Usually tour guides are good. Occasionally a fabulous guide makes a tour especially memorable. But we had a dud in Flanders, Belgium. It is only looking back that I realized what we saw could have been more interesting had we known more history..
Zeebruge, a port for Bruges, did not seem to have much to see. We had a great time in Bruges (see May 2013), so we signed up for a tour of “scenic Flanders.”
Our guide was an easily flustered and poorly organized woman. Delays on ship had the group a half hour late. She insisted we had to make up the time. It never occurred to her that her guests might resent losing part of the time for which they had paid — even after the entire bus rebelled and insisted on a few more minutes than she allotted for the town of Damme.
The flat countryside of Flanders is worth seeing even when the guide repeatedly whines about how the terrain meant their “poor little country” was subject to the warlike whims of its bigger neighbors.
She did make the interesting point that the square medieval church towers often seen in small villages also served as look-out towers to spot approaching armies. She also repeatedly said that everything was “protected.” Evidently one needs permission from some governmental body to make a change to a house, to a farm and even to a herd of cows. She said Germans slaughtered all the cattle in Belgium during World War I including those from an indigenous breed. The current cows of that breed came from cattle imported after the war.
The brochure said we would have time to wander the picturesque streets of Damme on our own. We did manage to get ten more minutes in Damme but not enough time to really appreciate it. When the bus stopped next to it, she did not mention the town hall’s architecture or name, the “Schellemill.” She did not mention the 13th century Sint-Janshospital we noticed on a walk to a partially destroyed old church. She did not mention the old farm house we passed; Farm homes in many medieval European villages were inside the safety of their walls. She did not mention the partially restored town walls.
Then we visited Loppem Castle. She told us no photos were allowed, and her disjointed lecture mostly focused on the genealogy of the family and the famous people who had stayed there. It is not really a castle but was a wealthy 19th century couple’s home. We have been in many more imposing homes in the U.S. and elsewhere with more interesting art and architecture, so I did not appreciate what I was seeing — until I got home and looked it up.
In 1814 at the Congress of Vienna, the successful powers that defeated Napoleon’s France created the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, dominated by the Protestant Dutch. In 1830, the predominantly Catholic Belgians half of whom spoke French rebelled, and the Kingdom was split up into three parts: The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. A minor prince from a German House of Saxe-Coburg was made King of Belgium.
It was theoretically a constitutional monarchy, but the king made the rules, and voting was limited to a few mostly French-speaking Catholic well-to-do. The King was so powerful, he set up his own system of colonies.
By World War I, Belgium was still a monarchy but had quite a liberal king, Albert I. King Albert met with a group of socialist and liberal politicians in 1918 at Loppem Castle. A new government was established and, most importantly, universal suffrage was granted (to men) breaking the hold of the oligarchy. The new government had its first “Prime Minister.” The unhappy oligarchs noted the procedures of the old constitution had not been followed and voiced complaints about the “Loppem Coup.” Finally in 1930, King Albert sent a letter to his Prime Minister which was published saying he had not been coerced, there was no revolution, and the discussions at Loppem merely reinforced his belief it was time for a change.
Modern Belgium was born, and a Belgian might be justified in regarding Loppem Castle much the way an American regards Independence Hall.
If only we had known.
Click on photos to enlarge.