Brussels: a unique city and a survivor

Someone said to me yesterday “Brussels is that place you pass through on the way to France, it’s hardly somewhere you’d expect a major terrorist attack to take place”. For me Brussels is a second home, it is the city I grew up in, it is one of the safest places on earth and somewhere I have escaped to over the years for a bit of family time and peace and quiet. It is far more than ‘somewhere to pass through’ but I would agree that until recently, it is the last place I would have expected a terror attack to be staged.

Brussels is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a different language spoken on every corner, a colourful blend of cultures down every cobbled street; its centre sprinkled with just as many cultural attractions, architectural feats, history, entertainment, parks and forests as it is the EU institutions everyone associates with the ‘capital of Europe’.

It has, in my opinion, an unfair reputation for being a dull and grey hub of European bureaucracy. In my experience that view is often held by visitors who swing through for a few hours on business, or those who are en route to France and see nothing more than the ring road. You would hardly judge London on a fleeting meeting, a stay in a big hotel chain or a few hours spent in traffic on the M25, would you?

For those of us who have lived there, the city devastated by yesterday’s attacks has far more to offer.

Brussels is today the crossroads of Europe and has been at the centre of some of the greatest wars of recent decades and some of the most momentus peace negotiations. It has survived invasions, continuous decades-long internal clashes between its multi-lingual and proudly different Flanders and Wallonia regions. In recent years, it somehow maintained its integrity and a functioning economy through nearly two years of political chaos when the leadership was incapable of forming a government – a record outdoing even governmental procrastination in Iraq.

Belgium’s history and its colonial past as a melting pot of cultures and languages has left a rich legacy of Renaissance architecture, beautiful medieval old towns jostling with Art Nouveau quarters, immaculately maintained memorials and historic battlefields, the unmissable ‘Atomium’, the lavishly ornate towers of the Grand’Place in central Brussels and a vast array of nationalities living side by side. And whatever you may think about the European Union, Brussels nurtures the story of over 70 years’ of our history as Europeans, the incredible journey of our continent from a fragmented collection of battered, bloodied and penniless battlefields to a (relatively) united and serious player in the global arena.

The mix of cultures has also left the country with what I think is some of the best food in Europe. I like to think of traditional Belgian fare as having the quality of French food, but served in German quantities – the perfect combination. Whether it is seafood – the traditional ‘moules frites’ – or meat – slabs of it served practically still ‘moo-ing’ all the way to ‘bien cuit’ depending on your taste or stewed in a Flemish ‘Carbonade’, or game hunted in the Ardennes – it is all served with a hustle and a suitably brusque waiter. In the most traditional of eateries, he will scribble your order on the table cloth, memorise the list, disappear and return with every dish memorised perfectly.

If you are not careful you could spend just as long picking which beer to sample, many bars routinely supplying pages and pages of varying strength and flavours brewed in different regions and all served in their own specific glass. And to finish, if you can manage it, there is always a mountain of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream lathered in hot sauce and crème Chantilly – the ‘Dame Blanche’ – and mouth-watering Belgian chocolates to savour with a glass of Calvados and ‘un petit café’ to finish off.

Clearly growing up there gave me a well-developed appreciation of gastronomy. But more importantly, Brussels was one of the most colourful but also safest places for a child and then a teenager to grow up. My siblings and I had the freedom to find our own way, without our parents worrying about violence or crime to the same extent as they might have had to in another capital city. That’s not to say Brussels does not have its issues, its crime rate, its poverty.

But on the whole, Brussels provided us with big-city cosmopolitan exposure with a feeling that we were in the thick of global events, but somehow also gave us a level of safety and sense of calm community that meant we could go and discover life and make our own mistakes without running any great risks (or giving my parents a heart attack). Having lived and worked in a number of other European capital cities since, I have yet to find another one that offers that unique environment. I still consider Brussels a home and every time I go back, I breathe a contented sigh of relief that it has not changed.

Tuesday’s cowardly attacks on Brussels have left people frightened, shocked, angry and grieving. But there is also a sense of community and defiance. Let’s face it, Brussels and Belgium have seen it all over the decades and are still standing strong. It will no doubt take some time to recover and those affected will not be forgotten, but the ‘Belges’ and the cohort of multi-national multi-cultural adopted ‘Belges’ like myself will not allow cowardly attacks like this to change the country or its capital city. It is far too strong for that.

 

 

 

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‘Driech’ in the Highlands

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I’m sitting in a coffee shop in a small town called Pitlochry in the Highlands of Scotland.  Storm Frank is in full swing outside.  The sky is a dark shade of grey, the rain is horizontal and relentless. The entire valley – or glen – has been turned into a series of great lakes with small fishing sheds and treetops poking incongruously out of the middle of them.  Both the Tay and the Tummel have burst their banks and there is flooding of biblical proportions.  We’ve been lucky – our cottage further down the valley is just high enough up the hill to be above the waterline but the cat has her wellies ready and her eye on her favourite Christmas bauble just in case.

I cycled the 6 miles over the hills to this the nearest coffee shop, from a hamlet called Logierait.  My wheels covered more water than road and my trousers are now dripping onto the polished wooden floor.  I’ve just picked another lump of mud (I think – although it could be cow dung) off my cheek and have been edging my sodden boots towards the big open fireplace near the end of the table.

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Believe it or not, this is when Scotland comes into its own.  On days like this when I have lost sensation in my toes, my ageing and injured hamstring is crying out for a hot bath and I am reminded as I glance at the sleeve of my fleece that half-way through one of the downhills I may have used it to blow my streaming nose.   When I am covered in mud from head to toe, am so wet that even my underwear needs wringing out and my cheeks are stinging from a combination of hail, rain, sleet and snow.  It is only then that I can truly appreciate the crackling log fire and the huge pot of tea served by the welcoming and chatty landlord who makes a passing comment about how ‘driech’ it is outside and doesn’t blink an eye when I position my wet feet so close to the fire grate steam rises off them.

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It is tempting then to sit back into the weathered leather armchair, read my book and nod off against one of the soft tartan cushions but the waters are rising and what is left of the afternoon light is fading fast.  I have squeezed the last drop out of my pot of tea, that was definitely a drying splatter of cow pat not mud, and I still have the cycle-wade-swim home to tackle.  I don my snotty fleece and damp waterproof, reluctantly remove my soggy boots from the fire place and head back out into Frank’s path.  I will be back at the cottage soon, and it is only 6 miles away.  But thanks to the Scottish hills and weather, my cycle will have been an adventure and the open fires, mugs of tea, wee dram of whisky and cosy evenings a delicious reward for venturing out.

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A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

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The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

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Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

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Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

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Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

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Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)

 

An Unspoilt Nature Paradise in KwaZulu Natal

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Rocktail Beach

The single-lane tarmac motorway runs almost exactly South to North, carving a straight line through small towns, villages and (very) isolated service stations with an incongruous bright red ‘Wimpy’ or ‘KFC’ sign protruding out of the bush. The ‘N2’ follows the coastline towards the Swaziland border and took us to our turn-off for the Maputaland Marine Reserve and our destination for four nights, Rocktail Beach Camp.

Off the main road, we were directed down a gravel road with surprisingly green and lush bush on one side and tall forestry blocks on the other. We had been instructed to park up at a place called ‘Coastal Cashews’ and wait for a 4-wheel drive to pick us up. A few kilometres down the track and a large brown sign outside a cashew plantation took us to our parking spot under an awning behind a barn and next to a row of tractors.

We emerged into the sticky heat from the luxury of our air-conditioned rental car and were soon met by Abi, one of the team from Rocktail Bay. Having hauled our luggage and us into the back of the open-topped safari truck, we set off further down the gravel road. The gravel gave way to yellow sand as we travelled deeper into the forest and towards the sea. After about half an hour, we pulled up to a small sign: we had arrived at Rocktail Beach Camp.

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View from our treehouse

Natalie and her husband Willem welcomed us off the truck and led us up the stone steps into a small clearing with a bright blue swimming pool, a few sun loungers and a thatched open dining area that led into a bar populated with comfy sofas and glossy marine life coffee table books. They apologised profusely that our ‘room’ was the furthest away up in the treetops. It was rather secluded as it was the honeymoon suite and did we mind being upgraded? The ‘room’ was more of a tent-cum-house on stilts. The pathway through the woods led us up the hill through the woods delicately lit at regular intervals with forestry lamps, and eventually onto a deck that wrapped around a thatched house. The deck was level with the treetops, affording a breath-taking view across the forest and out to sea. The ‘room’ consisted of a living room, complete with tea and coffee making facilities and a complimentary decanter of sherry, a bedroom with a bed big enough for a family of five, and a shower room in between – also big enough for a family of five. The panorama across the ocean was uninterrupted across all three rooms, with a series of glass and mosquito net panels across the front. Standing in the shower while trying to spot dolphins jumping became a particularly entertaining pastime, but one which was not conducive to short ablutions – a requirement in a nature reserve suffering from a drought.

As is the African weather’s wont, the skies went from bright blue and sweltering sunshine, to torrential steamy downpours and back again in a matter of minutes. Whatever the weather, the beach – a 10-minute walk through the forest – was spectacular. Quite literally not a human being to be seen on it as far as the eye could see. The waves crashed up the fine yellow sand, disturbing the odd Red Duiker (a diminutive bush buck) that had strayed out of the treeline and sending the small Bambi-like figure scampering back over the dunes.

Our hosts could not do enough for us – insisting we have lunch on the beach on our second day. We expected a picnic basket and a couple of bottles of beer. We got a feast of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and homemade bread. With it came an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a cooler box filled to the brim and topped with a surprise bottle of bubbles. The spread was carried onto the beach for us, laid out on a tablecloth, salt and pepper sellers, champagne glasses and all. We were then left to our own devices – finishing off a perfect and utterly undisturbed afternoon by body-surfing the incoming tide like teenagers – until the leftovers were spirited away again and we wandered back up to the camp on the forest track.

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Lunch on ‘our’ beach

We could not visit the Maputaland Marine Reserve in the summer season without going out on a turtle drive. Between November and March each year, hundreds of turtles make their way into the bay and lay and bury their eggs on the beach. The numbers had dwindled but thanks to a wildlife conservation project, they are booming once more. We set off with our turtle guide at midnight, driving along the beach looking out for the tell-tale signs of turtles emerging from the waves. We passed a number of flipper tracks before stopping by what was the jewel in the crown – a rare Leatherback turtle – the largest species in the world. It had laid its eggs and was busy scuffing up sand with its enormous and powerful flippers. Our guide straddled the beast to measure it– a whopping 1m60 long and 1m20 wide. We did not stay long, leaving it in peace to complete the burial of its eggs and make its way back into the water. During our outing we also spotted the smaller and more common Loggerhead turtle and watched quietly in the darkness, swatting away thousands of tiny flies buzzing around our heads, while it laid egg after egg into the deep hole it had excavated. An unforgettable sight and one which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Reserve.

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Measuring the huge Leatherback turtle

We did not get around to snorkelling on the nearby reef during this visit but that leaves us something to do next time we visit. Other guests were drawn to what we hear is exceptional scuba diving with a wreck to explore as well as the unpolluted reefs.

The area is a rare unspoilt and unpopulated tourist destination and huge work has gone into the preservation of its beauty and its flora and fauna. It seems perverse to encourage people to visit as it is precisely its seclusion and remoteness that is appealing. But if you are up for peace and quiet, a privileged insight into nature going about its business undisturbed, and do not balk at the prospect of being cut off from the outside world, then this is the place for you. Natalie and Willem and their team go to every length to make your stay as perfect as possible, while giving you the space to feel like you are all alone in your own personal paradise.

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Our own personal paradise

The idyllic setting and relaxing stay made it all the more difficult to readjust to everyday life back in grey and wintry UK. Three days later I am still in denial, reluctant to discard my flip flops. But the onset of frostbite and odd looks from Christmas shoppers are a price worth paying for the pleasure of clinging on to the utter bliss of Rocktail Beach Camp for just a few more days.

(our holiday and itinerary was booked through AfricaAndBeyond)

 

A Hidden Gem in Residential Cape Town

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A Christmassy Cape Town by night

Tucked away up a quiet leafy residential street in Cape Town, we nearly drove past Four Rosmead boutique hotel assuming it was one of the many white-washed gated private properties in the affluent hilly district nestled under Table Mountain.

Its unassuming but polished exterior is reflected in the discreet and immaculate interior of the property and its warm and welcoming staff. We were greeted with the warmth of familiar guests returning to their country retreat. We were led through the comfortable sitting room complete with fireplace and complimentary evening drinks tray and out onto a balcony overlooking a walled garden. A handful of rattan loungers were arranged over a gravel suntrap near a small swimming pool, opposite which was our room. Four Rosmead has generously upgraded us to a suite – a huge living room with kitchenette, bedroom and vast bathroom – with its own private sunbathing area and outdoor shower. There were building works going on in adjacent properties but they were confined to a few hours during the day, during which time we were exploring Cape Town and the surrounding area.

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A welcome cup of tea in the haven of Four Rosemead

Breakfast was plentiful and freshly prepared to order. Dinner was available on request, although we chose to eat out on the V&A Waterfront one night and had the inevitable ‘braai’ with family and friends the other.

Four Rosmead is a small and cosy setting in the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. The owners and staff clearly take great pride in delivering a personal and exclusive service while making guests feel at home in the cosy surroundings. The attention to detail, beautiful setting and quality of the service are what makes Four Rosmead a hidden gem: easily accessible to the shops and sights of Cape Town, but secluded from the hustle and bustle after a busy day exploring the South African city.

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A South African protea – the national flower

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm

A Jordanian Adventure