Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Belgium

I love Belgium, and more specifically, Flanders. I have never been to Wallonia, but I am sure I'd like it, too. We recently traveled to Belgium, stopping in Antwerp and Ghent. We were supposed to go to Bruges, too, but jet lag prevented it.

I'd been to Bruges before, and Antwerp, as well as Brussels, Oostende, and Leuven. Leuven was my favorite city in Belgium for a time, in my twenties, when I had the energy and enthusiasm for the town square and its many bars. It's a university town; I'm not sure I would feel the same way about it as I did 15 years ago. 

The first time I went to Belgium was for a class trip, the infamous Tony Steinhof study tour (infamous to the 40 or so of us who experienced it.) It was such a whirlwind that when I returned to Antwerp in April I only had vague memories of it. (I wrote about it here.) We went to Leuven, too, and saw a parade of professors in the town but did not quite understand why we were watching it. I may be misremembering, but I think the University of Leuven is the oldest university in Europe, at least continental Europe. Maybe the parade of professors has something to do with that. I could google it, but I won't.

We had such a good time in Leuven that a friend and I went back one weekend during a summer program we took after graduation.

scanned copy of a photo from that Bruges trip
I went to Bruges in the spring of 1997 at a time of religious confusion, and the church with the thorn from the crown of Christ was the first time I'd seen such a relic. It moved me. The town was beautiful. I wanted to show Chris on this last trip but I don't have the energy levels that I had when I went the first time. I miss that.

The time in Oostende was a brief early morning visit after our weekend in Bruges. We only went to see the sea - it was about the closest sea point from Luxembourg where we lived. Several years ago when I was dying to go anywhere in Europe, hating my job for its lack of travel opportunities and not getting promoted, I considered spending the summer biking on the Belgian coast. It was too expensive for what little savings I had. I ended up going to Bulgaria for a couple of months that autumn because it was still affordable for me.

Our spring trip to Belgium this time around was part of a trip through the Benelux countries, with the main objective to see the tulips in Holland. Our trip was altered by the terrorist attack at the Brussels airport; our flight was canceled and we ended up flying into Amsterdam instead. We lost a day of the trip to train travel from Amsterdam to Brussels for a train issue for which we had paid for Thales high sped train tickets and got neither Thales nor high speed due to some mechanical issue or something. We did not receive refunds, either. And Chris lost his wallet in the process.

We did get to stay at the five star Metropole hotel in Brussels for $150 because no one was going to Brussels in the aftermath of the attacks. People, when you are afraid, they win. If an attack happens somewhere and you have the means, go there and support the people there!

Unfortunately, we didn't spend any time in Brussels aside from the one night and a splurge on lunch at the Metropole because we were trying to make up the lost time, and though we said we'd catch it on our way to Luxembourg, we were too tired; we went straight to Antwerp, where we were to stay three nights and use as a base for day trips to Ghent and Bruges. 

Belgium is an interesting country because it is an artificial country, created as a buffer zone between the French and Dutch, who just couldn't stop fighting. The people living there - predominantly the Catholic Flemish who did not like the Protestant Dutch, although the French-speaking Walloons also disliked them - revolted against Dutch rule. What is now Belgium was part of other empires until its independence in 1839 when the Treaty of London created it. 

Antwerp Stadhuis (City Hall) with Brobo statue, a UNESCO World Heritage site
But the history of Belgium does not begin in 1839. Belgium, and Flanders in particular, has a rich and powerful history. Antwerp was a global trading center for centuries. It still is. If I am not mistaken, it is the second largest port in Europe behind Rotterdam just north of the border. That's while you'll find statues of Poseidon and Hermes everywhere, Poseidon being the Greek god of the sea and Hermes the god of commerce. Antwerp is still the diamond capital of the world, though much of the trade has gone elsewhere. It was actually Bruges that was the first Belgian city to be big in the diamond trade, but it began to move to Antwerp as that city became the new and happening place. Antwerp had a world famous publishing house, culture, modern buildings and industry (for that time), and 40% of all global trade came through the port of Antwerp. 

For a time, Antwerp declined and Amsterdam took over as the diamond capital, but the discovery of diamonds in South Africa and the founding of De Beers. The massive influx of diamonds into Europe helped Antwerp return to status as world diamond capital. De Beers had a monopoly on diamonds, manipulating prices and the minds of people. It was De Beers that made up the diamond as a symbol for love. People didn't give diamond rings for marriage before De Beers told them they should. Yet another instance of corporations controlling the minds of the masses.

The monopoly was broken up but De Beers still controls about 35% of the world diamond market.
There are still a lot of diamond stores in Antwerp, as you can see from the picture.

I don't know how I got on diamonds but if I'm going to get through all the Olympic countries, I'll have to stop here. I could go on an on about the medieval times, or the horrific ventures into the Congo and the genocide, or Belgian suffering during the two world wars, or the food, yum, the food, or how great the Flemish people are (sorry Walloons, I don't know any of you), or how beautiful the cities are, really beautiful, or how some of Belgium is in Luxembourg, or some of Luxembourg is in Belgium, or so many other interesting things, but stop I must. I wrote more about my times in Belgium here.

Capital: Brussels
Major cities: Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Leuven, Liege, Charleroi, Namur
Population: 11.2 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 106
Medals in history: 144 summer (38 gold, 53 silver, 53 bronze), 5 winter (1 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze)
Languages: Flemmish (Dutch), French, German, English
Heroes: Peter Paul Reubens (painter), Van Eyck brothers (painted the Ghent Alterpiece), Audrey Hepburn (actress), Rene Magritte (painter) Liz Claiborne (fashion designer), Gerardus Mercator (the map guy), Adolphe Sax (inventor of saxophone), Christophe Plantin (publisher)
Bad guys: King Leopold II (committed genocide against the Congolese, 10 million died), the ones who supported Nazis in WWII, the terrorist assholes who blew up the airport and metro stop
Persecuted: some racism against Muslims
Must read: Any of the 33 Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie, The Guns of August, King Leopold's Ghost

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