Home > Art, Culture, Film, History, Travel > A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 2: Thoughts on Belgium

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 2: Thoughts on Belgium

At the close of my previous post musing on visiting Paris, I wrote of the often-unnoticed ways that the City of Lights has seen its medieval historical heritage preserved down to the present day. If this can be noticed to some extent in Paris, then it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid in the small, often-maligned country bordering France: Belgium. For all of its mercantile history and contemporary participation in modernity, the great cities of Belgium (or, rather, of its Dutch-speaking northern portion, Flanders) are haunted by a past that had left behind it both aesthetic loveliness and troubling cultural implications.

Belgium has managed to cultivate a bit of an inferiority complex in European relations that doesn’t really befit it in cultural, economic, or political terms. It boasts an artistic timeline progressing from the Flemish Primitives to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck (though not to my taste, both major artists) to Art Nouveau to Rene Magritte’s Surrealism to… well, I dunno where it ends, Gotye? It has often been an economic and therefore political powerhouse as well, from the thriving late-medieval port cities of Ghent and Bruges to the diamond trade of Antwerp to King Leopold II’s colonial exploitation of the rubber trees of the Congo to today’s membership (and, with its Brussels headquarters, leadership) in the European Union. Still, jammed only half-comfortably between two continental powers (France and Germany) that have often coveted, fought over, and indeed conquered it, and overshadowed even by the country of origin for its linguistic majority (Holland), Belgium is rarely afforded the respect that the unique history of its region, culture, and people have earned.

The aforementioned “Big Four” Belgian cities, all of which were ports of call on my holiday, typify different and even divisive aspects of Belgium even while also accenting the similarities throughout the nation. Brussels is the bustling capital of government, national and continental, dotted with the sort of bulky Neoclassical official institutions that often threaten to swallow other great capitals like Washington D.C. and the aforementioned Paris. French, the prestige language of the country’s elite, has not relinquished its central position in Brussels despite its geographic location in Flanders and increasing progressive concessions to the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. If anything, it’s easier for a visitor speaking French as a second language to survive with only the language in Brussels than it is to do so anywhere in France. In Belgium, no matter what the historical privileged class liked to pretend, French is always a second language anyway.

Antwerp, like Brussels, is both a historic centre and a modern city. The architecture of each is that much more festooned, the famous stepped-gable peaks of Flemish architecture graced with the supplemental gilding that copious profitable commerce affords. Antwerp has long been the town of flash and bang, overflowing with glittering diamonds, an astonishing railroad station, and cutting edge fashion design. The style-over-substance feeling of the place is embodied by its most famous son, the aforementioned Rubens. With his preference for towering canvases, clumsily indistinct lines, sweeping gestures, and rippling cellulite, Rubens is an artist for Antwerp: impressive, showy, and opulent, but largely without a sense of proportion or a soul-like core.

Ghent and Bruges, on the other hand, trade lucratively on their exquisite atmosphere of late-medieval and early-modern urban preservation. Though their aesthetic pleasures are undeniable and therefore quite hard to be critical about, ultimately, both cities present their canals and churches, their wedding-cake market squares and cobblestoned side-lanes, and their profusion of historical fine art for maximum touristic consumption. Ghent manages to escape a more cynical assessment by virtue of being slightly less popular with foreigners as well as slightly more ragged and liberal as a longtime university town. Its main museum to medieval life is the none-too-rose-tinted Gravesteen, an honest-to-god castle in the centre of town that quite openly acknowledges the quotidian brutality of the Middle Ages with its torture exhibits. It also doesn’t hurt that Ghent boasts a dynamic central skyline, one of the continent’s most welcoming cores (the beautiful, homey Graslei), and the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the true historic knockouts of European art that also has a fascinating history.

Bruges, on the other hand, although undeniably romantic and beguiling, works a bit too hard to construct itself to visitors as a living museum while simultaneously capitulating to modern tastes and capitalist ambition. As pretty as the Markt square is, only a few steps down any of its connecting straats will lead you into a Body Shop or a Zara or a Pizza Hut, and the city’s amalgamated museum bureaucracy, with its standardized pricing and plexiglass booths, drains the character of many a historical landmark (it doesn’t help, either, that the queue for an attraction like the Belfry is a major timesuck). It’s hardly much of a fairytale, though still pretty fine for all that.

Ironically, the cultural product currently most associated with Bruges, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s rough and hilarious moral-comic gangster escapade In Bruges, subtly participated in the town’s self-romanticization as much as it overtly sent it up. The Bruges in the film is a “fuckin’ fairytale”, as a couple of characters put it, although another is less complimentary, repeatedly dubbing it a “shithole”. We laugh dismissively at the latter assessment because McDonagh constructs Bruges as a romantic Belgian burg indeed, albeit one with a subtle dark side. He has sound thematic reasons to do this, invoking the town as a simultaneous Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where the moral actions of his characters meet with the variant sentences of a fickle, unseen judge. But it’s still a bit too perfect, so much so that it isn’t perfect at all.

And this is Belgium, too: kind of perfect but really much more imperfect. “Nothing works here, and still it works,” goes a local saying, and it speaks volumes about this small but vibrant and fascinating country’s self-image. In a global order of constricting capitalized ambition with consequences both wonderful and terrible, Belgium finds a way to embrace both possibilities and still seem like a land set snugly before the time of unrestricted consumption. This is why it’s such a great place to travel, and will continue to be.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, History, Travel
  1. August 26, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Random fact – where we tell Newfie jokes, the French tell Belgian jokes. No kidding.

  1. June 6, 2013 at 5:41 am
  2. June 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm
  3. September 19, 2013 at 5:56 pm
  4. December 10, 2013 at 8:02 am

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