Goodbye BelgiumNovember 22, 2017 in Belgium
We spent 5 and a half weeks in Belgium, 10 days of which were on an organic permaculture farm in Flanders.
As ever, there were many things we liked about the country and a number we didn't. Lets start with the negatives, move on to interesting aspects and end with the positives:
Things we didn't like:
Belgium's neighbour The Netherlands has a famous red light district in Amsterdam but, perhaps naively, we'd never anticipated coming accross them in Belgium. Our first experience was in a small town, the high street of which seemed overtaken with shop windows displaying women whose services were for sale. We encountered it again in Antwerp and although it was by no means widespread, it still left us with a very negative impression.
Exploitative war tourism
We appreciate that many people visit Belgium specifically because of the part it played in the World Wars. However, as pacifists, we found much of the commercialisation of this role unsavoury. Ypres in particular had a whole host of outlets making profit from souvenirs of a conflict in which so many people's lives were taken.
Sprawling urban areas
Along the coast and around cities such as Brussels and Antwerp, the concrete and glass walls of urbanisation often seemed to be endless. We enjoy visiting cities, but we find ourselves feeling hemmed in if we stay too long and at times it was difficult to find rural areas to relax in.
Flanders' prefab roads
A small consideration perhaps, but when you are travelling with all your earthly possessions rattling noisily around you, the road surface really does make a difference. Many roads were narrow, meaning we had to reduce our speed and hold up traffic behind us. Flanders was especially bad for laying down prefabricated concrete strips that Martha Motorhome objected to loudly!
Concious of the environment, we have a larger recycling bin, than we do for general waste. Belgian councils pick up waste directly from properties and it was remarkably difficult to find any public recycling bins.
City parking and lack of laybys
Using the Park4Night app we were usually able to find places to stay easily enough, but the Ardennes and Wallonia in the West were particularly poor for the laybys we like to use for lunch breaks or spontaneous stopovers. Many European cities provide dedicates motorhome aires in city centres, but we found no such things in Belgium. It was difficult getting a place to park on our day trip to Antwerp and our 2 nights in Brussels were very troublesome in the initial stages, although it worked out alright in the end.
As people who like to engage with locals using as much of their language as possible, we initally found it disconcerting to be in a country where 3 very different languages were spoken. Unlike in Luxembourg, where residents would often move fluidly between their different tongues, Belgium has areas that speak either Dutch, French or German and we'd read that people didn't like it if, for example, you began speaking French in a Dutch area. Luckily English was widely spoken and we fell back on this when we weren't sure. However, as we moved between different areas we started to get used to picking up clues, such as which languages were used on road signs and shop advertising. There would often be a crossover area of dual language signs, alerting to the change. In the end we found it very interesting and with France being our most frequently visited continental country, we felt almost at home speaking French!
Now, lets get on to the things we really liked about Belgium:
Free stopovers amd services
Whilst city parking was difficult for us, a large number of towns in this small country provided free stopovers with free services. A definite thumbs up in our book!
Bike lanes and canals
The roads may have been narrow and sometimes bumpy but the brilliant network of bike lanes was a really refreshing sight. They were well maintained and their coloured surface made them stand out. In Flanders there were many kilometres of flat canal towpath to enjoy out in the countryside and places you could park for the night alongside it.
We stayed in Belgium's capital Brussels, for 2 nights with Will's daughter Beth and our son in law Richard. Of course it was memorable for the fact that we got to spend time with people we love, but the beautiful Grand Place, lit up at night, is a sight that will stay with us. It truly is stunning. We found a very different kind of beauty in the Belgian Ardennes. As far different from the flat north as the language of the region, the rolling, forested hills and enchanting rivers of the Ardennes stole our hearts.
Food, drink and the organic movement
Apart from our time on the farm, if we were asked to name the most memorable thing about Belgium, we would have to say 'the food!'. We found a pleasing number of organic foods available in both supermarkets and independent shops here, especially around the city of Ghent. Our waistlines were grateful we didn't stay longer, because the Belgian's really do know how to titillate the tastebuds! What a treat it was to sample the Trappist beers, each served in its own dedicated glass. We frequently bought frites for lunch, either at cafés or friteries / frituurs, where they came wrapped in specially perforated paper to let the steam out and make sure they stayed crisp. Even Vicky's sweet tooth was satisfied with the huge crepes submerged beneath icecream and fruit sauce and the waffles - both Brussels and Liege style, were hard to resist. Saving the best to last, Belgian chocolates bought from Belgian chocolatiers really are the best you'll ever taste. The delight of choosing a selection of the artfully arranged delicacies and watching in anticipation as the maker's white gloved fingers pick them out for you will stay with us forever!
Despite it being a such a close neighbour to the UK, we had only previously passed through Belgium on our way to other places and didn't quite know what to expect when embarking on our tour. Because of its size, we feel we were able to get to grips with the country during our stay of nearly 6 weeks, during which its character and complexity showed through. All in all we really enjoyed our time here and are very glad we dedicated as many days as we did, to exploring this interesting and diverse country.Read more