Part II: Waterloo, Mechelen, Ghent
A rainy wet day marked the beginning of my third day in Mechelen and I still managed to rush out early enough to make the train to Waterloo. Having reached the Waterloo station correctly, and having exited in the right direction (by chance) and having walked in the slight drizzle for about 1 km, I reached the Tourist center, located right besides my first place to visit — the Chapel of St. Eglise. The slightly bored-looking woman at the counter directed me to the major attraction — Napolean’s last battlefield — and following her directions I took a bus that drove me right up to the battlefield (6 kms off the tourist center). I shelled out 6.40 euros (student price) for a movie about the battle that discussed what happened and what were the reasons Napolean lost (very informative); an excerpt from a 1970s film titled “Waterloo”, where the battle scenes were shot very convincingly; a climb of 250-odd steps up to the statue of a Lion standing guard over the battle field (a supposed sign of peace), which also afforded an excellent view of the battlefield; a visit to a panorama painting (360 degrees, wonderfully done); and a less than stellar wax museum. These 5 things wrapped up, I rushed to another train station near the battlefield (which is where I should have probably gotten off), and took a faster train back to Mechelen. A quick cheap falafal-filled lunch later I walked back to the conference center — thus managing to attend the parts that I wanted to without sacrificing the touristy parts.
The conference banquet was preceded by a guided tour through the Mechelen zoo — for a city this small, the zoo was disproportionately large — which itself was preceded by a nice boat ride and a walk on planks laid out on the stream (a la Amsterdam), with the constant drizzle as a companion. The zoo was wonderful and our guide was so happy with her job and had so much concern for her animals that it added to the natural beauty of wildlife. While we managed to sample some parts of the huge zoo, our main focus was animals from down-under and we spotted Koalas (NOT Koala bears), Kangaroos and their ilk (so many weird names, with even weirder tendencies), apart from Gibbons (monkeys), Bisons, Pythons, Lizards, Parakeets & their ilk, Vultures, Pandas and so on….The zoo was truly well maintained and the animals were healthy and fun to observe in their open surrounding — even with the stupid drizzle ruining any chances of nice photographs. The evening ended with a wonderful five-course meal (veggie: cheese salad, ravioli, rice + ratatouille-like dish + cinnamon ice-cream, pear and mousse + coffee) with an assortment of wines and champagnes (and water), all served with elegance and class in a beautiful dining hall within the zoo. A day to remember, an evening to remember even more…I sure as hell want to come back to the zoo and see it in totality!
Having picked up a quick sandwich for lunch post conference, I rushed to the station to make the train to Ghent. A bit confused by the tram system in Ghent I spent a few minutes shuttling between arriving trams and asking the drivers if this was the one that I needed to get to the center of town (Koren Markt) until I finally landed the correct tram. I rushed out of the tram on seeing a large cathedral, which I assumed was Baafskathedraal — one of the main attractions of Ghent. Obviously I was wrong. Luckily however, everything in Ghent is around the center of town and Baafskathedraal was just neighboring this other cathedral (which I liked better IMHO) as well as the Belmont. The Baafskathedraal housed a famous paining by the Dutch Van Eyck painter brothers — a 16 piece monstrosity that the audioguide that I got explained in great detail. The guide was terribly useful for it drew my attention to some very interesting regions of the drawing, allowing me to appreciate the painting at a totally different level. A short walk from there (after a less than average Latte and an ok ok Eclair) took me to the fort — which I did not visit from the inside.
By this time, the town of Ghent had started to have an effect on me — the small roads covered with trams, buses, cars and pedestrians with no delineation whatsoever, the plethora of cafes and side-walk bars all around town jam packed with tourists and residents alike, the cool, sunny day and the ancient mammoth buildings of yesteryear which bore silent witness to the frivolous nature of today’s youth, just as it had the frivolous waste of human blood on the altar of religion centuries ago. As I walked through the cafe-lined streets, I hit what was possibly the best experience as of yet in Belgium. A wonderful dock-like area which is lined with ancient buildings whose patios are currently being used as cafes, overlooking a neat bay (one of the many) that runs through the city. One can spend hours here (and I did) and not feel the time pass by or boredom — the area is so peaceful and wonderful and the views of the towers of the cathedrals so anachronistic that word fail to do any justice to the visual treat. Tourists, residents, young couples in love, friends, young couples who just had a fight, crying girls, nonchalant passerbys, ferry operators, raft operators, rafters, kids with alcohol bottles and marijuana-filled cigarettes, tourists with expensive cameras and artificially pancaked trophy wives, older women with a total disregard for the vagaries of nature (thick mascara lined eyes, rouge, red lipstick), not-well-off-couples eating a quiet meal by the most picturesque sight they can get for free, dogs on leashes, tramps with rastafarian-like dreadlocks blaring hip hop, dogs without leashes, rich couples in dolche suits and dior dresses, and a solitary Indian boy with a smile permanently sewed on to his face.
I have to admit that the young couples caught my attention, for just like the innocence of new born children or that of mute animals, their inhibition-free exhibition of young love was a sight to behold. One couple in particular was seemingly lost in their old world, and for a change the girl and the boy were not wannabes — just ordinary teenage Ghent-ites, spending a wonderful evening together before they headed back home to text each other messages of eternal love and happiness. All in all, those hours were completely worth the train ride to Ghent and I am half in the mind to go back there again!
As I was sitting there, observing the people around me, I realized that it was evening and I thought I’d be able to grab dinner before I returned to Mechelen — and what a wonderful idea that turned out to be. I found an open access wifi network and quickly happy-cowed (a website that lists vegan/vegetarian places with ratings = yelp for veggies) Ghent. I found a place around the town center, about 10 minutes from where I was and I waited for the clock to strike 6 before I made my way there. Thanks to Google maps and the free wifi, I had little trouble locating the place — a vegan lunch/dinner buffet place. The restaurant was decently upscale and I was shown to a seat. Then began the treat of a lifetime! For 15 euros, I had some of the best veggie food I have tasted outside of Indian cuisine (yes, Thai and Mediterranean included!). Here is what I liked from the selection: Lentil soup, carrot spinach cashew curry, tofu onion cabbage in chinese-style sauce, pumpkin bake (ok ok), raddish walnut salad (! superb !), hummus-like paste with cucumber, couscous, broccoli bhajiya, spring roll and a dry pasta (+ olives). For dessert there was a heavenly pineapple coffe-cake with raisins, topped with coconut shaves. My mouth is watering as I write this, although it has been only a few hours since I ate this very meal! Simply the best veggie buffet place I have seen (very closely followed by the Spanish place near Telefonica’s old office where I interned some years ago).
Getting back turned out to be a little tedius. The only tram I could find pretty much covered the entire Ghent before reaching the station — there is a huge contingent of Turks in Ghent apparently, and the tram passed through pretty much their entire neighborhood — and as luck would have it, I missed the fast train by about 2 mins. I had to wait for a slow train for around 25 minutes, and the train took another hour to reach a destination that the fast one would have reached in 20 minutes! I slept through the ride though, so not much to complain — plus, did not have much to do in Mechelen — just cribbing I guess. A satisfying end to a more than satisfying day!
Pix below at higher res: