We had been told that Bruges was just like Ghent but with more tourists. The part about tourists was spot on; however, to us, Bruges felt very different. Bruges is a handsome city, to be sure.
There is probably more historic architecture there than in Ghent, and like Ghent, Bruges has its share of canals. Their difference is in their levels of liveliness. Ghent with its large student population and active locals seems like a real town, whereas the center of Bruges seems to have been given over almost entirely to tourists, many in large groups. The result is that the streets of Bruges have a museum-like feel. Of course, these opinions are based solely upon the impressions of only a few days and might change with longer acquaintance.
Another circumstance that affected our Bruges experience was that we were not alone for most of the visit. Conny and Jocki, friends from Frankfurt, drove over to join us and see the city. With them, we saw and did things that we might not have seen and done on our own.
One of these was to visit a French Fry Museum. Belgium is famous for its beer, its chocolate, and also for its frites (fries) that came with nearly every meal we ordered. I had only a vague idea of what a museum devoted to French fries might amount to, but I was game.
The visit was actually pretty interesting and began with the history and culture of the potato that originated in Peru. As for the fries, they originated in Belgium, but the country doesn’t get credit for it. We learned that during the First World War, American Doughboys were given fries by the Belgians, who, because they spoke French, were mistaken for French people. It was the soldiers who first called frites French fries.
Since our friends had a car, we decided to take a day trip to the North Sea city of Ostend. As things turned out, we didn’t see much of that town, which, in any case, didn’t impress us much. Instead, we sought out the open-air museum that is the Atlantikwall.
Following marked paths and reading information panels, I was fascinated by what I saw and learned. The Atlantikwall was constructed along the North Sea coast by the Germans during the First World War and again, but much more strongly, during the Second.
I looked at gun batteries, bunkers for soldiers to eat and sleep, and other bunkers where officers met and planned. Underground tunnels and trenches connected bunkers and gun batteries, many of which were equipped with field pieces captured from the Belgian army. It was the task of the German navy to build these defenses during both wars.
Hitler named the Atlantikwall when he ordered that 15,000 bunkers be built from the coast of Denmark all the way to the Franco-Spanish boarder. He wanted it done in record time, a task that couldn’t be accomplished. Instead, only key installations were built and maintained. I don’t know why I had never read about these defenses, which are so well preserved in Belgium. Their story is fascinating.
Conny and Jocki left us the morning of our last day in Bruges, a day we consigned to Museum going.
The Groeningemuseum, smaller than I thought it might have been, is dedicated to Flemish and Belgian artists from the so-called Primitives to the post-war painters.
Among the Primitives, I admired paintings by Pieter II Claeissens, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gerard David. There was a single work by the unique Jheronimus Bosh, a triptych of The Last Judgment from 1500-1505.
The painting that struck me the most was Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Cannon Joris van de Paele. The exquisite rendering of the faces, the garments, and even the carpet are something to behold.
Other galleries displayed expressionist works by Gustave van de Woestyne, Edgard Tytgat, and Jean Brusselmans. There were even a couple of Surrealist paintings:
Serenity (1970) by Paul Delvaux and
The Assault by René Magritte (1932). It was a very worthwhile visit.
The streets outside the museum were ridiculously crowded with tourists, most of whom thankfully don’t venture into museums.
At what had been Saint John’s Hospital, founded in the 12th century and now a museum, we looked at six paintings by Hans Memling, a painter dear to our hearts. His Portrait of a Young Woman (1480) with the trompe l’oeil detail of her hands resting on the picture frame is wonderful.
Kay and I admired Bruges, but after the excitement in Ghent, it was a bit of a let down.
Ypres was something else altogether. We had added this small city in western Flanders to our itinerary in order to visit the battlefields and the memorials to the 500,000 men, and boys mostly, who died in what is called the Ypres Salient during the four years of World War I. Though we stayed only two days, we have memories enough to last the rest of our lives.
The town itself was demolished to the point of obliteration by German artillery. That is why the way it looks today seems so remarkable. For instance, its large Markt square is dominated by the enormous Lakenhalle, what our guidebook describes as one of Belgium’s most impressive buildings. But it is not original. It is a perfect replica of the 13th-century cloth market destroyed during the war and is hardly 100 years old. The huge space on its first floor that once stored cargoes of wool now houses the impressive Flanders Fields Museum.
The afternoon of the same day we arrived, I booked a tour in a minibus led by a British guide named Roger. It lasted three-and-a-half hours and took us to three Allied and one German cemetery.
Before setting out, our guide, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, cautioned us not to try to understand the motivations of the soldiers of 100 years ago through today’s attitudes. Ideas of patriotism were different and much stronger then than now. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, you’ll recognize the accuracy of the guide’s words.
At the British cemetery known as Essex Farm, Roger showed us photos of what Ypres looked like before the war and after. He also showed us an aerial photo from the time that showed the area filled with craters made by artillery that became filled with water. Some soldiers drowned in these holes or became so mired in the mud and could not be rescued that they perished that way.
Because the salient forms a curve, the Germans, occupying what was considered the high ground, could attack from three sides. The enormous amount of artillery deployed for so many months destroyed every existing structure and every living thing, including wildlife, trees, bushes, and every blade of grass. Looking at the green and peaceful countryside today, it’s hard to imagine how complete was the devastation.
Poppies must have bloomed at times, though, because it was at the Canadian cemetery, with its memorial in the form of an obelisk known as the Brooding Soldier, that Roger showed us a bronze plaque inscribed with the poem Flanders Fields written in moments of intense emotion just after author John McCrea’s friend was killed by an artillery shell. Because it is a call to arms as well as a lament, the British made propaganda of it to encourage enlistment:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
That evening, back in Ypres, I walked to the Menin Gate, a huge memorial in the form of an arch located at one end of the main street at the point where an ancient moat once protected the city wall. The inner walls of the arch are inscribed with the names of the 54,896 ‘lost’ British and Commonwealth troops whose bodies were never recovered.
At the Gate, each evening at 8 p.m., buglers sound the Last Post in remembrance of the WWI dead. It’s a tradition begun in 1928. The form of the ceremony can vary. Sometimes there are pipers or choral groups.
Tonight’s was simple. A couple of elderly men carried flags to the middle of the street under the arch while the bugles sounded outside it. I had arrived at 7:45 and joined a crowd of hundreds already lined up several ranks deep on both sides of the street. When it was time, a man requested that the crowd remain silent. Thinking of the thousands of young lives sacrificed were moving moments.
I had been to Luxembourg before this. In August of 1966, as a 23-year-old, I was stranded in Luxembourg City for three days with a group of eight of my advanced French students. We were returning from a six-week study trip in France that I had organized and led. Our problem was that at that time all U.S. airlines had gone on strike together.
Our reservations were on Icelandic Airlines, in and out of Luxembourg, and although we had booked our seats months in advance, the airline was overwhelmed with travelers trying to get to the States at that time. It took three days for the airline to find seats for the nine of us, and during those days the company shuttled us around the duchy in a bus, feeding us, and finding us hotel rooms for the night. I have to admit that I remember hardly anything from that experience except that it had been a long six weeks, and we all wanted to go home.
This time, 53 years later, I was again at the end of a long trip and ready to go home. Kay was even more so than I was. Nevertheless, our three days in Luxembourg City made a pleasant conclusion to our journey.
The Duchy of Luxembourg is very wealthy, and that wealth enhances the city’s infrastructure in various ways. Like Brussels, Luxembourg City is divided into Upper and Lower Towns. This topography makes for some thrilling views, especially along the Chemin de la Corniche, a pedestrian-only esplanade at the edge the Upper Town. Strolling its length, we looked down on the historic district of the Grund where the Neumünster Abbey complex sits alongside the Alzette River. Rebuilt in 1606 by its Benedictine monks, the abbey with its church is today a large cultural center.
By the time we reached Luxembourg, we had had enough of museums and only went out to a suburb to visit Mudam, the city’s contemporary arts museum because it had been designed by I.M. Pei, who had just died at the age of 103. Though we admired its architecture and enjoyed being in its various spaces, what was on view in its galleries didn’t interest us much.
The best part of the visit was a weekend brunch for two that we partook of in the museum cafe. It came on a large round tray and contained individual dishes of roasted potatoes, roasted broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and peppers; pineapple pieces, ham rolled around cheese, salami, raisin and chocolate pastry, tiny slices of a terrine, and two slices of an egg dish whose fluffy texture was unlike anything we had eaten before. There was also fresh bread and butter, mineral water, apple juice, and coffee and tea. The brunch cost 20 Euros per person – expensive, but worth the price for this unusual meal.
I have to write that the highlight of our Luxembourg experience was a visit we made to the World War II American Military Cemetery and Memorial. Like other American military cemeteries we’d seen in Normandy, this one was in pristine condition. The more than 5,000 white grave markers were sparkling and the grass around them was tended like a lawn. Just beyond the entrance stands a tall chapel with this inscription:
“In proud remembrance of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices this memorial has been erected by the United States of America.”
Much of the symbolism contained in the cemetery has to do with resurrection and everlasting life.
The grave of General George S. Patton, Jr., who commanded the 3rd Army during its aggressive push from the Battle of the Bulge across the Siegfried Line and on to Oppenheim, lies apart from the others. This controversial figure died in December of 1945 in an automobile accident.
The weather was warm and lovely for our visit. There were a number of young men and women tending to the upkeep of the grounds and gravestones. I learned that they were volunteers from a local Air Force base and that several were from the State of Washington. None that I talked to thought they had lost relatives in WWII.
Kay and I were both proud and moved by the spectacle of sacrifice by young men from every state in the union. We know that were it not for them and others of their generation, we would not have had the lives we’ve enjoyed. At 1 p.m. before the end of our visit, we stood with others while a bugle blew Taps, followed by the Star Spangled Banner. It was a great moment to share so far from home.
Kay has reminded me to mention three unexpected moments during the trip when we were happily surprised by music: the first came in Maastricht on the King’s birthday when we came upon a sizable group of percussionists in Goth costume wailing away in an orchestraded manner in front of a church. We were fascinated by the sound of the group Bateria Volle Petaj and, although tired and cold, we stayed till the end of their concert.
On a different occasion while visiting St Nicholas Church in Ghent, an organist happened to be playing the church’s powerful instrument to our delight.
Finally, sitting at a café terrace on Luxembourg’s Place d’Armes, a string orchestra played a short concert of semi-classical music in the open on the square’s large gazebo. We were so please to hear that music while sitting in comfort with drinks at hand.
Nowadays, in our secular societies, where so many of us have eschewed the rituals of traditional religion, there is a palpable yearning for spiritual comfort. We read about the renewed interest in astrology on the part of Millennials. Witchcraft, too, along with other unorthodoxies, have become popular in some quarters. For our part, Kay and I have always found spiritual solace in the beauties of art and literature. We renew this comfort when we travel; in fact, it is one of our principal reasons for traveling. We wonder how many of you feel likewise?