It was going around at the end of February, and I came down with it that weekend, feeling it in the back of my throat during School of Rock. By Tuesday I was in nasal gridlock; which was bad enough by itself, but worse was having to get on a plane the next morning.

One session in the cabin-pressure brain vice later, I was back in Belgium—for five days, half of them at a work event in Leuven. It’s a pleasant town; there isn’t much reason to spend more than a day there as a tourist, but it’s fine if you’ve got other business there. The food’s good, as it always is in Belgium. I self-medicated with half a kilo of pralines. (It can’t have been enough, because I was still clogged up on the flight back; my ear canals were an Adventure in Sound. Whatever it was, it lasted another week.)

Jane came over for the weekend, and we visited the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels. We’d read about it just after our last visit to the city, and I was immediately sorry to have missed it. Built to house Leopold III’s plunder from the Congo and glorify his rule, it still retains its colonial air, although the guidebook and most of the signs have been updated to provide a layer of right-on over the wrong. The exhibits are great, though; the ethnographic rooms are full of vivid costumes, bold carvings and unusual artefacts. Other rooms house the faded victims of taxidermy: giraffes and elephants; a bewildered lion; a rhino with a plaster crack around its neck. Somehow I hope they never get repaired.

The rest of the weekend echoed this outdatedness. Back in Brussels we used our day-tickets to catch the metro out to the Atomium, a giant model of an iron atom built for the 1958 World Fair, with a restaurant in one of its upper protons. The next day we caught the train—whose conductors still wear pill-box hats—to Ghent, a university town with a medieval centre. And everywhere we went—a train, the metro, the airport—we were bathed in the most awful 30-year-old muzak I’ve ever heard, piped (or worse, pan-piped) straight from the bowels of K-Tel.

Even as the bureaucrats of Brussels chip away at the coal-face of cutting edginess to create a New Europe for a New Millennium, the Belgium of the old one is all around them, grand, elegant, and cracking at the neck. After two visits, I don’t think I’d want it any other way.

Start here Leuven Leuven Leuven Africa Museum Atomium Ghent Ghent Ghent Ghent

Belgium 2004
Ten photos of Leuven, Brussels and Ghent, 3-7 March 2004.