Category Archives: Belgium

THE TROUBLE WE GO TO FOR ART!

It wasn't easy to get here.

It wasn’t easy to get here, so you might at least look pleased to see us!

“Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur? What do you mean, ‘Complet’? It’s taken us an hour to find the bus stop and another 45 minutes to wait for your bus to come along and now you’re saying you’re full?

How are we supposed to get to Saint-Paul if every bloody bus…Ok, d’accord, Monsieur, you only drive the damn thing. Nice beard, by the way.”

We know there often isn’t a lot of public transport into walled mediaeval villages perched on Provencal hilltops. But Saint-Paul-de-Vence isn’t just any mediaeval village. It’s now a tourist mecca, thanks to the artists, past and present, who have lived and worked there. A lot of us want to see it. Continue reading

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Filed under Art, Belgium, France

ANTWERP, BELGIUM – a bit off-hand

The hand thrower, Antwerp.

Belgians haven’t always been nice to visitors in the past and it seems the tradition continues.

Antwerpen takes its name from the Flemish ‘hand werpen’ – or ‘hand throwing’. The story goes that the gates were guarded by a giant who demanded a toll of travellers. If they couldn’t pay, he cut off their hands and threw them away. Continue reading

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Filed under Belgium, Cycle touring

BIKE PATHS IN BELGIUM – how they made a profit

Bikes cram Bruges's market square

I’ve enjoyed riding the Dutch and Belgian cycle networks over the past few weeks, and I’ve now been doing some research.

The Belgians invented the cycle network system and it’s paid off handsomely. When the mines in the Belgian province of Limburg began to close one by one, mining engineer Hugo Bollen had a great idea. Putting funds into building cycle paths could generate work, and stimulate the Belgians to appreciate their land more. “The more people cycle through their area, the more they will come to value it…and valuing it will lead to nature and landscape being preserved.”

Hugo’s fietsnetwerk (cycle network) officially opened in 1995. By 2007 Limburg had 1860km of signposted cycle routes, 700km of it car-free. The idea spread to the rest of the country, which now has a staggering 13,000km of signposted cycleways. Holland, Germany and Denmark have followed the Belgian example enthusiastically.

Even Hugo probably didn’t foresee the economic boom his cycling infrastructure would bring. Over 700,000 cyclists visit the Limburg area every year, and this directly generates income in the region of more than 16million euros.

We invested a couple of hundred euros of our own in Belgian food, accommodation, trains, bike hire and alcohol last week.

Money well spent, I say!

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Filed under Belgium, Cycle touring, Cycling, Travel- Europe

BRUGES, BELGIUM – finding an oasis in an oasis

There are still a few corners of Bruges like this...

Bruges (officially ‘Brugge’ in Flemish) is reputed to be a quiet, olde worldy mediaeval place, where people can step back in time to an era when life was slow and strawberries were small and tasted like strawberries.

...but a lot of it is like this...

...or like this.

Millions of visitors can’t be wrong. Bruges is beautifully preserved, and there are spectacular old buildings around every corner. Come to think of it, the corners themselves are made of spectacular old buildings.

This is the oldest hospital in Europe. Never mind the leeches and the blood-letting – the brickwork alone should make you feel better!

St Jan's Hospital is now a museum.

Fortunately there is a place where we can escape the chocolate and lace shops, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, the amplified commentary of the tour boats, the I Love Bruges and 50 Great Beers t-shirts.

Elizabeth Beguinage, Bruges


The Elizabeth Begijnhof attracts only the devout few. I’m one.

And Belgian strawberries look like strawberries, smell like strawberries and by golly they still taste like strawberries too.

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Filed under Belgium, Travel, Travel- Europe

BEGIJNHOF, GHENT, BELGIUM – beginning the Beguines

Begijnhof, Ghent

When in Belgium or the Netherlands, it’s always worth popping into a begijnhof or two. William Makepeace Thackeray put it nicely in 1840…

“Before you is a red church with a tall roof and fantastical Dutch pinnacles, and all around it rows upon rows of small houses, the queerest, neatest, nicest that ever were seen (a doll’s house is hardly smaller or prettier).’’

Ghent’s Begijnhof is still as queer, neat and nice as ever, and now has UNESCO world heritage listing to boot.

The Recommended Walking Route in any decent Belgian town, and lots of Dutch ones too, always includes the local begijnhof. Visitors who take the trouble to pass through the arched gate in the wall find chocolate box photo opportunities everywhere.

The Begijnhof is the community of houses where the Beguines formerly lived. They were devout single women who took vows of obedience and chastity but, unlike nuns, didn’t renounce worldly goods, and brought their own possessions to the begijnhof. Not all were needy. Some well-to-do women joined the movement, with the prospect of living in one of the better houses of the complex, and maybe being elected ‘grootjuffrouw’ or ‘grand-dame’ of the place. Vows were temporary, and beguines were free to leave if ever they decided they’d had enough of it all. They were thus not totally or permanently withdrawn from the world.

Lier begijnhof

Predictably, independent women were not always flavour of the month with the established church. Beguines were regularly threatened and persecuted, but it was hard to justify opposition to these devout women, and they often found powerful sponsors to protect them. Moreover, by working together, particularly in the textile trade, the beguines could achieve a measure of financial self-reliance.

Today there are very few beguines still alive, and beguinages have been turned over to other uses – student accommodation in university town Leuven, a centre for those with mental disabilities in Diksmuiden, and the Begijnhof in Turnhout now mostly houses the elderly.

Diksmuiden begijnhof


Visitors are welcome on weekdays but residents get a break from the tourist trickle at weekends. We like the little churches and gardens, but also the sense of community and shared space. When we’ve enjoyed a little quiet time out, like the beguines of old, free to leave at any time, we step under the arch and go back to the real world.


World Heritage-listed Belgian beguinages are in the towns of Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, Ghent, Sint-Amandsberg, Diest, Leuven, Bruges and Kortrijk.

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Filed under Belgium, Travel- Europe