Bruges to Brussels

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Bruges to Brussels

This drive, all along the E40 for 58 miles, takes a little over an hour. About 10 miles after leaving Bruges, you lead the province of West Flanders to enter East Flanders (still Dutch-speaking). The landscape is unchanged, predominantly dull and flat, generally well cultivated though often pleasantly green. Though there is nothing to excite the eye, the journey is so short that expatiating on Belgian history or economy, culture or gastronomy may seem inappropriate. Similarly, waxing lyrical over the unseen glories of Ghent may be redundant. Perhaps to say nothing is better, or listen to some of Belgium's finest musical treasures, the organ works of César Franck, the songs of Jacques Brel, Jonny Halliday, Plastic Bertrand or great saxophone solos of our time brought to you courtesy of Dinant's most famous citizen Adolphe Sax.

It would be churlish to leave Bruges particularly early in the morning but neither can you afford to linger. You have a long day ahead of you. You should probably aim to be leaving around 8:45 so as to have a couple of hours in Brussels for sightseeing and wandering before grabbing a very quick early lunch and continuing on your way.

At about 25 miles just after crossing the river Leie and its banks of poplars you come to the outskirts of Ghent, the capital of East Flanders, which lies a mile or so off the motorway to the north. Given your tangential relationship with the place — you do not have time to visit it — much of the following is probably irrelevant, but...

Ghent  230,000 inhabitants, capital of East Flanders, third city of Belgium (after Brussels and Antwerp). This is a major industrial centre and a very important inland port. It advertises itself as the 'city of flowers' and is probably best known nowadays for its five-yearly flower festival or Floralie (the next one is in 2000). You see nothing auspicious of the town from the road as you bypass it, though it is in fact a very beautiful city. At its best Ghent is a sort of Bruges without the tourists. Like Bruges (and in fact all the great Flemish cities — Ypres, Douai or Tournai), it was a city that grew rich on the profits of the manufacture of cloth. Ghent lies at the confluence of Flanders' two main rivers, the Leie and the Scheldt, so it is crisscrossed by rivers and canals. They are themselves adorned with grand gabled merchants' houses and guildhalls and huge and intricately decorated civic buildings typical of Flanders. The town centre is dominated by the superb C12 Gravensteen or Castle of the Counts of Flanders. In St. Bavo's Cathedral is one of the world's most famous paintings, the greatest masterpiece of C15 Flemish art, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted in Bruges by Jan Van Eyck. Ghent was the birthplace of Emperor Charles V. Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel laureate for Literature in 1911, was also from here.

Aalst  (42 miles) lies a mile to the north of the road. This is a major centre of the Belgain brewing industry. There are fields of hops all around. This is a good excuse to talk about beer if the group is amenable to this sort of subject.

Just beyond Aalst you enter the province of Brabant, whose capital is Brussels. The landscape is little changed though the hops soon give way to fields of grain and chicory and the contours of the land threaten to undulate slightly. Brabant is a bilingual province, Flemish and French. In the countryside the mother tongue of the majority is Flemish; in Brussels it is the other way round. The first son of the monarch is titled the Prince of Brabant.

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