Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Belgium has a chaotic, slightly sleazy quality to it, rather as England does. The road surfaces are frequently dreadful, or induce aquaplaning during rainstorms. There is litter too, along the verges, at least in some districts. In some ways, driving through Belgium is like it used to be driving through France before they spinked all the town centres up over there. The urban streets and villages have a dark, dour, chocolatey-brown look, as if a 19th century dust still powdered everything.

There are some unexpected benefits to this grubbiness. For instance, arriving at Dunkerque port, my eyes are filled with one of the most extraordinary sights I know - the terrifying, fascinating, filthy-looking, astonishing collection of industrial chimneys, retorts and complexes which is known as la Grande Synthe. It is a massive industrial area, maybe making plastics (or pure poison as far as anyone call tell), and with clusters of stacks pushing smoke and steam out into the sky. One of these, taller than the rest, burns a huge flare, which bursts into life about once a second and then puffs out again, with a terrifying throb of brilliant orangey-red flame. It's very difficult to photograph because even though one can anticipate the 'beat' of the flame, it's difficult to co-ordinate that with the time it takes for the little camera to pump itself into action.  Anyway, I found myself taking lots of photos of this distant hellish place as the ferry swung in towards its berth. I have seen it many times and have no idea why I find it so fascinating.

We lunched in a brasserie on the outskirts of Lille, at Haubourtin, a chromy, cheery little place packed with locals, and very nice too. The loo is one where you have to go through an antechamber of urinals to get to the little room for ladies, and the light only turns on once you are firmly inside and with the door locked, so getting there induces a kind of anxiety that you're locked into a male, very slightly smelly, dark cell as a price for being able to pee.

Coming out from the brasserie and heading back to the car, we see another cluster of chemical factory chimneys sparkling up over the rooftops. Steam and smoky stuff belching out. It has a sign up: Cargill. The pavements are liberally strewn with dog-poo.  To an astonishing degree.

We head east, and eventually off the motorways. A savage sleet-storm crashes down around us. The road turns white in front of us as the hailstones thunder down onto the car. Engineers wearing bright orange coats seem not to notice as they stand and discuss the inner workings of a roadside lamp-post. We wind along beside the river Sambre, very pleasant. With the help of the trusty satnav we arrive at Durbuy. This is described as the smallest city in the world, and is down in a wooded hole... the river is now firmly held back by stone walls, but must once have twirled its way into the middle of the village, as there is a very pretty stone bridge over what is now an extension of the central car park. Every building in sight is a restaurant or hotel, and not cheap. We have a cup of tea, wander round, admire the castle and the church, and a cliff face with a terrific bend of rock in it - 100 feet high or more, like a colossal swiss roll gone wrong.

Twenty minutes more - past the remains of a road smash with fire-engines and police in attendance at a cross-roads - we get to our present place - a hilltop village of mottled stone and dark brick, with a municipalised chateau and spiky church, and a large labrynth laid out with paving and grass (leading to a drain cover in the middle). Our b&b is converted from a little farmhouse. The owner, Rik, was a restaurateur in Maastricht which is about an hour away from here.  He spent years looking for a place like this, bought it from the farmer's family five years ago, and opened for business last September. It is very nice - partly new and spacious, partly higgledy-piggledy in the old bit which we chose to sleep in. Everything has been done with great taste, and it's furnished with modern comfortable things or antiques which he picked up from eBay.

Today we are heading for Trier, the great Roman camp in Germany - the edges of an empire once upon a time. Border country.

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