I must admit, I didn't care for Belgium as a whole, but I loved Antwerp. Perhaps it helped that I had a friend to show hme around the kind of places I enjoy, but the city as a whole had that snotty attitude that I love (think Surry Hills). I spent a day in Gent, which was very enjoyable. It's a nice town, with lots of amazing buildings. I went to Saint Bavo's Cathedral, which was gorgeous. There were "no photography" signs everywhere, which was a shame, because it was one of the loveliest churches I have been in. It was enormous and elaborate, yet somehow unassuming. It wasn't overly decorated or tacky, just comfortable majestic. Like many Belgian churches, the rear of the altar was encircled by a dozen or so smaller chapels, each of which had its own distinct mood. I climbed up the nearby Belfry (as I may have mentioned, I am a sucker for climbing medieval monuments) and the view was a bit shit, unfortunately, as there were extensive renovations going on in the town centre. I nearly passed on the Gravensteen Castle, which was built by a count and dates back to the second crusade. I decided to go in, and it was quite interesting, but I felt it was over-restored. I like a bit of grit and decay in my ancient buildings. This one had been rebuilt to resemble how it would have at the time, so you just felt like you were walking through an unusually extensive film set. There was a great exhibition on medieval weaponry though. Yeah, maiming! From there, I went and had a Belgian waffle.
Oh. My. God. You. Guys. I knew Belgian waffles would be better than the "Belgian" waffles I've had before, but nothing prepared me for their amazingness. Before putting the batter in the waffle iron, the guy pressed lumps of raw sugar into the batter which would then melt and crystallise on the waffle. So delicious. I then wandered the city and, when looking at a statue of Saint Michael on a bridge over the canal, a kid ran up to me, babbling in Dutch. I said "English, please" (this is very common in tri-lingual Belgium - nobody ever seems to speak the same language) and, although he couldn't have been more than twelve, he said "Do you know what that statue is called?" I didn't, which only compounded my feelings of stupidity. This kid was young enough to be babysat, and yet he spoke more languages than me.
I also went to Brugges, and I did not care for it. It was pretty, sure, but it was full of tourists, and quite tacky as a result. There was a chapel housing a vial which allegedly contains Jesus Christ's congealed blood, and lots of people lining up to touch it. There was a charming nunnery, and Saint Salvator's Cathedral, which was enormous and barely restored - just the kind of thing I like to see. I did a canal tour, which was a bit shit - just seeing the same sights I saw on the street from a slightly lower, colder vantage point.
I'd been planning to spend two nights each in Ghent and Brugges. Thankfully, Dan suggested I just make day trips to each, and I listened to him. They were nice to visit, but I would have begun pulling out my fingernails just to have something to do if I stayed there much longer. Antwerp was fun. Dan and I went out dancing with his friends until the sun came up on Friday night. The next morning was a public holiday, and there was a brass band playing outside Dan's window for about six hours from ten o'clock. We were, of course, annoyed, but I was a little bit amused as that's the kind of surreal thing that I enjoy experiencing while travelling. "Remember that time we partied all night in Belgium and then couldn't sleep for the brass band outside our window?" Yeah, it makes a good story.
I also took in an excellent exhibition on the history of black clothing at the fashion museum. I also fell in love with Dan's favourite Belgian designer, Ann Demeulemeester. So, so pretty. I saw an exhibition at the art gallery, but that was a bit shit. An artist had curated it and explained that the pieces juxtaposed against each other. What he really meant was that he was lazy and threw together a whole lot of paintings that had nothing to do with each other, historically, stylistically or thematically. The exterior of the city's enormous Gothic cathedral was stunning, one of the most beautiful examples I've seen. The interior was a bit disappointing, though. I actually found a much more interesting church right next to the shop where Dan worked - another time when wandering off the established tourism path paid off.
From Antwerp, I went to visit my high school friend Freya in Hannover. She's been living there with her German boyfriend for about eighteen months. Because she has been back and forth between Germany and Australia since high school, Freya and I see each other very sporadically. As such, both she and I admitted we were a bit anxious about spending the weekend together: what if we didn't get along any more? But as always with high school friends I see rarely, we just picked up the conversation where we'd left it two years earlier. We talked and talked all weekend. We did some sightseeing, including a lake that had been built under Hitler's orders. Freya translated the inscription on a commemorative obelisk for me. Talking about the strength and will of the people, it was a standing piece of Nazi history. Fascinating and scary. But the lake remains as one of the few pleasing legacies of the Nazi regime. We ate as much as we talked, including an amazing ice cream cafe where the servings of ice cream were...I can't even describe how big they were. Enormous and delicious. On the Sunday, we went to visit Freya's boyfriend's parents. They were very lovely, and spoke not a word of English. It was a really interesting and pleasant afternoon. We communicated with smiles, pointing and the few German words I knew: "lekker" (delicious), "bitte" (please) and "danke" (thank you).
The next day, I caught a train to Holland, and I'll fill you in on my Dutch adventures another time.