Wherever you look on the web, you’ll never find two sites that agree on the location for the best Christmas market. Cologne is always a popular choice, as are Brussels, Prague and Vienna. Manchester appears in some articles produced by more broad-minded writers. It’s true that seasonal markets in Northern towns have improved year on year and are now part and parcel of people’s pre-Christmas celebrations. It’s certainly a chance for French and German tradespeople to give cities such as Manchester and Liverpool a feel of of being really European. Which is ironic as we currently seem to be doing our best to detach ourselves from this mutually beneficial relationship.
So, this year, I’m taking my Northern sensibilities abroad to experience what Belgium has to offer in Ghent and Bruges.
As I poured down his throat our last
measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news
from Ghent . (Robert Browning)
It’s 400 miles door to door from the UK to our temporary home in Ghent, Belgium. Midlands traffic is tortuous, as ever, with congestion and roadworks and it’s almost a pleasure to emerge from the Channel Tunnel onto the E17 where people understand that the inside lane is not where you go if you’re travelling slowly but where you start out from as you begin to overtake traffic and where you end up in once you have done so.
At Folkestone you stop at passport control where documents are checked and there is a distinct police presence as you leave the country. Fifty yards further on, you drive into the French passport zone. Barely a glance, a casual wave of the hand and you drive on. A desolate posting for a young French customs official, fresh from the Douane Training School with thoughts of exposing multi-million euro drugs deals or people trafficking across eastern borders. Instead, he’s resigned to a stool in a lonely booth waving pensioners through whose only thought is to stock up on the Camembert and Jules Destrooper Ginger Thins at the Hypermarche.
Ghent / Gent
(Accommodation : https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/4131768)
We’re staying in Helig-Hartstaad, a suburb in the south of Ghent and an area that is ethnically diverse. The population seems to be primarily Turkish with a wide range of typical Middle eastern eateries. There is a strong Muslim presence as well as other ethnic groups. The Church of the Holy Heart, after which the area takes its name, is across the square and our accommodation is, as usual, slightly quirky.
Diana’s used to be the local hairdressers but now is an apartment available for rent with private properties on the second and third floors. The wide open front window is testament to the apartment’s previous life and I sit in the kitchen, looking out through a wall of glass and into the square. People seem to be less concerned about looking in and it’s surprising how quickly you can adjust to what initially feels to be rather a goldfish-bowl existence. The rest of the apartment is tucked away at the back: lounge, bedroom and bathroom, outside patio and cellar. Upstairs, the residents seem to come and go at all hours, as day-time work starts and night-time shifts finish. But it’s fine for a couple of days and isn’t the prime reason why we’ve come to Belgium.
I never realised that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor was born in Ghent, but am even more suprised to find out that Bradley Wiggins was born here as well. The Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended the war of 1812 between the United States of America and The United Kingdom. I’ve always felt Belgium to be living in the shadows of its neighbours. Famous for Poirot, Tin-tin, Mr Biro, Chimay, praline and endless quantities of chocolate, I thought it would be hard to move much beyond that.
However, first impressions are good. The drivers negotiate the streets with more than a passing concern for the vast number of cyclists who have dedicated tracks, priority at traffic lights and priority over pedestrians. People are pleasant, not so much as a Gallic shrug in sight.
There was a time when the British came to Europe with empty car boots and stocked up with slabs of beer at a few Francs a litre and bought wine in plastic bottles or imitation barrels. They’d ply friends and relatives with it on returning home, declaring how they’d paid less than an English pound for a bottle, while teeth discoloured and varnish disappeared from the tables under which the glasses had been placed.
Those days are rapidly disappearing. There are still bargains to be had but the quality of wine on offer has improved and the prices are reflecting a more discerning taste. The billboard posters at the Channel Tunnel still proclaim the 99p bottle from the Cite Europe in Sangatte; but, in reality and further inland, the same deals are not to be had. At Carrefour in Ghent there are few bottles on offer at less than five euros and many more at ten, fifteen or even twenty and upwards.
The walk into the centre of town from the suburbs takes you through narrow streets of terraced housing. Some have survived well and still bear the signs of their original brick and decorated upper floors. Others are more modern. It seems we’re not the only ones who are staying in converted shops. It seems that as businesses closed, planning gave way to the creation of affordable housing. Many front rooms have shop-style, wide glass windows, and you live your lives in full view of passers-by. It ought to make you houseproud: putting the magazines and the television remote away before bed, tidying the cups and the glasses, straightening the cushions, that sort of thing. Apparently, the message hasn’t go through quite yet. Living rooms are well lived-in, with lights blazing.
The old medieval centre of Ghent is lovely. Tall narrow merchant houses in a typical Flemish style, narrow cobbled streets and everywhere decorated for Christmas. In between the cathedral and the numerous other churches are food and gift stalls ready for the evening. There is the obligatory Ferris wheel, as now befits any self-respecting European city and lots of gluwein warming to keep out the chill of a December evening.
It’s true to say that Christmas markets across the UK are getting better and better, year on year. As a result, the Christmas market in Ghent feels somehow ‘familiar’. The wooden shacks display products from across Europe: from a Frenchman, complete with beret and a glass of wine, selling onions, to ladies selling Flemish wooden toys. Perhaps we’re missing a trick or two here? I’m half expecting a stall manned by Corrie’s Sean Wilson from Saddleworth selling Smelly Ha’peth cheese, or some products from the many artisan producers who ply their trade the length and breadth of Britain. Alas, it isn’t to be. The stall holders seem every bit as ‘Continental’ as they are, every Christmas, in Chester, Liverpool or in Albert Square, Manchester. I can’t help but wonder whether it will get better or worse after we pull up the drawbridge and start heckling across the Channel that their mothers are hamsters and their fathers smell of elderberries. Sad times, sad times.
As with all European cities, there is a distinct police presence. Automatic weapons are clearly visible and police, whilst being ‘Polite’, sorry ‘Politie’, as is is emblazoned on the backs of their stab-vests and painted on their vehicles, are vigilant and for that, Christmas revellers must be eternally grateful.
By night, Ghent is a star-studded marvel. On this Friday night, it’s busy and totally free of drunken louts. Around the main square there are stalls selling food from Germany, Italy, Argentina, Mexico, France and Greece. Ice skaters turn out to twist and turn on the rink and couples ride the Big Wheel, high into the night sky and take in the magical light show of a Friday pre-Christmassy evening. It’s not too busy, certainly there is sufficient room to wander in and out of the lines of stalls and the bars and restuarants, whilst busy, are not a solid mass of humanity with little chance of securing a table or orderng a round of drinks.
The stroll back to our apartment takes us across the River Leie, which starts at the Pas de Calais and flows into the Scheldt further up in Ghent. The bridges are reminiscent of Amsterdam, albeit that there are fewer of them and the town is less pedestrianised. By ten o’clock, the side streets are dark and empty but feel safe, nevertheless.
On the way back, we call in at out local, a corner bar just across the square. It looks deceptively welcome from the outside, warm yellow and blue lights. Inside, unfortunately, it’s a different story. A couple sit in the smoking zone and manage to fill the whole pub with a thick smog. Dotted around the seats are drunks of a certain age, sheltering from the cold and making small beers last as long as possible.
Bruges / Brugges
On Saturday morning we make our way by bus to the railway station. Belgium transport runs to time and the train is making its way to Oostende by way of Bruges. It’s welcoming to have a pleasant multi-lingual lady at the station who not only advises on which train is best, but also steers me through the ticket purchasing. We still have much to learn about how to deal with visitors from foreign lands. The journey takes thirty-five minutes and costs each of us five euro each way.
The walk from the station into Bruges is very pleasant. Down narrow medieval cobbled streets with four and five storey houses on both sides, full of character and well cared for. It’s a busy place with streets of modern shops and some well-known brands. At the far end is the Markt, a large medieval square of fine houses with excellent frontages. It’s all decked out for Christmas and is home to the usual wooden shacks, decorated trees and illuminations.
It’s horrendously busy and, sad to say, absolutely full of British tourists. Coach loads from the South and Midlands have clearly made their way on shopping sprees for Belgian chocolates and cheap tobacco. The takeaways do a roaring trade on waffles, chips with mayonnaise served in cones and hot chocolate. What is interesting is that there is far less concern with providing copious amounts of alcohol than we would expect back home. Most people seem to be drinking small glasses of prosecco or ‘warm dranke’: tea, coffee or chocolate.
On the second floor of the Town Hall is a craft beer bar with an outside terrace that looks down on the bedlam below. It’s a good spot to take in the panorama of the Markt in relative peace and quiet. The stalls, the skating rink, the thousands of people, all below, fitting together like pieces of a great seasonal jigsaw. It’s enough for us and we decide that, whilst Bruges is a beautiful city, Ghent Christmas market is a little less hectic and we make our way back to the station for the train home.
People are very kind. We boarded the number 35 bus and asked the driver whether we were okay for Banierstraat. He put on his reading glasses and laughed at our sympathetic expressions while he consulted the route guide. Obviously he drove this route day after day without a care for the names of the stops. And why not?
The Flemish are every bit as keen on recycling as the Dutch and, ever increasingly so, as the British. Blue bags for plastic and cartons, yellow bags for general waste and black bags for bottles. Paper and cardboard is dealt with separately. Once a week, the city collectors pick up the various coloured bags up from the front step and whisk it away for recycling or disposal. We’re left strict and thankfully clear instructions to make sure we don’t bring the city grinding to a halt through our ignorance.
Streets are kept scrupulously clean and the market squares are swilled through daily. It has that sense of a people who abide by the law. This is Europe and noticeably so. Building and construction follow strict health and safety guidelines, cars park tidily, everybody buys tickets for buses and trains. People queue patiently. We should be proud of this. These are civilised standards that develop a true sense of community spirit. Why would Jacob Rees Mogg, then, have us adopt Asian standards of Health and Safety post Brexit?
All in all, it’s been a lovely break here in Belgium. I’m determined to do a ‘comparison test’ with Manchester and will be heading down the M56 before Christmas to see whether we have anything to learn from the way the festivities are celebrated out here in eastern Flanders. I suspect it will have more to do with the need to ‘celebrate’ rather than ‘participate’.
Tomorrow, however, we head to Calais, the Eurotunnel and Maidstone.
It’s too long a journey from Belgium back to North Wales without a stop on the way. We decide to spend the night at Oakwood House in Maidstone. (http://www.oakwoodhousehotel.co.uk).
It’s a large Victorian house that once stood in its own parkland. Much of this has been sold off and is now the site of a college and academy. The old hotel sits behind the new builds andis clearly making its money from conferences and seminars.
However, the bed and breakfast ‘deal’ is excellent value. The rooms are warm and spotlessly clean. The bar is well-kept and the food good. Breakfast is far more than I need but it keeps the wolf from the door for a further four and a half hour drive north.