To say I’m confused by Belgium would be a serious understatement. If you’ll recall, I was completely taken with the Netherlands and figured Belgium would be similarly incredible. The Flemish culture is native to the entire area (at least in the Flemish part of Belgium I was in) and the two counties have strong historic ties. Not being the biggest or most powerful countries on the Continent, they’ve wisely stuck together for the most part. They’re similar sizes, have basically the same geographic makeup, and speak the same language. The Netherlands gets everything right. As for Belgium…whut.
Haarlem—Antwerp, 108 Miles
Yikes, so this is not a high point for Belgium, so I’ll try not to use it as a barometer for the rest of the country. Antwerp is just not a very attractive city. There are pockets of the old town that are nice but they are just that: pockets. The overall feel is very industrial and there is construction absolutely everywhere. Not just normal city construction. Construction like you see in India and other developing countries. A local told me this was because whenever a new city mayor comes in, he starts up a bunch of new development projects and walks away from whatever is in progress, something that would seem normal in Zimbabwe or Chicago maybe, but Belgium is one of the least corrupt governments in the world, so this practice strikes me as bizarre, and it makes navigating the city on foot or in a car incredibly annoying.
The number of bachelor and bachelorette parties in Antwerp is astonishing, and I’m not sure why so many people find it so attractive. It’s not particularly cheap and the nightlife is not any more or less great than any other city of its size. Is this where people go when Amsterdam is booked? As you would expect, this lends the whole place a decidedly skanky atmosphere and combine that with Euro 2016 and it turns into a bit of situation.
Diamonds are what originally put Antwerp on the map, with Flemish jewelers redefining the trade in the 15th century and quickly becoming the center for the diamond market and jewelry production in Europe. That’s still true today. More than 80 percent of the world’s diamonds go through Antwerp at some point, which is actually a decrease for them compared to what it used to be.
Belgians are rarely involved in the trade anymore, which is now dominated by Jews, Armenians, and Jains. If you are a hardcore reader (Nancy Sachs, what’s up!), then you may remember the Jains, an ultra non-violent religious group from India. And here they are again, this time in a notoriously exploitative business. Walking around today, it’s hard to imagine a trade associated with both total seediness and classic luxury happening here, as Antwerp has neither the edge nor the sophistication to lay claim to either. Not that you see anything of it one way or another; the diamond district here is much less sketchy than in most places, but there’s nothing to do or see if you’re not in the wholesale market.
Walking around Antwerp, I see what they were going for. There are a lot of cool shops and good restaurants and brewpubs of course. There is a surprisingly diverse array of cocktail bars. The city, when it’s not a construction site, is very clean. But it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. When you get outside the interesting areas, the cityscape turns very industrial and eerily empty. Of course I’m so biased, but it feels like someone from Belgium went to Haarlem and came back and tried to model Antwerp after it. And it just didn’t totally work.
There are certain things about Antwerp that just beg the question “Why?” Why would you put a rooftop patio on a museum when this is the view?
Why have they created an artificial beach on the banks of a dirty, muddy river in a warehouse?
Who in their right mind would sell these t-shirts?
What passes for the old part of town is pretty. Antwerp was hit pretty hard during both World Wars, being a convenient port city and inconveniently close to Germany. It was twice occupied by the Germans and took a beating both times, apparently because the Germans couldn’t aim very well and kept missing the actual port. It does feel old though. They’ve taken the Munich approach and rebuilt the center of the old city to look more old time-y, leaving the weird modern architecture projects to the outer rims of the city center.
They also have a kind of half-assessed Rubens museum, the Rubenshuis, and it’s too bad it’s not more comprehensive because he actually sounds like a pretty interesting guy. He was extremely well traveled, hung out with Marie de Medici, married his niece at one point, was knighted by Charles I, and finally ended up in Antwerp, where his former house and workshop is now a weird hodgepodge museum that has many of his paintings, but his most famous works are in churches around Belgium and scattered all over Europe, in the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Prado, and other nondescript operations.
Belgium is not known for being the world’s best destination for travelers. Brussels is practically famous for being a lovely city with absolutely nothing to do for non-locals. And Bruges is the one place that could be considered a major tourist destination by Belgian standards.
Antwerp—Bruges, 59 Miles
I don’t quite know what the relationship is between Bruges’ popularity and In Bruges, but the latter had to have helped. In Bruges is the kind of movie we’ve probably all heard of and perhaps seen, but no one considers this a cinematic classic. The internet thinks more highly of this movie than I do; Roger Ebert gave it four stars. I’d call it above average. In it, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are on the lam after some shady business in Ireland and decide to hide out in Bruges, which Colin Farrell spends the whole movie complaining about. The whole point is that his character is a bit of a clod, but even so, it doesn’t always make Bruges look great.
As you would expect, Bruges acts like this movie was James Bond times Harry Potter for its popularity and international interest. The movie was filmed here and they do a spectacular job. If you want to really see Bruges, stop reading now and go put it on. Even so, I don’t think there are a lot of rabid In Bruges fans coming to pay homage to the city a la Lord of the Rings fans in New Zealand.
Because now we’re all curious:
As is a joke in the movie, Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Belgium, a fact they will not let you forget, and it’s properly old. The city charter is from 1128 and its 300-year heyday came and went before 1600. So they’ve been in their twilight years for half a millennium.
This is yet another place that markets itself as the “Venice” of somewhere and yes, there are some canals. I would hardly call a boat tour of the city requisite to seeing Bruges but it’s practically worth it just to witness the multilingualism of the boatmen. The guy driving my boat offered to do the tour in the following languages: Dutch, German, English, Italian, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. And he was the one doing it, it wasn’t a question of queuing up the right CD.
Anything edible you associate with Belgium—waffles, chocolate, fries (not French, they say), beer—can be found in Bruges. The amount of activity and diversity is certainly a little contrived for the tourist crowd, but it doesn’t feel too artificial. The old town has been really well preserved and it’s easy to get away from the busier parts of town to see some of the more atmospheric side streets. Like all day tripper towns, it’s much more enjoyable after dark, but you really only need a few hours to fully explore Bruges. It’s a city with a lot more character than Antwerp, but it does feel a bit like a toy village as well.
Bruges—Ghent, 31 miles
See above commentary about Bruges. Because Ghent is more or less the same story. When I was watching the In Bruges trailer, I actually forgot that they weren’t talking about Ghent for a while.
Ghent is the “yet to be discovered” Bruges, not because it’s some incredible secret but just because for now at least, not many people outside Europe seem to know about it. Like Bruges, it’s a city that’s really quite old. Many of the canal houses are originals from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The architecture here is more interesting than in Bruges in my opinion, but the overall effect is the same. Series of crooked, brick-house-lined alleys connect different plazas with imposing Gothic architecture. Throw a river in somewhere and you’ve got a medieval Belgian city. Ghent is a less lively city than Bruges, but it’s not dead either, and neither are the giant drunk fest that is Antwerp.
I don’t know anything about beer, but I think the Belgians have a legitimate claim to good beer and the craft of beer making. Beer from Belgium is very different than that from Germany or the Czech Republic, so they have a leg to stand on with that haughtiness. As for the other stuff, they need to get over it. Whoever invented (French) fries, you can get really good ones literally anywhere. The fries at a Red Robin are just not that different than the duck fat truffle “frites” at some uppity restaurant in New York, which are not that different than fries you get at the countless stalls in Belgium or Amsterdam or Paris or wherever. Who among us does not think McDonald’s fries are excellent?
Every city in Belgium claims a piece of the waffle origin story, and Ghent is no different. Obviously it’s not called a Belgian waffle in Belgium, and Brussels is usually considered the birthplace of waffles, though I also heard mention of Liege waffles, another city in Belgium. These are not the originals and apparently a wildly different item (I couldn’t tell the difference). Not to be outdone, Ghent claims it is in fact the inventor of the waffle, at a place called Max. There are actual square count specifications for these waffles.
So the Belgians feel very strongly about the waffle and the differences between that and our waffle are noticeable. Waffles in Belgium have more texture and are more flavorful without a mountain of fruit and chocolate on top (though they still top their waffles with chocolate and often fruit so really what’s the difference). They get very hung up on the fact that waffles are a street snack, not a breakfast item. Which seems like a minor distinction to me.
Particularly in America, we have bastardized so many cuisines beyond recognition, Chinese perhaps most of all. Italian and Mexican food have suffered similar indignities. The American adoption of the waffle and its transplant into the world of breakfast food is not a culinary injustice. Authentic street waffles in Belgium are probably better than the last waffle you had at brunch, but this is not the sweet and sour chicken of the Belgian food world. I bet we could find a brunch place anywhere that serves a really good homemade waffle that would be just as good as anything in Belgium. So let it go.
I really don’t know what to make of Belgium because it’s not a bad place on paper. It might not be the greatest place in the world for tourism, but that’s an asset in my mind. Something is just off there. You can’t help the perpetually overcast weather, but you can help the incredibly drab cities and general dreariness. Netherlands had this magical X factor that made everything seem charming and vibrant and overall wonderful. Belgium has the same je nais se quoi. Except weird.
After Belgium, it was back to France. I know, I sometimes wonder how it is that I keep ending up back here. But France had some surprises in store this time around.