Tag Archives: Belgium

At the centre of Europe

Yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels have been immediately described as “terrorism in the heart of Europe“, “an attack in the centre of Europe” and so on. Is Brussels really the centre of Europe? And if the centre of Europe is not in Brussels, where is it? Previously, I’ve looked into the definition of “Central Europe” but I think that is not the same as the “Centre of Europe”.

Numerous attempts were made to define the geographical centre of Europe. The difficulty in agreeing on the “centre” is due to the unclear definition of Europe – the Eastern boundary is simply arbitrary. Other questions are whether islands are to be included or just the mainland. As one can expect, the EU has its own “midpoint”, the location of which is also not undisputed. But if you want to know more about this, just read the Wikipedia page about the topic.

The political centre of Europe is a completely different story. Brussels is often described as the political centre, since many European institutions are located there. However, the European parliament divides its time between Brussels and Strasbourg, the European Central Bank has its headquarters in Frankfurt, Europol is in the Hague, Frontex is in Warsaw – I guess its clear what I mean. Or not, but its Europe, so get used to it.

I propose a different view on the “centre of Europe”, a more statistical one. Where is the centre of a country? In its capital, naturally. Europe does not have a capital, despite all attempts to create one (previous contenders include Paris, Berlin, Rome and Moscow). Therefore, I looked up the location of the capitals of European countries, and calculated the median and mean of their latitude and longitudes. The median and mean are both close to where the borders of Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic meet.

Center of Europe

Map generated using Scribble Maps

The exact location depends on what counts as “European country”, but will not shift by much. Personally, I find this location quite fitting my expectations of the centre of Europe. It also simplifies the definitions of Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern Europe. This definition will not satisfy everyone, but at least it’s obvious that the centre of Europe is not in Brussels. Ain’t that a relief.

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European destinations I have almost been to

I’ve been living in the heart of Europe for over 12 years. In this time, I have visited dozens of countries on countless trips, short and long (the European countries I’ve been to are shown in the map). But some destinations, however classic or accessible, keep eluding me. So, I haven’t been to Paris. From Rotterdam, where I live, its only 3 hours away by high-speed train, and tickets are sold as cheap as 50 Euro, but I somehow managed to miss on Paris entirely. Closest I’ve been was passing by on the Boulevard Périphérique on my way to the Mediterranean sun. Brussels, which is much closer, I haven’t visited too. I’ve been all over Belgium, have flown out of Brussels’s airports many times, but as far as the city itself is concerned, I have only got as far as the Belgian fries stand outside the Central Station. OK, it’s more than the average Contiki “traveller” gets to see, but I still don’t feel like I’ve been to Brussels.

Speaking of airports, the airports of Barcelona and Rome are the only part of these famous cities that I have seen. I honestly intended to spend a few days in Barcelona with my girlfriend (now known as wife), but delays and mechanical mishaps on the way meant we headed straight into the Pyrenees and that Barcelona is still on my wish list. In the meantime, I settle for Barcelona, the neighbourhood tapas bar. Rome I have passed a few times, flying to and from Israel to visit the family. The Italian national carrier, Alitalia, is famous for its strikes, and if I got “lucky” I could have got stuck in Rome for a day or two as a result of one of those strikes. But their numerous strikes seemed always to be unsynchronized with my travels. My luggage, on the other hand, got to spend a vacation without me on several of those occasions – Alitalia managed to lose it on 3 out of 4 flights, delivering it anywhere between 1 day and a week later.

Another European capital that is on everyone’s lips is Budapest. I have, in fact, spent about 12 hours there on another layover on my way to Israel. But I arrived at the dead of night, went straight to a friend’s apartment to sleep a few hours and went back to the airport to catch my flight, so I don’t think it counts. Warsaw, another of Eastern Europe’s gems, I could have reached by a night train from nearby Cologne. I haven’t even seen the airport of Warsaw – like that British pilot in Frankfurt, I flied over several times but never landed.

Last but not least – one of the first European cities I have almost been to was Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I was there way back in 1991, as we immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Inside the Communist block, Israel had diplomatic relations only with Romania, so most Soviet Jews stopped in Romania first as they left, before going to Israel. I have spent there a full two days, lodged in former Soviet barracks, which I am sure does not qualify as “have visited Bucharest”. All in all, despite, as I said, having lived more than 12 years in the heart of Europe, in a place with probably the best connections to everywhere and extensive travels, I still have a whole lot of Europe to discover. Lucky me.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway - B&B 't Nachtegaeltje.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway – B&B ‘t Nachtegaeltje.

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Our annual Christmas market weekend getaway – this year to Antwerp

Its been a while since I’ve published one of those photo posts. You know, the “I’m too lazy to write but look at the cool pictures” kind of post? Well, here’s one. Last weekend me and the missus dropped our daughter at her sister’s and drove off to Antwerp for our annual Christmas market weekend getaway. We both have been there before, but a long-long time ago, so even though Antwerp is only a 100 km drive from Rotterdam, it was quite new to us. There are overwhelming similarities between the two cities – both are a major European harbour, of roughly the same size and with a long common history, having for a long time been part of the same country, and even the language is the same. But despite the many parallels between Rotterdam, our hometown, and Antwerp, we’ve really enjoyed exploring those subtle differences in culture and experience, that make cross-border travel in Europe so much fun. So without further due, here’s Antwerp:

We got SO lucky with the weather!

We got SO lucky with the weather!

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Supreme view from our hotel window

Supreme view from our hotel window

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’  at the MAS museum)

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’ at the MAS museum)

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

I can warmly recommend Antwerp and in particular the following places:

  • Hotel Banks – not the cheapest one around, but with excellent facilities and services, including a free bar at the evenings!
  • Daily Roast – excellent coffee.
  • The MAS – Museum Aan de Stroom – a spectacular building with a fascinating variety of exhibitions.

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Adventure starts just across the border

One often hears generalizations about Europe and Europeans. “All Europeans are…” people go. Not all stereotypes are even negative – so, Europeans are supposedly all riding bicycles and are fit. Undoubtedly, some Europeans are, and maybe the average European is skinnier than the average American, but about half of the population of Europe is overweight nevertheless. Well, these stereotypes are just what they are – wild generalizations that may or may not be partially true.

Often, the same people that make generalizations about Europe are surprised how the EU members can’t agree on a common policy on this or that issue. Truth is, that Europe, even seemingly very similar countries, is far from a uniform place. Take the Dutch-Belgian border, for example. If you can find it, of course – it doesn’t even exist! Well, technically, it does, but the border is divided into two very distinct sections that take you to two completely different countries – Flanders and Wallonia.

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium - our first stop - are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium – our first stop – are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

Wallonia has been our first stop on the Grey Wave surfing trip. Every time I cross this border I am surprised how different two countries so close in geography and history can feel. Travel over the highway from the Netherlands into Flanders and you’ll have a hard time noticing you crossed the border. Cross into Wallonia, on the other hand, and even in the dead of night you’ll immediately notice you’re in a different country just by how your car is almost rattled to pieces by the dreadful Wallonian roads. Fortunately, the kind Wallonians notice you about the road perils by signs announcing that “Route dégradée”. Even in Spa, probably the wealthiest community in all of Wallonia, the roads look as if they were carpet-bombed just the other night.

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Of course, the language changes instantly to French, and due to the Belgian language divide you won’t find any sign in Dutch in Wallonia. Nor will you see any French in Flanders, by the way, even Lille is referred to as Rijsel on the highway. Furthermore, I am quite used to wide range of beers in Dutch stores, but the Belgian beer shelves are simply overwhelming, including local Spa beer, unknown to the rest of the world (for a good reason, I assure you). And the supermarket music is not the Top 40 drab I am accustomed to – no, its electronic music, and good one, too. Perhaps that’s the Belgian (or should I say Wallonian?) Top 40? Speaking of supermarkets and food – its tough enough being a vegetarian in the Netherlands, but at least they don’t label fish courses as vegetarian food on the menu, like they do in Wallonia. But the main difference is undoubtedly the landscape. Just across the border they have hills, and steep ones, too! In short, even in Western Europe, your adventure starts as soon as you cross the border.

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Being an idiot in Denmark (which, after all, is just another small European country to be an idiot in)

Cycling around few more blocks on the Aarhus free city bike. Having another go at the buffet in the Vietnamese restaurant. Coming back to pick up the bag I forgot at the said restaurant. Deciding at the last minute to buy a newspaper for the road. Trying to pay for the newspaper while in line behind a very drunk Danish lady who had no clue what she was doing in the store anyway. There were many factors that contributed to me missing the train to Kolding, where I was supposed to board my CityNightLine back to Holland. But they all boiled down to one simple fact – I was an idiot. I had some 5 hours in which I could have taken 5 trains to Kolding to kill some time there before nicely and easily boarding the night train home. There I was – staring at the back lights of the last of these trains as it left the Aarhus central station.

The view from my hotel window in Aarhus - through the window I could climb to the roof, if I wanted to!

The view from my hotel window in Aarhus – through the window I could climb to the roof, if I wanted to!

This was not the first time I was an idiot, nor was Denmark the first small European country I was being an idiot in (my followers might recall the story about the wrong airport in Belgium). However familiar the situation felt, I still had to try and resolve it. I bravely boarded the first train in the general direction of Kolding. The poor conductor and his poor English buckled and grumbled under the barrage of my questions. His general attitude was, and I can’t blame him for it, “you’re the idiot – you work it out”. I, however was relentless. The guy was my only lifeline and I wasn’t about to let go.

dsb

Danish rail – this is what I was up against

The train I was in was heading to Kopenhagen, not even passing Kolding. I could catch a connecting train, which would bring me there exactly 5 minutes after the CNL would leave, which was quite useless. Sure, even if I’d miss the train I would get home eventually, but it would cost me both time and money and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t try my best to salvage what’s left. Just as I was about to grow desperate I spotted an opportunity – I could try and catch the CNL by taking a taxi from Fredericia. Finally, I had hope. The Danish conductor was not that encouraging. With infinite easy and brevity, he smashed my joy upon the discovery of this opportunity by a dry “too far”. He was a man of few words, but the ones he used made direct hits. His colleague, apparently more sympathetic to my despair, suggested I could try from Vejle – it was closer and I’d have a better chance. However slim, the odds were better than zero.

As the train pulled into Vejle, I jumped off and hit the ground running. “To Kolding!” I called, plunging into the waiting taxi. A slight Sherlock Holmes-ish feeling got hold of me. I felt as if I was pursuing Professor Moriarty making his escape to France, chasing him to the ferry in Dover. The taxi driver was absolutely not playing the role of Dr. Watson though. Contradictory to the hell-raising Belgian from that other time I was an idiot, this one seemed to be giving a driving lesson. He followed all the signs and drove at the EXACT speed limit. It would be a close call – we had 20 minutes to cover the 25 kilometres, mostly through towns and villages.

Fortunately, I had a back-up plan – if I’d miss the CNL in Kolding, we would drive on to Padborg, where I’d surely catch up with it. Unfortunately, I was scared to even think how much that taxi ride would cost. As I shared my plan with the driver, I suddenly thought that perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea – what if he’d let his foot off the gas just that little bit so that I’d miss the CNL in Kolding and he will get a big ride to Padborg? But he just kept driving, sticking to the cursed speed limit, not making any cunning plans but just transferring me from A to B.

As we drove up to Kolding train station, I swiped the card in the pay machine in the taxi, swiped it again, cursed, swiped it in the right direction, frantically punched in the pin-code, rushed out of the taxi, hit the ground running again, ran into the station, onto the platform and jumped into the train barely seconds before the doors slammed shut behind me. The whole ordeal cost me 70 Euro and a nerve-wrecking hour. Denmark turned out a cheap country to be an idiot in.

Blessed be the night train - if you can catch it, that is

Blessed be the night train – if you can catch it, that is

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The most awesome weekend trip I ever had, Part I – Belgium (yes, the most dangerous small European country)

You know how everybody who’s been to Europe call their travel “epic” and “awesome” and “unique”? Well, they all lie. At least, most of them. 99% of the people who had a “unique” European experience were on a Contiki tour following the footsteps of millions of people, their journey was “epic” only if you count the epic amount of time they spent on a bus and if you use “awesome” to describe how you had a couple of beers in Amsterdam and saw the Red Light District then you’re probably from Milwaukee and that is, indeed, the most awesome thing you’ve ever done. I, on the other hand, have had my share of epic journeys, have done really awesome things and have had experiences that are truly unique. You doubt it? Well, let me tell you a story about the most awesome weekend trip I ever had –  about that time when me and Dave went on an epic journey to Scotland, to do a unique thing – extreme ironing on the top of the Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.

Of course, first we had to test the equipment at home

Of course, first we had to test the equipment at home

Catching some sleep in the train

Catching some sleep in the train

Even though European countries are small, I try not to squeeze too many in one trip when I travel. Too much of a good thing is also bad. But this time I visited 3 countries in a single weekend and had a great time. First we had to find a flight within our student budget. Ryanair was flying to Glasgow from Belgium for a bargain price, so it was worth the extra train travel. Or so we thought. We bought our plane tickets, I got the train tickets from Delft to Brussels and on the day of our flight we arrived at Brussels Airport well ahead of the departure. We had to get up at 5 to catch our train and were very proud of ourselves for being able to rise at such non-student hours. We had, however, a small problem – we couldn’t find our flight. None of the departure boards showed it. Actually, no Ryanair flights were shown. When we tried to find the Ryanair stand to ask their staff about what happened to their planes, we couldn’t find that either. Staff of other companies was rather surprised to hear us enquiring about Ryanair flights. “Ryanair? They don’t fly from here at all! Their flights depart from Charleroi!” I got us to the wrong airport.

A quick evaluation of our situation showed us we were screwed. The flight was leaving in about two hours. By train it would take more than that just to get there and the check-in was closing 45 minutes before departure. The two airports are about 70 km apart and in normal traffic it would take less than an hour. But this was the morning rush hour and we were in the most congested part of Belgium. With the clock ticking, we’ve decided to try our luck and stepped into a taxi. We’ve explained our situation to the driver and immediately wished we haven’t. Seen the movie “Taxi”? Well, this was “Taxi” in real life. The guy was driving like he had saved the game and had 3 lives left. He employed every trick in the book, cut every imaginable corner, driving through gas stations, off and on the highway and what not. He got us there in 45 minutes through endless traffic jams. My hair started turning grey that day. By the end of the ride I was happy to pay the 140 Euros this taxi drive had cost us. I was happy just to be alive.

We finally arrived at the right airport, alive and with 15 minutes to spare. Not that being there in time did us any good, because we weren’t flying just yet. Charleroi Airport was covered in dense fog, and none of the flights was leaving. After waiting for a couple of hours  in the company of a group of elderly Scots (in kilts, at 10 AM already drunk and singing obscene songs), we were given several choices – stay in Brussels and fly the next day, go to Paris or Dusseldorf (at our own expense, of course) and fly from there or wait a few hours, fly to Dublin and fly from Dublin to Glasgow the next morning. Why Dublin I don’t know, but I’ve given up following the logic of air travel a long time ago and Ryanair’s logic is in a class of its own. We chose Dublin. At the very least it would keep us moving, without extra costs.

Another couple of hours later we were at the check-in again. Dave, being Dutch, had no problems clearing the EU customs. With me it was a different story. I really don’t blame the Belgian customs. Sometimes, I get confused myself. I mean, I was an Israeli born in Soviet Union, living in the Netherlands, going from Belgium to Scotland but actually boarding a plane to Ireland. With an ironing board. Can you follow it? Neither could they. No wonder it took them the best part of 2 hours to let me through. They checked my passport, my residence permit and asked whether I had any other documents. I said “sure” and with a smile handed over my driving licence. My Dutch-issued driving licence. This really blew their mind. They said they had to look into it in and invited me to wait in a small separate room. Every customs officer on duty that day took a look at my papers, then they took them all somewhere else. I think they had to show them all the way up to the king before taking the brave decision to let the Irish deal with this mess.

Now I was the Irish' problem

Now I was the Irish’ problem

And so, 8 hours later than planned and 140 Euros lighter we boarded a plane to the wrong country. The journey was just beginning…

This is Part I of the story about the most awesome weekend trip I ever had. Next week – Part II – Ireland.

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Belgium is the most dangerous small European country

I admit, we had no business being there. But then again, neither did he. And while our hike was a relatively mild trespassing, his actions were rather more… well, odd is probably the word I’m looking for. Judge by yourself – does the mere fact that you’re wearing the uniform of the Belgian army give you the right to fly your car around the bends of a dirt track across a military practice range on a Sunday? With your kids in the back seat? Armed with rifles and randomly shooting into the woods?

People, including myself, say that Holland has no wilderness. They say that all nature in Holland is cultivated and trimmed to a national standard. They are right. But Holland is a small European country and what a small European country lacks, there’s usually a neighbouring country not so far away that has it. So while there are no hills or forests in Holland, they are all present just across the border, in the Ardennes. Compared to Holland this region of Belgium is empty like the Australian outback. Also present in the relatively sparsely populated Ardennes are military practice ranges, on one of which me and my buddy were hiking that Sunday, thinking they won’t be shooting on their off day. We forgot it was Belgium, where the rules of logic are fuzzy at best.

Ardennes

The Ardennes

There we were, eye to eye with the plump fellow in a grey-green uniform, fuming with rage behind the wheel of his Renault, angry mostly with himself for being caught in such obviously irresponsible and illegitimate act. He must have thought to himself that attack is the best defence and started shouting “C’est impossible! Terrain militaire!”, or something along these lines. My French is rather non-existant, so I was not sure what he was saying. Trying to speak Dutch was not going to earn us more points here in Wallonia (Belgium is a prime candidate to split into two, even smaller European countries and the two parts, Wallonia and Flanders are at odds with each other) and we were scratching our heads for French words. All I could come up with was “Je suis un camion”, which I learned from The Tom Green Show and which is the most useless phrase in any language. My buddy attempted to explain that “nous sommes touristes”, but that just triggered more angry French from the plump grey-green fellow.

The situation was growing more awkward, then in a split second it burst in a blaze of silent agreement. Without any further communication, we all knew we have agreed to pretend we haven’t seen anything and weren’t there at all, anyway. The plump grey-green fellow shouted “Allez!”, stepped on the gas and the Renault flew past the bend, leaving us in a cloud of fresh dust. I heard renewed gunfire. Belgium is definitely the most dangerous small European country I’ve ever been to.

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