Belgium: Into the Heartland of Western Europe
She was weighed down with potatoes and onions when we were introduced. The hasty exchange was in French, so I didn’t catch her name. The mistress of the farm in Gaasbeek, Belgium, she was a weathered, vibrant rail of a woman, perhaps in her early seventies.
Before we knew what was happening, she’d taken off with her wheelbarrow and disappeared through the stable. We followed tentatively up a hill into the back where we found her briskly loading two 30-pound sacks of potatoes. The impulse was to lend a hand, but she was nearly done when we’d caught up with her. She swiveled around to face us and just her eyes smiled. From this subtle expression, we glimpsed a passive message that would come to signify that we were among Belgian people—a gentle, weary wisdom that says everything is falling into place in its own time. This was our second day in Belgium.
Throughout our two-week stay, we found frequent reminders that two world wars had crashed down in this country. We noted a subtle poignancy in the way older Belgians related to one another. As in much of Europe, three kisses, cheek-to-cheek-to-cheek, marked most greetings. The human experience is shared generously, with rare defensive obstructions. Eyes are not diverted on the subway, curiosity is undisguised. Time is a commodity quietly respected and observed rather than trampled and conquered.
On narrow city sidewalks, old friends meet and display the sort of pleasure one might find among those who had come upon a treasure that was feared lost forever.
The City of Brussels opens itself heartily to American visitors. Being the pulse of a country that is home to two tribes and two languages, French and Flemish, it is a city of patience and accommodation. The four dialects of French found throughout the country don’t differ widely from the Parisian, but most Belgians speak Flemish, which is to Dutch what American is to English. Both languages are considered official to the country; each is represented on billboards, road signs and government documents.
The point of pride for Brussels is rightly The Grand Place, a glorious, abbreviated version of many well-coordinated city centers. Resting elegantly in the middle of the Place is a huge courtyard of cobblestones enclosed by government offices, a hotel and a selection of cafés.
The Rue de Bruchére, a narrow road spilling off the Place teems with curbside eateries, alleyway boîtes and pulsating neon. On the north side of the Place, we were surprised to find a funky New Orleans-style jazz band tucked away in a crowded basement; young professionals gathered there after work, tapping to the brassy American sounds while savoring local Trappist beers.
The city boasts a world-class art museum, The Musée des Beaux Arts, housing classical and modern art in its two buildings. The baroque works of Belgian master Paul Rubens overshadow the collection. The creations of Flemish painters Jan and Herbert van Eyck also dominate.
Many Belgian churches contain works of art, many of great merit. The most notable is probably van Eyck’s multi-paneled oil altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, displayed in the mammoth 12th-century Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, an hour northwest of Brussels.
The cathedral, which anchors Belgium’s third largest city, is as striking as any other in Europe. At first, this dark and expansive holy place can impose a disconcerting eeriness. Inside, there is almost a feeling of being outdoors at night amid a fog of incense. When the sanctity of the space takes hold and one’s eyes have adjusted, a uniquely rich sense of the building’s purpose settles in.
Less than a mile from St. Bavo, also in the heart of Ghent, stands the fascinating, if not disturbing, Castle of the Count of Flanders. Originally built to house and protect nobility, the structure later served as a prison and torture chamber.
Excepting the woods in the southeast corner of the nation, the countryside of Belgium is sparse. In small villages, homes without lawns seem to have grown out of twisting, narrow roads, and ivy-covered windmills generate light for outlying farmhouses.
Trees grow in columns of two, ribboning through the barren landscape, dividing property lines and shading dirt roads. Most trees were taken to rebuild after the war and were never replaced. Still, there is a great beauty in this stark simplicity that can kindle and tease out a warm romantic response from most any of us.
If the world is God’s art, Brugge, Belgium is still on its original canvas.
In the early eleventh century, coastal Brugge was an important commercial and sea trading center for Europe, though within decades the natural link between the city and the North Sea silted up. A deep channel appeared, the Zwin, which linked the city to the sea until the 15th century, when the connection was lost.
Over the coming centuries, Brugge would suffer great poverty and rarely flourished, though bombs never fell on its residents and buildings. In fact, the city remained unblemished by a revolution and two world wars and entered the mid-twentieth century as a near-perfect 9th-century frozen relic.
For its preserved architectural treasures, landscape, and burgeoning lace industry, Brugge was reinvented in the 1960s–70s into one of Europe’s most desirable historic and romantic destinations.
Brick bridges crossing its canal system brush the city like the few final strokes of a masterpiece. Brackish water sent from gondolas laps lazily at private patios and restaurant kitchen windows along the canal. Natives mill in front of lace shops, chocolate emporiums and waffle stands, nodding politely to flurries of tourists.
Churches, small museums, and a sprawling abbey store artistic and architectural treasures in Brugge. Michaelangelo’s Madonna can be admired in the Liebfrauenkirch. A reflective walk through the historic De Wijngaard Abbey in the heart of the city creates the perfect moment to give thanks for the opportunity to have touched such a city as Brugge.
Small wonder Rubens and van Eyck, each Brugge residents, did such splendid work. It’s a city of cozy, colorful daydreams.
A short drive north from Brugge, though three hours from Brussels, is the upscale village of Knokke-Heist, bordering the Netherlands on the coast of the North Sea. Aside from its position as a playground for Belgian’s wealthy, Knokke boasts the Het Zwin Nature Reserve, a 370-acre nature park that extends over the Belgian-Dutch border into Holland.
Het Zwin is framed by dunes and a sea dike, and its rivulets change with the tides. The resulting habitat is ideal for plants and animals, including more than 100 species of birds; among them: waders, ducks, the silver plover and snipe. Two-fifths of the reserve land is open for walking, and it is well worth the visit—if only for the opportunity to be stared down by an owl or egret.
Inside the Middle-Class Belgian Home
As hosts, Belgians are refined and gracious. We were fortunate to have been invited into several homes for meals and conversation while there.
Wine, usually from Bordeaux, is served with lunch and dinner. It’s not unusual to top off a meal with a generous glass of whisky. Cheese is a staple on the Belgian dinner table and is treated in much the same fashion as is bread here.
If you find yourself in Belgium, you might try Cabieaux, a delicate white fish indigenous to the North Sea. Salad is served usually after the meal, followed by patisserie.
The desserts we encountered in private homes were usually simple, but always delicious and attractive. Honey cakes topped with glazed kiwi and peach is a Belgian favorite.
After one beef and potato dinner, we asked our hosts how the boiled potatoes had been seasoned. We were surprised to find that they hadn’t been doctored at all. “It’s the soil here,” was the summary response.
For me, exploring Belgium was an exercise in stripping down pretensions, confronting the relative youth of my native country, and, in an entirely new way, listening quietly to the echoes of centuries.