Belgium

Brugge, Belgium: Halve Maan Brewery

We made it into Brugge (Bruges) the day after visiting the Ardennes, and though there were any number of museums we could have visited (I was hoping to return to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, which I haven’t been to since long before my blogging days. It is a former plague hospital!), we instead ended up on the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery tour. I had been on this before (the same trip where I visited St. Jan’s), but not for over a decade, and frankly, I didn’t remember much from the original tour other than the free beer at the end. Tours in English take place every hour on the hour for €10, including a beer, and we managed to get there just as one was starting (I’d imagine, judging by how crowded ours was in the off-season, that they do fill up from time to time, so may be worth pre-booking if you’re more organised than we were).

  

Even if I had remembered the first tour better, it was still worth going again, because a lot has changed since 2007. They have doubled their production, which created the need for a new bottling facility (everything used to be made under one roof) outside of town, which in turn created the need for a pipeline to get the beer to the bottling facility (at first, they were using trucks, which is obviously cumbersome and not the most eco-friendly way), which was opened in 2016. It stretches 3.2 km underground, and Halve Maan are clearly quite proud of it, as it was the focus of much of the tour. The pipeline actually consists of four interior pipes, two for beer, and two for water, so they can clean out the beer pipes by pumping water through, and can track a leak to within a metre of where it occurs, which is pretty impressive for something that long!

  

An important thing to know about the tour is that it has a lot of steps. We were warned before starting that there were 220 steps over the course of the tour (not all going up, fortunately), and some of the steps were so shallow that we were advised to go down backwards, which is far from my favourite thing, but I managed. The benefit of going to the top of the brewery was that it offered excellent views of Brugge, so we had no need to climb Belfort, which had the most awful steps (as I learned on our last visit to Brugge) – however, it was also incredibly windy, which was less ideal. I was very glad to re-enter the warm brewery.

  

In addition to learning about Halve Maan’s beer (which only comes in a few traditional varieties – the blonde is the one you get to taste at the end of the tour), we also learned a lot about the history of the company and about the history of brewing in the city, which to me was the most interesting part. Up until the 1950s, Belgians used to have beer delivered straight to their homes, first by horse-drawn cart, and later by trucks, and the beer industry in Brugge thrived. However, when supermarkets moved into the city, they began to drive small family breweries out of business, and now only a handful, including Halve Maan, remain. In an attempt to diversify before they were driven out of business, some of the breweries began manufacturing soda as well, which frankly is more appealing to me than beer! Halve Maan made a lemonade (I assume 7-Up style rather than still lemonade), but it was discontinued in the ’70s, much to my disappointment.

  

As I mentioned earlier, the entire brewing process used to take place under one roof, which is why the building has ended up with so many different levels, each of which used to be dedicated to a different stage of brewing. Until the 1950s, they even roasted their own malt, which was done in a room with grating on the flooring, to allow the heat from a fire several stories below to penetrate. It got crazy hot in here when the fire was going, so men would only be able to spend a minute or two at a time stirring the grain before they risked passing out (and speaking from experience, breweries are pretty damn hot in general. I worked in one during a heat wave, and it regularly topped 40 C in there, which is no picnic, and that was just from the heat of the kettle and pasteurising tubs). There was also a special room with a copper floor that the wort was pumped into to cool down to around 20 C before yeast was added.

  

Our guide also told us about the patron saint of brewing, St. Arnold, who actually became a saint because he encouraged people during a plague epidemic to drink beer rather than water, because it was safer (frankly, I don’t see what that would have done against plague, which is not waterborne, but it’s certainly good advice against cholera and intestinal parasites. I think they meant plague in the sense of epidemic disease, rather than bubonic plague specifically). A comfortable retirement as a monastic brewer seems like a solid way to get sainthood – far better than being martyred! St. Arnold is commemorated with a statue inside the brewery and in the tap room, which was of course our last stop, where we claimed our free beer. I’m not a huge fan of non-fruit beers, but Halve Maan do produce a very consistent, drinkable product, and you can’t beat their logo! The brewery was so named because the brewery originally on this site was called the Moon, and when Henri Maes took over in 1856, he decided that by calling it Halve Maan, he could include his initials and pay tribute to the brewers that had gone before (the Maes family still own the brewery). I do love a moon (I’ve currently got four tattooed on me!), so of course we picked up a poster, even though as I’ve said multiple times, I really don’t have room for more wall art.

  

Most of the rest of our time in Belgium was taken up by drinking beer, eating chocolate and waffles (and frites, sans mayonnaise), and hanging out in our unexpectedly amazing hotel room (it had two bathrooms and was bigger than my flat!), though I did force my brother to a WWI site in the form of Passchendaele 1917 Museum, which I visited on my last trip to Belgium. I won’t be blogging about it again, as it is roughly the same and still very entertaining (and moving. It’s impressive that they manage to achieve both aims), but they did add a temporary exhibition in an outbuilding on America’s entry into WWI, which I found quite interesting (the exhibition was all in Flemish, but they had free exhibition guidebooks in English). We also dropped by Tyne Cot again, since it is right by Passchendaele, and that too was incredibly sad, as always, but very worth a visit. We ended our Belgian sojourn in Brussels, where we took my brother to Delirium Cafe, enjoyed waffles near the Grand-Place, and almost missed the Eurostar back after waiting in an incredibly long queue only to get to the front and be told we shouldn’t have been waiting in the queue after all (there were no signs anywhere to indicate this. I checked), but we made it in the end. I also discovered this amazing village called Beselare en route to Brussels, where everything was witch-themed (including the Sand-Witch shop). We sadly didn’t have time to stop, but I googled it after and they apparently host a witch parade every year, so I will probably be back for that or the next Kattenstoet (2021) before long!

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Bastogne, Belgium: Bastogne War Museum

As regular readers will know, my brother visited me for a week a couple of weeks back, and while he’s generally pretty up for doing stuff, it’s not necessarily the same stuff I like doing (though the things I like doing are basically sitting inside, eating, and reading), so I wanted to try to find some activities we would both enjoy. He’s not too much of a museum kind of guy, but he does have some interest in the Second World War, so I thought a trip through Belgium would give us a chance to combine some of his interests (WWII and beer) with some of mine (eating chocolate and waffles). I prefer Flanders to Wallonia, but Flanders is of course very much WWI country, and for WWII, we would have to venture deep into the French-speaking part of Belgium, to the Ardennes.
  
Things didn’t get off to a great start when I really had to pee about an hour outside of Brussels, and there was nowhere to stop. We finally found a gas station large enough to have a toilet, but they had a sign on the door stating it was 50 cents to use the bathroom for non-customers, and none of us had any cash, having forgotten to get some in Brussels. This was obviously complete nonsense (charging to use a toilet at a gas station is almost literally taking the piss. Or maybe the opposite of taking the piss? I can’t decide), but I was willing to buy a bag of crisps with a card if it would give me access to the facilities. My brother asked them in English if we could use the toilet (he’s not accustomed to being in non-Anglophone countries), which got him a blank stare, so I just urgently shouted, “la toilette, s’il vous plait!” which got me the key, but the two women working there did mock me in French for quite some time, which I let slide because they did let me use the damn toilet in the end, but I obviously still bear a grudge (I took seven years of French, which is apparently enough to make my need for the toilet understood, but not quite enough to reply to insults in an appropriately biting manner).
  
Anyway, we eventually made it to Bastogne, and the Bastogne War Museum, which happily offers numerous free toilets once you’ve paid the admission fee (€14). Admission includes the use of their audio guide, which is one of those fancy modern ones that is triggered when you enter each audio zone. This is easier than punching in the numbers yourself, but annoying when you accidentally wander out of one of the zones and the audio guide gets cut off, with no way to bring it back. I liked that the sound came out of two little prongs that sat on the side of your head just above your ears, because those headphones that cover your entire ear make the outsides of my ears ache after a while (and don’t get me started on ear buds!). I read somewhere that the Bastogne War Museum was recently redone, and the new design was heavily influenced by the In Flanders Fields Museum, which everyone but me appears to really love (I didn’t hate it, I just think there’s better WWI museums out there).
  
This was apparent from the audio guide, which aimed to give us a more human perspective on the war by having people who lived through the war serve as our guides – though unlike the In Flanders Field Museum, which assigns you a historical counterpart based on your age and where you’re from, in Bastogne War Museum, everyone was given the points of view of four different people throughout – Robert, an American soldier, a 12 year old Belgian boy named Emile, his 20-something year old teacher Mathilde, who worked for the Resistance, and Hans, a German soldier (they emphasised that he was fighting because he had pride in his homeland, rather than being pro-genocide (which is still problematic because of the horrible things people do in the name of nationalism) but it seemed a bit odd to ignore that major aspect of Nazi Germany, though the Holocaust was covered elsewhere in the galleries). Actually Hans was probably the most interesting to listen to, just because it’s a perspective you don’t always hear – Emile was kind of irritating, but you ended up feeling bad for him in the end once you heard his story – and I think the four perspectives all together made for a more nuanced view of the war than what we got at the In Flanders Fields Museum (cool though it was to have been given someone to identify with based on your own stats), though obviously WWII was a very different war.
  
In addition to the audio guide, there were also three “multi-sensory” experiences dispersed throughout the museum (a bit hard to describe – basically you entered a themed theatre and sat down to watch some projections and audio commentary, with sound and light effects) – an Allied General HQ from 1944, the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge (my personal favourite, even though it was really really cold in there, but I think that may have been intentional to enhance the atmosphere), and a cellar under a cafe in Bastogne, where our four audio guide characters finally all met in real life. The rest of the museum was a fairly standard layout, with a few interactive things for children exclusively in French, though of course you had your audio guide popping on and off in the midst of reading signage.
  
I’m personally much more into WWI than WWII, so I didn’t know much about the Battle of the Bulge going in, other than the few episodes of Band of Brothers that I’ve watched (and I don’t even know if I watched the Battle of the Bulge one. My grandpa was stationed in Belgium for a while, but not until after the war ended, so he didn’t take part in any of these battles). But the museum offers a more comprehensive view of the war than just what happened in Bastogne, which was only one section of it (though it was the subject of two of the “multi-sensory experiences”), albeit a very sad part, as civilian casualties during the battle were very high (around 3000) due to all the bombing (from both sides), and the Germans also randomly executed a bunch of Belgian civilians just because they could (including, spoiler alert, Emile’s father).
  
By the end of the museum, I was fairly attached to all of the audio guide characters, even Emile, so it was interesting when we discovered they were all based on real people, and were told what happened to them after the war. They are now all dead, except Emile (at least at the time the audio guide was recorded), who took over his father’s bike shop in a nearby town, and apparently can still sometimes be seen walking down the road in Bastogne (as I’ve said, I wasn’t that keen on Emile, mainly because Emile had an accordion which he insisted on playing whilst hiding out in a cellar with a group of random villagers throughout the long days of bombing, and he played the same song over and over again (I think I would have left the cellar and taken my chances with the bombs!), but I loved the characterisation of Emile’s dad, who apparently said things like, “Holy Handlebars!” and “Holy Spokes!” because of being in the bicycle business. I think the latter phrase works better than the former). Overall, I think it was quite an interesting and fun experience, so I’ll give it 4/5.
  
This wasn’t all that was on site though, as there was also a huge, rather hideous sculpture of the famous scene of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square during V-J Day located behind the museum. As the nurse tells it, they didn’t know each other and he just randomly grabbed her and kissed her (she said it wasn’t even a good kiss!). I get it was the end of the war and people were excited, but it’s still a bit unpleasant and has nothing to do with Belgium, so I guess it’s just here on account of being an iconic image? The Mardasson War Memorial is also right behind the museum, and wow, that is a pretty imposing structure! It was built in the late 1940s to commemorate those killed in the battle, and includes a weirdly modern arty crypt underneath, decorated with the mosaics of Fernand Leger. I actually quite liked the crypt, it just wasn’t really what I was expecting from a site connected to the military, which tend to be much more staid, and I dunno, eagle-y?
  
It had gotten really cold and kind of rainy whilst we were in the museum, but my brother still wanted to view a few nearby sites, so we spent some time driving along the roads outside Bastogne, and quickly jumping out when we got to a memorial. My favourite one was the one that abutted a pine forest – though it was clearly planted after the battle, it was eerily silent inside, and gave you some idea of what the soldiers might have experienced before the fighting commenced. There was also a memorial paid for by Tom Hanks, who keeps on living up to his decent guy reputation (That Thing You Do is seriously one of my favourite movies of all time, and I actually really enjoyed his book of short stories, so I am kind of a fan).
  
We also walked through the town of Bastogne, and despite the tourist brochure’s assurance that “shops are open even on Sundays!” apparently they weren’t open on Mondays, as we were starving, and virtually everything was shut (echoes of our experience in France). We did enjoy the animal sculptures that we found lining the high street, but with no prospect of food there, we didn’t linger (so staying in Bastogne may not be a great idea on a Monday). We ended up stopping by a small crappy Carrefour just outside of town for bread and cheese (not knocking Carrefour, because I love the hypermarche versions), and didn’t find much more open, even when we got to Liege, so whilst my brother and Marcus wandered the cold streets in search of a hot dinner, I was perfectly content to pop down to the Delhaize next to the hotel and read a book in the warm hotel room in my jams whilst eating crisps and packaged chocolate waffles (and I think I chose wisely, because they went to some revolting taco place where my brother couldn’t even eat his food because it had unadvertised mayonnaise all over it. Mayonnaise is one of the things we both detest, but because I don’t eat meat, I find it easy enough to avoid, even in Belgium). Fortunately, we were heading to Flanders the next day, where things are open on weekdays!
  

Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

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On our last day in Belgium, still riding high on the thrills of Kattenstoet, we decided to head back to Brussels early to give ourselves some time to do stuff in the city before catching the Eurostar back home.  (If I mention how much I prefer the Eurostar to flying, will they give me free tickets?  No, I don’t think so either, but it’s worth a try.)  We went to Brussels a few years ago, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it then, but I don’t remember visiting many museums the first time around, and I also think the frites there are better than most of the ones in Brugge (must be the ox fat), so it was worth it just to get that cardboard cone of fried potatoes.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, which is the museum closing day in Belgium, so it initially looked like we wouldn’t be seeing any museums this time around either.  Enter the Parlamentarium.

Aside from its amazing name, the Parlamentarium also had free admission, and of course its Monday opening hours to recommend it.  It sounded perfect, at least, until we actually had to find our way there.  We’d gotten into the Grand Place from Brussels Zuid with little difficulty (where I gobbled down some frites), but the European Parliament is located outside the touristy centre of the city, in a district full of scary embassies with soldiers clutching machine guns out front (America, I’m looking at you).  Strangely, considering how Belgium is renowned for being a flat country, Brussels appears to be built on a hill, and we found ourselves climbing it the whole way.  And we took a wrong turn at some point, which extended the journey.  And it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day, which was a hell of a lot hotter than we’d been used to, so we sweated the whole way there.

But we made it in the end, albeit about an hour later than I would have liked to, because last entry to Cantillon Brewery was at 4, and it was at the other end of the city.  This meant our visit to the Parlamentarium would have to be a short one.  To get in, you have to submit your bag and person to a security scan, and then store your bags in the lockers they provide (which are free, at least), and I don’t think they encourage photography (save for with the cardboard cutout of Martin Schulz before the entrance.  And if I told you I knew who Martin Schulz was before visiting the museum, I’d be lying).  Because everything in the museum must be translated into the 24 official languages of the EU, to avoid having a million different signs in the Parlamentarium, they rely on audio guides.  The idea is that you scan certain points in the museum, and a short video will play in your chosen language.  However, it didn’t seem to be working correctly when I was there, as it kept trying to play me videos in French, only switching to English after the opening gallery.

I think this museum is for people more patient than I am; because there were loads of scanning points with fairly lengthy videos (or audio) for each, you would have had to stand there for hours to listen to everything, so I just skipped ahead to the interactive bits.  They had a giant map of Europe, with little moveable stands, the idea being that you scanned different points on the map to learn more about that country.  They also had a mock-up of the European Parliament (comfy chairs), with interactive screens where you could play games trying to match MEPs up with their seats, or vote on issues.

To be honest, I felt kind of embarrassed the whole time I was there, thanks to the UK’s Euroskepticism (and the antics of Nigel Farage).  It’s pretty ridiculous when the people representing you (well, in a general sense; as I’m not a citizen yet, I guess I don’t technically get any kind of representation) don’t even believe in the body they’re meant to be working with; seriously, what is the point of them even being there, other than to make themselves as obnoxious as possible and impede progress?!  I don’t like to get political on here, but I would categorise myself as more pro-EU than not (and having had the freedom to move here myself (which would not have been the case had I enrolled in my Master’s programme just a year later than I did, “thanks” to Theresa May! (ugh)) it would be pretty hypocritical of me not to support that same right for others), so visiting the Parlamentarium was eye-opening in lots of ways, and not good ones.  I wish I would have had a bit more time to spend here, for all that I wasn’t crazy about the audio guides, but I think a lot of it was just too political-sciencey to have held my interest anyway.  I appreciate that it’s free and open to the public though.  3/5.

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Even though we didn’t spend much time at the Parlamentarium, by the time we found a train station and caught a train back to Brussels-Zuid, it was already after 4, and we still had to walk to Cantillon, so I was sure they weren’t going to let us in.  Fortunately, the gregarious man at the front desk didn’t seem too bothered by our arriving 15 minutes late, as there were still a few groups in front of us he was letting in.  I’d never tried Cantillon before visiting the brewery, but I like lambics very much (I really only like lambics and fruit beers; I’m into sour but not bitter), and one of my friends always raves about their stuff, so I thought it was worth investigating further.  7 euros gets you a self-guided brewery tour (what they refer to as a living museum of gueuze, which apparently is pronounced guuuuuuhhhhz, at least according to the woman in the shop) and two samples of their beer (about a half glass each, whatever that translates to in ounces, since I don’t think they were pint glasses).

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The brewery isn’t all that big, as they have a fairly small-scale production, but the booklet they give you is pretty lengthy, and fully covers all the stages of the brewing process.  Really it was more about smelling your way through, as everything had a yeasty cheesy aroma that I rather enjoyed, there not being that much to actually see, since they weren’t bottling anything up at this time of year.  Gueuze is a blended lambic, made from lambics of different vintages, so I think they always have something brewing away (their Grand Cru is made of three year old lambic), there just isn’t anything to look at while it sits in barrels I guess.

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I did kind of rush through the tour because I was eager to get to the sampling portion of the experience, which is handed out by a man with a grey ponytail who was mentioned on all the Trip Advisor reviews (I don’t know why, but after reading so much about him I would have been a little disappointed if he wasn’t there).  We got a sample of gueuze and one of kriek, both of which were delicious (though I am very partial to kriek).  They have more beers available to taste, but you have to pay extra for them, and as they were about to close, we didn’t want to linger too long.

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If the taster sells you on their beers (as they clearly hope it will), never fear, because they have a variety of merchandise for sale next to the bar area, including t-shirts, cheese, marmalade, and of course, a range of Cantillon beer (though only a small selection of the various types they make).  We picked up four 75cl bottles, which in retrospect was a mistake as it meant we had to haul them back home, but they were quite a bit cheaper than they are in the UK, so whatever.  I know sour beer isn’t to everyone’s taste, but these guys seemed really passionate about what they do, and I loved their beer, so I enjoyed myself (even though the tour really isn’t worth 7 euros, but after getting the samples, you’re not likely going to complain about it); just don’t count on an in-depth or guided tour, because this isn’t the brewery for that.  3.5/5.  Until next time, Belgium!

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Ieper (Ypres), Belgium: Kattenstoet (Cat Festival)!

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Finally(!), we come to the reason I had to visit Belgium on the second weekend of May in 2015.  Kattenstoet!  This cat themed festival is held in Ieper (Ypres) every three years, and evolved from the much darker tradition of throwing cats from the top of the Cloth Hall’s bell tower (which in itself came about because Ieper is historically a cloth-manufacturing town (mentioned in The Canterbury Tales as one of the towns the Wife of Bath could best in cloth-making); people needed something to keep rats out of the cloth, so they brought in cats, but the cats quickly multiplied and overran the town, so the citizens of Ieper then needed some way to get rid of the excess cats. This being an age before humane treatment of animals was a thing).

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They stopped throwing live cats in 1817, and the festival went dormant until after WWI, when the people of Ieper (I’d call them Yperites, but that’s what the French called mustard gas, so they must have a different demonym) wanted a new image for the city, after the horrors of war, and revived the cat tradition in the form of a parade.  Unfortunately, they picked 1938 as the year to reinstate the festival, so for obvious reasons, it went on hiatus again until 1946, when they REALLY needed something to cheer them up (a more detailed history is available on the official website I linked to in the first paragraph).  Kattenstoet happily continues to this day, in the form of a three-hour parade, followed by a “fool” throwing toy cats from the tower, and the burning of witches in effigy (another reference to the darker origins of the parade).

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After reading about the parade (and seeing postcards of some of the floats) in the gift shop of the In Flanders Fields Museum a couple of years ago, I knew I HAD to attend the next event, and so it was I found myself staking out a spot amongst the crowds on the pavement on a sunny Sunday afternoon a couple months ago (with my long-suffering boyfriend).  A cat festival is perhaps an odd choice for someone who is allergic to cats, and thus has never owned one, but like most other people in this internet age, I enjoy looking at amusing pictures of them online, and happily stop to pet the cats that live on my street (I just immediately wash my hands afterwards).  Besides, this festival was just too bizarre to miss.  They had me at “cat-themed tableaux.”

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I was a little worried about getting a good spot at all because the advertising caravan was due to kick off at 2, at which point we were just getting into Ieper, and we ended up having to park at a strip mall a couple miles outside of town because all the spaces closer were filled up.  (You can book a seat on one of the grandstands in advance for a modest fee (if you consider 15 euros modest), but we opted to go the cheapo route and just find somewhere to stand.)  However, plenty of Belgians were walking into the centre of town at the same time we were, so clearly not everyone shows up hours early to get a spot.  And we ended up finding somewhere near the end of the parade route, so even though it was well after 2:30 when we finally got there, the advertising caravan was just starting to pass through.  Fortunately for not-very-tall me, we managed to get a place on a raised walkway in front of some shops, so I could actually see most of what was going on (I’m 5’4″, which I guess is technically average height, but it sure doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the back of a crowd).  This being Belgium, there was also a beer stand just around the corner, selling delicious kriek, but due to the complete lack of public toilets in Belgium (and those gross exposed urinal things do not count), I opted not to partake (unlike most of the crowd, who had no such qualms about getting progressively drunker over the course of the afternoon.  I’m genuinely impressed by the capacity of their bladders).

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The advertising caravan, whilst pretty much just consisting of vehicles driven by local shops and car dealerships, proved to be surprisingly entertaining because they were throwing out candy to the crowds, just like at the American parades of my youth (I took baton for a bit in elementary school, and I was in marching band in high school, so I marched in quite a few of the things.  Not so fun when it’s 90+ degrees on the Fourth of July, and you have to march uphill in a wool uniform whilst pretending to play a saxophone (we were meant to be playing for real, but I was terrible at it and never bothered to memorise the music)).  Unlike American parades, where most people just let the children grab the candy (or maybe that was just because my mother was there glaring them all down so I could get my share), this was a complete free-for-all.  If I wanted that damn candy, I had to scuffle for it with a bunch of old people (like proper old; one lady was using her Zimmer frame to guard the candy until her equally elderly friend could grab it), and I’m not ashamed to say that scuffle I did.  (What, I was standing there for ages, and I hadn’t had lunch.  I needed those oddly flavoured Euro-taffies!) They were also handing out fairly nice freebies, like tote bags, but you had to be near the front of the crowd to get those, like one inebriated woman who chased people down the street until they handed them over.

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After the caravan had passed through, there was a fairly lengthy wait until the cat parade started up, which most people filled by drinking even more, and smoking profusely (which was not so great to have to breathe in for hours, but when in Belgium…).  My feet had already started to hurt at this point (since I wear shoes with no arch support whatsoever), but when the cat parade started up, I forgot all about my aches and pains.  It was brilliant!

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I can’t help but feel that these photos don’t even start to do it justice, because it was everything the website promised, and more.  Picture hundreds of people in hilarious cat costumes dancing through the streets, singing (what sounded like) cat themed songs, and huge cat themed floats.  And historically themed tableaux.  Every time you thought it might be winding down, more amazing floats would appear around the corner, and the fun would start all over again.

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As you can see, they started with the Ancient Egyptians, moved on to pre-medieval Europe (the Belgian equivalent of Anglo-Saxons, whatever that is), then the Middle Ages, and then…who knows?!  I completely lost track of what the hell was going on about halfway through the parade, and it really didn’t matter.  I’m not sure what pole-dancing girls in cat makeup, or unicycles, or people breathing fire have to do with the history of cats, but it all worked.  It was completely bonkers, and I loved every minute.

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Oh yeah, and some of the floats blew out smoke, which appeared to be talcum powder or something, because it gently dusted our clothes.  But I didn’t care, because they were handing out cat masks and cat flags (I made my boyfriend reach out with his long gangly arms and grab me one of each, jackpot!).

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Another local tradition is the Ypres Giants, who always make an appearance in the parade.  There is a legend surrounding each one of them (again, explained in more detail on their website), but their origins date back to medieval and early modern traditions in the city (though the giant figures used in the parade obviously haven’t been around that long).  They’re about 5 metres high (15 feet?), and they can be made to spin around if you yell loudly enough at the people handling them (as I found out thanks to the rather tipsy guy in front of me).  I like how sassy the fellow on the left is, and I’m intrigued by what appears to be a tattoo of Fidel Castro on Goliath’s arm.  Or is it a tattoo of himself?  Either way, it’s weird.

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I also thought it was sweet that they had a section of the parade dedicated to remembrance, with ladies in white dresses dancing with poppy umbrellas, and a poppy band.  It’s probably good we weren’t able to stay late enough to go to the ceremony at Menin Gate, as this part of the parade had me choked up enough as it was.

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They also had some strange thing going on with rats celebrating the death of a cat king (?!).  Actually, I can probably stop searching for synonyms for weird at this point, and you can just take it as a given that all of it was weird, but that’s what makes it so good.

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Some band came by on a float playing Sweet Caroline at one point, which was one of the best parts, because not only were they surprisingly good, it amused me to hear a crowd of people who were previously all speaking Flemish (obviously) start singing along in English.

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And of course there was Garfield, but the stars of the parade were undoubtedly Cieper, and his wife Minneke Poes (pictured at the very start of the post).  Cieper has been around since 1955, although he caught fire after hitting some electrical wires in 1960, the year of Minneke Poes’s birth, and had to be rebuilt.  I imagined these giant cats would close out the parade, much like Santa Claus at the Macy’s Parade (which is nowhere near as good as Kattenstoet, by the way; too much filler with all those boring Broadway numbers), but I was wrong, because a float of fools was on the horizon.

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Although the big ceremonial throwing of cats was yet to come, apparently the fool hurls a few stuffed cats off the float during the parade…and this turned out to be Jessica’s time to shine!  I honestly wasn’t even trying to catch a cat, since I was near the back of the crowd, but as I was looking down at my phone, something hit my arm, and I whipped my head up to discover a small stuffed cat resting on me!  I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled!  The people near me gathered around (I assume to congratulate me, though as they were speaking Flemish, perhaps they wanted my cat and were making rude comments), and I just smiled and nodded at them whilst clutching Cieper Jr.  Maybe it’s a sign my luck is changing?

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If you’re not lucky enough to catch a cat in the parade, never fear, as you’ll have another opportunity at the Cloth Hall, where the fool finally emerged after a lengthy wait, and capered around on a flimsy looking platform before hurling each toy cat off the edge (I was relieved to see he was wearing a bungee cord, because that platform seriously looked like it might collapse).  I was glad I’d already managed to get a cat though, because people were going nuts for these ones.  Like actually brawling over them, and crawling over each other to grab one.  If after all that, you still haven’t managed to procure a cat, never fear, as there are some for sale in the town square (though obviously it’s best if you manage to get one for free).

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There were also other cat-themed products for sale, including (vaguely) cat-shaped bread, and cat chocolates, but I was actually kind of disappointed there were no t-shirts or anything.  I definitely would have worn a stupid cat t-shirt if there was one going.  Because we were tired after standing around all afternoon, and exploring museums all morning, we opted not to stay to see the burning of the witches, and walked back to our car to beat the crowds getting out of Ieper, but if it was anything like the rest of the festival, I’m sure it was great.

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Clutching all my sweet sweet cat parade booty.

What else can I say about the cat festival?  I think Kattenstoet is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events (although I would definitely go back at some point in the future, it is only every three years after all), and I’m so glad I got to experience the madness.  It was completely insane, in the best of ways.  How many towns would really be willing to go to all this trouble, just for the sake of cats?  (Seriously, Ieper is only home to about 35,000 people, and there must have been a few thousand marching in the parade, let alone involved with organising it and everything else, so most people must get involved in some way.)  This is just one of the many reasons why I love Belgium.  It’s always going to be one of my favourite countries to visit, and Kattenstoet has confirmed that.  5/5.  Perfect.

 

 

Hooge and Poperinge, Belgium: Hooge Crater Museum and Poperinge Death Cell

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After finishing with the excellent Passchendaele Museum, we still had some time to kill before the cat-festivities kicked off, so we headed down the road to Hooge, for the Hooge Crater Museum, which bills itself as the “best private museum in Flanders Fields.”  The advertising must work, because a massive tour bus pulled in at the same time we did, much to my dismay.  Fortunately, they headed straight for the bar at the front of the museum, so the museum itself remained empty.

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I must confess that due to the advertising and the rather hefty 5 euro admission fee (for such a small museum), my expectations were high.  Sadly, they were in no way met by the museum’s contents.  The museum first directs you into a room to watch a filmstrip, which only held my attention for a couple of minutes, and then into the main gallery of the museum itself, which has a lot of cases, but most of them are taken up by life-size dioramas.  I do love life-size dioramas with hilarious mannequins, there’s no denying that, but the museum wasn’t big enough to support multiple dioramas AND a decent amount of actual artefacts, so it only took about ten minutes to make my way around the room.

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I mean, yes, the mannequins were excellent (meaning, they made me laugh my ass off), and the replica of the Red Baron’s plane was pretty awesome as well, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the general lack of content.  I don’t feel like there was much in there about the Battle of Hooge Crater, or the actual crater in question (which is apparently nearby, in front of the Hooge Crater Cemetery), unless you were willing to squint at some yellowing sheets of paper with tiny font.  I’m still not even sure how you pronounce Hooge.  I’m going with a phonetic “hooooge” like who and huge combined, but it might have some weird Flemish pronunciation, who knows.

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There was another gallery in a back room with a rather interesting story about a soldier who found a crucifix lying on the battlefield, and took it home with him with the intention of someday returning it to the appropriate place, but he died shortly after the war, so his family ended up hanging onto it for the best part of a century until they discovered this museum and donated it to them.  In fact, that was probably the most interesting part of the whole museum.  I’m not sure what constitutes a “private museum” in Belgium exactly; as in, I don’t know how the Passchendaele Museum, In Flanders Fields Museum, and others are classified, but rather than being the “best,” I have to say that Hooge Crater is probably the worst WWI museum I’ve been to, especially for the price.  If it was only a euro or two, I wouldn’t have been so bothered, but 5 euro is a lot for a very small museum without much to offer.  2/5.

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On a much more sombre note, I also visited Poperinge, as I really wanted to see the Poperinge Death Cell and Execution Spot.  Poperinge is right in the middle of Belgium’s hops growing region, so it is also home to a Hop Museum where you can apparently sniff a bewildering variety of hops, which I would have loved to do if I wasn’t so pressed for time (in spite of my dislike of hoppy beers, just because I like smelling stuff), but I was determined to get to Kattenstoet on time, so it fell by the wayside in favour of something far more historically important.

On a side street right next to Poperinge’s Town Hall, you’ll find a red door simply marked “death cell.”  Upon entering, you’re faced with a prison cell where soldiers were held during the war…some of them simply overnight for drunkenness or staying out past curfew – but for some poor men, it was where they spent their last night alive, before being executed for desertion in the morning.  Because many of these men were suffering from shell shock, their executions were nothing short of tragic, and the cell serves as a grim reminder of these young men who had their lives cut short.  It’s not really the most pleasant atmosphere to be in, but I’m glad it’s something I saw and experienced, just to reflect on the many horrors of war.  Some of the men carved their names on the wall of the cell, and these inscriptions have been preserved, with some of the more legible ones highlighted.

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If you want to feel even more mournful, never fear, as there is a re-creation of the execution site where the men were killed by firing squad out the back of the cells.  I don’t know what else I can really say about it, other than that it is powerful and chilling and terribly sad.

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To end on something more upbeat, so the extreme joy of Kattenstoet in the next post (and it WILL be the next post, I promise!) doesn’t seem too jarring, Poperinge is also where Talbot House was located.  This famous institution was started by two British Army chaplains as a place for soldiers to come when they could get away from the front lines, just to relax and engage in wholesome entertainments (basically stuff other than prostitutes or heavy drinking).  It was unique because it wasn’t only an officer’s club, but welcomed soldiers of all ranks.  It is now a museum/hotel, but I didn’t have a chance to go in, simply admiring it/posing for a picture on the outside, but you can definitely add it to your list if you need a jolt of relative positivity after the Death Cell.  I know I’d like to return someday to see the interior for myself!

Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.

 

 

 

Ostend, Belgium: Atlantikwall Museum

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Given what a windy day it was, with hints of rain on the horizon, after seeing James Ensorhuis and the kite festival, the only logical thing to do would be to visit an outdoor attraction, right?  Well, anyway, that’s what I did.  If you venture a few miles down the road from Ostend, you’ll find one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans during WWII (the wall originally stretched all along the coast from France to Norway, which is pretty impressive, until you bear in mind that it did them a fat lot of good in the end, am I right?), which has now been turned into a whole museum complex that also includes a living history fishing village (knowing my penchant for fishing heritage centres, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn’t also visit that).

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Atlantikwall costs 8 euros, with an included audio guide, or 10 euros if you want to visit the fishing village as well (a saving of 4 euros), but be forewarned that it involves a lot of walking.  Even just getting from the carpark to the museum entrance is a fair hike, and then the museum itself is spread out over a couple kilometres with lots of stairs (though nothing like the 366 in Belfort), and although there are a few bunkers and stuff you can go inside, the vast majority is outside, so pick a nice day for your visit.  I didn’t exactly follow my own advice, but fortunately the rain held off, so aside from it being windy and a bit chilly, it wasn’t too bad in the end.

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After my boyfriend and I picked up our audio guides, we were initially a bit confused, as a map near the entrance seemed to indicate we had a choice of two different routes: a green and a red, but the arrow signs were all yellow, so perhaps they’ve been consolidated into one route, since we definitely saw everything.  The interesting thing about this section of the Atlantikwall is that it also includes some ruins from WWI (the “ONLY preserved German coastal battery from WWI,” according to their website), so I guess you get more bang for your buck/euro.  You all know by now of my long-running feud with audio guides, but these ones were alright.  They only rambled on for a minute or so at each stopping point, usually the time it took to walk to the next one, so you weren’t left dawdling around for ages waiting for it to finish.

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This being Belgium, there were of course a fair amount of rather hilarious mannequins (though nothing on the level of my all-time favourite one from Ijzertoren; I still genuinely can’t believe how terrible he looks); I think the soldier on the right has something of Dr. Crippen about him, only with less creepy eyes.

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You are of course, right on the sea, as you’re reminded every time you step out onto a raised section of the wall and have a look towards the coast, and it really would be quite lovely without all the barbed wire and concrete bunkers.  The stark contrast really helps ram the war home and makes you feel as though you might well have been transported back in time, only with non-threatening mannequins instead of Nazis.

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I feel as though I should maybe be talking more about all the weaponry laying around, and military history generally, but munitions lie well outside my area of expertise, and the audio guides pretty much tell you all you need to know, being supplemented by actual signs here and there.  There was even a sample of the different horrible obstructions the Germans attempted to put in the way of the Allies, including Rommelspargel, pointy post things named for both Rommel and their resemblance to asparagus.  Rommel himself was actually transferred here for a bit to make improvements, so he was the one responsible for all the additional fortifications, at least until Hitler forced him to commit suicide.

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Atlantikwall was mercifully nearly deserted the majority of the time we were walking through, although we managed to catch up with some annoying Euro-hipsters near the end (not sure how that worked, because the audio guide should mean that everyone is moving around at roughly the same pace.  Maybe because they kept stopping to flap their jaws instead of just moving along to the next number), which was irritating because it was the one section that did have a lot indoors, and some videos to watch, which I skipped just to get away from all the people.  Instead, I lingered in the storeroom, with its display of tinned sausages and other hilarious yet disgusting German foodstuffs, and copies of the menu that the soldiers were served.

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In general, I liked Atlantikwall, and I learned a fair bit (how much I’ve retained is another matter entirely, as evidenced by the scarcity of war information in this post, though one thing I did find interesting is that some Eastern Europeans who were opposed to communism volunteered with the Nazis, in the hopes of taking down Stalin, but the Germans didn’t fully trust them, so they were generally given shitty jobs of no major importance to do).  I think it’s fantastic that these pieces of history have been preserved (Belgium in general seems to make a real effort to honour the past, probably because it’s been used as a battleground in so many major wars), and I think the set-up is generally quite good; while we weren’t sure about the yellow arrows at first, as sometimes it felt like we were bypassing stuff, it’s actually arranged in quite a clever way, and the path winds you back around in such a manner that you get to see everything without much backtracking.  I also liked how we were left free to wander and explore (save for the alarm we were warned about if you stray beyond the ropes, leaving me anxious about accidentally triggering it).  So yeah, I suppose it was a pretty worthwhile experience, and something a bit different from all the WWI stuff that dominates most of Belgium (though there’ll be some of that coming soon, don’t worry!).  Maybe I’ll have to return to see that fishing village someday, though if they’re speaking Flemish, perhaps not…  3.5/5.

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Ostend, Belgium: James Ensorhuis

Before you do anything else, if you’re not familiar with James Ensor, have a listen to this song: I don’t often foist my musical tastes on you (or everyone would know how many hours of my life I’ve wasted watching Journey concert footage from that brief but glorious era of Perry/Rolie overlap), but They Might be Giants have done an excellent job of condensing most of the pertinent background info on James Ensor into a minute and a half, so I’m letting them do the explanatory work for me.  I’ve been a TMBG fan since I was about 12, so after having listened to that song dozens of times over the years, you can see why I jumped at the opportunity to “meet James Ensor” when it presented itself.

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Ostend (or Oostende) is only about 13 miles from Brugge, so it was easy enough for us to cruise up there after procuring the world’s smallest rental car (ok, so it was a 4 door Smart Car, and I suppose the classic 2 door model would have technically been smaller, but believe me, there was no way more than two people would have fit in there.  The backseat barely held a backpack and my purse).  We’d chosen an exceptionally windy day for our visit, which coincidentally turned out to be the day of Ostend’s kite festival (we didn’t know about it in advance – I only spotted the posters advertising the festival when we approached the town, so it was a nice bonus), so after parking in an underground lot, and fighting through what felt like gale-force winds at street level, I was initially dismayed to find that the Ensor Museum appeared very much shut that day.  The museum is only open from 10-12 anyway, and then again in the afternoon after 2; we’d arrived just past 10, so we figured we’d go for a little walk (“against the wind” – Bob Seger this time) and then return, in case they were just a little late about opening that day.

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However, when we returned, the window shutter was still down, and there was no sign of life (there was a sign on the door, but it was in Flemish, and just looked like a poster advertising an exhibition or something, not directions on what to do), so I sadly settled for just having a picture in front of the place and was about to leave when a Belgian couple turned up.  Unlike us, they were not too chickenshit to pound on the front door, and sure enough, a woman emerged and let them in, so we quickly followed behind them (despite my attempts to build up suspense, the photos of the interior probably gave away the fact that we eventually made it inside).  So the moral is: if you try to visit and the shutters are down, don’t give up until you’ve knocked on the door and rang the bell (I suspect the shutters may have been down to protect the windows, the wind being so terrible). The house is very small, but admission is just 2 euro, so that was ok.  Besides, I was getting to “meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter” (which I sang about twenty times that day).  James Ensor spent almost his entire long life in Ostend, though he lived at his parents’ house for the first two-thirds of it (“he lived with his mother and the torments of Christ”); like James Ensorhuis, this also contained a souvenir shop.  The house where the Ensor Museum is based belonged to his aunt and uncle, but he inherited it after their death, and lived there from 1917 (when he was 57) until his own death in 1949.

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The main things to see within the house are the Blue Room and the dining room upstairs (there is also a documentary to watch, but it was in Flemish, so after looking at some of his paintings on the documentary, there wasn’t much point in watching the rest), which is where Ensor worked and entertained guests.  I feel like I keep using the phrase “fabulously weird” to describe Belgium, but that really is the best term for it.  I don’t know why after listening to that damn song so many times, I never bothered to look up Ensor’s paintings, because they are bizarre and amazing and I was missing out.  The house was kind of like a classier and slightly less creepy version of the house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original film, which scares the crap out of me, but is still better than that dreadful remake), with a dead bird in the corner, a skull wearing a hat on the mantle, and a mannequin clad in one of his aunt’s souvenir Carnival masks sitting at the table.  Although the paintings are reproductions, the brochure informs me that the furniture is authentic, so I’m going to choose to believe that James Ensor was this strange, and I love the guy for it.

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Like many artists, Ensor had different phases in his career, from his obsession with “the torments of Christ” resulting in a lot of creepy zombie-Jesus type pictures (even though Ensor was apparently an atheist, which makes me like him even more), to his many unusual self-portraits, and his fascination with the scatalogical (many of his paintings contain bare buttocks and fart clouds, which seems to indicate that we even have the same juvenile sense of humour), all of which are represented here.  He also had a thing for skulls (I’m particularly partial to this painting of two skulls fighting over a pickled herring).  His style seems to have been all over the place, and is hard to pin down, but maybe that’s what I like so much about him.  I think I can safely say that James Ensor is my new favourite painter (and he even comes with a nifty song.  So does Van Gogh, but that Don McLean song is so depressing.  I want to burst into tears every time I hear it). IMG_20150509_112046154   IMG_20150509_112219767

His aunt’s original souvenir shop has also been preserved (albeit with the addition of some new things for sale), and contains cases filled with Carnival masks (including a man with a goat head bursting out of his face) and some shells and things.  There’s also a large preserved turtle, and some other taxidermy, like a wall-case with several Feegee style mermaids inside of it (head of a monkey, body of a fish).

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Amongst the modern items for sale, we picked out a postcard and a most excellent print of Ensor’s The Baths at Ostend (or possibly The Baths of Ostend; I’ve seen it listed both ways).  In retrospect, hauling a four foot poster tube home probably wasn’t the smartest idea (though we took the Eurostar, so it was fine on the train, it was more transporting it from our hotel to the station, then to Brussels, into a locker for the day, and then through security and back to our house from King’s Cross), but I think it was worth it, as the piece is full of fart-based and other jokes that you only begin to appreciate when you’ve stared at the print for a while (the copy of it the museum had is pictured below).

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I loved James Ensorhuis.  It was teeny, but just so creepy and amazing.  And now I really “appreciate the man.” 4/5.

Still, that’s not all there is to Ostend.  We also found the old church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1896 (James Ensor sketched out a rather mystical drawing showing his suggestions for the re-build, because of course he did), but a tower remains, and there is a spectacular scene hidden underneath the crucifix on the front – what appears to be some sinners burning in the flames of hell.  After exploring Ostend, I can begin to appreciate how spending his whole life in this town may have warped James Ensor’s mind in fantastic ways.

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There was also that kite festival I mentioned at the start.  Though it was almost TOO windy to be flying kites, they still had them whipping around on the beach, and there were some excellent kites out there.  I was partial to the alligator, though I think my boyfriend favoured the shark, and we both thought the witch and ghosts were neat.  But that’s still not all there is to Ostend, oh no.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the AtlantikWall museum, which is just a few miles down the road from the centre of Ostend.

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Brugge, Belgium: Belfort

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Well, I’ve still got another English Heritage property and some Londony things to talk about, but I’m so excited to tell you about my latest trip to Belgium that I’ll spare you for now and just intersperse them with Belgian stuff later on.  In terms of European holiday destinations, I’ve been to Belgium a lot.  I think some people may perceive it as being a boring country, but something about it just keeps drawing me back.  It doesn’t hurt that the Belgians just seem so fabulously weird, in the best possible way.  There’s always unusual museums or strange festivals to visit (the latter being the main reason for my trip…you will hear much more about the wonder that is Kattenstoet in a future post), and three of the food groups that make up the bulk of my diet (chocolate, frites, and waffles – throw in cereal, cheese, and pasta and that’s 90% of what I eat) are very well represented, so why wouldn’t I keep coming back?  To ease you into my latest holiday (because really, shit gets weird at Kattenstoet, but in a good way), I’m starting out with a mainstream tourist attraction – the huge bell tower in the centre of Brugge (Bruges), otherwise known as Belfort.

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I’ve stayed in Brugge a couple times before this, but my position on Belfort has always been: why should I pay 8 euros to queue for ages and then climb a bunch of steps?  I can climb stairs for free if I want to!  However, my boyfriend was quite keen to see it, as it apparently features heavily in the film In Bruges, which I have never watched (not being much for films unless they feature a disturbingly sexy animated fox, the superb dancing and charmingly scarred cheek of Gene Kelly, Indiana Jones (except that fourth one, I don’t like to talk about that), or Chevy Chase being a jerk (his natural state, I’m told) at some point in the 1980s).  Because we arrived in the city on a Friday afternoon, and Belfort was relatively uncrowded (the line only stretched onto the balcony outside the ticket office, not down the steps, around the corner, and out to the street, like I have seen it in the past), after grabbing an ice cream from the always delectable Da Vinci Gelateria, we joined the queue (though we couldn’t let our guard down as Spanish people kept trying to cut in front of us.  I stared them down and tried to make myself look as wide as possible, like I was scaring off bears or something, and they eventually gave up and left.  Result!). Although the line really wasn’t very long, we still had to wait over half an hour to get in as they only allow 70 people inside the tower at any given time, so you have to wait for dawdlers to leave before you can climb up (so during peak times, you probably end up waiting for hours (and the archway leading into the courtyard reeks of poo, so you get the added fun of smelling that).  No thanks).

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To be honest, I wasn’t all that bothered about waiting, because I knew once I got inside the tower, I was going to have to walk up 366 steps.  The only saving grace was that I didn’t have to do it all in one go, as the tower has different floors with displays of bells and things set up where you can leave the staircase and rest for a minute.  Still, there was definitely a long stretch where we did about 120 steps in one go, and an even more awkward one when the stairs got really steep where I had to cram myself in a corner, bent almost double to let people by, and they just kept coming, ignoring my obvious discomfort.  I mean, I work out and stuff, I’m still a youngish person (just), and I consider myself to be in reasonably good shape, so it wasn’t really a problem getting to the top, but I was pretty out of breath by then.

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Upon finally reaching the top, we were rewarded with views of the city (and Brugge is inarguably a pretty place), albeit from behind some wire netting obviously meant to stop people from jumping off the tower (since the windows were pretty high up, there was no way you were just going to fall out), though it was flimsy stuff, so I have to think if you were really determined, it probably wouldn’t stop you. However, what we didn’t realise was that it was by this time 2 o’clock, and duh, we were in the top of a belfry.  What happens every hour in a bell tower?  Yep, deafening bells.  Bells that went on for about five minutes right above our heads when we were stuck in a corner with no way out, as everyone had frozen when the bells started ringing.  I wanted to put up a video my boyfriend took to really convey how noisy it was, but as I haven’t paid extra for a deluxe WordPress account, and I’m too lazy to start putting things on YouTube, you’ll just have to use your imagination (in lieu of a bell video, I’ll put up a picture of my delicious gelato).  It was loud.  I had my fingers stuck in my ears, and it was still loud.

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If I thought going up was bad, going down was even worse.  Narrow steps make me really really nervous, and watching my feet go down a spiral staircase made me dizzy, so I was super paranoid I was going to fall the whole time, and there was only a rope wrapped along the centre pole to hold on to. And an obnoxious child was running down the steps behind me, loudly counting off each one in French, so I had to zip along at a reasonable pace so he didn’t run into me (because I don’t know if I’d have been able to resist the temptation to trip him).  That’s not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.  After emerging from Belfort with great relief, I decided to poke my head into an open doorway right next to the exit, and discovered a free gallery.  I’m still not sure what this space is called, or what the featured exhibition was about, as it was mostly in Flemish, but it appeared to be something about communism, or perhaps postwar society in general.  All I know is they had some cool stuff in there, even if I can’t tell you exactly what it was.

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I wouldn’t recommend Belfort for people who are scared of heights (or falling down staircases, which is my main problem) or who dislike loud noises (also me), but I guess it is an iconic Brugge building.  I honestly still can’t believe I paid to walk up stairs and wait in line, but maybe that’s just me (and if you get the Brugge City Museum Pass thing, I believe it is included, so that might be worth doing if you’re going to a few museums – I didn’t as I had other things planned elsewhere, as you shall see).  But the gallery thing was pretty alright, though not worth a special trip.  2/5.

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Special October Post: Spooky Suggestions for Halloween!

I don’t like to play favourites (actually, I don’t know why I said that, because I totally do), but Halloween is probably my most beloved holiday…at least in terms of atmosphere and decor.  With that in mind, I do write about a lot of weird/creepy places on here, so I thought I’d link you to some of them in one central location, in case you’re looking for places to visit in October.  Like the content of the blog itself, most of the places are in the UK or Ohio, but there are some options for Continental Europeans as well!

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Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio is the subject of one of my most popular posts (right after the Arnold Museum, of course), and it is a really cool place – it’s so dilapidated and dark inside, you feel as though you’re trespassing, even though you’re not.  In the month of October they are open for special ghost events and their haunted house, but I do think it’s also well worth visiting during their summer season, when you’re left on your own to explore.

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On the subject of jails (or gaols), the Cork County Gaol in Ireland is another cool one.  They not only have audio tours on Walkmans (in the colour of your choosing!) but also have wax figures, and re-created cells.  The whole building is damp and cold, as if you can still feel the misery of the prisoners held here.

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Kelvedon Hatch in Essex is creepy in a nuclear apocalypse sense – we were the only visitors on the day we went, and there’s not even an admissions desk, so we were really able to get the experience of being the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  Plus, you’re trapped underground, and you’ve no idea what might be waiting at the other end of the tunnel!

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Eyam, in Derbyshire, is a village that was completely decimated by the 1665 plague, carried here from London via fleas in a box of cloth.  Most of the original plague houses remain, and the village is home to a nice little museum all about the epidemic.  It’s also quite near to Bakewell, so you can stop for a seasonally appropriate tea afterwards.

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The Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium, is housed in a still working mental institution.  Need I say more?  Well, the extremely excellent museum includes art done by the mentally ill, and horrible torture devices used to “treat” mental patients of yore.  A must-see if you’re in Belgium!

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I also adore the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel.  I’m really interested in Joseph Merrick’s life, and the museum is THE place to see his skeleton and some of his possessions.  Lots of other medical stuff too, and the museum is free!

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If you’re creeped out by dolls, then Pollock’s Toy Museum in London is not the place for you (unless you’re trying to scare yourself, which I guess is pretty much the point of this whole post, so never mind).  Split between a Victorian and a Georgian house, which are side by side, Pollock’s involves a journey up narrow, winding staircases to view cases crammed with sad-eyed Victorian toys.   Just watch out for the doll room!

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Even though almost nothing is in English, the Police Museum of Copenhagen is still incredible (and incredibly gory).  The wall of murder weapons is not to be missed, even if it raises more questions than it answers (what IS the deal with that meat grinder?!).

Finally, here’s some other places I LOVE (some of which can be found in my Favourite Places page), but haven’t got around to blogging about yet:

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia: The best medical museum I’ve seen yet (and I’ve seen a lot, as you’ve probably gathered).  There’s a giant colon, a lady whose fat turned to soap, and the liver from the original Siamese twins.

Thackray Museum, Leeds: Love the Thackray! They are the gold standard in authentic smells, and wax figures, and what I’ve compared every “street of yesteryear” to since (most of the other ones have been found lacking).  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a medical museum?

Hunterian Museum, London: Yet another medical museum (sorry, I know I have a problem), this one excels at stuff in jars.  And has some cool war medicine stuff.

Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam: This is the last medical museum (for now), I promise!  Museum Vrolik specialises in weird fetuses, including cyclopes, all manner of conjoined twins, and genetic abnormalities you never knew existed.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: I probably shouldn’t be putting this museum in a Halloween roundup, because they aim to distance themselves from old stereotypes of witches, but this place is awesome, and I wanted to give it a mention.  Lots of witchy paraphernalia in a very picturesque village.

Hever Castle, Kent: This was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and even though the interior hasn’t been done any favours by the owners since, the exterior is still lovely, as are the gardens,  They have a yew maze, and do some autumnal decorating, but I am pretty much including it here because I spotted ghost cupcakes in their tearoom, and cheesy Halloween touches like that are hard to find in England.

Hampton Court, Surrey: This is meant to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, if not in the world.  I’ve never seen any ghosts, but that hasn’t stopped me from making many return visits to gawk at the rooms Henry VIII (and his many wives) inhabited.

Hellfire Caves, Buckinghamshire: These man-made caves are where members of the Georgian Hellfire club met, and, if the rumours are to be believed, took part in orgies and/or satanic rituals.  Even if the stories aren’t true, the caves are full of mannequins and spooky sound effects, and make an excellent day trip from London.

Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland: I couldn’t end this list without including a place from my hometown, and Lakeview is probably my favourite cemetery in the world.  Splendid Victorian monuments abound, including Garfield’s tomb (you can see his and his wife’s coffins in the crypt), and the Haserot angel, which is guaranteed to give nightmares to Doctor Who fans. Cleveland’s Little Italy, which is just a street over, grew up around it because so many Italian stonemasons were hired to help build it, which should give you an idea of its size.  And that means you can get cavatelli and strawberry cassata cake after your visit.  What more excuse do you need?