Monday, April 13, 2009

Waterways of Holland and Belgium - Day 4

In the morning we woke up docked in Ghent, Belgium. The dock is in an industrial area, and exploring the city was not feasible. After breakfast we boarded motor coaches in our color-coded groups, headed for Brugge, a medieval city, which has very little new construction. There is probably much new inside many of the buildings, but the local ordinances require that the outside of buildings must remain as they were before. As usual the streets were paved cobblestones. We saw people repairing an area of street and sidewalk with cobblestones. I was reminded of what my tour guide in Rome had said about the city choosing to use cheap alternatives for repair after digging up the street. No such problem here. As you can see in the photo, they use the real thing. Our guide told us that stone masons are well paid.

The road to Brugge was quite picturesque, and the countryside was quite neat, although to my mind, not as pretty as Holland. From the point where we got off the bus, we walked into town. The skyline was dominated by the cathedral, which is undergoing restoration at this time. Brugge is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is certainly the reason that the exteriors of buildings must remain as they were. The city has been flourishing since the 12th century. It became a deep-water part, when an arm of the North Sea came to town as a result of storms. The city became involved in the wool industry, and used wool tapestries on the walls to serve as insulation of their drafty stone buildings.

We went on a canal ride as part of the tour. I recall the helmsman's commentary as being interesting and informative, although I can't remember any of what he said.

There is one amazing square in the town where you can see Gothic, Neoclassical, Roman and Baroque architecture all in one place, which we saw on our walking tour. After the tour was completed we were free to wander around on our own. Our program manager had given each of us 15 euros with which to buy lunch. We chose to eat at Bistro de Schilder, where we dined on Croque Messieur (a fried ham & cheese sandwich). Brugge is famous for making chocolate and lace, so after lunch we went to the Choco-Story museum, a museum which is devoted entirely to the story of chocolate, from its cultivation to its history of use in various societies. It was quite interesting, but the best part was their chocolate-making demonstration - with samples, and getting to buy some chocolate in their gift shop. We like dark chocolate so we got some Costa Rica 64% pastilles, which were wonderful. We also stopped at the shop of a local chocolatier to buy gifts for family and friends.

On the way back to our ship we had a bit of a driving tour through Ghent, when the driver was trying to avoid traffic. Ghent also appears to be a pleasant city, possibly worth a visit in the future. It is a large port city with a university, and it has been heavily involved in the wool and textiles industry. Much brick is used in the buildings, and the roofs are either slate or tile.

We spent a full day on this tour, and by the time we walked back to the buses we were very tired. For me it was a great introduction to Belgium, a country with which I had previously been totally unfamiliar.

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