For such a small country (about the size of southern California), Belgium sure seems to pack in the incredible architecture. Big cities. Small villages. Middle-of-nowhere towns. I feel like I'm incessantly stopped in my tracks to ogle a building, facade, or construction. The styles range from medieval stone to sleek art deco. Which makes sense as Belgium has been ruled by so many neighboring countries over the centuries whose influences have remained. Not to mention the country's sweeping destruction and damage at the hands of both World Wars. It is a dismal thought of tiny Belgium subsisting at the heart of many notorious battles. And yet this underdog-of-a-country endures. Its architecture a profound story of its past.
Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, originally built in the 10th century.
Originally built in the 11th century, the Citadel of Dinant stands guard over its namesake town.
One of the first architectural wow moments I've had here was pulling into the Antwerp central station. I emerged from the train and, with jaw dropped, did a tortoise's-pace 360 at the 19th century spectacle. Picture Mary Tyler Moore at the end of her opening theme song in very slow motion. The massive iron beam and glass tunnel that bathes the train platforms in natural light is stunning. The art nouveau "peacock", as they call it, majestically reigns over the station entrance. And the marble grandeur of the station itself coaxes you into an era when train travel was the luxurious way to go. Simply breathtaking.
Antwerp central station train shed
The art nouveau peacock, Antwerp central station
Interior of Antwerp central station
From the same turn-of-the-century period, the Galeries Royales in Brussels gave me a similar feeling of awe. This two-sided shopping arcade was once the center of arts and culture in the city.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Brussels
Then there's the gothic design. Oh my god, the detail. Found primarily on the churches, cathedrals, and important city and government buildings, the intricate carvings, cavernous ceilings, and sky-high steeples practically keep my neck permanently craned. Don't even get me started on the interior of these gothic visions. I foresee many of these shots forthcoming in Sunday ("Need some church?") social media posts!
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Oostende
Ghent city center
But it's the stepped gable design around Belgium that really lights me up. Mostly built between the 12th and 14th centuries, this stairstep style was a decorative way to finish off rooflines. And certainly adds to the fairytale look of the communal landscape.
Some of the oldest examples of this architectural style in Ghent
Bruges (on my canal) :)
Antwerp guild houses
There are even lessons to be learned about Belgium's architecture underground. Yes, De Ruien in Antwerp allows you to traipse through the historic canal and sewer systems that weaved through the city before they were closed off in the 17th century due to the stench. But not before suiting up as a royal blue teletubby lookalike with clumsy wellingtons. It was pretty fascinating down there. After a few minute boat drift into the depths of the tunnels, we were guided on foot (well, sloshing on foot most of the time) through the underbelly of the old town. The construction materials, secret passages and doors, and water level markings chronicled what was happening above in previous centuries. A little stinky at times, but I'm all for an all-sensory experience.
De Ruien in Antwerp; the underbelly of the city
Belgium's got some architectural magnificence. That's the word on the street. And I can confirm.