A Travellerspoint blog

October 2015

Gadding About in Ghent

semi-overcast 12 °C

In many historic city centres outside of North America the once almighty automobile has been relegated to the gutters and public transport is king. Drivers of cars are treated as pariahs who endanger pedestrians and cyclists and foul both the iconic views and the atmosphere of architectural wonders like Ghent in Belgium...
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During the middle-ages Ghent was twice the size of London and, with its neighbour Bruges, was at the heart of world trade. Here is the City Hall and seen as it might have been in the 15th century without a car in sight …
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While the auto – obsessed taxpayers of Vancouver recently voted overwhelmingly against paying to improve public transit, and demonstrate loudly against any attempts to increase amenities for cyclists and pedestrians, they are sadly out of step with most of the civilised world. Fast, frequent and relatively inexpensive trains link most communities in Europe. This is the smart electric train that sped us from Bruges to Ghent in 30 minutes for just 6 euros ($9 Cdn) return…
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The canals of both Bruges and Ghent are maritime highways allowing goods and tourists to be whisked into the cities' hearts without clogging the roads…
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The roads and plazas of the city centres are reserved for cyclists, pedestrians and horse drawn carriages…
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And large cycle parks have replaced car parks in many places…
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While some cities like London have restricted vehicular access by charging a daily fee, others have simply banned private cars altogether. The centre of Ghent is almost entirely free of traffic other than the electric trams that slip silently through the pedestrian friendly streets…
This vintage tram is passing the famous Castle of the Counts, built by Count Philip of Alsace in 1180 AD…
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While this sleek modern tram is whisking its passengers past the medieval halls in Ghent’s market square…
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History abounds in these north European cities and can be appreciated so much more without the noise, pollution and inconvenience of infernal combustion engines. We live in hopes of the day when North American city dwellers wake up to the smell of roses and not the stench of gas-guzzlers.

Posted by Hawkson 13:14 Archived in Belgium Comments (3)

Sweet Bruges

rain 9 °C

The architecture of the ancient Flemish city of Bruges is simply stunning. Street after street of antique brick, stone and stucco houses, in many cases facing onto a network of canals, evoke strong memories of Amsterdam. The facades of the old buildings are strikingly similar to those of the Dutch capital…
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Bruges is an historian’s sandbox. Three thousand five hundred years ago it was a gateway to the Amber Road (a forerunner of the Silk Road); the Romans fortified it 2,000 years ago; it was the richest trading port in the world in the 13th century; English kings. Edward IV, Richard III and Charles II, all sought safe exile here; and William Caxton printed the world’s first English book here in 1473. Here are some more buildings dating from those medieval times…
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Bruges has also been at the very heart of European spinning, weaving and lace-making since the 14th. Century. however, today, Bruges is apparently best known as the graveyard of good intentions. Take a close look at all the buildings above and see what they have in common. Here are some more…
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Yep – every single one is a chocolate shop. There are more than 40 shops dedicated solely to selling chocolate in Bruges, while a similar number sell chocolates in addition to other forms of confectionery. Add to them the supermarkets and corner stores with confectionary counters and it is clear to see why dieticians just hate Bruges. Hardcore chocolate addicts and members of CA (Chocoholics Anonymous) would be well advised to stay away, although the prices might put them off…
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Almost every other shop sells chocolates. Those that don’t sell confectionery in one from or another sell beer, fries and waffles. Not since we unwittingly arrived in Perugia in the midst of the Eurochocolate exhibition in 2011 have we been so stuffed. But, for your sake dear reader, we steeled ourselves to skip the chocolates and shun the beer and chips for a few hours to bring you views of some of Bruges’ wonderful Gothic buildings… like the 300 foot tall Belfry with its carillon of 47 bells…
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…the spectacular vaulted ceiling of the City Hall dating from 1507…
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…this enormous 500 year old fireplace in the old Law Courts…
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and the beautiful mansions that line the canals in this charming city…
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Ah - What sacrifices we make for your enlightenment and delight!

Posted by Hawkson 11:37 Archived in Belgium Comments (4)

If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium

overcast 8 °C

It takes exactly two hours to scoot from the centre of London to the heart of Europe on a Eurostar high speed train through the Channel Tunnel, so we had lunch in London and dinner in Brussels, the administrative centre of the European Union. The kingdom of Belgian was in the past one of the world’s great colonial powers and its previous glory can still be seen in its grand plazas and opulent architecture…
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The enormous gothic buildings surrounding the Grand Plaza in Brussels were built at the end of the seventeenth century to replace the earlier wooden ones that Louis XIV’s French army destroyed. Many of the city’s wide boulevards and winding cobblestone streets date from the seventeen hundreds, though many have earlier roots. Also dating back in time are the artistic skills which has made this nation the centre of lace and tapestry making for centuries. This Brussels tapestry dates from the mid fifteen hundreds…
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But we are not just here for the history and the architecture – we are here for the beer…
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Belgian beer is world renowned and here there are more than 1,500 different labels on offer. An arctic chill has swept over northern Europe so we need no excuse to sit in a warm bar and try as many beers as we can…
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This is the most iconic Belgian beer. It has been made by Trappist monks in Westmalle Monastery for more than 200 years and is strong enough to knock over a donkey. But Brussels isn’t just famous for its beer. There are the cones of sizzling French Fries, (or should they be called Belgian Fries?), smothered in creamy mayonnaise – no Yankee ketchup here…
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And there are delicious fresh waffles piled high with all manner of decadent toppings…
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Although there are waffle-makers on almost every corner in Brussels they can’t compete with the sheer number of chocolatiers...
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All these old tools are actually edible confectionary…
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Brussels is a chocoholics nirvana, with shop-loads of sweet temptations every few metres.
However, by the time we had waded through buckets of beer and a ton of chips and waffles, we could only manage a little chocolate – but there is always tomorrow.

No matter the weather, every visitor to Brussels has to visit its most famous symbol – an icon of such stature that it appears on every tourist guide and piece of city literature. It is such a revered emblem of Brussels that it can be compared to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It is, of course, the mannequin a pis…
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Yes – it is a small statue of a young boy taking a pee. And it is small; so small that most first timers say, “Really - Is that it?” Yes – that is it; just 18 inches tall; stuck in the corner of a backstreet. And no one really knows why it’s there – maybe it was just a clever marketing gimmick by the waffle shop across the road that got out of hand.

Posted by Hawkson 10:09 Archived in Belgium Comments (3)

A Yorkshire Heartbeat

sunny 17 °C

Lovers of the BBC television series ‘Heartbeat’ will immediately recognise this façade of Vernon Scripps' garage and funeral home in the fictional village of Aidensfield, North Yorkshire…
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The series, featuring a cast of rural bobbies and a motley bunch of Yorkshire yokels and petty villains, was filmed in the miniscule moorland hamlet of Goathland for 18 years until 2009. Scripps' garage, along with Aidensfield Arms pub and the Post Office Stores where ex-Sergeant Blaketon once stood behind the counter, attract droves of visitors every day. This 1960s police car outside the Post Office is very similar to the one that James drove in his days as a country copper…
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Savvy visitors to this tiny village time their arrival carefully to avoid the crush of fans arriving by car, coach and by vintage steam trains from nearby Whitby and Pickering, and get to see the sheep grazing peacefully on the village common...
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Earlybirds also get to walk the deserted moorland paths to the pretty beck (stream) at Beck Hole…
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The ancient city of York is also a magnate for tourists, (with good reason), and most come to see the iconic Rose window in the Medieval cathedral…
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The soaring Gothic arches of York Minster are 800 years old (built in 1220 AD) but the Romans had established a Christian community in the city more than a thousand years before that. The Minster has the largest expanse of the coloured Medieval glass in the world, but there is no shortage of ancient leaded lights throughout the city…
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Also – there is no shortage of Yorkshire pudding…
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Crisp, light Yorkshire puddings, filled with a wide variety of meats and sauces, are on the menu at most restaurants in the city and we wonder if the Romans would have enjoyed such a treat when they were here nearly two thousand years ago…
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Posted by Hawkson 02:02 Archived in England Comments (6)

A Wet Day in Whitby

sunny 16 °C

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It is the 8th of October and it is National Poetry Day in the U.K. The British poetic lexicon abounds with stormy visions of the sea and needs no supplementation from us amateurs. However, as we stare out over the tempestuous North Sea from Whitby harbour today we feel compelled to add a few words to our pictures:
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White horses galloping madly along the shore
Leap over the sturdy sea wall
Sending the lifeboat to the rescue.
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So – what to do on a wet, windy day in Whitby,
When the weather cock shelters in the hen house
And weathered fishermen put their feet to the fire?

We eat fish and chips of course.
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The fleet may be tied up in port, but the numerous fish restaurants are stocked to the gills with the freshest lobster, cod and haddock – and we indulge.

The North Yorkshire seaport of Whitby was a setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and as we wander its narrow backstreets, darkened by fog and rain, we feel the chill that must have inspired him to write his scary story of vampires and ghouls. But then we come to quaint shops with original Victorian facades and it brightens our day.
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Another bright spot in Whitby is this harbourside house (built in 1688)…
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This is where Captain James Cook lived from 1746 -1749, when he was an apprentice seaman before he set out to survey the whole world.

And then the sun comes out; the murk clears and the lofty ruins of Whitby Abbey soar into the clear blue sky on the headland overlooking the stormy sea and the ancient port...
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This Benedictine Abbey began with modest buildings in 657 AD. It was here that Caedmon wrote poetry in the 8th. Century, (His poems have survived 1,400 years while ours will probably be forgotten tomorrow). The abbey was regularly sacked by the Vikings in the 9th century but successive abbots and abbesses rebuilt until the place had gone completely over the top by the mid 1400s...

These majestic arches withstood the worst that the North Sea could throw at them until 1540 when Henry V111 dissolved the monasteries and took a battering ram to them.
Despite nearly 5oo years of assault by notoriously vicious easterly gales, and the malignant efforts of a couple of German battleships during the First World War, the ruins of Whitby Abbey are still an inspiring sight. It is easy to see why Stoker felt them to be a suitable backdrop for his gruesome tale.

Posted by Hawkson 12:54 Archived in England Comments (4)

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