We’ve been in Belgium – a spur-of-the-moment decision not entirely unconnected with the existence of a reasonably cheap flight from Perugia to Charleroi. L thought Bruges might be a good base, but fortunately changed his mind and went for Antwerp.
We visited Bruges though. In the half hour after our train got in at 9.30am, we rented bikes and pedalled to the lovely Begijnhof, along deserted canals beneath glorious trees. It was only later that we realised how privileged we’d been.
About ten the day trippers start arriving, great hordes packing into a quaint but cramped centro storico. We rattled round the empty Groeninge museum – most day trippers don’t care for Flemish primitives it seems – then exited into the melée. Claustrophobia mounting, we pedalled out of town for lunch, way down the canal towards The Netherlands to Damme, where a cackling old man straight out of a Breughel allowed us to climb the pigeon-shit-filled steeple of a roofless church for a view over long lines of poplars winding along with the canal that circles the town.
Our return was held up, in a very Belgian way, by a barge with an Audi lodged on its back deck making its interminable way through a canal lock, drawbridges going up and down to allow it passage, and massed bicycles idling by the barriers.
Back in Bruges, panic took us by the throat and we fled – though that word implies speed and of course there was none of that as we forced our bikes through the masses – back to the station and inexplicably empty Antwerp. How precious that quiet morning half-hour seemed!
Why has tourism become this? It made Venice seem almost calm in comparison.
There were long cantankerous queues for quick rides in ugly tin craft around the canal (there’s only one, really) where boats jostled for space. Narrow bridges with picturesque backdrops were blocked by irritated photo-snappers, frustrated that others kept getting between them and their subject. Everywhere you looked, guides were shepherding droves of visitors in a linguistic cacaphony. Few seemed to be enjoying themselves – or maybe I am projecting my feelings towards them on to them.
I found myself asking myself the same questions that come to me in Venice. And, I suppose, in CdP. Is it misguided local authority policy that makes places end up like this? Is it permits given to too many shops selling tack? too many Ye Olde Chocolate Shoppes? too many ‘historic’ boat trips in ugly overcrowded vessels?
There must surely be a pull factor. It can’t just be operators deciding that Bruges/Venice/poor benighted Barcelona is THE place and packing their clients in. If it’s policy, it’s shameful and extraordinarily short-sighted. Day trippers are a dead weight and a dead loss. The longer I struggle with my tiny perch in CdP, the more I think it’s vital that anyone involved in tourism should bring value and appreciation rather than just hordes – a concept I’m trying to develop with other potential hosts here. And so where do we send the travelling masses? Putting the fear of god into all those would-be visitors to those vast resorts on the north African coast – forcing them to crowd into startled Bruges et al – could be interpreted as one of the cruellest legacies of Islamist extremists.
We liked Antwerp, though. What a fun buzzy city. Somehow it felt more southern than northern European – a very good thing in our eyes. Though oddly quiet (mid-August?), it felt like a busy place, with its port and its offices and its superabundance of eateries.
L had promised this would be one holiday where he wouldn’t don lycra and leave me, a cycle widow, to entertain myself. To compensate, we joined the city’s remarkably functional bike sharing scheme and pedalled the length and breadth of the place.
We approved of the way many one-streets were specifically designated as places that bikes were allowed to go the wrong way, and how no one seemed to disapprove of cyclists on any pavements that weren’t particularly crowded. Sensible.
We left for the city – fleeing our merciless summer of heat and drought, which still hasn’t relented, even on the cusp of autumn – with uncharacteristically little forward planning, and so were pleasantly, unexpectedly charmed at the Plantin-Moretus museum. What a joy printing is! And how magically it encapsulates our learning and our cultural development. The museum, with its presses and its documents and its evocation of the printed word in so many forms is completely mermerising.
Ghent was our last-day stopover, mostly to see the in restauro Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – though we managed to squeeze in a Mich-starred lunch too The altarpiece is in pieces, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The glorious central panel is being worked on behind glass at the museum of fine arts: your view here is at eye-level, remarkably close-up – better, probably, than were it in its rightful place in the cathedral. And though you’re deprived of the impact of Van Eyck’s work as a whole composition, taking it piece by piece gives you that frisson of experiencing a very special privilege.
I’m taking that task day by day at the moment, refusing to hurry: I take bags full of stuff up and place them more or less where they will go in the long run, my heart sinking slightly each time I think that the carpenters will return to finish off X and the fabbro (metalworker) to do Y. These artisans, gifted as they are, are hopelessly blind to the mess they make at the best of times; in a place which they’re used to treating as a building site, what are the chances that they will handle it gingerly as a spotlessly cleaned living space? Zero, I’d wager. I dread being forced back to that sticky-dusty-messy stage.
Last weekend a friend came to stay – a friend with a spectacular house to rent and a long pedigree as a PR in the luxury travel sector among others. She asked me how I was planning to market my suites. I told her that perhaps I had been focussing too hard on just getting the damned place finished; that marketing hadn’t really been in the forefront of my mind.
Well when you work it out, she said, can you let me know because I certainly haven’t found the key… slightly disconcerting from someone with her background.