I can’t say too much about the purpose of my two-day visit to Belgium at the moment because it would reveal the subject of my forthcoming Friends of the Podcast special episode but it was a fun – and at times surreal – trip. I’ll write more about the actual work I was doing when the episode is released in a couple of weeks’ time.
My trip took me to Ghent, a monastery in the Flandrian countryside, and the Belgian capital and it was strange to realise that I was in the same country the whole time so different were the three places.
Ghent is a great town. I love the trams and the canals, the students on bikes, the cobbled streets and the ancient architecture. It’s got an historic authenticity to it that Bruges, though equally attractive, lacks somehow. I think it’s probably because the tourism has been overdone a bit in Bruges, whereas Ghent feels like a real place that lives and works perfectly well without the weekend trippers.
I had a beer in each of my two favourite bars. First was De Trollekelder – a dimly-lit place decorated with hideously ugly trolls that sit on the window sill and above the bar and hang from the walls, although don’t let that put you off. Then it was on to Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a cosy place that overlooks the water and which has a big menu of beers.
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After criss-crossing the Flandrian fields as part of my assignment, I headed to my hotel for the night. As I approached Het Godshuis I feared the worst. It looked austere and unwelcoming from the front, perhaps because the building was casting a shadow on itself, but the sight of a few guests enjoying an early evening drink in the sunshine at the back eased my fears a bit.
It didn’t take a genius to realise that Het Godshuis was an old monastery but what I couldn’t work out was whether it was operating as a religious-themed retreat now.
I went to the bistro for dinner where they told me that in order to have a meal from the buffet I needed to make a reservation at reception. I looked across at the dining area where two people were eating in silence surrounded by empty tables. I asked if it was really necessary to make a reservation but the waitress was insistent, so I walked back to reception.
‘What time would you like a table?’ asked the receptionist.
‘Well, in five minutes, then.’
‘Okay, I have booked you a table for 7.40.’
Buffet for one would be 29 euros 50, she said, which made me wonder if I was being charged the non-believer’s tariff.
I’d been away maybe 90 seconds – two minutes at a push – and when I returned to the dining room it was almost full, giving the impression that a coach load of pensioners had just arrived. They were making their way through the buffet the way a combine harvester goes through a field of wheat. With each passing second I was in danger of getting less and less value for my 29.50.
I was shown to a table in a roped-off area (the non-believer’s table, I presume), sharpened my elbows and jostled my way to the front of the buffet.
* * *
Whenever I’ve visited Brussels, I’ve never felt like I’ve seen the best of it. The Tour de France went there in 2010 and all I remember is a long, tiring walk up the hill towards the King Badouin stadium (previously Heysel) where the stage finished, followed by a strange meal at a place that had the ambience of a kebab shop.
On my way into the city this time I stopped at a petrol station to fill up the hire car and had a contretemps with the lady behind the desk. It was pre-pay, she told me, but as I wanted to fill the tank up to the top I couldn’t give her a cash figure. Guess too low and I risked leaving the tank below what the hire car company would consider ‘full’. Guess too high and I’d be paying for fuel I couldn’t fit in the tank. She insisted I leave my credit card with her while I put petrol in the car. Having recently had some data compromised I was reluctant to do that but I relented in the end, albeit without much grace.
The areas immediately around many major railway stations in Europe tend to be pretty depressing places but Brussels Midi beats even the Gare du Nord in Paris. After dropping off the car, I walked round the side of the building and there was a constant and overwhelming smell of dried urine in the air. I was heading to a hotel where I thought I might get lunch while waiting for my Eurostar home.
Just as the hotel came into view, I saw a group of people sitting around on benches drinking from cans of lager. All of a sudden, one of the men in the group shoved a women firmly with both hands, sending her flying. She hit the ground with the resignation of someone who was used to being treated appallingly one way or another, although she seemed more concerned by the amount of liquid that had spilled from her can than anything else. A number of the other men surrounded the pusher angrily. A few bystanders rushed over to see if the woman was okay.
It was a depressing scene, especially when contrasted with the hotel's menu, which looked preposterous to me. The prices weren’t horrendous but the pretension was daft. Maybe some people want foie gras and fancy sauces at lunchtime but I’d have been happy with a burger or club sandwich so I dragged my wheely case round the obstacle course of dog mess to the Mercure, where I was told that the only thing available was salmon. This gave me the excuse to go round the corner where I found a square with a couple of reasonable looking café-restaurants.
I ordered l’Americain, thinking it would be a burger. I was told it came sans bun, which was fine by me. What arrived was a meat patty that managed to be greasy and dry at the same time, topped with crispy onion fragments possibly scraped from the fryer and all swimming in a brown gravy. The first bite of burger made me think we’d all been defrosted and transported back to 1985 by Captain Birdseye.
Back at the hotel, I watched Flèche Wallonne on my laptop and earwigged the conversation of a group of British people at a nearby table. One of the gems I picked up was this. ‘The thing is, our nanny has quite a strong accent and Archie is starting to pick it up. That’s genuinely the only reason we want a British nanny next.’