Posts Tagged ‘Brussels’

Belgium, Not Brussels

December 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Yeah, it’s just a bit picturesque.

Okay, so that’s a little bit of a lie. There is some Brussels in this post. Just not a lot. As the one bit of Belgium that I’m familiar with (apart from a very brief foray to the North Sea at Knokke), I think I’ve written enough about it. This is going to be a post about exploring some of the more distant corners of Belgium instead.

It’s been an odd year for holidays, 2017. Very much in opposition to my usual habit, all my trips so far have been in company and to places that I’ve already visited. Hence, I haven’t really written them up, seeing as I already said most of what I wanted to say the first time around. This trip was also in company, in this case of a Brussels-based friend of mine, but it did take me to new vistas, hence it’s worthy of a post.

Let’s skip quickly over the Thursday flight from Dublin to Brussels, courtesy of a scarily punctual Aer Lingus, and the somewhat underwhelming burger that tided me over until my friend escaped work. Likewise we can skip most of the Friday, except to say that driving a hire car through the centre of Brussels when you’ve fallen out of the habit of driving manual-shift vehicles and don’t have a fully functional GPS system is just a little bit scary. Certainly for me and probably also for those trying to interpret my struggles to decide which way I needed to turn at any given moment.

A nice car, covered in snow.

The car safely parked (courtesy of Brussels’ convenient city-centre parking system, which saw me return to it every two hours to adjust the parking ticket), I just had to wait for my friend to escape from work. Once he managed this, we were on our way, and having a navigator in tow, together with Belgium’s excellent highway system, made for a much smoother experience once we escaped Brussels itself.

Our initial goal was Bastogne, heart of the action during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The siege of the small town was celebrated during an episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and my friend being something of a military history nut, this was a place he’d been wanting to visit for years. Given that it’s also at a higher elevation than Brussels and that we were visiting at the start of December, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find one particular adornment to the town when we arrived in the darkness: snow. In MacAuliffe Square in the heart of Bastogne, a bust of the eponymous general and a Sherman tank (with a couple of nasty holes in it) were liberally covered in the stuff. Bastogne on a December Friday night was a tough place to get a drink though, so after a nice steak dinner in Hotel Leo, we retired to our lodgings above a filling station and awaited the next day’s explorations.

The famous Christmas Tree Rainbow of Bastogne.

Saturday dawned clear but with plenty of snow still covering the ground. Breakfast was accompanied by plans, most of which had long since been made by my travelling companion. Despite the snow, the roads were well cleared, so we headed for Bastogne’s War Museum. There, the story of the Battle of the Bulge – how it came to happen and what it was – is told from the viewpoint of four civilian and military participants, who you only learn at the end were actual people caught up in the battle. It’s an impressively comprehensive tale, well told, with plenty of relics from the battle, up to and including yet more tanks. Outside, in the snow, we had a chance to look around the Mardasson Memorial, where the U.S. Army units involved in the battle are impressively commemorated on a memorial that also lists all of the U.S. states, plus Hawaii and Alaska, which weren’t states at the time.

A short drive afterwards brought us to the nearby Bois Jacques (Jack Woods), where yet more tramping through the snow eventually saw us locate the foxholes of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, still visible where they were dug more than seventy years earlier, overlooking the village of Foy. With the sun shining through the trees all around, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the experience of being there in the midst of battle might have been. Though to be fair, our winter weather was relatively mild, and we didn’t have German infantry and panzers bearing down on us either.

Imagine having to live in this for several weeks.

A short walk away, albeit one that involved some backtracking when our path turned out to be too waterlogged, lay the Bois de la Paix (Peace Woods). Here in 1994, veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered to dedicate a memorial in the form of a forest. Each of the veterans has a tree dedicated to them, and we were more or less alone in the pristine snow as we took the whole thing in. Some sizeable tracks progressing erratically around the area suggested we’d just missed a particularly enthusiastic dog enjoying an outing in the snow, but there was no sign either of that or of the overly prepared German tourists we’d spotted in the parking lot.

A return to Bastogne brought us to the Bastogne Barracks museum, where we were hoping to enjoy a tour, but as it turned out we were late – the museum is still a manned barracks and one can’t just wander about. So instead, we hopped in the car and headed across to Houffalize, a town caught in the coils of a twisting river and its steep-sided valley walls. Here there had been some fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, and here was a particular prize for my friend: a German Panther tank. Or at least it should have been there. Instead, after some confused wandering, we found the place where it was supposed to be, only to find that it had been taken away for repair some months before – to the very place we’d just left, the Barracks Museum.

A distinct lack of tank.

So instead, we found a nearby pub, the oH Rock, where we had a quick drink (water for me) and crisps and were curtly told that the snow and chill wind didn’t amount to actual cold weather. Be that as it may, the drive home saw us faced with a freezing fog that reduced visibility to as little as ten metres at times. Again, Belgium’s good quality roads eased my driver’s worries, but I was still happy to take my time on the way back to Bastogne.

Back in town, we had time to wander around and have some heavy burger-based sustenance to make up for the cold weather, and to enjoy the Christmas lights, which put Dublin’s to shame in terms of their extravagance. Beyond that though, there wasn’t much left to do in the day. We had a couple of beers in the Nuts! cafe – the oddly-glassed La Corne du Bois des Pendus for preference – and then retired in preparation for the next day’s exploring.

Exactly as awkward to drink as you might imagine.

The night added a further dusting of snow to the already solid covering, but it was only a light dusting. Having marked 2pm as the time to return to the Barracks museum for the tour, we headed out to explore, first to Manhay, where my friend found something to make up for the previous day’s disappointment: another Panther tank, this one sitting beside a roundabout and covered in a healthy coat of snow. Some impressive photo opportunities later, we retired to the car to warm up again and drop into a nearby Spar for snacks.

We had time for another visit, so we headed further afield to La Gleize for an even rarer prize. Not a Panther, but a massive Tiger II tank, or King Tiger depending on which name you prefer. Back in World War II it was a terrifying sight. Now covered in snow and perched on a hillside in a tiny town, it’s a little incongruous, but its sheer size and the sight of the dents left by the ineffectual attempts of other tanks to pierce its hide make it worth seeking out.

Bigger than it needed to be.

Back to Bastogne then and the Barracks museum. We arrived dead on time and settled into a small group of American, Dutch, and Irish (us) tourists for the tour. Our guide was a Belgian veteran soldier who was all to keen to call “bullshit” on myths about veterans and war but proved to be an enthusiastic and engaged guide to the Battle of the Bulge and the barracks themselves, where the 101st Airborne were headquartered at the time. The first part of the tour, after an introductory overview of the battle, took place in the barracks themselves, where dioramas show off how the soldiers lived at the time. The second part, for my friend, was the greater prize. The museum is now also a centre for the repair and maintenance of World War II vehicles (the reason the previous day’s Panther had been taken there), and while our Sunday visit meant that we couldn’t view the repairs in progress, we did get into the massive warehouse where dozens of tanks and other military vehicles are stored. These range from the huge Soviet IS-3 to the tiny Hetzer and a two-man Renault tank with no armament at all.

Once my friend had been persuaded to leave this treasury, we had a long drive ahead of us. The sun was already going down, and by the time we’d gone too far it was dark, but as we descended out of Bastogne we left the snow behind and hit the broad, smooth tracks of Belgium’s motorway system. Three hours on this took us from east to west, from the border of Luxembourg to the fringes of the North Sea. The land became flat and featureless, but with Google’s help we found our way to a small town called Poperinge. Here we had some fast-food burgers in Frituur du Tram and a quick drink in Oude Vlaenderen, but there wasn’t much in the way of atmosphere, and when we went in search of more, we found that the town on a winter Sunday night was as close to dead as a town can get. In the town square, there was one pub with some superannuated customers and another occupied with policemen belting out such hits as “YMCA” loud enough to be heard several streets away, but given a choice between that and dead, it seemed like a good idea to head back to our lodgings.

All the tanks, and other stuff too.

Waking in the Palace Hotel, we had enough time to enjoy a pleasant breakfast and seek out some nearby pastries to sustain us further before driving off. If Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge were something that my friend had been wanting to experience for years, being in Poperinge was something that I hadn’t wanted to miss. Why? Well, it’s just down the road from a place called the Saint Sixtus Abbey. This abbey, isolated among the flat fields of Flanders, makes beer. Not much of it per year, compared to Belgium’s other Trappist abbeys, but what it does make is acclaimed. Its Westvleteren 12 brew has been called the world’s best, and its Westvleteren 8 and Blond are not to be sneezed at.

Why come to the abbey to get the beer? Because there’s no other legitimate way to do it. Apart from a few years ago, when the abbey sold some beer on the general market to finance some necessary repairs, they only make enough to fund their continued existence. The way to get it is to phone them up (on a line that’s almost always jammed) six weeks in advance and show up on the day to collect a maximum of two crates each. There is an alternative – the In de Vrede cafe across the road sells beer over the counter and its shop sometimes carries boxes of beer for those who turn up on spec. Having utterly failed to secure beer on the phone, showing up early on a Monday morning seemed the best chance we had.

Worth waiting for.

Long story short, it worked. We bought as much of the 12 and 8 as we could (the Blond wasn’t available that day) and loaded it into the car, then sat back to enjoy a few glasses in the cafe. Well, my friend enjoyed most of the three glasses that we bought (one of each kind) – given that I was driving, I contented myself with a few sips of each one, enough to reassure myself that our long journey had been worthwhile. Moral of the Story: put the effort in and you’ll get what you want, but it helps to get up early in the morning and hope for the best too.

The last leg of our journey took us back from the abbey to Brussels, dealing with some of the worst excesses of Belgium’s love of motorways. Convenient they may be, but if you aren’t exactly sure of where you need to go and when you need to switch lanes, it’s all too easy to find yourself backtracking to return to where you’d intended to be in the first place. Eventually though, we arrived back at my friend’s place, unloaded our booty, and then dropped the car back to Brussels Midi with not a scratch on it – always a worry until it’s sorted.

The rest of the day was spent in rest and preparation for the week to come. I had dinner and a drink with another friend, but while a few days in the fresh air and a lot of walking may refresh the soul, it tends to drain the body a bit, and I was glad enough to get back to my friend’s place to rest for the night.

More fairground rides should attempt to scare children away.

One day remained, and I wasn’t inclined to stay in bed for too long. Some exploration and attempted shopping on behalf of others preceded a belated breakfast in the Jat cafe, where my friend joined me on a break from his work. When we parted, I had one last fun exploration to enjoy: a tour of Brussels’ Christmas market, which extends from the Bourse de Bruxelles to Place Saint-Catherine. It’s a fine market, with an abundance of stalls and an impressive Ferris Wheel at the far end of Sainte Catherine, but the real stars of the show were two of the wildest carousels I’ve ever seen. Instead of gaudily painted horses, these featured instead dinosaurs, pterodactyls, rockets, hot air balloons, and an oversized mechanical beetle. While I didn’t go for a spin myself, I found myself wishing that some of my nieces and nephews were around so that they could have a spin in my place.

That last bit discovery was the end of it though. I dropped by the Brew Dog cafe beside the Central Station for a drink, then hopped on a train right to the airport. Even with the doubled-up security at Zaventem, I was there in plenty of time, as is traditional for me, and got to rest up before boarding. Of the flight, there’s not much interesting to say, so let’s call a halt to this here. It was a great extended weekend in Belgium, seeing parts of the country that I hadn’t encountered before, and between the snow of Bastogne and the deep ditches and flat lands of Poperinge, there was plenty of variety to enjoy. Add to that a store of fine beer that I’ll get to enjoy just as soon as I arrange to have it transported to Dublin and it’s a trip that’ll keep me happy for a long time to come. Not a bad result at all.


Luxembourg and Brussels – Familiar Places

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment
Down there somewhere is where I had my birthday dinner.

The view of the river that surrounds Luxembourg from the old fortress of the Bock.

(Yes, this travel diary is exceptionally out of date at this stage. Such are the perils of following a procrastinating writer.)

I’ve only been to one of these places before, so I’ll focus on the other one. There’ll be a bit about Belgium at the end, but mostly this is about Luxembourg. A word of warning though: I’m writing this under the influence of a day of travel compounded by a 90 minute delay for a Ryanair flight. So take every other word with a grain of salt.

Luxembourg was the third micro-nation I hit on this trip, but it’s on the edge of deserving this status. It’s bigger than most of the European micro-nations put together, and where San Marino and Liechtenstein were small enough that you could see from one side to the other on a clear-ish day, Luxembourg is big enough for its corners to be just as scruffy as those of larger nations.

...that came when I walked down three sets of stairs to a dead end.

A spooky grating under the mountain. At this stage I wasn’t worried about getting out…

What Luxembourg does have in common with its smaller brethren is that it’s rich. Having sat at the heart of European affairs since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community, the old city is a commendably neat and tidy revamp of a former walled citadel now turned fortress of finance. There are some very expensive, very shiny cars driving around the place, is what I’m trying to say.

Not that you’d recognise the place as a former fortress if you approached it from the west side. Where massive bastions once stood are now broad avenues and neatly tended gardens. It’s only on the eastern side of the city, where the last remnants of the original Bock fortress stand, that you can get an idea of how valuable this place used to be. Founded in the tenth century (there’s a whole legend involving a river mermaid), the Bock commanded a view over the river below, and over the centuries tunnels and storerooms were carved out of the rock below,

You can still wander those passages, and I did so on the first night I arrived. The last tour group was leaving as I arrived, so I had the place more or less to myself for the next hour and half—there are arrows placed in the ground pointing to the exit, but there’s no set path through the narrow passages and the caverns that open out onto views on the valley below. It was only when I became worried they’d close the place with me in it that I started to pay attention to the arrows and found my way out.

Heights don't bother me much. Drops do.

These photos never show the scale of the drop as much as they should.

Luxembourg in the day is a much neater and more understandable prospect. The national museum covers the thousand-year story of the nation over several floors, the lowest of which are carved into the rock below the city, with massive models demonstrating how Luxembourg was shaped over the centuries. Once, when the House of Luxembourg were kings of the Holy Roman Empire, the fate of nations was decided here. Now the decisions made in council chambers are more abstract but no less weighty.

In the end, Luxembourg felt a little neat and sanitised. Like San Marino, everything has been cleaned and polished, and you have to dive down into the valley to get a better sense of the place. A special mention ought to go to the viewing platform north of the Bock, where you can stand on a glass floor and contemplate the multi-storey drop below.

As good a way as any to end the holiday: Endless ribs.

Ribs and beer in Brussels on the last night of the holiday.

So then, on to Brussels and the end of the trip. I’ve been here multiple times and like both the people and the place. So apart from an evening of a little food and a little drink, I wanted to see if I could look at something further afield. The options were the battlefield at Waterloo (to annoy someone who’ll never read this) or the beach at Knokke, to complete my journey from the Mediterranean to the north sea. Of course, the beach won.

Not that I had much time to spend there. Courtesy of Belgium’s leisurely trains and the extremely long avenue leading from the train terminus to the beach, I had no more time at the water’s edge than it took to take a couple of photos and wet my feet. (In point of fact, I’d misread the timetable and had around half an hour more than I thought, but a few minutes was all I got.)

A fine place to end one's journeys.

The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Which brought the whole journey to an end. What had started in the parched streets of Palermo on the island of Sicily, had taken me north through Italy, across the Alps to Switzerland, on to the familiar city of Brussels, hitting three small nations along the way, came to a close on the sands of the North Sea, caught between tourism and a massive seaport on the horizon. Yes, there would be a journey back to Brussels and on to the airport and from thence to Dublin, but that was it. Another journey ended.

I’ll get around to absorbing it and adding any extra thoughts in a while. For now, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts. More detailed descriptions of what I got up to will appear in the Travels section above soon.

Categories: Travel Tags: , , ,

From South to North

September 12, 2016 Leave a comment
At the very least, it looks like a straight line. (Damn you San Marino!)

This is probably one of the more sensible-looking travel routes I’ve ever devised.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m once again taking time off from local affairs this September and heading for less familiar climes. Moreover, so as not to break with tradition, I’m not just travelling to, I’m travelling through. Hitting all sorts of nations and cities that I’ve never been to before.

This excursion feels a little different from previous years though. This time there’s no strong theme, as there was in my Eastern European journey last year, or my exploration of Greece the year before. Instead, there’s just a direction: south to north, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Or as close to the North Sea as I can manage. If there’s a binding theme at all, it’s one of filling gaps in my collection of nations; visiting places that I haven’t been to, or even near to.

As I said, it feels a little off-kilter, as though the series of mostly train-based journeys that I’ve been on since Norway, back in 2009, is coming to an end. The two or three further European trips that are percolating in my head don’t suit train-based shenanigans nearly as well, and the continents further afield that await my bootprints are even less amenable to sticking to the iron rails.

It may just be time for me to stretch my conception of what a travelling holiday might be. No bad thing that—I’ve gotten a lot out of rail (and sea) travel, but this holiday will stretch the balance between exploring and watching the landscape speed by about as far as it’s likely to go.

As for this trip, there’ll be plenty to keep myself occupied (and not just making sure that I catch the next connection). I’ll be kicking off in Italy, which is familiar enough in itself, albeit in a part of it that I’ve never been to before: Palermo, Sicily. An island that’s been the site of contention ever since the Greeks and the Phoenicians first started looking crosswise at each other, it’s a long way south of any part of Italy (Rome) that I’ve been in before, and it’ll feed my lust for history nicely.

An overnight train (the only one of this trip) will take me across Sicily and the Straits of Messina (loading the train onto a boat in the process, which I’ll likely sleep through) and on through the night to Naples. Which is worthy of a visit in itself, even if it weren’t for the presence of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii in close attendance. I won’t miss out on those, I can assure you. It’s no accident that the overnight train will drop me off beside the Circumvesuviana line to the ruins at a time when the tour groups have yet to have their breakfast. Should I be able to drag myself away from this long-awaited visit to the preserved ruins of ancient Rome, I’ll see as much of Naples as I can in the time remaining.

Onwards then from Naples and one of the more awkward routes of the trip. North through and past Rome to Bologna, then an almost-180-degree reversal to head south east to the Adriatic coast and Rimini. Why stop here? Well, Rimini itself and the nearby beaches are said to be well worth the visit, but that’s less my style than the small nation-state only a short bus ride away. San Marino has been happily independent for a very long time, and for all that it’s tiny in comparison to the Italian nation that enfolds it, it should be well worth a visit in its own right.

After Rimini and San Marino have had their fill of me, it’s north again, this time to Milan. I came close here last year with a layover in nearby Bergamo, but Milan is the big dog of northern Italian cities, nestled in under the Alps, and it should be interesting to compare it to the more southerly Italian locations that I’ll have passed through to get there. However, for the most part it’s a breathing space before tackling the mountains.

If any day is going to mark my complete over-commitment to the rail theme, this one will. Three nations, three trains (and a bus), and as many mountains as you may care to shake a stick at. From Milan to Tirano, there to catch the Bernina Express that’ll see me safely over the Alps, through some of the most fabulous scenery to be had in Europe. That will deposit me in Chur in Switzerland, from whence a train to Sargans and a bus to Vaduz will drop me in a nation almost as small as San Marino: Liechtenstein.

This is where the nature of the trip and the problems with it ought to become apparent: I’m on a one-way trip to Checklist-ville. Last year I visited ten countries, but I had just over three weeks in which to do so, which meant I averaged out at around two days in each. This time, I’ve got a little less than 12 days to cross Europe from south to north, and in way too many places I’ll be there no longer than it takes to have a look around. At least in Liechtenstein, where an afternoon stroll is enough to take you across the country from west to east, I’ll see a good percentage of it before I go.

Switzerland’s efficient public transport system will shuttle me back from Vaduz, across the border and on to Zurich. Given that my major Swiss influences extend to Heidi, William Tell and one of the Asterix books, it’s fair to say that I have little or no idea of what to expect here. However it turns out, given that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed countries, I will at least be on my very best behaviour.

From Zurich, it’s all downhill on the home stretch of this trip. Specifically downhill towards Mulhouse in France on a TGV, then onwards to my next destination, Europe’s biggest mini-nation. Luxembourg is a giant compared to San Marino or Liechtenstein, even if it’s trapped between France, Belgium and Germany, and it’s been at the heart of the European Union ever since its founding. I have been told by someone who ought to know that there’s nothing there to see there, but I feel that in these dark times of Brexit and Grexit, it’s probably sensible to visit the beating heart of the Euro Illuminati and make sure that I’m not on their “naughty” list.

After all, Luxembourg is just three hours on the train from my very final stop, which is the even more EU-centric capital of Belgium—Brussels. A place I’ve become all too familiar with over the past year and a bit, and there’s no more friendly or relaxed city to spend a last evening in before a late night flight back to Dublin. I’ll do my best to take a day-trip out to the North Sea before I leave, but the allure of beer and waffles may prove too strong.

For now though, I’m just engaged in pre-packing routines, printing out my train tickets (e-tickets are great, but it pays to have a backup), and double-checking everything else. Inevitably I’m going to forget something, as is always the way of holidays, but with all the travelling to be done, it’s not likely to be anything that I’ll miss much.

Another of Those Holiday Things

April 21, 2015 2 comments
It did turn out to be a bit chilly for outdoor beers though.

It’s an eclectic city, but if you catch it at the right moment, it’s a beautiful one too.

When I first started up this blog, it was with the purpose of keeping a record of a months-long trip around the world. Since then, it’s drifted away from that towards reviews of games and movies, punctuated by the odd political or cultural rant. This drift shouldn’t be all that surprising – it’s not like I can afford to go on holiday every month.

Still, when I do go on holiday, even when it’s only for a few days, it’s fun to keep a diary, one that can be illustrated with photos. Sharing experiences isn’t just for Facebook, though Facebook is the obvious gateway through which to usher people to these pages.

In short, I’ve added another entry to the Travel menu above, courtesy of my just-ended five days in Brussels. Five days of sunshine and late nights, during which I made strenuous efforts to balance out my intake of beer, frites and waffles with some industrial grade walking. By the end of it all, I felt like I’d gotten a pretty good feel for the city, and I’m looking forward to getting the chance to go back some day. For some small clue as to why I enjoyed it all so much click here.

(And apologies in advance if the prose is a bit clunky. I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing these articles, and it’s not always easy to jump right in again.)

Categories: Travel Tags: ,