Searching for Sunshine in the Benelux - Part 4

We visit Ghent and then experience the "Belgium Adventure"

Friday, September 3

We drove out of Bruges, sadly, and it took us longer to get through the suburbs to the highway than it did to drive on the highway to Ghent. We had booked a room via the Internet in a hotel in Ghent, basically sight unseen. The hotel is part of a chain called NH, which we had never heard of before. We picked it because it was reasonably priced, close to the center of town where all the attractions are, and had a parking garage. When we booked the room, we got driving instructions that were supposed to get us to the hotel. When we got off the highway and started driving into Ghent, we followed the usual signs to the “Centrum”, but eventually got lost. We did finally find the hotel, and drove into their underground parking garage. We checked in and were taken by the bellhop to our room. As soon as we saw the room, we were positive that somebody had made a big mistake. We had booked a room for about 150 Euros. This room had to cost 600 Euros a night! It was huge. It had every possible amenity. It had a bathroom bigger than our bedroom at home. It had terrycloth robes on the king-sized bed. It had an Espresso maker. It had a sitting area with a couch and coffee table. Donnie said not to touch anything while she went down to the desk to correct the error. I waited in the room, not unpacking or anything since we obviously were in the wrong room. She came back smiling. The desk clerk insisted that this was the correct room, at the price we had gotten on the internet. Wow!

After a bit of relaxing in the room, and thinking about just luxuriating there and never going out, we went out to see Ghent. From what we saw on the drive in, Ghent is a mixture of old and modern. More commercial and non-touristy than Bruges, but still having some old pretty parts. We walked around the old center, taking pictures.

We stopped for tea and cake at a lovely little shop where all of the baked treats were obviously homemade. We then went to visit Gravensteen castle. A very old (1100's) castle in the middle of town. I was not very impressed, but then I have been over-castled from previous trips. This one was mainly empty, and mostly restored, but Donnie thought it interesting. After leaving the castle, it looked like rain was coming, so we went back to the hotel for a while before starting out again (It never actually rained).

We then went to St. Bavo's cathedral. We have seen many, many churches and cathedrals in our many trips, and I was ready to be bored, but this one was not boring. The carvings and statues inside were quite impressive. The pulpit was this incredible carving of wood and marble that was just over the top. Unfortunately, they did not allow pictures. Fortunately, I cheated! (I will omit my rant on places that forbid photography so they can sell postcards!)

We then walked a short block to the Belfort, another UNESCO World Heritage site. It's a 295 foot high bell tower, built between 1314 and 1338. We went in and found that you only had to walk up 50 steps to the elevator to the top. Whew! We walked the 50 steps, inside a typical medieval circular tower, with a circular stone staircase that has barely enough room on each step for your big toe. We arrived at the room with the elevator (designed by St. Otis, I think) and took it to the top. The view was pretty impressive. Also inside were two rooms that were fascinating. One had old clockwork mechanisms, one of which was a huge drum-shaped device, containing many holes, some of which had metal pieces sticking out. It looked like a huge music-box mechanism. It was. While we were looking at it, suddenly there was a grinding of gears, and it started turning, and we suddenly heard the sound of a carillon of bells playing above us. Fantastic! The other interesting room held a bell. A huge bell. A VERY HUGE bell. We took some pictures and left quickly, in case it also started to play. Ouch!

We went back downstairs, and continued walking around the old area of Ghent. We passed an amazing sight - a 17th century McDonalds. I wanted to try a Big Mac, but Donnie said that a 17th century Big Mac would probably be pretty moldy by now, so we skipped it. (In reality, we always avoid American fast-food places in Europe. With all the wonderful, fresh European food, why would you eat Americanized chemical food?)

We walked around, had a nice dinner at an restaurant with outdoor seating right next to a canal, and as it was getting late, went back to our luxurious hotel room.

When we originally decided to visit Ghent after Bruges, we were concerned that it would be a letdown after incredible Bruges. It was nice. Bruges is lovelier, but Ghent was a nice city and we enjoyed the little bit of it we saw.

Saturday, September 4

Today was not a good day. I got the brilliant idea of driving south, through the Belgian countryside into France, on our way to Luxembourg. I got a little tired of cities, even small, beautiful ones, and thought that it would be nice to see some pretty little Belgian and French villages. The ride started out nice, although it was a bit foggy. After a while, we noticed that the Belgian villages we passed through were not all that pretty. Tired, worn-out, somewhat dirty would be the best description. When we got into France, all we saw were farms. None of the roads we were on passed through the villages, and the few we did go through were not all that pretty either. So, I decided, since it was getting a little late, that we should head northeast again, back into Belgium to find a place to stay. We were reasonably close to a big city on the map, Charleroi, so we drove there on the highway.

When we got to Charleroi, we drove into town. It was a pretty large town, actually a small city. We passed lots of office buildings, lots of big apartment buildings, even a few skyscrapers. We got stuck in a lot of traffic and also some construction delays. We must have driven around town at least 3 times. We never saw a single hotel - not one! We have driven through many countries in Europe, including England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany, France and others, and have stayed in many, many towns, both small and large, and have never experienced a town anywhere near this size that had no hotels. After hitting the same construction delay for the third time, we gave up in frustration, and decided that something was very strange about Charleroi, and got back on the highway to head to the next city on the way to Luxembourg, Namur.

Namur was a little smaller than Charleroi, about the size of Bruges, but we figured that there must be a hotel there. We were sort of right. There were exactly two. Near the train station, a very big modern station, with lots of people and activity, was one hotel, that looked pretty seedy, and did not inspire confidence in either of us. We drove a little further, again getting stuck in some traffic jams, and suddenly saw an Ibis hotel. We have stayed in Ibis hotels in other places in Europe. They are nothing special, kind of minimal, but perfectly acceptable, and given that it was getting late and we desperately needed a place to stay, we were thrilled and drove into the hotel parking lot driveway. Since Donnie was driving and had to stay with the car, I went into the lobby. Nobody was there. I mean nobody - no desk clerk - nobody. After a few minutes, a man came out wheeling an empty luggage cart, and then went behind the desk. He didn't say anything, but looked at me strangely. I asked if there was a double room for the night. He said, in a very unfriendly way that they were fully booked. Dejected, I walked back out to the car. I told Donnie. She said she would go back in and ask him where there were other hotels. I got into the driver's seat and waited. She was gone about 5 minutes, so I assumed he was giving her directions to other hotels. She came back and said she waited 5 minutes, but the lobby was empty.

I then got the idea to park the car in an underground garage near the train station, and go into the train station, hoping it would have either a tourist information office, or a Wifi hotspot where we could go online and find a hotel. We went into the station, finding it very clean, new, ultra-modern, and pretty large. There were no tourist information offices. There was no Wifi hotspot. Finally Donnie decided to go into a convenience store and ask the store clerks. The clerks were very nice and helpful, but told us that there were, in fact, only two hotels in Namur - the Ibis, and the seedy place near the train station. They then told Donnie that there was a Novotel in a nearby town, and even drew her a little map to get to it. We thanked them profusely. Donnie then said that she had seen an Internet cafe near the parking garage, and that we should go there and make sure that the hotel had rooms before driving there. An excellent suggestion, I thought.

We went to the internet cafe, and bought a half-hour of time, and went to the Novotel web site. Would you believe that there was no Novotel anywhere near Namur. The helpful clerks in the convenience store were wrong. We then decided that enough was enough. Liege, a very big Belgian city was about an hour from Namur, and we were sitting at an Internet terminal, so we figured we would just go online and book a hotel in Liege. After trying to book several hotels online, we found that they were either booked completely for Saturday night, or would not take online bookings that late on the same evening we wanted to check in. Finally, as our Internet time was down to three minutes, Donnie said that maybe it would work better by phone and said to get some hotel phone numbers. I only managed to get one, the Holiday Inn in Liege before our Internet time ran out. We could have gotten more time, but the process of being rejected by several hotel web booking sites had frustrated us too much. Fortunately, the Internet cafe also ran a telephone service and had several private phone booths. Donnie called the Holiday Inn, and found that yes, this over-200 room hotel was fully booked. She then asked if they knew of another hotel in the area. The very nice woman in the Holiday Inn said that yes, she knew of a brand new hotel that had just opened and that they had rooms and gave Donnie the phone number. She called, and we booked a room! Now, we just had to get there. We told them we were in Namur, and had to drive to Liege. We got in the car, and found the highway to Liege. By now it was late, about 7:30 p.m., and we were concerned about getting into an unfamiliar city after dark. We drove about an hour on the highway, and entered Liege.

The desk clerk of the hotel had told Donnie that the hotel was just across the street from the Guillemins Train station. When we got near the center of Liege, there was a miracle! They had signs directing us to the Guillemins train station! We followed the signs, and then must have missed one, because after going through two underground tunnels, we found ourselves on the highway leaving Liege. Well, we turned around, found a sign again that led to the station, and followed it. Suddenly, Donnie said, “I see a building, It must be the station. Even if it isn't, we have to go that way. It's incredible!” I followed her directions and we came upon this dazzling, huge, lit up, sculpture in steel and glass. The most unbelievable train station we had ever seen. It was the Guillemins station, and sure enough there was the hotel, right across the street. The bad news was that across from the amazing, beautiful, modern, clean, world-class train station was a bunch of crummy, seedy restaurants and karaoke bars. Some woman was doing the worst singing I had ever heard. Our hotel was right in the middle of the seedy bars. Well, the hotel turned out to be very nice. Our room was small, as are most European hotel rooms, but clean, modern, new, and quiet. Donnie was a little unhappy because it didn't have Wifi. I was a little unhappy because we had to park the car on the street across from the hotel, in a less-than-thrilling neighborhood. But we had a place to sleep for the night.

The day was not the greatest. We didn't see any pretty French or Belgian villages. We had no fun in Charleroi or Namur in traffic jams. We had to drive late in the dark, and nearly had to sleep in the car, but it finally worked out ok.

I am still baffled by Charleroi and Namur. We have been in towns with a population numbered in the low hundreds that had more hotels than Charleroi, which probably had a population in the hundreds of thousands.