Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The first day out of Dover, we sailed across the North Sea to Antwerp, Belgium, a distance of about 100 miles. We had no illusions about Belgium. In fact when we booked the trip, we didn't know we were going there. But it turned out to be a pleasant and informative experience.

We arrived on Belgian Independence Day, July 21st, and much of this major seaport city was closed. Belgium declared its independence in 1830 when it split off from the Netherlands under King Leopold I and, like England, became a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy.

Since then, and even before, this small lowland country has been known mainly for being the battleground of Europe. It was invaded by Germany in both World Wars, but it was also the theater of several wars in the 1600's and 1700's between France, Spain and Austria.

The whole country is about the size of the State of Maryland. We toured the Flanders region where the people speak Dutch and Flemish. The other large region is French speaking Wallonia in the South. The Brussels Capital region is bi-lingual. The government has to reflect these major divisions which can be cumbersome.


We drove an hour or so to Bruges (rhymes with rouge), a famous medieval city known for its beautiful canals and churches. Our tour would be ending in New York, so we were depressed to see the highway exit for Hoboken. Oh no! we're back on the Garden State Parkway. Maybe we can at least tour Frank Sinatra's birthplace.
We continued on however, and as we drove through the suburbs of Bruges, we saw American style houses with one-car garages and neatly manicured front lawns.

On arriving in Bruges, a city of 117,000, our first stop for the tour was the public bathroom by the market which was closed for the holiday. The bathroom was closed too, but soon enough a middle aged lady arrived with a key. We all went inside, but on emerging, she wouldn't let us exit without paying the equivalent of about 50 cents. Many of the people on our tour had credit cards but no Euros, but this lady held her ground, with her male "enforcer" brandishing a big stick. I wasn't about to give her a 50 Euro note, but I found a $1 American bill which I gave her to ransom Dianne and me. She reluctantly accepted. I don't know what Belgian jails are like, but I didn't want to find out.

Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage City with unique medieval architecture. In the 1400's, it was a major commercial center and one of the largest cities in Europe. It was a city that produced things, and many of the structures are still intact. We walked past the carpenter's guild, the mason's guild and the shoemaker's guild. As artisans and professionals do today, the people of that era organized associations to lobby and promote their interests.

We took a boat ride through the maze of canals which have made many describe Bruges as the "Venice of the North." Ducks and swans shared the canal with us. We saw a big hound dog lying on a second floor window with his head hanging down as he lazily observed us.

The skyline is dominated by spectacular medieval spires and churches like the Church of Our Lady with its 400 foot spire. The 13th Century 300 foot Belfry is famous for its 48-bell carillon. At the dead end of the canal stands a statue of Jan Van Eyck, the Flemish painter.

Bruges today has an economy based on tourism. The tourists purchase a lot of locally produced beer and chocolate. Belgium has over 120 breweries producing 400 types of beer. Popular brands include Brugse Zot, Vieux Bruges and Kwak. Bruges is considered the best city in the world for beer lovers by TravelTopLists.com, beating out other top ten world cities like Munich, Dublin, Prague, Amsterdam and Portland, OR.(!) Milwaukee was not on the list. Belgians also like their chocolate. Belgium is No. 2 in the world in per capita consumption of chocolate.


After lunch, we drove another hour through the Belgian countryside. The small farms grow corn, wheat and grapes. We were told that people don't eat the corn, the cattle do. We entered the city of Ghent, the second largest city in Belgium with a population of 250,000. To Americans, Ghent is famous for the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812. It was signed in December, 1814, a month or so before the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. They didn't have CNN in those days, and the news of the Treaty had not reached America yet. So, in the words of the Johnny Horton song, the British kept a runnin', down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

We arrived in time for the big Independence Day celebrations, with the black, yellow and red striped Belgian flags flying from every building. Just like in the U.S., bands were playing, and thousands of revelers milled about, patronizing the food and beer stands. The main square in front of St. Bavo's Cathedral was the site of the festivities. The Marriott Hotel is in a faux medieval building. Most of the stores were open, peddling Belgian lace, chocolate and souvenirs. One store had a hawker dressed as a medieval knight to bring people into the shop. He was kind enough to pose with me for a photo.

Walking back to our bus, we passed a prominent statue of a man named Lievin Bauwens whose claim to fame was that he stole the spinning jenny from England and started the Belgian lace and textile industry. The story is that the spinning jenny was invented in 1764 by the Englishman James Hargreaves who named it after his daughter Jenny who accidentally knocked over the family spinning wheel. He noticed that it kept spinning. Opportunity knocked here, and Hargreaves got the idea to run a whole series of spindles off one wheel. The Industrial Revolution was in its glory in England at that time.

Keeping a good idea secret is difficult in any era. The young Bauwens was an industrial spy, sent to England to live and observe the Industrial Revolution. He smuggled the device into Belgium where he set up a textile operation in Ghent. He did his job so well that the good people of Ghent elected him mayor.

Our group walked about a half a mile back to the bus, and we only lost one of our group. Strangely, his wife didn't seem too upset. We waited around while they searched for him. As you can imagine, they don't like to lose tourists. Finally, the bus had to leave to make it back to the ship in Antwerp in time for the sailing. While driving back, the ship called the guide to inform us that the guy somehow made it back on his own. We never found out how he did it.

Our ship sailed North from Belgium across the stormy North Sea toward Bergen, Norway, a distance of more than 600 miles, bypassing all of England and Scotland. The top speed is about 24 knots, and the ship was going lickety split through the rough seas, kicking up spray splashing up on the 10th deck windows. Many passengers were seasick, and none of them were first timers on cruise ships. The dining room was half empty for dinner.

For the safety of the performers, they had to cancel the song and dance show for the evening. However, we were treated to a terrific performance by the lovely Kaitlyn Carr, a Scottish singer and performer who sang Scottish and Irish songs and also played a mean flute and piccolo. She sang and played Danny Boy, bringing tears to the eyes of the audience.

NEXT; Bergen, Norway: Our Norwegian friends take us shopping at the Torget.



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