Category Archives: Adventures

Train-trip and a Beguinage in Bruges

Every place gives you something – a gift, a new insight, courage when your heart is failing, and sometimes, just occasionally, wonder. In Amsterdam a few years ago, I discovered Het Begijnhof. I fell slightly in love with this sanctuary in the heart of the city and with the idea and history of Beguinages Bruges or Brugge had already been on the cards, recommended by a colleague who, it turns out, knows me well. Learning that there was also a Beguinage was enough – I bought a ticket and headed down into the underground gloominess of Gare Centrale to wait for my train.

The train trip and the chance to see the country-side was part of the joy of this journey. It’s easy to stay in one place, in the city where there is so much to see. But wonder comes in many forms and the country-side, especially when seen from train-windows, is a peculiar kind of joy. A joy complete with the space to write the journey.

Winter trees. The sky clouding over with soft grey and white billows. The houses narrow and upright, with snow-sloped rooftops and many chimneys. Red brick – in all shades of red – to brown and beige and painted white. Some semi-detached, just two windows wide; some standing alone, three or four windows across. Each small settlement with a church-tower – red-brick pretty or imposing gothic grey against the sky. 

The fields stretch green and brown, between stands of winter-bare trees, in the gaps between the settlements. A field of Shetland ponies behind a house surrounded by open land. Chickens in a run fenced with posts of dark, dark wood. Where the fields have been rested, the grass, dry from summer, stands knee-high, winter-dry white-brown. Several stands of young pines – next year’s Christmas trees? 

Settlements pass. A car-wash, a petrol station, a parking lot. In a yard, a trampoline with raised sides for small children. A jacket flaps on a washing line. More open land. A tiny brick wendy-house, half-hidden by ivy. Three geese in a field. A rugby pitch. What looks like a convent school or university college. So much water – rivers and bridges again. 

In a green field, a group of sea-gulls comes in to land. The first canal, complete with boats. We are travelling in the direction of the sea. Ducks waddle in a row – grey and white and brown – along a strip of grass to a water-filled furrow. Sheep graze among stalks in a black-soil field. A house with a built on glass conservatory. Almost there now. 

A house further out surrounded by fields and near the train-line. Outside a bicycle and a pile of freshly chopped firewood. From the windows, the warm glow of lights. 

In Bruges, I walk away from the station and take the path towards Minnewaterpark, with it’s pretty canals and Lake of Love and fortied gunpowder tower. The sun came out just as I arrived in Bruges and for a while it adds a sparkle on the water to the crisp afternoon stroll. Waterbirds, including snowy-white swans, decorate the lake and canals.

A twist and a turn and I find the Beguinage. From the moment you enter the complex, you can feel the peace. Signs on the grassy, tree-scattered central square ask for silence. Each white house, with its red roof, is a home. This is no longer a community of Beguines. Since 1927, it has functioned as a community for Benedictine nuns – a contemplative order that also holds special meaning for me. The place is beautiful and calm and not all the tourists wandering around can change that. Before crossing another pretty bridge over the canal, I even wandered through the gift shop.

The remainder of the afternoon is whiled away peacefully. Roaming the medieval city. Admiring lace and chocolate in lit-up shop windows. Enjoying the houses and restaurants on the water, and the city hall, museum and fries with mayonnaise on the square. Along the streets, the crowds walk quickly or meander and the clip-clop of horse-tours is a constant companion.

Back along the canals, where the birds are resting on froze shards of water. Back to the station, one more ticket, a wait on the platform where I wonder for a while about the drifts of salt before I finally figure it out. The train is warm and pleasant and the countryside we pass, once again beautiful. I am peaceful. I’m glad this trip was suggested. I’m glad I took the advice.

Beautiful Brussels

I am quite fond of the hotel, Hotel Chambord. It’s comfortable, rather than elegant, but located close to the office in a nice area. I am living in a little room right at the top of the house with a beautiful view of Brussels. To get to the room, I take a little lift – the kind that’s made for one – to 6ème étage, walk past all the sixth-floor rooms, through a heavy door, up a final flight of stairs and through another heavy door. There are only four rooms on the floor. The light in the hallway is activated by motion censor because the hall is not used enough to justify keeping it on all the time. It feels like a tower-room from a centuries-past European children’s story.

On Saturday morning, I do a little work, then head down to breakfast. The breakfast room is on the first floor. It’s warm and cosy. Croissants, crispy French bread, ham, cheese, a little bacon and egg and good coffee. I linger over a second cup of coffee. Before I came, I was warned that Brussels would miserably cold at the end of January. Colleagues who had been here the previous week, when it snowed, were all commiseration. I panicked a little: my last northern winter was a good few years ago and I no longer own the kind of winter woollies I used then. It’s not that cold, in the end. A good coat, a pair of warm shoes, jeans, scarf and gloves and I was perfectly happy. I finish my coffee, fetch my coat and head off.

Down the street, past the designer boutiques, the road opens through an archway into a cobbled square. Trams clang by every few minutes, with cars and buses passing around them. In the centre of the square stands a monument to the crusaders. Belgium seems to have a particularly thick skin when it comes to political correctness and/or sensitivity. They recently closed (to review the collection) an alarmingly racist museum celebrating the rape and pillage by King Leopold II of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

All around the cobbled square stand stately old buildings. One is a church, with columns and a bell tower and statues, each with a musical instrument. Some of the frieze work seems rather violent but the statues carry musical instruments and the facade is stately and elegant. A reminder of the history of monarchy, a plaque commemorated coronation in 1831 of Leopold I, first king of the Belgians after independence in 1830.


By the time I reach the gardens near the palace (just a block further), the cloud has burned off and the sun has begun to shine. When I return home, colleagues and friends who know Belgium are astonished to hear my tales of sunshine in Brussels. I think some of them think I’m making it up. Like the perfect spring day I spent in Paris, I guess sometimes you get lucky. The sun is just in time to light up a statue a-top the gates of the park: a child or a cherub standing over a recently hunted wild boar.

The palace itself is something out of a Georgette Heyer novel. Elegant lines set beyond shallow formal gardens, a million windows reflecting the sun, each with curtains pulled neatly back and in some glimpses of ornaments or furniture or bookcases. I could imagine, of an evening, carriages pulling up in the lamplight and letting down the steps for ladies in silks and muslins to trip up the steps to dinners and balls.


Not far away, and of all the museums I didn’t visit in Brussels the one I am determined to return for, is the museum of musical instruments. Thousands of musical instruments from many different eras are housed here. The museum offers an audio tour, to allow visitors to hear how each sounded. One reason, among many, to return.

Past the musical instrument museum, past the “La Pharmacie Anglaise – Cocktails and Curiosity” (which must be investigated further), I came across a fascinating clock built into the side of a building arching across a street (by the Mont des Arts).  The sun glinting off metal clock hands. Choosing to “[keep] the first for another day” (yet know how way leads on to way…), I continued to the cathedral.

The gothic Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula has a long history. A small chapel has probably existed on this spot since the 9th century, with a church being constructed in the 11th. The current gothic building was begun in 1226 and finally finished in 1519. The first Europeans settled in South Africa in 1652.

I come upon the cathedral from the side, as I step out of a narrow street between towering buildings. The stonework is stunning, with arches and stone bridges between spires. I walk around the back, enjoying the statues in each niche and the sun catching a stained glass window. In the front, two huge towers loom over me as I idly listen to an Irish accent telling a tour group the history of the church. The church bells ring out over the city.

Below the cathedral is a little park – just an island at an intersection really – complete with spindly winter trees and odd public artwork covered in graffiti. Graffiti seems to be as much of a feature of Brussels as a church on every corner. It’s the thing that scares but also attracts me – the hint of an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and desire for something better. This is not sanitised and perfectly controlled Amsterdam – this city has a mind of its own.

Towards Grand Place are streets lined with Frite stores, waffle houses and chocolate shops. Up one street, I wander around another pretty church – Madelaine chapel.

Nearby is the central station – Gare Centrale. I duck beneath an archway, drawn towards the station entrance by the sound of music. I stand for a moment, entranced. A man is playing a violin near the main doors. He smiles and gestures towards passers-by. His violin sings and soars. The music is beautiful. I often give a donation to people who share their music in public, who busk. Not normally in Euros. He greets me in French. His complement leaves me blushing into my red coat. I find a place further a little further off, struggling to drag myself away. Three times during the day, I return to Gare Centrale. Always just happening to pass by with the whims of my wanderings; always to listen to his music again. In years to come when I remember Brussels, as I’m haunted by memories of all my travels, my heart with long for that music.

Further down the hill is the central square Grand Place, complete with unsymmetrical Town Hall. No really, the clock tower is not in the centre and the windows on the two sides are different. A group of women of Asian descent practice their dance for the evening’s Chinese New Year celebrations. Brussels is a very, sometimes uncomfortably for itself, mixed city. Across the square is the dark, looming shape of the museum which houses, I am told (presumably among other things), the clothes that are used to dress up the Manneken Pis statue on special holidays.  The other buildings around the square glint with gilt in the sunshine.

I wander a little more – past chappels and houses. Down a quite street, a tall building rises into the blue, blue sky, raising a weathervane in the shape of a ship in full sail. The sky is that deep winter blue that goes on forever. I don’t remember seeing that in places other than South Africa. It is one of the things I love so much about home – the winter sky. Today it is a gift from Brussels.

Night Flight

A long flight across the night. You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea that nobody has thought about yet… Be poets.” From The West Wing

It’s a long time since I flew across the night. This trip was making me anxious. A rushed, last-minute work trip to a far away, cold place. Until I got to the airport. The minute I walk into the airport, I remember the thrill of travel. I still haven’t overcome my anxiety about leaving, being away, coping with admin and  visas and borders. Somewhere deeper is the thrill of movement and flight and the anticipation of wonder. I hope one day the thrill will overcome the anxiety. For now, I need to get better at anticipating to calm the nerves. It all disappears at the airport. I grab dinner, drop off my bags and head through security.

I’ve checked in early and have a window-seat. The plane beside ours is British Airways. I watch them load the luggage. We taxi slowly towards the runway and lift into the air. The lift is slow and gentle, steady. It’s a while since I’ve flown in a big plane – this one is a B373-800. The ride is smooth and steady. I have an empty seat beside me. I sleep on and off.

Somewhere above the coast of Libya, I lift my window shade. Below, settlements glow with light. They’re spread in all directions, along what look like roads. Like drops of water on a spider’s web. Bright lights against the dark ground. At the coastline, the lights stop abruptly and pitch dark laps against the line between dark and light.

Above, the sky is filled with a million bright stars. I see constellations that are familiar and some which are different, nothern stars. Orion fills the centre of the sky. It’s a breath-taking sight.

The next time I wake, we are over the pitch black hollow of the Mediterranean Sea. I try to spot boats in the Mediterranean or lights on the land in Europe. I sleep on and off and the world outside remains dark. Just that one glimpse of magical geography for the night.

We land in the early morning cold in Frankfurt. Stepping from the plane onto the sky-walk, our breathe is visible in the morning air. It’s just below freezing.

Second leg of the trip – Frankfurt to Brussels. We board in the dark. It’s minus 3 degrees and raising. We sit on the plane, waiting. Raindrops roll slowly, sadly down the window pane beside me. A short delay and an interminable taxi. Why is it that Frankfurt’s runways seem so far from the airport itself?

Finally we take off. The rain turns to cold misty cloud as we rise. Suddenly we break through the misty ceiling and we’re above the clouds. I catch my breathe. A rippling, fluffy-looking expanse of white stretches into the distance on all sides. Like virgin snow. It stretches to the horizon, where white and blue and purple fade to the gentle warm pick-orange-peach of dawn. In the distance, contrails pick out the pink against the blue-blue sky. Dawn at cruising altitude is as beautiful as ever – and universal.

After a while, through gaps in the clouds, I glimpse what looks like water. Lakes? A little later and I see it more clearly: it’s not water, it’s snow. Below the clouds, below us, we’re passing over snow-capped mountains. Above the clouds, a gorgeous sunrise; below a European winter.

All too soon, the brief announcement and a quick descent into Brussels, leaving behind the magic of the night flight and the sunrise sky for the grey, grim mistiness of early morning Belgium.