Herentals is a small town (less than 30000 people) about 40 kms to the east of Antwerp. It’s located in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, and has few tourists. I arrived here last Tuesday for a house and cat-sitting assignment. This is my third house-sitting gig through Trusted Housesitters. It’s nice to have an apartment to relax in for a few days. Tomorrow I leave for Brussels, and things will get busy again.

So, what is there to do in Herentals? Not too much as it turns out. The centre of town consists of the central square and three commercial streets radiating from it. There are a few nice buildings and cafes with terraces on the square. Nearby is a large grocery store (that also sells alcohol) so self-catering is easy. I’ve been walking around, writing, and of course taking care of the cats.

The house and cats

There are two felines, both males: Mio is the older and more serious one. He’s well-behaved, quite independent, but still likes a cuddle once in a while, or nap on my lap while I watch TV. Basically he’s a typical cat. Joey is only one-year old and used to be a stray. He’s hyper-active and in need of constant attention. He tries to play with everything that is moving or just lying around. He makes me think more of a dog, or a baby sometimes. So I have to keep some doors closed and keep an eye on him. Fortunately the cats have access to the balcony (and the neighbours balconies) so I can have some peace, especially when I’m trying to eat!

The apartment itself is quite spacious, with lots of light and wood. It has a nice TV which I watch every evening. Because I don’t have one at home, it’s almost like a novelty. American movies are shown in original version with Flemish sub-titles.

First impressions

It may be only an hour and a half by fast train from Paris, but Belgium feels totally different from France.

For starters, this is beer country. There are so many delicious and varied beers made here, that you could spend years trying a different one every day. There are 190 breweries and beer companies in Belgium producing 1150 Belgian beers! (Data from 2011). One of my favourite types are the fruit beers: cherry, strawberry, peach etc. There are also pale lagers, lambic beers (spontaneous fermentation), triple-fermented beers and more. The percentage of alcohol varies quite a bit too: I’ve seen 2.8% and 8.5%. I’m no expert, but I’m enjoying the beers, most of which are served in their own uniquely shaped glass, which is supposed to improve their individual flavour.

Beer is served everywhere, at any time of day, and is much easier to find (and cheaper) than a good coffee! I’ve been trying cappuccinos in different places and am sorely disappointed. It’s almost tasteless and comes topped with whipped cream here.

There are pastry shops, but they’re definitely not as prominent as in France. In particular, the Belgians seem to like fruit tarts. I had a very good and filling prune tart the other day. And of course freshly made waffles are easy to find.

The architecture is also very different from France, and similar to what you would find in Holland (at least here in the Flemish region). They love carillon music (sets of bells): every church and even bell towers on some civic buildings play a little tune every hour, or quarter hour.

Just like in neighbouring Holland, many people ride bicycles on dedicated bicycles lanes, or just all over the place, so you have to watch out for them if you’re on foot. The car drivers on the other hand are very considerate and will stop for you if you so much as look at a crosswalk!

The Flemish appear more reserved and contained than the French. The Flemish language is for all purposes identical to Dutch, even though here they throw a few English and French words into the mix. Flemish has a lot in common with German. I don’t speak either, but I can guess several of the words when they appear in context. Given a few months I could probably read it and possibly understand a bit, but trying to twist my mouth around those sounds would be a different story. So I just greet people by smiling and bowing my head.

It’s a little embarassing sometimes, because unlike Asia, where it’s obvious I don’t speak the local language, here I look European, and in a non-touristy town like Herentals, people just assume that I speak Flemish. Some locals speak fluent English, and others none at all. I’ve been told in the past that it’s better to address them in English than French, even if French is one of the three official languages, and English is not. Coming from Canada, a country with its own language issues, I’m no stranger to language-based skirmishes. Although reserved, the people have been friendly so far.

A day trip to Lier

Yesterday (Saturday) I took the train for the short ride to Lier (13-19 minutes, 3.50 Euros). Lier is a little bigger than Herentals, and definitely more showy. The main attractions are the main square (surrounded by the city hall and several beautiful guild houses), the St-Gummarus Church, the Zimmer Tower (clock) and the old Beguinage. There is a river running right through its core, and two more on the periphery.

Walking to the Grote Markt (main square) from the train station, I made an unplanned stop at a little bakery selling hot waffles. Upon hearing that I was Canadian the man immediately enquired about my French skills, and this is the language in which our conversation unfolded. I guess not all people in Flanders hate French. 🙂

I visited the main attractions, of which the most interesting and most famous is the Jubilee Clock, built by clock maker Louis Zimmer in1930 for the centennial of Belgium’s independence. It’s now housed on the restored tower, a remaining part of the medieval walls that once encircled the town. Zimmer also built the astronomic studio (inside the tower) and the Wonder Clock (made of 93 separate dials) displayed in the adjacent museum.

The beguinage (a UNESCO site) is a village within a town, a few hundred houses along cobblestone lanes, where used to live a community of independent single women. They wanted to lead an independent, religious inspired life with a high level of independence from the Church. The beguines took a vow of chastity (while they were in the beguinage) but not poverty. They were not nuns. They earned a living by weaving, making lace, ironing, or teaching and providing child care. There were many beguinages in the low countries during the middle ages. Exceptionally, the one in Lier survived until the early 20th century.

What’s the food like?

I haven’t been eating out much here in Herentals for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easier and cheaper to buy food at the supermarket and cook at “home”. Second, I have to admit that I have a hard time reading the menus (all in Flemish). So I limit myself to beer (bier), coffee (koffie), and the occasional sandwich, such as the easily decipherable “Croque mozarella mit pesto en tomaat” that I had the other day. 🙂

The local gastronomy seems very meat-and-potato oriented, with lots of sauces, but also salads and vegetables.

Brussels should be easier since everybody speaks French there apparently. Stay tuned.

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