(Waffles, beer, chocolate... Surprised I got any photography done.)
'Come with me to Belgium,' a friend of ours from the US said a couple of months ago. It only took us a couple of minutes to agree to join him on a whirlwind trip around Northern Belgium. 'I want to see Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels,' he said, 'and maybe a couple of other places on the way.' Um, we are only there for three nights, I thought. That's a lot to fit in that time. 'Oh, and there's a castle I want to see in Mechelen seeing as we are driving past.' Okay, that's doable, I thought. 'Do you think we can fit Bruges in as well?' he asked. No, not this time, I thought.
The advantage of living in Folkestone is the speed at which one can get to mainland Europe. A short train trip via EuroChunnel had us and the car in Calais mid morning, after breakfast in Folkestone. One planned stop on the way to Belgium was an exciting one for me, Dunkirk Beach.
I had wanted to stop here for a number of years now, especially with its wartime history. It was eerily quiet when we arrived, not a single person on the wide stretch of beach. The tide was out, leaving vast stretches of ribbed sand, and puddles reflecting the clouds in the sky. The remains of tiny shells and razor clams crunched underfoot as we walked towards the surf line. There was an underlying feeling of melancholy in the air, the area having been witness to one of the largest evacuations of troops in WWII, a staggering 338,000 soldiers in just ten days. After a short time of wandering down the beach, a feeling of peace came over us. There's definitely an atmosphere over the area, bits of history appear in the corner of the eye, disappearing as you turn to see what caught your attention.
The endless beach with its reflective pools and patterns in the sand is perfect for a wide angle lens. The passing rain clouds add atmosphere to shots captured from a low angle, using the row of houses situated on the edge of the beach to lead the eye to the horizon. There was no wind, so the pools reflected beautifully at faster shutter speeds, but a stable tripod and Neutral Density (ND) filter giving much longer exposures, would have overcome this obstacle, leading to a softer finish to the water and clouds. The Dunkirk Kursaal, an exhibition centre on the edge of the beach, gives a splash of colour on the horizon, breaking up the row of houses and restaurants. I felt very much in my element here, on the sand with wide open skies, the surf breaking to one side and the horizon stretching off in the distance. A definite future visit needs to be planned, spending more time exploring this stretch of the coastline with its fascinating history.
Back into the car for a quick drive over the border to Ghent, and a visit to Gravensteen, a 10th Century moated castle located in the centre of Ghent. The River Lieve runs past the castle, offering the perfect opportunity for reflections. I was after something that gave a bit of a feeling of the town too, so when I spotted this little bit of graffiti on the side of a building overlooking the Lieve, I thought it was the perfect addition to the shot. Once again, the wide angle lens with the aperture wide open at f2.8 gave me the graffiti in sharp focus with the castle and river in soft focus in the background. A wander down some of the old cobbled streets, then off to Antwerp where we were spending our first night.
The festive markets were in full swing in Belgium, giving a lot of photographic opportunities, especially with the buildings lit up and the crowds enjoying the Christmas stalls. Thursday evening in Antwerp's Christmas market was buzzing and pleasantly busy. Grote Markt, the impressive main square surrounded by the elaborate Guild houses and the Antwerp City Hall, played host to Antwerp's Christmas Market. These buildings were further dominated by the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of our Lady Antwerp.
The market in Brussels is rated as one of the best in Europe, and it certainly didn't disappoint. It is spread out over several city blocks, each one more fabulous than the last. This does all come at a cost though, it is incredibly busy. We were lucky enough to miss the main crowds on the Friday evening when visiting the Grand-Place with the entire square acting as the backdrop to an incredible light display to music, with the Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles as the centre piece (top image). The temperatures were cold, and although we had clear skies, there was a thin layer of dew on the cobbles, giving great reflections from a low angle. The cobbles also give a sense of age to the images, history is very present in these beautiful Belgian cities.
I did find it difficult to photograph in a crowd, I'm used to being able to take my time, absorb my surroundings, and mentally compose a shot before even taking out a camera. I had a tripod with me, but found it had a slight wobble in the head, making it frustrating to use. It was also practically impossible to set up a tripod in Brussels city centre due to the crowds. My time spent focusing on coastal photography has certainly removed me from busy city photography, something I had done a lot of in the past without much thought. I eventually decided to take it all in without my camera, and enjoyed it more that way.
Belgium is certainly a welcoming, beautiful country, one worth spending more time exploring, but I would be inclined to visit in the summer months, giving longer evenings, and hopefully not quite as crowded. I'd also travel lighter, taking a single camera body and a lens or two, as opposed to my full kit.
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