SOME weeks in a diarist’s life pass quietly, while others are packed with incident.
A fortnight ago, nothing much of note occurred beyond a humorous remark about guttering, overheard at the Heating Fund coffee morning. The next week, by contrast, a consultant urologist told me that my prostate cancer had spread to my bones, and was therefore incurable — “manageable”, but incurable. Bad news, looked at from pretty much any point of view. What else to do, I asked my wife, than go to Belgium for a few days?
Everything about Belgium is great. If you list the Five Most Popular Lent No-No’s (beer, chocs, cake, chips, meat), straight away you are thinking Belgium. But it is also odd. For example, Belgium isn’t bilingual. One half of the population speaks Flemish, one half speaks French, and that’s it. If you are from one half of Belgium, you can’t read the motorway billboards or petrol-pump instructions in the other.
We stayed for four nights in Namur, the capital of Wallonia. Five hundred years ago, my Marchant ancestors migrated from hereabouts to Sussex, taking with them blast-furnace technology.
Driving around the region, I was reminded of the Sussex Weald or the Ashdown Forest, as streams ran red with iron, and coppiced woods marched away over the hills on the horizon. But the Weald is tiny, compared with the wild vastness of the Ardennes.
ALL along the roads were hides and, behind them, men with hunting rifles, peering into the woods. Not far from the town of St Hubert, whose huge and somewhat crumbling basilica is dedicated to the eponymous patron saint of huntsmen, we looked for the Wallonian Outdoor Museum, a collection of rebuilt and restored agricultural houses and workshops (much like the Downland Museum, where Repair Shop is filmed).
The museum’s website was unclear whether it would be open at the end of February, but we still went and had a look. The place was deserted, but seemed none the less open. There was no one at the gate; no way of paying. The exhibits were unlocked, and we were free to wander.
There were facilities, too. The modern lavatories were open and warm. Signs pointed to a café. It was empty of anything save a few stacked chairs, yet the automatic doors swished open at our approach. I was reminded of Chihero’s family at the start of Spirited Away, wandering through a deserted theme park.
It wasn’t until we left that we saw the sign “Opens 1 March”: three days hence. It had seemed open to us; open and trusting.
THE next day, we caught the train from Namur to Aachen: from Belgium to Germany; change at Liège-Guillemins and Verviers. Wet snow was falling on the hills. It was easy, in that landscape, to think of yesterday’s huntsmen coming home empty-handed, like Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.
Aachen was Charlemagne’s capital, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire for 700 years. Although the city has suffered from time, the cathedral — Charlemagne’s palace chapel — has survived and evolved over 1200 years.
It is a glory, a wonder, a testament to the power of faith. And, like all such, it needs income.
To see Charlemagne’s throne, and to get up close to the Marienschrein, you had to take the guided tour. We were just in time to take the last one of the day. There was only one other tourist: a man as tall as me, with a camera round his neck.
The guide, Cornelia, spoke to him in German, and then said to us, “This gentleman is happy for me to conduct the tour in English” — which she did, for 50 astounding minutes, and to our new friend’s evident delight.
“I’m an Anglophile,” he said. “I must be the only person in Germany who has listened to all 38 hours of David Cameron’s autobiography. It is all so sad.”
As we stood in front of the Charlemagne shrine, Cornelia told us that the monarch acquired his name in part because of his height. “As tall as us,” our new friend said.
I asked his name. “Klaus.”
“Klaus the Great,” I said.
All shall be well
THE last night, we stayed in Ghent. The Van Eyck altarpiece, The Mystic Lamb, has been restored and replaced in St Bavo’s Cathedral. If ever a queue was worth while, this was it. We stood in silence. The world made right again by the loving self-sacrifice of an innocent.
Afterwards, eating stoofvlees and frites, we reflected on our trip from Aix to Ghent — like Browning in reverse. The week that had started with bad news in my ears had ended with good news in my heart. In the openness of doors, in the kindness of strangers, there is Hope, which has only one source.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.
Read Nicholas Cranfield’s review of the Ghent Altarpiece and “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”