Discovering Belgium….and its Beer!

I have long since wanted to visit Belgium and its beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bruges and last month I was fortunate enough to finally do so. Cited as "an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement" full of equally outstanding photographic opportunities I was sure, my husband and I booked ourselves a week in the city to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.

I’ll be honest, I did little in the way of research before we departed Scotland, such had been the demands on our time beforehand. I had simply booked flights to Brussels Charleroi airport and a guest house in the City Centre. It was only a few days before we left home, when preparing travel paperwork, that I realised both were 140kms apart! I scolded myself for not having spent enough time researching beforehand, but I needn’t have worried. Flibco airport buses were parked right outside the airport terminal to take us the 2.5 hour road trip to Bruges for only €21 each, considerably less than the feared €150 taxi fare! 

Other than this airport transfer, my tardiness when it came to preparation thankfully had no further repercussions. On arrival at our accommodation in Bruges we found ourselves right around the corner from the city’s most photographed location, the Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai), centred where the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet. Seeing this location in photographs was what sold me on a visit to Bruges and it was as beautiful in real life as I had imagined it to be. In fact it was more so. The Rozenhoedkaai was reportedly a salt port in the Middle Ages. Boats loaded and unloaded the precious commodity that was in those days as expensive as gold, due to its ability to preserve food and season dishes. Our first couple of evenings were spent photographing this idyllic little corner in calm conditions, giving beautiful reflections that wouldn’t be repeated for the rest of our time there. The unexpected icing on the cake was how few other serious photographers were there, meaning we didn’t have to jostle for position and a spot to set down our tripods.

Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai) Click image to enlarge

Beyond the Rozenhoedkaai, I knew little more of Bruges so we simply spent our days meandering the streets and network of canals, letting the city charm us as we went. Horse-drawn carriages transported eager tourists through its winding cobbled streets and boat trips chugged along the calm waters of the canals. We however preferred to walk, exploring all the little side streets and hidden corners, accessible only by foot.  

Basilica of the Holy Blood Click image to enlarge

Romanesque lower chapel, Basilica of the Holy Blood Click image to enlarge

Bruges is one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe, its extraordinary architecture splendidly ornate. Its political centre, The Burg Square, was one of the earliest inhabited squares in the city. It has on show a variety of architectural styles, from the Gothic City Hall dating back to 1376 to the smaller Renaissance period Old Civil Registry (1537).  In the corner of the The Burg Square is one of the smallest and most interesting of buildings, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, its façade decorated with gilded statues and medallions of the Counts of Flanders and their partners. One rainy afternoon we took shelter in the 12th Century Basilica, made up of a Romanesque lower chapel and a Gothic upper chapel. Our timing was opportune in that its most famous sacred relic was on display to the public, a vial reportedly containing the blood of Jesus Christ. We each took to the pulpit to spend a few seconds in front of the vial with our own thoughts before quietly moving on. No matter what your beliefs, it was hard not to feel moved by what was a very spiritual experience in a city heavily populated with churches and cathedrals. A subsequent visit to the Begijnhof convent, founded in 1245 and now occupied by Sisters of the religious St. Benedict Order, was similarly very poignant.

Nun of the Begijnhof convent Click image to enlarge

Nun of the Begijnhof convent Click image to enlarge

Brugse Zot Beer

Brugse Zot Beer

When our feet tired from the walking, we would stop off at one of the numerous restaurants and bars to rest and refuel. Queue an introduction to Belgian Beer! I have never been a beer drinker, other than the odd sip over the years. Belgium is said to be the fatherland of quality beer brewing however, so I felt it almost compulsory to give beer the opportunity to win me over as a refreshing and less potent alternative to a glass of wine. I started with what turned out to be the best beer of our trip, Brugse Zot, brewed in the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges itself. A blonde beer using an ancient and unique recipe, I found it immediately pleasant and very drinkable. What followed was an brief exploration of other beer offerings such as Duvel Cherry and the local Gruut Blonde, before I settled for the remainder of our holiday on enjoying the Brugse Zot. 

Four days into our trip we decided to take a spontaneous trip to the nearby city of Ghent, a 20 minute train journey from Bruges. Once again I had been attracted by some beautiful photographs I had seen online of the buildings on Graslei at night, lit up and reflecting in the Leie river. Of course such photographs require optimum conditions, the right light as well as low levels of wind to allow for mirror-like reflections. A quick check of the weather forecast was non-conclusive but we decided to go anyway, treating ourselves to a night in the boutique hotel 1898 The Post, the former post office of Ghent which takes pride of place in the Belgian city’s historic centre. On arrival we fortunately managed to secure an early check-in and a complimentary upgrade to a suite, making for a very special introduction to this city.

1898 The Post, Ghent Click image to enlarge

Graffiti Street, Ghent Click image to enlarge

Ghent was one of the most important cities in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, its economy underpinned by the wool trade. It was the first industrialised city in Europe, its development ceasing during the two world wars and Great Depression until the second half of the 20th Century. Today, wandering through the streets of Ghent really does give the feeling of stepping back into the 14th Century, such is the historic architecture on display. As we absorbed the city’s old world authenticity, I concluded that whilst slightly less refined than Bruges, as depicted by its legal ‘Graffiti Street’ which would have seemed out of character for Bruges, it compensated with an engrossing atmosphere that made it hard to choose a favourite between the two. Ghent hosts the largest student population in Europe, giving it a lively ambiance in the evening as students congregate in small groups along Graslei and Korenlei. Bruges on the other hand is an early-bedder, the city going into sleep mode shortly after 10pm. Both, I am happy to say, have a plethora of chocolate shops and waffle stands, indistinguishable in their quality (and we tried many just to test the theory!). As for the photography in Ghent, the weather Gods smiled down on us that evening and gave us a small window of perfect weather at Blue Hour before the heavens opened and rain swept away the last of the day.

Graslei, Ghent Click image to enlarge

Our final day was spent back in the city of Bruges, photographing the last corners of the city, drinking the last of its beer and sampling the last of its scrumptious Belgian chocolates. In what seemed like a heartbeat we found ourselves back on the Flibco bus, travelling the 140kms back to the airport for our short flight home, truly thankful of another place on that big old world map that we had been so fortunate to enjoy. 

Bruges Click image to enlarge

Impressions of Gdansk

Poland’s Gdansk has never featured on my list of ‘must visit destinations’.  That list is long and is prioritised and reprioritised regularly. Destinations making the cut range from nearby Scottish islands to the remote and harsh environment of Antarctica. Gdansk was never a consideration. With a looming Easter weekend offering the chance of a short photographic trip however, combined with a limited selection of flights that would fit that window of opportunity, Gdansk suddenly became a forerunner on the travel list. A short two-hour flight on the Thursday evening after a day in the office saw my husband John and I touch down on Polish soil by nightfall, giving us three full days to explore this compact port city on the Baltic Coast.  

Historical Gdansk

Somewhat embarrassingly I have to admit, I knew very little about Gdansk before deciding to visit. I didn’t know that it dated back to 997 or that during the Renaissance it was the most prosperous port on the Baltic, due to its strategic location between Northern and Western Europe. I didn’t know that by 1754 Gdansk, or rather ‘Danzig’ as it was then known, had the largest population of any Eastern European city, with an economy underpinned by grain exports of 200k+ tonnes per annum. Mostly importantly however, I didn’t know the critical importance of Danzig in one of the most monumental events of our times, World War II. Clearly, I should have paid more attention to history lessons when at school.

Danzig had been under the German Empire from the early 1800’s until the end of World War I. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty that brought WWI to an end, imposed punitive terms on defeated Germany, with German controlled West Prussia to become part of the newly formed Poland. Danzig, largely ethnically German at the time, became a semi-autonomous ‘free city-state’, governed under the auspices of the League of Nations. Situated on Poland’s Westerplatte peninsula, it consisted of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig and nearly 200 towns and villages in the surrounding areas. Special administrative ties to Poland were put in place, most notably via the Polish Corridor, a thin strip of land which provided Poland with access to the Baltic Sea.

This realignment of territory effectively meant that large numbers of German speaking people, if not evicted post the war, came under Polish rule.  German transport between East Prussia and Germany through the Polish corridor also became restricted.  Queue building tensions in advance of World War II. In the Spring of 1939, Hitler demanded the annexation of the Free City of Danzig back to Germany. He also called for rail access for Germany across the Polish corridor. With no concession to be made by Britain and France, the Nazi battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Danzig’s port on 1st September 1939, marking what was to become the first battle of World War II, the Battle of Westerplatte. Seven days later, Poland fell to the Nazis.

Front page of The Evening News, 1st September 1939 (click to enlarge)

Nazi Propaganda: Adolf Hitler arriving in the Free State of Danzig, 19 September 1939 (click to enlarge )

Local population fleeing a destroyed Danzig 30th March 1945 (click to enlarge)

The ensuing 6 years saw rapid escalation of the war, Allied Powers vs. Axis Powers tearing up lands across the world and leaving 70 million people dead. Danzig was razed to the ground, 90% of the historical buildings in the City Centre destroyed. After the war Gdansk was incorporated into Poland once again. Germans either fled or were expelled and the Poles renamed the city ‘Gdansk’. The reconstruction of Gdansk continues to this day.

Modern Day Gdansk

For our short break exploring the city, we decided to base ourselves centrally at the modern IBB Dlugi Targ hotel, overlooking the main Square of the old town. Having arrived late in the evening, we enjoyed a leisurely start to Good Friday, savouring a late breakfast of sausages, eggs and bacon, washed down with steaming hot cups of tea. Satisfied and ready for a day of exploring with the cameras, we ventured out to see what modern day Gdansk had to offer.

My immediate impression was that of a city with a beautiful simplicity to its architecture, reminding me very much of Amsterdam. As we wandered the cobbled main street of Dlugi Targ (Long Market), dwarfed by tall colourful buildings, I marvelled at the ornate paintings on the building facades. Like a phoenix from the flames, the old town of Gdansk has been painstakingly rebuilt, with many of the buildings said to be exact reconstructions of that destroyed in the war.  A feeling of stepping back in time befell me as I soaked in the atmosphere of this historic little city.

The Golden Gate, Long Market (click to enlarge)

The Fountain of Neptune (click to enlarge)

We photographed the iconic landmarks that the city is well known for on what was a crisp and sunny day. The Fountain of Neptune, the 1633 bronze statue of the ‘King of the Seas’, now a defining symbol of Gdansk. The Golden Gate, marking the start of Gdansk’s famous Long Market, the sightseeing heart of the city. The Main Town Hall, which today is the seat of the Gdansk museum. The restored 15th Century wooden Port Crane, once the biggest working crane in medieval Europe.

Gdansk Crane. Motlawa River (click to enlarge)

A light refreshment

A light refreshment

The city had a relaxed feel as we explored. It was busy but not overly so for what was a bank holiday weekend. I sensed Gdansk had yet to build up the tourist pulling power of other major European cities. This simply added to its charm. The comfort with which we could walk around, without having to push through crowds or bump into people, was an unexpected pleasure. When our feet tired from the hours of walking, taking a well-earned refreshment in a nearby bar that was not overly crowded was also very welcome.

The Garden Party (click to enlarge)

Whilst the Old Town of Gdansk will enthral even the most travelled of tourists, stepping just a few streets away from the main thoroughfares reminded me of the harder side to living in Poland. The townhouses rapidly started to lose their ornately painted facades. Tired buildings decorated in graffiti became the common view and garden areas lay untended. It was a stark and important reminder that living standards here still fall below many western European counterparts. Whilst progress is consistent, Poland becoming the first country of the former Soviet bloc to be graded as a developed economy by the FTSE in 2018, many Poles still continue to cut ties with their homeland in search of better prospects elsewhere in Europe. Those who remain carve out for themselves an often-hard living. Average income after tax in Poland was only £700 per month in 2018, offset of course by the lower cost of living, 43% lower than the UK.  

Poland’s lower living cost can be a magnet for bargain hungry tourists seeking value for money, a mid-range three course meal in a restaurant costing approximately £20.  Gdansk’s cuisine offers something for all tastes. Numerous restaurants and café bars entice passers-by with generous helpings of local and international delicacies. We enjoyed an exquisite meal at Café Bar Mon Balzac, one of the best we have had in years of travel. Fresh scallops and prawns to start, traditional duck dumplings for a main, and of course the obligatory chocolate brownie for dessert. All washed down with a couple of house special cocktails that made for a magical send off on our last evening. 

Dlugi Targ (click to enlarge)

 Our three days in Gdansk had passed in a whirlwind of walking, photographing, eating and drinking. We travelled home a few pounds heavier than when we left, but happy. Most importantly, we had a new found knowledge and respect for a brave little city on the Baltic coast that will live in our memories for some time.

The Town Hall Clock Tower (click to enlarge)