didn't stop the people lining up for boat rides at the wide junction where the Dijver and Groenerei canals met at a right angle. The most famous of the alleys is Blinde-Ezelstraat which passes under an ornate Baroque passageway that joins the city hall with the courthouse. The name of the street translates to Blind Donkey which is apparently derived from an inn that once stood there.

Lunch was a strange interlude with a rather eccentric waiter who brought us a complimentary bowl of boiled shrimp and proceeded to grab one and break off its head. Perhaps they had issues with tourists attempting to eat them without removing the shells first. After decapitating the shrimp he held it aloft and looked down at me triumphantly. For a moment I considered opening my mouth for him to drop the shrimp into but the moment passed and he set the crustacean back down into the bowl. Afterwards we wandered to the northern part of the Burg Quarter where the Spiegelrei Canal deadends at Jan van Eyck square. A statue of the early Renaissance painter on a tall pedestal looks out over the square that is named for him. This area was less commercial and touristy which made it easier to appreciate the authentic, peaceful character of Bruges. We browsed the enormous selection of Belgian beers at Bacchus Cornelius but I didn't find it as tempting as I might have when I was twenty years younger.

I knew if we walked further the quarters to the north and east would be almost entirely residential. Instead we turned back towards the center and soon found ourselves back in Grôte Markt. We made sure to study the square from every possible angle and then we walked through the archway of the Belfort into its rectangular courtyard. We completed our Belfort experience with waffles from the truck parked in front of the entrance.

We took a different route back to the car which took us over the charming St. Bonifacius pedestrian bridge. Here we were close to the opposite side of the Church of Our Lady with a great view of its classic Gothic flying buttresses. Our time in Bruges had passed very quickly and I could happily have spent several more hours walking around the town but we were already down to the bare minimum of time available to see Ghent.

It took us less than an hour to reach Ghent and we were still a little dazed from the perfection of Bruges. We weren't expecting much more than a punctuation mark from this less heralded city, but when we saw what lay ahead of us as we crossed Saint Michael's Bridge into the old town Mei Ling and I looked at each other and laughed in amazement. Ahead of us was a jaw-dropping array of massive Gothic buildings that outshone anything we had seen in Bruges. There were innumerable towers and spires of every conceivable shape and design, elongated windows in the stone walls, and parapets with ornate balustrades. I never could have imagined a scenario like this outside of a movie set and now we were about to walk right into the middle of it.

The canals that pass through the center of Ghent are fed by channels and rivers that extend to Bruges, Antwerp, and Temeuzen on the Scheldt estuary. We could see beautiful exemplars of crow-stepped gabled houses along the promenades on either side of the Leie canal that passed under the medieval stone bridge.

Heading towards the center from the bridge three incredible structures were arranged in almost a straight line. The vast, grey Saint Nicholas' Church dominates an open area that was created when the surrounding buildings were demolished at the turn of the twentieth century. Just to the east is Ghent's own Belfort, more conventional and less formidable than Bruges' version but still an imposing tower. Finally there was Saint Bavo's Cathedral which is the seat of the Diocese of Ghent. It was amazing to be able to walk between these three tremendous medieval towers in the space of just two minutes.

Wandering randomly around the old town we came across Werregarenstraat, known locally as Graffiti Street. Local legend has it that the authorities tolerate graffiti on this one street in order to spare the rest of the city from defacement. As a native New Yorker I know that no self-respecting vandal would allow himself to be compromised so easily. I think the true reason for the pristine condition of the old towns of Bruges and Ghent is that the local population takes too much pride in the beauty that surrounds them to seriously consider selfishly damaging it. Graffiti Street is well out of sight of the medieval quarter and presents a colorful and whimsical counterpoint to the stoic religious bastions a few blocks away.

We crossed back over Leie for the last historical sight in Ghent that I had on my list. Gravensteen Castle is older than any of Ghent's towering churches and has been restored to its original magnificence. We had so little time left that we decided not to pay the steep entry price for the museum but apparently the rooftop terrace provides for excellent views over the old town. We were content to admire the beautiful masonry of the exterior walls of the castle from outside.

The tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and elegant brick buildings just west of the castle is called Patershol. The area has become known for a high concentration of ethnic restaurants but it was too early for them to be open and we were practically alone on the tranquil streets. It was easy to see why many consider this historic yet spirited neighborhood to be their favorite in Ghent.

At this point we had a tough decision to make. We could stay in Ghent until the restaurants opened and eat in Patershol or we could hustle back to Brussels for the weekly market at Place Van Meenen . I only had shaky information about Place Van Meenen which seemed to be a conventional market until about seven but supposedly remained open for drinks and snacks until the late evening. If we went back we couldn't be sure if there would be a market at all, or if there was if there would be food substantial enough to make a dinner out of. It was tempting to stay in Ghent and absorb the evening atmosphere but we couldn't turn down the possibility of a night market. Some of our most rewarding travel experiences in China, Taiwan, and France have come at these kinds of events. Place Van Meenen was in the center of Saint-Gilles, a separate municipality just south of the city center. We were relieved to find that the square was filled with food trucks and market stalls even though we were arriving after seven. It was a beautiful location with the ornate Saint-Gilles city hall on one side and classical, ornate townhouses lining the other three sides. It may not technically have been Brussels but the atmosphere was the same. The market was quite crowded and boisterous so it was quite difficult to find a place to sit although Mei Ling soon located an undersized table in the shadow of a food truck. Most of the produce stalls were closing but we had time to pass through once and see that there was nothing extraordinary in that department. The food trucks were a mixture of French and international cuisines and we were able to do quite well feeding ourselves and the kids. The barbecued skewers were a big hit and of course there was inexpensive wine to wash everything down. The best part was the people-watching as there seemed to be a good mixture of locals and expats. We might easily have been the only tourists there. As the evening progressed the square became even more crowded and the wine flowed faster. It seemed like the party would be getting rowdier and we had already had a long day so we drove back to the Airbnb in Schaerbeek and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:19 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels family_travel travel_blog bruxelles tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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