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Published: July 23rd 2019
Today we have booked a train ride to Ghent in Belgium. We both think that it feels really special to be able to take a day trip to another country, which is a real novelty for us. It might be possible to do this from Melbourne, but you’d only get to spend much time in the other country during daylight hours if you happened to pick New Zealand, or possibly Papua New Guinea, and you’d still spend most of the day travelling. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s done this. I suppose you might contemplate going to Papua New Guinea for the day, if for no other reason than to avoid having to stay there overnight. Papua New Guinea is apparently a very dangerous place. I don’t sense from anything we've read that Belgium's dangerous.
We need to catch the Metro to Amsterdam Central station during the Monday morning peak, so we decide to allow ourselves lots of extra time to negotiate the crowds and the packed trains. When we get to our local Metro station it’s virtually deserted, and the train we get on is deserted too. We wonder if maybe it’s a public holiday, but if
it is the Google machine doesn’t know about it. Someone told us that most Amsterdamers leave their city during the summer to escape the tourists, but surely the city would need at least a skeleton staff to keep it running. Maybe everyone commutes on their bikes, but if that was the case why would they bother having a Metro at all. We start to contemplate less probable alternatives such as everyone having been abducted by aliens. We have noticed that everyone here still seems to be up and partying at 3am every morning, at least everyone who lives within screaming distance of our apartment, so the only plausible explanation we can come up with is that they just all start work late to allow themselves time to get over their hangovers.
The train takes us out into the rural areas of The Netherlands. There’s not too much wasted space here, and every available piece of land seems to be taken up with either crops, massive greenhouses or solar farms. We pass lots of wind farms as well.
We need to change trains in Antwerp. The departures board shows trains going to Shanghai and New York. We knew that
the train system here was amazing, but this goes a bit beyond our previous expectations. We then realise we are looking at the departures board for the airport. We’re not too sure why there’s an airport departures board in the middle of the train station, which is nowhere near the airport. The train we were supposed to catch when we booked these tickets several months ago doesn’t seem to exist any more. Issy says that this is a good thing because it means that we need to do something that wasn’t planned, and catch the next available train instead. I think Issy thinks that I tend to over-plan things.
We get off at Ghent and follow our noses across a canal into the old part of the town. We’d read that the old part of Ghent is one of best preserved medieval towns in the whole of Europe, and the buildings surrounding the first square we walk into do indeed look very old and well preserved. It is very cute. The only slightly off-putting thing is that the square is full of ferris wheels and other similar fairground paraphernalia, which does tend to detract from the scene slightly. They
don’t look like permanent features, and we wonder if we just happen to have come here during some sort of festival. We walk on past impressive scenes of ancient looking buildings along the edges of canals, and in a lot of places the buildings form the canal banks.
Next stop is the Gravensteen, or Castle of the Counts, which is a massive medieval fortress. The audio guide tells us that it was built in 1180 by Philip of Alsace and is believed to have been modelled on similar castles he saw in the Holy Land when he went there crusading. It was home to the Counts of Flanders from then until 1353. One of its main functions was to protect the Counts from the local citizens, who apparently weren’t all that keen on some of the Counts, and particularly some of the taxes they imposed. The Counts must have been seriously unpopular if they felt they needed a full blown medieval castle to protect themselves from their own citizens.
We stop for lunch at a restaurant next to a canal, which, like the square we were in before, seems to be lined with sound stages, bars and other
non-permanent festival type setups. We ask our waiter about this. He tells us that we just happen to have come here right in the middle of the ten day Ghent Festival, which is apparently one of the biggest and most popular festivals in the whole of Europe. He says that whilst this is very exciting and attracts huge numbers of visitors, it does very much detract from the authentic medieval appearance and feel of the town.
We decide to take a boat cruise along the canals, and our guide gives us a bit more of the history of Ghent. He tells us that in the Middle Ages Ghent was Europe’s second largest city after Paris. It was the second city in Europe to become industrialised after Manchester, and this came about as a result of one of its prominent citizens, Lieven Bauwens, smuggling plans of factories and machines out of England. The English responded by sentencing him to death; the people of Ghent responded by electing him mayor. Our guide’s commentary includes a lot of jokes at the expense of the Dutch, and we get the impression that there’s more than a little simmering rivalry between the Belgians and
their northern neighbours. Dutch beer and recent soccer results are singled out for particular attention.
We decide to go our separate ways for a while so that I can get my ration of churches and towers for the day, and Issy can get her ration of shopping. It’s important that we don’t get these activities confused. If Issy went Church visiting while I went shopping the mostly likely result would be that we would both fall asleep standing up.
I go into the massive Gothic 13th century St Nicholas Church, and then onto the 91 metre tall 14th century Belfry of Ghent, which is the old city’s tallest structure. I climb a narrow spiral staircase to the top; the views are excellent.
We agree that despite the canals Ghent has a very different feel to Amsterdam. Apart from the absence of the constant threat of being mown down by marauding cyclists, it feels a lot less frenetic generally. The demographic also seems to be different, although this might have a lot to do with the festival. There do at least seem to be some middle aged people here; Amsterdam seems to be almost entirely populated by people
On the way back to Amsterdam our train breaks down and we need to get off and take a detour through Rotterdam. I don’t think Issy’s too convinced that I can cope with two unplanned deviations from our itinerary in the one day. I take lots of deep breaths and lock myself in the foetal position, and by the time we get back to Amsterdam Station the seizures do seem to have become much less frequent.
We have dinner next to a canal; right next to a canal. If I move my chair backwards a few centimetres I’ll be in the canal. We decide to make night of it and have a few drinks at an Irish pub which seems to be in the middle of the Red Light District. We leave along an alleyway lined with premises populated by young ladies wearing not very much, and peering invitingly through the windows in the search for their next customers.
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