Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Le plat pays

One of the advantages of Belgium is that its small size, relatively centrally-located capital and long history means that you can get to many interesting places within a couple of hours - and of course, you're spoilt for choice if you want to go beyond its borders as well. So it would be silly not to make the most of living here by getting out and exploring ce plat pays.

Before I started work, Jules and I took advantage of our free time to take a day trip to Antwerp, where I'd never been before. To be honest, a lot of the day was taken up with shopping. Even though we stuck to chains, Antwerp has a great reputation as a fashion capital, and I think a little of that must have rubbed off on to the chain stores too, as we both managed to pack multiple purchases into our day. To add to the authentically Belgian experience, we had Wagamama for lunch, which was fun (and tasty). And Jules had Starbucks, so he was happy.

But we did have a little time for some cultural pursuits, mainly wandering around the city on a fairly grey day:

Grand Place, Antwerp

At the train station

Inside the train station
The absolute highlight, though, was St. Paul's church. Jules had a city maps app that gave some short descriptions of tourist sites, and it just said that this one had a good collection of statues in it. So it felt kind of magical to track down this out-of-the-way church (after first trying to go to a different one which was closed) and stumble upon an exterior tableau of the crucifixion, made up of 63 life-sized statues which date back to the 18th century, collectively known as the Calvary. We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it really felt like a special discovery, with a peaceful, gloomy atmosphere no doubt helped by the dull weather. (Looking online, it seems to be relatively well-known, and we were guided there by an app, but it's still nice to stumble across something that feels off the beaten path, even if it's not in reality).

The Calvary, Saint Paul's church

The inside, beautifully bright in contrast to the somewhat eerie statues outside, is also filled with treasures from paintings to elaborate wooden carvings. I must confess I missed most of the famous paintings by the likes of Jordaens, Van Dyke and Rubens, but I'd really like to go back again anyway, so perhaps I'll get another chance to see them.

Interior of Saint Paul's

Carved wooden confessionals

Me and some ghost monks
Based on our quick flip through the app, there was plenty we missed in Antwerp, such as the Diamond and Fashion Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Rubens' house and the church where he was buried, and lots more. And as our day there attested, it's a fun place just to wander around and get your shop on. I'll definitely head back some time!

Apart from a trip to Ghent with my sister (blog post pending), our other main daytrip was to the Belgian coast, Knokke to be exact. First things first, it's really hard to park in Knokke. Having hit a bit of traffic on the motorway on our way there, followed by having to circle and then queue for a park, I was kind of dying for the loo by the time we got to the waterfront, which largely determined our choice of restaurant. Leaving Jules to find a seat on the terrace, I charged off into the restaurant and asked a waitress where the bathroom was. "In the tourist office", was the reply. I impatiently explained I was dining there, fighting the urge to knock her over on the the way to the loo, but I made it thankfully. And turns out, our lunch was actually nice. Of course, we sampled the (hopefully) local seafood - grey shrimp croquettes, which seem to be a bit of a Belgian delicacy, followed by a fish soup and a chocolate moelleux for dessert, miam miam!

Lunch was pretty leisurely, lasting about two hours or so, so it was mid-afternoon by the time we finally hit the beach. I would say it's been so long since I've been, but I keep forgetting that I did go in Majorca, so although infrequent, it's not actually been that long. I was surprised really by the fine, golden sand on offer. I suppose if you'd asked me, I would have pictured pebbly or shelly beaches in Belgium for some reason. Perhaps not so surprising was the constant gusts of wind tearing along the beach from West to East (or thereabouts). The temperatures weren't that high, and although it was pleasant when the sun was shining, any time it went behind a cloud (which was often) we were shivering. Suddenly it made sense why many people hired beach huts and why the sound of the ocean was frequently drowned out by people hammering windbreaks into the sand (seriously, a Belgian beach is about as peaceful as a construction site). There was also some guy with the deepest, growliest voice playing some sort of beach tennis behind us. We were giggling at the idea that he was a troll playing for the right to eat his opponent, but you probably had to be there. The match finished without anyone getting eaten, as far as I could tell.

Jules on the beach at Knokke

Beach selfie #nomakeupselfie

What's a day at the beach without icecream? I had gianduja (yum), limoncello (yum) and watermelon (too sweet) from an extremely popular icecream shop with an array of very exotic flavours - I tried to pick three I hadn't had before, but was spoilt for choice and changed my mind ten times even within those parameters

And a pretty bench
So that was our trip to the coast. I think Namur is on the to-do list, Jules would like to go to Bruges and I'd quite like to go back to Liège, since last time was mainly just running back and forth to the Spa Grand Prix (this weekend, yay), and we have trips to the French Côte d'Opale and Aachen, in Germany, on the books, so lots to look forward to!


  1. So the life-size statues are pretty close to the ground? If so, wow. When large statues are high up, you can't tell how big they are, but if they're right down there with you, that's striking.

    I thought the troll comment was pretty funny.

    1. Unfortunately it's a bit hard to see the details with all the grey. At the far end it's a sort of grotto with a crucifixion scene up high, and then the rest of the statues line the path and are also posed in the garden. It's very cool.

  2. Oh I woudn't mind going to Antwerp in October. M xx

  3. I really really like Antwerp. I have a friend who's from there, so she should us around when a friend and I went a few years ago. We got to do some fun local things. Great pics!


    1. Definitely seems cool from the short time I was there. It's always fun to experience things with a local. How was your trip to Ghent?


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