Belgium: Quirky, Understated…But Not Boring

 

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Poor Belgium. If I got a Euro every time I heard it written off as boring, I could stay there for a week on the proceeds. It is an off-the-shelf comment, the default thing to say: like “you must be very proud” to the father of the bride.

The capital comes in for particular abuse. Here is Bill Bryson:

“Brussels is a seriously ugly place, full of wet litter, boulevards like freeways and muddy building sites. It is a city of grey offices and faceless office workers, the briefcase capital of Europe. It has fewer parks than any city I can think of, and almost no features to commend it…. The best thing that can be said for Brussels is that it is only three hours from Paris.”

But he was being unfair. Every city has litter and traffic and building sites, boring offices and boring office workers  – even his hometown of Des Moines, I should imagine; and I can certainly think of cities with fewer parks than the 51 which Brussels claims.

Most – it is true – are not bang in the centre and a traveller “doing Europe” at a clip might pass through without knowing about them. But just a few steps from the Gare Centrale is what Lonely Planet reckons “one of the world’s most beautiful squares”. The Grand Place is surrounded by tall brooding guild houses, flecked with gold leaf, and a spectacularly gothic town hall. Every other August, the square is carpeted in flowers, a riot of red and yellow, purple and pink.

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Perhaps I was just lucky to be there on a hot summer’s weekend, when the litter was dry and none of the building sites was muddy, and the offices looked brighter and the office workers were out of their suits and dressed as themselves, relaxed and having fun.

I remember sitting in the sun with a Trappist beer on a lively street crammed with galleries and bars and laughing hipsters; and walking out past the mirror glass behemoth of the European Commission to the Parc du Cinquantenaire with its triumphal arch and eruptions of tulips and young couples sprawling on the grass; and taking a bus to the house and workshop of Victor Horta, the Art Nouveau pioneer.

Then there is Bruges. “It’s a shithole,” said Colin Farrell’s character in the movie In Bruges. But no one agrees with him. Condé Nast Traveller voted it one of the best cities in Europe, and even Bryson – as if guilty about the kicking he had administered to Brussels – was extravagantly nice about it. “So beautiful,” he said, “so deeply, endlessly gorgeous…Everything about it is perfect”. It is a dreamy city of canals, humpback bridges, step gables and windmills, which escaped the twin horrors of the twentieth century: aerial bombardment and town planning.

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Those who must find fault say there are too many tourists. They should go to Ghent instead, then, which has much of the same magic without the crowds. Both are best explored in aimless urban rambles, walking along the edge of canals, and over bridges and ducking down alleys into a maze of back roads.

Belgium might not be the first country to come to mind when you recall Saki’s comment about nations which “make more history than they can consume locally”.  Yet look at the place names: Waterloo, Flanders, Ypres, Mons, the Ardennes. Ancient Ieper (Ypres) was devastated in World War I, but its medieval buildings were carefully rebuilt. At eight every night, the traffic stops around the Menin Gate and the fire brigade plays the Last Post.

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But for all the historical resonance, and all the poignancy of its war memorials, Belgium is in shirtsleeves where other countries wear black tie. Other capitals have statues of kings and generals, prime ministers and arms manufacturers: Brussels has a sculpture of a little boy having a wee. Ghent has a giant toilet roll. In the nation of Hergé, the comic book is a major art form with a long and distinguished history. One of Horta’s buildings in Brussels is now the Comics Art Museum.

Antwerp is known for Rubens, fashion and nightlife, and takes each about equally seriously. It is as good a place as any to start working your way through Belgium’s thousand or more characterful beers, some dark and gutsy, some as delicate and complex as fine wines. They are used instead of wine in the moules à la marinière iconically served with frites and mayonnaise; also in coq à la bière and stoverij, a take on boeuf bourguignon. But there is more to Belgian cooking than reimagined French dishes: Ghent’s waterzooi, for instance, with chicken in a creamy broth, and Antwerp’s paling in ‘t groen: eel stewed in a herb and shallot sauce.

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I sometimes wonder whether the people who call Belgian boring have even been.

© Richard Senior 2015

Forget the Cuckoo Clock

 

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I blame Orson Welles. Him and Graham Greene. That monologue from The Third Man lodged in my mind:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

I had been all over Italy, and I had been to Vienna and ridden the Wiener Riesenrad, the 1897 Ferris wheel beside which Welles’s character made his speech. But Switzerland had never appealed enough when I had to shoehorn my travelling into a corporate holiday allowance. I imagined it as a dull, pursed-lipped, fur-coated place full of banks and insurance companies.

But this trip was more about the journey than the destinations and Switzerland was on the way home.

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I was not expecting to like Zurich much. I envisaged bloated, smirk-faced men who do something important in banks snarling around town in Ferraris; and haughty women striding between luxury shops. They were there, all right. But so they are in London. There is a lot more to Zurich too.

Narrow lanes, cobbles and city walls; buildings painted in faded pastels, dazzling sgraffito, wooden shutters, ornate carriage lamps; a tinkling fountain in every square; shiny black shop signs with the names picked out in gold leaf; a charming deli, a bierhaus, a coffee shop. Sonorous bells, clanking trams, the 6.2 burble of an SLS AMG. A river cutting through the middle of the Aldstadt, emptying into a lake, bordered by a park, reaching out to snow-dusted mountains.

It is far more relaxed than I thought it would be. Bearded hipsters everywhere, funky bars, abstract art, a bedroom DJ mixing EDM above a fusty old whisky shop. There was a man in white tie and tails playing something tragic on a violin in front of a Henry Moore; and another parading outside an optician’s dressed as Charlie Chaplin, for reasons of his own. There was Cabaret Voltaire, where Dadaism started in 1916.

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I sat at an outside table by the river, where the cheesy smell of tourist fondues hung in the air, idly watching as the trams rattled past. I had a fleeting image of passengers facing each other across tables, as at a restaurant, sipping glasses of wine. Surely not? I paid more attention to the next dozen trams and, in each, the passengers were sitting as they would in any other tram anywhere else in the world, and I began to wonder if I was hallucinating, and why. But I saw it again at the stop in the morning. The Fondue Tram, they call it. They serve up cured meats, fondue and wine as the tramcar circuits the city.

I liked Zurich a lot but I was running short of time and had to move on so I took the train to Lucerne; and that was lovely as well. Another river and lake, more distant mountains, cobbled streets and ancient walls. Half-timbered shops, Belle Epoque hotels, the sharp spires of the Hofkirche, a covered wooden bridge from 1333 with its octagonal pitched-roof tower. And, in a country reckoned to be ultra-conservative, a couple in their forties snogging like teenagers in a square in the middle of town.

There are chocolates, Swatches and Swiss Army knives in every third shop; but not so many cuckoo clocks, because they are actually a German tradition. Switzerland, too, was a belligerent, expansive power at the time of the Borgias, and not at all democratic until late in the nineteenth century. Orson Welles was wrong.

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I asked in the station about trains to Berne. “On the hour, every hour, takes an hour,” the lady said. At least one of the popular ideas about Switzerland seemed to hold up.

© Richard Senior 2015

Another Day in Dresden

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There was a rail strike across Germany and I was stuck in Dresden until after the weekend. It is a lovely city, despite the things it has been in the news for of late; but I thought I had seen as much as I wanted to see.

I borrowed a bike from the hostel and cycled downtown as the lights were flickering on in the stores in the mall which shadows St Petersburger Strasse. Burger King, McDonalds, Ibis, Starbucks, TK Maxx and Fitness First, then across the road an apartment block from another age, another country. Just under the roofline, there is still a trace of the words which used to be there: der socializmus siegt, socialism is winning.

I cycled over the c-c-c-c-c-cobbles in the A-a-a-a-a-lstdat, between the grimly beautiful buildings – towers, spires, domes, statues, blackened sandstone, opaque glass – then crossed the Augustus Bridge and rattled down a flight of steps to the path along the bank of the Elbe, which I followed to see where it went.

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Away from the city, it meandered inland and brought me out in the middle of a suburb and ushered me over a bridge and back onto the opposite bank, where I picked up the path and followed it again.

The autumn sun brought out the crowds and I dodged strolling couples and scooting children and overtook giggly teenagers cycling at walking speed. But I was overtaken in turn by serious men on serious bikes with sprayed-on lycra, and others with panniers and maps and more fluorescence than a motorway maintenance team. There were castles high in the hills on the opposite bank. A steamboat chuffed sedately down the river. Here and there were clusters of half-timbered houses, and once a middle-aged couple ballroom dancing alone in an empty car park.

The path undulated through the countryside, past old industrial buildings and through a park, and ended up in Pirna. A Sunday lunch crowd sat outside restaurants with hefty lager glasses; an old man stood on a corner by a bierhaus grilling bratwursts and stuffing them into buns. I cycled up and down the narrow lanes, between pastel-painted buildings with Gothic arches and Baroque spires, in the shadow of the castle at the top of the town. It seemed that neither guidebooks nor town planners had heard of the place.

These are the best days, sometimes: the days which should not have happened, the days when nothing has gone to plan and you are still somewhere you should have left, or are somewhere you should never have been; the days when you have already seen the sights and eaten at the restaurants and done the activities and are just wandering aimlessly to fill the time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Some Corner of a Foreign Field That Shall Be Forever…France

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There are bistros much like it on the back streets of every town in France. The tables and chairs will be simple and cheap, and may very well not match. On the wall will be photographs of long-dead people in old-style hats and long-closed shops on no-longer-fashionable streets, or motor racing posters from decades ago, or tarnished mirrors enamelled with Pernod adverts.

Portions are hearty, garlic abundant, and prices low. There are no foams and emulsions, no confits of this, nor saboyans of that: just simple, honest to goodness food. In Provence, there will be daube de boeuf, a meltingly tender ox cheek simmered for hours in red wine; in Languedoc cassoulet, a great sizzling bowl of duck leg, sausage and haricots blancs. Everywhere, there will be gratins and remoulades, steaks and charcuterie. Wine will be sold by the carafe. Customers will shout and guffaw. The patron will linger by tables, sharing jokes with regulars.

A couple run Le Café de Paris on their own. She does the cheffing, he is front of house. The menu du jour is chalked up on a blackboard outside. It was the same every jour, as far as I could tell. Terrine maison to start and steak de boeuf with sauce bordelaise, green salad and pommes frites. Everything was nicely done. The steak was cooked rare and rested, the bordelaise sauce well-flavoured, the frites fat and crispy, the salad sparingly dressed in a proper vinaigrette.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that it is not in France at all but on a side street in a little town in Laos.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Seeing Berlin by Trabant

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A man in the old East Germany went to the showroom to buy a Trabant.

Come back in thirteen years,” the salesman said, “it’ll be ready for you then”.

“Can we make it the afternoon?”

“Certainly, comrade. But why?”

“The plumber’s coming in the morning.”

The VEB Sachsenring Trabant was a gift for anti-communist propaganda. It looked like something from a 1950’s cartoon and had an engine better suited to a lawnmower: 600cc, 26 brake horse, 0-60 on seven day’s notice. It was not really made of cardboard, as rumoured in the West, but some panels were made of a plastic reinforced with old wool and other sweepings-up. It appears in most lists of the worst cars ever built.

I had always wanted to drive one.

I was in Berlin and poking about near Checkpoint Charlie when I happened on an outfit which ran self-drive Trabant tours.

Mine had been pimped up with a soft top conversation, electric windows and a metallic pink paintjob. But it still had the skinny original wheels, and the little engine was standard. It was as Spartan inside as a race car. The speedo went up to 140kph, which was as ambitious as any of the DDR’s production targets.  Next to it was what might have been a rev counter, but did not seem to do very much.

There was a hefty rocker switch for the lights and a few knobs which I think were just there to fill space. A flimsy stalk protruded from the steering column: up and down to indicate and forward for the horn, which worked one time in four. There was a sturdier lever on the other side for the gear change: forward and down for first, then up for second, back and down for third and up for fourth.

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I knew that the engine was two-stroke, but I still laughed when I started it up and it ring-ting-tinged like a moped. Then a cloud of blue smoke engulfed me. The gearbox growled and struggled against me as I tried to wrestle it into first, but I overcame it with the sort of brute force the Stasi might have used on a prisoner.

There were six of us in convoy, following a guide who called out instructions on a one-way radio as we made for Potsdamer Platz. It was the Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of the Weimar Republic, but was all but levelled in World War II, then bisected by the Wall and left as a vacant plot. Now it is ringed by skyscrapers designed by an aristocracy of architects.

It was busy with commuters on their way home when we ring-ting-tinged past; and in my pink Trabant with the roof down and my arm draped over the door, I hammed the self-satisfied look of the bankers you see snarling round in Ferraris. They looked at me as if I was being serious.

We drove on towards the Brandenburg gate, a symbol of partition, then of reunification, now gorgeously lit with video projections for the Festival of Lights.

As we headed towards and over the river, some of the Trabants got stuck at the traffic lights and Audis and Volkswagens slipped in between them, incongruous as bungling spies. “We have some capitalist cars in our convoy,” the guide warned over the radio.

He set off from the lights and turned left across traffic, and I slammed it into first, then second and scuttled across after him and forced a corpulent Mercedes to stop. PARRRRP! went his big bourgeois horn. Neep-neep went mine in response.

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We stopped and got out on Unter den Linden to look at the light shows on the cathedral, university and opera; then set off again, heading deep into the old East Berlin. We screamed through Alexanderplatz, past the TV tower, and on past the East Side Gallery, through Friedrichshain with its legendary nightlife.

I had fought my way up to fourth gear by then, and with my foot flat down and the engine howling, I must have been doing at least 30. Yet I was having more fun than I have had in much faster, pricier cars.

We met another Trabant tour going the other way and everyone waved and cheered and neep-neeped at once. It might have been a scene from a propaganda film in the days of the DDR.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Classic Travel Scams #3: Getting Unlucky

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I had just arrived in Budapest and broke my own rule by looking at the map in public. Two hard-faced girls approached me and one asked if she could look at my map. She said they were trying to find a bar. They were obviously locals but she claimed they had just arrived from Germany. Her father was Hungarian, she said, (and I am sure he was) and had told her about the best bar to try to the local fruit brandy, pάlinka. She invited me to join them.

The story was implausible and her acting was rubbish. I saw it for the scam that it obviously was and walked off. But plenty of guys apparently fall for it. They go to a bar, have a few drinks, and get a massive bill from an equally massive bouncer.

There is a similar scam in Hanoi, where a local girl engineers a date with a tourist and, when they meet up, her boyfriend arrives with a gun and takes the tourist on an ATM tour. (Young guys pull the same trick on gay men.)

It doesn’t necessarily follow that anyone who hits on you abroad is out to scam you, but you have to be more cautious than your hormones would like. If it never happens to you in Hobart or Halifax, you need to ask yourself why it is happening in Hanoi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014