Belgium man, Belgium!
I can hear this in my head in the voice of the late Bill Paxton, screaming “Game over man, game over!” in Aliens.
But instead of game over, it is always game on in Belgium.
One of the best countries for urbex, I’ve only visited Belgium twice but I have some of the best memories exploring there.
When I got started with urban exploration in the beginning of 2014, Instagram was the tool that helped me the most to catch up with people who’ve been doing it a bit longer. Meeting people, learning about locations, understanding the do’s and don’ts (mostly the don’ts), Instagram can be the user manual from paradise or hell, or both.
Living in Scotland at the time, the local community was obsessed with urbex trips across the channel, France and Belgium being the absolute go-to places. Pictures were flooding Instagram and FlickR, along with the urbex forums, of amazing chateaux, rural houses, filled with personal items, causing more orgasms than Sharon Stone crossing her legs.
It took me a few months but eventually I did manage to make the trip myself. With the invaluable help of local girl V, I first travelled to Belgium and Liège in late June 2014, and revisited in November of the same year.
Mixing pleasure with more pleasure
Having made the arrangements with V to visit her in Liège for a day of exploring, I decided to start my trip a few days earlier to enjoy Belgium. My only previous experience was a visit to Brussels in 2009, and I wanted to see more, especially places like Bruges and Ghent.
One thing I love about exploring is that it allows me to visit new places. One thing I hate about exploring is that most of the time all of the time is spent on the road moving from location to location, with little if any spare time to actually see a city or place other than the abandoned sites we visit.
So back then, as I had the chance to plan things at my own pace, I decided to get on the train from Edinburgh to London, and from then get ride the Eurostar for the first to cross the channel.
I could have flown to my destination in Belgium for sure, but personally I love train rides and if I can afford the extra time, I like the relaxation train rides give me. The schedule was set and from Brussels I would visit Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and then Liège .
I was super excited and ready to go.
The rude green dwarf
I love Bruges. To be honest, as I got off the train and walked out of the train station, I was quite unimpressed as I was waiting to be immediately surrounded by the beautiful houses and canals I had seen in all the photos. Soon enough though, I was walking along the cobbled alleys, admiring the tranquility of the UNESCO-protected historic center.
Museums, churches, and cold beer under a forgiving sun. The temperatures in late June was perfect for long day walks, and for two days I completely forgot what the endgame was during this trip. The grime and the decay could wait.
One must visit Bruges, a city soaked in history, to fully appreciate why it is so much admired. From the Market Square, to the top of the Belfort, and from the Groeningemuseum to the Burg, stops for a cold Belgian beer (the best), and great food.
Before I knew it though, I had to leave it all behind and hop on the train again. In an alley close to the hostel, a plastic green dwarf gave me the finger through the window of a small house. Guess that was the typical local send-off to the ever-growing number of tourists that jeopardizes the character of this beautiful city.
“Coffee drinkers make better lovers”
Leaving Bruges behind, Ghent was to be my second stop on this trip. I knew some things about Bruges, but I knew almost nothing about Ghent. A small research prior to the trip had revealed to me that Ghent was also a historic place, with beautiful architecture, many churches and plenty of beer drinking opportunities.
Significantly bigger than Bruges, Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe during the Dark Ages. It hosts castles, churches, museums, beautiful squares, canals, and great, you guessed it, food.
Another short 2-day stay, but filled with endless hours of walking around, Ghent was a great host. The Gravensteen, St. Michael’s Bridge, St. Bavo’s Cathedral with the impossibly beautiful 12 wooden panels that make up “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, Ghent Belfry, and my personal favorite, Saint Nicholas’ Church.
I found Ghent to be busy, perhaps less attractive than Bruges, lacking the serenity experienced just hours before and not so many kilometers away. However, I did enjoy my stay and would recommend it. These historical places in Europe always manage to make me feel like part of the history of this continent. Perhaps it’s because I grew up learning about history, always enjoying museum visits, and leaning on the pillars that are the foundation of this place we Europeans call home, I feel a great buzz in my body when I travel around Europe.
But it was time to move on.
I asked for a cherry beer, not cherry pie
Last stop before moving on to Liège and finally enjoying some moldy air and asbestos was Antwerp.
Belgium’s second city, biggest port and home to painter Rubens, Antwerp was a great surprise. I knew very little about it, and the reason I had added this to my schedule was a) to see if I could get in the famous CDC, and b) because I wanted to grasp this opportunity of being in Belgium with no time constraints and see as much as possible.
CDC proved a fail as I did not manage to secure an entry point while I was there due to work being done on various points of the building. But Antwerp in general was a big success. Perhaps this was the stop on my trip I enjoyed the most in terms of pure relaxation. For some reason I find myself being able to cool off and relax in big urban spaces, rather than in small towns, or even the countryside. They are great of course and can offer me the right sense of solitude to decompress after a hard, long season of non-stop work, but it is in big cities that I find all the stress being lifted off me.
Not that Antwerp is compared to Brussels, Paris, London, New York and the rest in terms of size, population and busy vibes, but it was a huge contrast to Bruges and Ghent, and even Edinburgh where I was living at the time.
Of course I did spend my days walking as much as possible, wanting to see the major locations, and sights, enjoying the Rubenshuis enormously, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedral, the Grote Markt, the City Hall, walking along the river Scheldt, taking in the beauty of the small alleys with the cute cafes where I enjoyed great coffee and pastries. I even visited the big zoo right by the magnificent Antwerpen-Centraal (train station). I do not really endorse the idea of zoos, I definitely hate and am disgusted by circuses that used (or still use) animals, but I do admire the animal kingdom (and insects for that matter) that I can’t resist visits to really big zoos. [Sidenote: I have visited many-many times Edinburgh Zoo, from my student days in 2002, until I left in 2015, and got to speak to several people working there, and I must admit it is not easy to categorically condemn zoos in general as institutions. It is a big discussion and anyone suggesting otherwise in my opinion lives a semi-informed life.]
On a final note before wrapping the pre-Liège part of my trip to Belgium I need to discuss hostels. In all 3 cities I used hostels as my means of accommodation and loved them all, but the one I stayed in Antwerp was by far the better one. My very first hostel experience was during a disastrous short trip in Berlin in 2006 and the hostel was not the reason why the trip was so bad, but it certainly didn’t help. I always carried the notion that hostels are bad, dirty, and sharing rooms and bathrooms was not something to look for during your holidays. But eventually, I had to turn 30 and start really appreciating not just hostels as an experience, but the flexibility they allow you financially and otherwise. I guess during the 21st century and especially the last 10 hostels have become something more than dormitories to stack up drunken tourists, where you can have your stuff stolen or worse (no, the movie was never a basis for my assumptions). I have been to, and checked online hostels that are extremely cool in terms of design, amenities, entertainment options etc. Absolutely I agree that the younger you are the more you will enjoy all aspects of hostel living, but if you are traveling solo, or with your friends, never discard the hostel option from the table.
How do you like them structures?
Arriving at Liège-Guillemins railway station it is impossible not to be taken aback by the sheer size of it. The imposing structure, built by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is something you either hate, or love, like most of his work. As an Athenian, I have come to know Calatrava’s work from up close, as he was commissioned by the Athens Olympic Committee 2004 to create several pieces of work for the 2004 Olympic Games. I can’t say that I am a modernist when it comes to design and architecture, I definitely adore Antwerp’s train station for instance, but I must give room for applause to the likes of Calatrava and admit that buildings like Guillemins really make for some amazing photography opportunities.
Upon my arrival, I soon met up with V and as it was late in the day and we would do no exploring until the next morning, she took me for a nice walk in the city center, showing me some highlights along the way and enjoying a great diner and drinks.
Here is a teaser from the next two posts.