Brussels to Ostende

On The Road Travel Essays

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Brussels to Ostende

Leaving Brussels  The major thoroughfare leaving Brussels toward the west skirts around the imposing National Basilica of the Sacred Heart, begun in 1926 and dedicated in 1951 as an enduring symbol of the unity of the Belgian people. From its central altar radiate 10 chapels, representing the nine provinces of Belgium and the (former) Belgian Congo. The cupola on top, when finished, is to reach a height of over 300 feet, making the basilica visible from the whole city.

The Brabant Countryside  This is part of the old Duchy of Brabant, the capital of which was Louvain. Today, it gives you a good idea of the importance of Belgian agriculture. Chief products are dairy produce, grains, and chicory (which is used as a winter vegetable and exported to over 40 countries).

Aalst, a small town lying a mile or two off the highway, is the traditional center of the Belgian beer industry. The fields around it abound with golden hops which make for a light, mellow brew.

Ghent  This lies off the highway, so you can see only the spires and towers from a distance. Ghent lies on the eastern edge of the old County of Flanders, once ruled by powerful nobles who managed to incorporate even Brussels into their domains. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent. (The Flemish name for the city is Gent.)

Civic pride: This was the chief characteristic of Ghent throughout Belgian history. The people of Ghent spearheaded Belgian resistance to French conquest during the Middle Ages and after. Local festivals are full of proud references to the city's place in Belgian history.

Flower production is an old tradition; a flower festival held here every five years (called the Floralies) is said to make the very angels in heaven look down in envy. The city's most famous art work is in the Cathedral of St. Bavon: the Adoration of the Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (15th century).

Bruges  This too lies off the highway. Called Brugge in Flemish, the city became a transit point for goods flowing from England to Italy, the Balkans, and Russia. With wealth came artistic activity. Beautiful market squares were laid out. The Market Building (Markt) is the finest example of Gothic civic architecture in this part of Belgium. Two Renaissance artists are associated with Bruges: Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck. Memling's painting, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, is preserved inside the Memling Museum. Inside the cathedral is a white marble statue by Michelangelo, the Virgin and Child: it is the only piece of sculpture by Michelangelo in Belgium.

Ostend and the "Belgian Riviera"  The 40-mile "Belgian Riviera" is justly renowned for its white beaches, sparkling waters, and rolling sand dunes. The chief holiday town is Ostend (Oostend in Flemish), which has managed the feat of combining a beautiful resort beach with major shipping and fishing facilities. It has a drydock and a fleet of over 300 large fishing vessels. Just off the coast are the famous oyster beds, which have been cultivated continuously since 1766. Baby oysters are caught off the coast of England, then brought to the warmer waters off Ostend for fattening and harvesting.

At Ostend, of course, the visitor coming in from England gets his first stout whiff of the Flemish language. Signs everywhere announce the Uitgang (exit), Stoomboot (steamboat), or Vertrek (departure area). Thankfully, French and English equivalents are posted as well.

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