Friday, August 28, 2009

Knokke-Heist: one of Belgium's best-kept secrets

Belgium is a small country. But it has an even smaller coastline. This means very popular and crowded seaside resorts in the summer, when all Belgians decide they want some sand and sun. The best known resort is Ostende, from where the ferry leaves for England. I'll take you to Ostende in a few days, but today I would like to write about our favourite coastal find... Knokke-Heist, a very elegant resort with some very expensive villas and shops and restaurants to go along with them. And if you need another parking space...they start at 55,000 euros...On the beach many of the visitors have their own 'cabanas' which are generally painted white, although I would expect that in time to come, they may be decorated. I'm not sure what they cost, but in other countries we have visited they can be the same price as a small house in Winnipeg.The waterfront is a very lively place, with a parade of dense 'wall-to-wall' highrise buildings, lots of bicycles and colourful public art. There are also some very colourful people, such as this elegant dandy, dressed in pink who I saw strutting along the waterfront. Later on, I found a shop where he might buy some of his clothes....I also discovered something quite unusual here, compared to other parts of Belgium. The houses match one another! Not everywhere, but certainly in one very nice part of town where it would appear that a zoning provision mandates that all of the buildings must be painted white. The result is a very attractive neighbourhood effect.Wandering around this resort, one could feel the sophistication and economic strength of this small country which enjoys a very good quality of life and standard of living. Belgium is not a country one normally thinks of as a place for a vacation, but based on what we have seen so far, we feel it was a very wise choice for a three week European holiday. Although I'm not yet prepared to pay 185 euros for these shirts! (Gary Pooni probably would!)

Kortrijk: a prosperous place

It only gets one star in the Michelin Guide, but we had a wonderful afternoon in this very prosperous and lively town. We arrived just as the summer festival was in full flight and would like to have spent more time. However, we very much enjoyed the activity in the main town square which is lined with restaurants and cafes....we need more similar spaces in Vancouver.

Sally particularly liked the Begynhof St. Elizabeth, a residential area for women who did not subscribe to conventional religious thinking. Anyone familiar with her religious attitudes whould know that she would have had to live there!We had a wonderful guided tour of the 13th century church by a man with a very open attitude to religion...however even he felt a certain sadness as he described how each successive religious group seemed determined to wipe out the religious symbols of those who went before them. Sort of reminded me of the Taliban, amongst others...

Glorous Ghent

Ghent is a very lively city with a population of 240,000 of which 43,000 are students, and they all have bicycles. It was once the second city of northern Europe after Paris, and the signs of its wealth are evident in its architecture. This is a medieval city whose buildings have been retained and restored.

It also has a system of canals and one can take a boat trip...not as interesting as Bruges, but still a good way to see the city. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what this sign is warning me on-line translation services do not seem to agree! (Ed.Note: Thomas, my neighbour in Zomergem has subsequently offered the following explanation: )

The somewhat unusual sign on the water in Ghent was referring to global warming. Nick Balthasar, a film director from Ghent has gathered 10.000 people on the Ostend beach to dance for 'The Big Ask Again'. U2 offered their tune 'Magnificent' for free for the videoclip of the event. The clip is a big urge to the decisionmakers at the climate summit of Copenhague to finally do something. It is Balthasar's second clip on this item. The previous one was called....The Big Ask.You can travel by horse and carriage, but you really can't get around by car...indeed, I am told that Ghent has the largest car-free area in Europe. We parked in one of the many underground garages with rates comparable to Vancouver. (I was interested to find both public washrooms and vending machines in the underground why don't we do that?)

In most respects I found Ghent to be far more interesting than Bruges. I was particularly taken with the variety of architecture, both old and new. There are numerous shopping districts with many of the same stores as Vancouver. However, there are also many unique to the city. In terms of prices, we generally found things to be more expensive than in Vancouver. In many places, a Euro (worth about 1.55) is a dollar. Indeed, items that were priced in international shops and international currencies might sell for 49 euros and $45 US and $50 CDN, although occasionally the US and Canadian price was shown to be the same amount. But still less than in euros.Not surprisingly, Ghent has some wonderful restaurants. On the advice of our Michelin guide we ate in Pakhuis, an oyster bar and brasserie in an old industrial warehouse. I was particularly taken with the men's washroom with its unusual fixtures and high-tech hand dryer which uses a curtain of hot air.Towards the end of one day's touring, we got on a tram to explore a bit around the city. We came upon the Flanders Expo and this somewhat unusual sight...
As I learned about the history of the city with its periods of great wealth and subsequent periods of decline, I could not help but think of Vancouver whose economy was once built on lumber, mining and fishing but today is dependent on tourism, the service sector and some limited high tech activity. I wonder what the guide books will say about us a hundred years from now.

In Bruges

It was a wonderful film. But its an even better city with a significant architectural heritage. For those who haven't visited it before, (or for a while), the city is essentially an open air museum, with magnificent streetscapes lining a network of canals. The Michelin Guide describes it as 'a dream-like vision of the Middle Ages'. It was granted status on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.You can take a 30 minute boat trip along the waters, (a must) or a horse drawn carriage ride through the city. (not a must). But you don't really want to drive. One of the best ways to see the city is by bike, since bikes have precedence over motor vehicles throughout the city.While it is extremely beautiful, I must say I preferred Ghent and Antwerp since these feel more authentic...indeed, they are more authentic since they are working cities. But Bruges, or Brugge as it is called here, is a must see in Belgium.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Euro Banknotes: ages and styles of European Architecture

While Canadian banknotes feature, amongst other things, children playing hockey and the art of Bill Reid, I have just come to realize that European banknotes all feature architectural details...
windows and gateways; and according to my Michelin Guide, 'bridges symbolizing European openness and cooperation'.

The guide goes on to note that the images are stylized representations of architecture typical of each period rather than specific structures.

I mention this since I sense that there is a much greater interest in architecture amongst the general public in Europe than in North America. Here in Belgium, there is a fascinating mix of styles and constant evidence of an interest in the buildings, furniture stores and public street works. I will write more about this in future posts. In the meanwhile, take another look at the money. It doesn't last long over here!

The Garmin Navigator: my new best friend!

When I bought my Prius, I considered adding the navigation option. But at a cost of $3,000, it just didn't seem worth it. I remember telling this to my friend Neil Kornfeld who exclaimed $3,000....that's nothing, my car navigator costs me over $100,000 a year (after all, I have to feed her, buy her jewelry....

Before leaving Canada, Sally gave me a portable navigation device for our car in Europe. I must confess, I wondered whether it would work in the smaller villages and along the narrow roads of rural Belgium. BOY WAS I WRONG, THIS THING IS FANTASTIC!

I can't even begin to understand how it works. But if you haven't used one, you simply type in the place you want to go to, and a street address if you have one, and it provides you with a map, an estimated time of arrival, and very detailed instructions, accompanied by a lovely lady's voice to tell you when and where to turn. And if you don't turn when you ought to....RECALCULATING!...and then the instructions begin again.

What I didn't expect is that the unit also gives me the applicable speed limit, my speed, and warns me whenever there is speed radar along the road. This is invaluable, especially in countries where speeding fines are very expensive.

The amazing thing is that it is supposed to work in every country in Europe. It can be programmed into different languages. It is quite remarkable.

Last week there was a photo in the French newspaper of an unbelievable traffic jam....hours long, and if I understood the caption correctly, it implied that this is what happens when everyone's GPS system directs them to the same road all at once...pity, since there are so many lovely little roads in France.

I mention this since we too often want to avoid taking the major problem. We just program in an intermediate destination that will take us along a different and potentially more scenic route.

Garmin has completely transformed our driving experience and I highly recommend the affordable nuvi 275T navigation unit. And when I get home, I can apparently add in 'hands free calling', regular traffic reports, and (if I want) notices of special sales in stores en route. What else can I say?

Friday, August 21, 2009

bicycles, mussels,mirrors and chocolate delights

If I had to pick one word to describe Belgium, or (Jimbel as young Mark Hiscox used to call it) I would have to pick ECLECTIC. It is such a MIXTURE of styles and peoples and things. In some ways, it is similar to Canada, but then there are a lot of differences. Below is a list (in no particular order) of 10 things that are a bit different here.

1. Provisions for cyclists. Like Holland, (after all, Belgium used to be part of Holland) cyclists are everywhere. And not only are there very well defined pathways, there is also a cyclists' 'highway' network with its own set of numbers. Bicycle route 1 starts in Zomergem.I've noticed some interesting pathway arrangements. Along the main streets of our town, there are red pavers marking the pathways (and providing a smoother road surface). Just outside of town, I found this new stretch of road where the bicycle path is between the parked cars and sidewalk. (I saw a similar arrangement in Gothenberg.) And to illustrate how cyclists are celebrated, I found this sculpture in a Bruges square.2. Mussels. Mussels seem to be a national dish. But in the grocery stores I've been to, they are sold in vacuum packed trays, not in mesh bags like we find in Canada. There is also a large variety of sauces that can be purchased. Moules frittes are sold everywhere, which is why you need to ride a bike!3. Mirrors. At many intersections, one finds large mirrors to help see if cars or cyclists are coming. I know we sometimes have them on private driveways, but here they are much more common. I suspect there are dangerous intersections in Vancouver that could benefit from some well placed mirrors.4. Unusual houses. When we were on our world trip, I wrote about the architectural harmony one often found. Sometimes it was the result of the use of a common material (sandstone in Jaiselmer) or colour (Dubrovnik in Croatia) or scale (Warsaw). There was one exception...Albania which was a riot of colour and scale. Well, I've found another exception...Belgium! I've never seen such variety in terms of style, colour and materials. It's as if everyone wants to stand out and be different! However, if Zomergem is typical, there's a great sense of pride exhibited, with well trimmed hedges and flowers.5. A dozen eggs. Of course, you don't buy a dozen eggs here. You buy ten, since this is a metric country. (When will Canada change?) However, so far we haven't bought eggs, since we have chickens in the yard, and a refrigerator full of eggs, each marked with the date it was hatched. (When will Vancouver grocery stores start selling eggs with....)6. Window Shutters. I first noticed window shutters when I stayed with my sister who lived in France. At the time, I thought they were a great idea, and wondered why we didn't install them. Now that we have an increased interest in energy conservation, (and crime prevention) I'm thinking they would be an even better idea. Most new homes have shutters built into the window.7. Bread Matics and Mobile Pizzas. Outside our local bakery is a machine that dispenses bread when the store is closed. (between 12 and 2 and after 6, which is typical for most retail businesses.) And if you want pizza, there's a pizzamobile set up in the otherwise beautiful small town square!8. Beer. If mussels are the national dish, beer is the national drink. There is an incredible variety of offerings with varying alcoholic content and some unusual names. My favourite is Chimay, made by the peres trappistes, (which I assume are monks). A dark beer, it has a 9% alcoholic content. But other beers (palm?) are lighter in colour and alcohol.9. Brick Block Construction. While the buildings have varying styles, most new buildings seem to built from a masonry block...even small single family houses. While this is obviously done since they don't have forests, I am wondering why we don't use more block. As an aside, when I built Elm Park Place, architect Richard Henriquez insisted that we use a block wall behind the exterior masonry, rather than the more typical steel studs and gypsum board. (I suspect an increasing number of high rise condominium owners will soon wish their architect had been so caring.)10. Chocolate Delights. Yes, Belgium is famous for its chocolate. But I was still surprised when I discovered these chocolates in a shop window on a delightful street in historic Bruges!