If you were to mention Belgium and Holland to most people – including me not so long ago – a host of stereotypical (and mostly benign) images would tend to float into one’s mind: tulips, clogs, windmills, dykes, skunk, and prostitutes in windows in the case of Holland, and for Belgium perhaps moules & frites, mayonnaise, Leffe beer, Hercule Poirot, René Magritte, the Ostend ferry, and expenses-guzzling EU diplocrats.
And there is some truth in all those clichés, but having crisscrossed both countries extensively for two of the past three weeks, I have learnt that Belgium and Holland are in fact most notable for being a car park. The Antwerp ring in Belgium, which – like its UK counterpart of the M25, or its US counterpart of Houston’s Beltway 8 (sorry, but I can’t think of a nationally recognised ring road in America!) - is billed as an orbital artery of key importance to the country’s road network, facilitating traffic flows north-south and east-west. As far as I am concerned, if the Antwerp ring is an artery at all, it is a terminally furred one.
No, I would tend to say that the Antwerp ring is a malign vortex, a honey trap luring lorries and the odd unwary passenger vehicle to sticky doom, mired forever in the slow lane, going precisely nowhere. The most chilling words in the Flemish language – apart from wegomlegging (“detour”) and the phrase in the title that I take to mean “major traffic hold ups” – have to be “file mogelijk” (“queue possible”). And when you see that sign you know that it is merely being coy, and that for “mogelijk” you should read “file already ongoingijk for several hoursijk”.
The reason for this terrible congestion is I think twofold. Ownership of cars per 1000 inhabitants seems to be fairly consistent across developed European countries at about 450-550. Ah, you may say, but the population of Belgium and Holland will be relatively small compared to the UK or Germany. But the surface area of these countries is of course proportionately even smaller... So exercised was I by this conundrum that I have gone and crunched some numbers, factoring in total population, car ownership and land mass. I worked out that while the UK has 116 cars per square km and Germany 128, Belgium has 172 and Holland 182.
And to compound the problem of greater car density is the fact that many people drive through Belgium – and to some extent Holland – with a view to going somewhere else. And believe me, in my darkest moments of traffic frustration I would have done that too, had I not set up rather a lot of appointments in both countries, strung out over several weeks - and had I been able to get above second gear at the time.
I was stuck in the Antwerp ring almost more than I was out of it. On the penultimate day of the trip – having clocked a particularly entrenched patch of gridlock looming - I decided to wiggle round by the backroads through the many satellite villages just outside the city. How much slower could that be, I wondered? Answer – at least as slow. It took me two and a half hours to skirt about 20 miles south of the city. I fell foul of numerous sets of roadworks and diversions in the countryside, and countless traffic calming - as in “motorist enraging” - schemes in the villages. These typically involved speed bumps as high as a small house, reinforced by a slalom-style obstacle course deploying a cunning arrangement of bollards, skittles, flowerbeds, equestrian fences and gratuitous bits of brickwork. They were placed at such outrageously sharp angles that it was nigh on impossible to determine the left side of the road from the right – the small scraps of remaining tarmac in between the many obstructions were barely passable to any traffic other than cyclists.
Oh dear me, don’t get me started on the cyclists. Basically, they were everywhere, seemed to have right of way at all times, and I tried – somewhat halfheartedly, it must be said - not to kill any of them. To give you an idea, 27% of all journeys are made by bike in Holland compared with 1.3% in the UK and 0.9% in the USA. Belgium comes in at a respectable (and only moderately irritating) 8%.
Now if you think I am being unduly churlish about cyclists, you will be shocked to learn that I actually swore at a crocodile of small children crossing the road just ahead of me in Waregem. They filed past endlessly, two by two, in a provokingly leisurely procession. For my part, I was slightly late setting off for my afternoon appointment and sat seething at the wheel, as the children just kept coming. After a while, I couldn’t contain my frustration any more, and may have muttered the ungracious words: “F***ing get on with it, will you?” With the window open.
As it happens, my satnav struggled with the travel shenanigans too on this trip. It frequently lost its bearings in roadworks, prompting a flurry of peremptory and meaningless commands, as though it had been suddenly afflicted with Tourette’s. I ignored the device at least half of the time, not least because of its unswerving wish to direct me back to Antwerp. The voice also persisted in calling Gent “Lamb” for reasons that continue to elude me.
I would like to apologise for the very car-oriented nature of this first instalment of my travel report. The act of covering 3250 miles inevitably brought with it a morbid preoccupation with prevailing road conditions, including a deep seated urge to take a cathartic pop at the “vicious circle” that is the Antwerp ring, and so exorcise the demons of my "post Flanders traffic stress disorder". Now don't get me wrong - I did enjoy many aspects of my time in Benelux, not least a lovely weekend spent with friends - but these countries do need to sort out their transport networks. And for what it's worth, I don't think more bikes are the way to go...
Strange things on poles
On a lighter note, I noticed two strange things on poles on this trip: a condom machine in the open air in Hannover, and a Trabant car in the middle of a field north of Berlin. I had seen the Trabant some 12 years previously, and went back specially to photograph it. The stork’s nest was still in evidence on the roof, though its feathered residents were not at home. The car looked seriously in need of a lick of paint after all this while, but I sense it is unlikely to get it. I asked a local resident how the car came to be on the end of a pole in the first place – well, it is more of a small derrick in fact, than a pole – and he replied gnomically: “Ah, well, Trabants are so light you can throw them up there with one hand.”
Photo of overhead signs on the Antwerp ring from skyscrapercity.com, photo of cyclists from andrewlove.org, other photos my own.