Tour of Europe
“A rich and bubbling vat of beer, chocolate, oil paint and bureaucrats, Belgium gives off
the heady pong of the bourgeoisie”. On my recent visit to Brussels, I realized this
description from Lonely Planet was just so perfect. Add to that half a dozen languages
female taxi drivers that ask you the directions to the center of town (!), and traffic rules
designed to make life exciting, and you couldn’t really ask for more.
Work & BBQs
I was based in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and now the capital of the European
Union, for three weeks in July, as part of a pilot project for Bridgestone. My work
involved meeting various technical personnel, marketing staff, tire dealers and service
engineers from Bridgestone, as part of the requirements analysis.
It was an exciting job, ranging from suit-and-tie meetings with the Director of IT, BSEU
(Bridgestone, Europe) and the Japanese head-honchos at the Bridgestone headquarters in
Brussels, to visits to garages in France and UK, discussing usability issues with tire fitters
who came to the meeting in greased overalls.
Figure 1: ElmBridge Tires, Burton, UK
It wasn’t all work though (well, maybe it would be more appropriate to say that I did
work for some of the time *wink*). I stayed with Marco, a career political analyst and ex-
NATO, and evenings were usually spent in the company of his friends from NATO and
the EU, discussing Berlusconi, Bush and Blair over BBQs on his lawn, or watching slide
shows of Marco’s trips around the world.
Figure 2: NATO crowd
Figure 4: Marco making Salad
Figure 3: BBQ
Brussels: The Heart of Europe
Brussels is a city in search of itself. Trying hard to assume its role as the new, trendy
heart of the European Union, with more than 10-15 percent of it’s population consisting
of foreigners, while maintaining its identity as the seat of Belgian monarchy. Gleaming,
impressive buildings of the NATO and the EU Parliament in one of the most boring
quarters of the city housing the EU Commissions and embassies in brown, sooty
buildings from the 70s provide a study in contrast. On the other side of town, the exciting
old parts of the city with the Gland Plaza, Avenue Sablon, the Grand Palace and the
Bourse are a far cry from the sleazy streets of Gare du Nord.
Weekends in Belgium
I spent my first Saturday visiting two lovely cities, Ghent and Bruges, to the north of
Brussels. These are in the northern territory of Flanders, which for all purposes is a
different country, in every way. They even have their own parliament.
These cities used to be bustling ports in the medieval ages, till the river got silted and the
boats stopped coming. Then it fell into really bad times, and other ports like Antwerp
came into prominence. Now they are major tourist stops.
The best part of the tour was a boat ride through Bruges’ lovely network of canals. No
wonder it’s called the Venice of the North. (Interestingly, even Amsterdam is called the
Venice of the North!)
Figure 5: Cathedral at Ghent Figure 6: Bruges, the Venice of the North
Figure 8:Townhall at Bruges
Figure 7: Boat Ride through the Canals of Bruges
Figure 10: Ice-cream Cart
Figure 9: Tree at the Banks of the Canal
Monday, 21st July, was a national holiday in Belgium. I met up with an Indian family
from Florida, and we rented out a car and drove to Dinant and Namur, two lovely towns
nestled in the valley of the river Meuse.
Figure 11: The Gupta Family
It is the kind of Europe you saw and fell in love with in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
We took a ropeway lift to the chateau at Dinant, shopped in the flea market and had lunch
at a quaint inn along the Meuse, and drove back into Brussels by night-time, munching
fresh strawberries all along the way.
Figure 13: Another View from the Chateua at
Figure 12: View from the Chateua at Dinant Dinant
Figure 14: Ropeway to the Chateua
Figure 15: Cafe on Namur-Dinant Road
Figure 16: Boating on River Meuse
Figure 17: Villas in Meuse Valley
My last Saturday was spent in Antwerp (or Antwerpen), a bustling city and one of the
busiest harbors in the world.
Figure 18: Castle at Antwerp Figure 19: Antwerp Grand Place and Town Hall
Figure 20: Rickshaw at Antwerp
Figure 21: Carving in Wood
My visit to the Chateau Bouillon (pronounced Bu-yon) was an exciting trip into the years
of the First Crusades, when the European Christian princes (including Count Godfrey of
Bouillon) set out to take back Jerusalem from the Turks.
Figure 22: Castle Bouillon Figure 23: Flower Cart
Figure 24: View from Castle Bouillon
The American monument at Bastogne commemorates the Battle of the Bulge which
lasted from December 16, 1944 to January 28, 1945 and was the largest land battle of
World War II in which the United States participated. More than a million men fought in
this battle including some 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 British. At
the conclusion of the battle the casualties were as follows: 81,000 U.S. with 19,000
killed, 1400 British with 200 killed, and 100,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured.
Figure 25: American Monument at Bologne Figure 26: American Tank at the Museum in
Cheese and Clogs in Holland
If you find yourself in a place where a Coffee Shop sells marijuana, old ladies and
children mingle with eager customers under doorways with red lights bang opposite an
imposing old church, and where car washing is banned on Sundays, you are probably in
Amsterdam. The Netherlands easily combines very liberal attitudes and lifestyle with one
of the most orderly and orthodox societies on earth.
Figure 27: Coffee Shops in Amsterdam sell
Marijuana, not Coffee! Figure 28: Hooks for pulling furniture through
the window. Also, can you detect the slanted
façade of the house?
Figure 30: Daddy, can we switch places, please?
Figure 29: Oops, No Parking here!
Windmills and cows dot the vast, open landscapes. Much of Holland was reclaimed from
the water, and no matter where you look, you cannot miss the lovely waterways, canals
and dykes. Cheese, clogs (wooden shoes) and tulips are the most famous exports from
Amsterdam itself is a beautiful city, and a boat ride is the best way to soak in the
atmosphere of this naughty city.
Figure 31: Lovely Amsterdam Figure 32: Drawbridge
I was in the UK for 2 days, as part of an official visit to Bridgestone, UK. Unfortunately,
we did not have time for much sightseeing, and had to be content driving miles and miles
through the beautiful, but boring countryside, visiting dealers in sad, red-brick towns like
Newark, Burton, Northampton, Warwick and Leamington in the British Midlands, the
land of Shakespeare.
Figure 33: Miles of open countryside in the British Midlands
By the end of the 2 days, I had learnt how to say “Cheez Bye” and had seen enough
British weather to understand why the British are such a boring people.
Mention Paris, and you can’t help think of the Eiffel tower. For me, it simply meant a 1
hour 15 minutes train ride from Brussels on the high speed Thalys TGV train, running at
300 kmph, meetings at Bridgestone France (which were in French!) and then another
Thalys back into Brussels by evening.
Fortunately, this was my second trip to Paris, and memories of the earlier trip about a
month back were still fresh in my mind.
Not even big enough to accommodate its name on most maps of Europe, the Grand
Duchy of Luxembourg makes up in style and beauty what it lacks in size. A respected
member of the European Union, a tax haven, and a benchmark in quality of life,
Luxembourg enjoys a prosperity that nations many times larger aspire toward and envy.
Lovely arched bridges, quaint old quarters, chateaus and imposing villas and palaces
jostle for space alongside sleek, glass and steel structures housing international corporate
offices and dozens of banking and financial institutions, in perfect harmony.
Figure 35: Beautiful Parks and Buildings in
Figure 34: A Beautiful Arched Bridge Luxembourg
Figure 36: View from the Luxembourg Fort Figure 37: Another Beautiful View from theFort
Figure 38: The Old Quarters
Figure 39: Tourist Train-Bus
Finally, after three exciting weeks in Europe, I returned back to India, on Swiss flight LX
155. The return journey was not without it’s own excitement, but that’s another story!
Figure 40: Bye Bye Europe