Before we visited Belgium, I really didn’t know much about it, I must confess. It’s tucked between France and Holland, and half the country speaks French, while the other half speaks Flemish (similar to Dutch). I knew that Jacques Brel, waffles and chocolate came from Belgium, and I knew that it hasn’t had a federal government for longer than any other country in the world.
When I think of Belgium now, I think of: chocolate, kissing on the cheek 3 times (unlike the French, which is only 2), barbecues, many languages, lace, canals, castles with moats, great beer, begonias, Speculoos biscuits and all the new friends I’ve just made there.
Brigitte organized for me to teach four classes this week in various locations near her home near Gent. She invited us to stay with her family, too, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience. She really made a huge effort so that we could have a great Belgian experience – including food – while we were there. I met the same people over and over who came to more than one class, and I started to feel like part of the community. Happily, those who didn’t speak English usually spoke some French. The rest received the benefit from Brigitte’s constant translation – I couldn’t have done it without her.
She’s also a marvellous tour guide. After our last class on Friday, we headed into Gent (Ghent) for a quick tour of the city, on our way to a yummy Turkish dinner. (We had been eating lots of wonderful Belgian food all week like rabbit and ham and chocolate mousse!) We drove down to the central square and began our tour.
On our way we saw something I’d never seen before: a machine on the side of the road for fresh bread. Not Coca-Cola, nor candy bars for the Belgians! There are other machines for flowers and other essentials like milk, too, to buy after the shops close.
We also stopped by one of the many flower fields. These are begonias, and they are grown for the bulbs. The huge number of flowers that adorn the main street at this time of year are mostly geraniums, and they are gorgeous too.
We started our tour in the main square. The buildings remind me of Amsterdam – the cut out facades and ornate carvings. There is a huge square with a statue of Jacob van Artevelde in the middle surrounded by Medieval architecture.
Brigitte told us lots of stories about the history of Gent, including one from 1539. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (who was born in Gent), punished the nobles of the town for the Revolt of Gent by making them parade in front of him to the gallows, each with a noose (Dutch: strop) around his neck. He pardoned them just before they were hanged. Now every year there is a festival where people re-enact the walk, and the people of Gent have become known as “Stroppendragers”. Here is a restaurant along the path.
Cafes abound along the canals and they are well used. We were there in the evening, and everyone seemed to be out, drinking their favourite Belgian beer and watching people go by.
Of course, they do have lots of beers to choose from. Belgium is famous for its yummy brews, and I can attest that it is well deserved, thanks to the work of the Trappist monks and the bad water they otherwise would have had to drink. We have been drinking Duvel (“Devil”) and Leffe mostly, although we have just scratched the surface. They are full of flavour and nicely balanced. Here is a shop in the centre of town that features many beers from Belgium.
We tried to get into the cathedral, and they had even put out the red carpet for us, but, alas, there was a concert that night, and we weren’t allowed inside.
One more story from Brigitte on our tour – in the old days, residents of Gent were heavily taxed if they had an outside light on their premises. (I don’t know why – perhaps because this constituted “advertising”.) The exception to the tax was if the light was illuminating a saint. So – there are little saints designed in all the buildings underneath old lamps everywhere in town. Here’s the first one we saw:
We finished the evening with a wonderful meal at a Turkish restaurant. People in Europe like their food. They spend lots of time with friends over lunches and dinners. In comparison, we North Americans rush through and want to finish as soon as possible and leave. We started late and lingered over dinner for a long time. It was wonderful.
We have now left Belgium. More adventures are coming, but I am too busy experiencing them just now to write about them. It was a wonderful week, and I look forward to our return. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. Next: Leerdam, Holland and visiting John’s grandfather’s house and the glass museum there.
Tags: Gent Belgium