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About A Week: Bruges

"Euro if you want to,'' says Peter Hinchliffe. "I am content with the £.''

“Good morning,’’ says our waitress, speaking in respectable English as she shows us to our table in the dining room of the Hotel Navarra.

The next couple she greets with a cheery “Bon jour’’ then a party of four are welcomed with a “Guten Morgen’’.

We’re in Bruges, Belgium, the melting-pot of Europe, home of the multi-lingual. And our talented waitress, besides being a mistress of languages, seems to be able to identify our countries of origin by the way we look.

A grand little town, Bruges. A Medieval history book written in brick and stone. And so easy to get there from our Yorkshire home.

Drive to Hull. Leave the car in a long-stay. North Sea ferry overnight to Zeebrugge. A nine-mile bus ride - and you’re back in the 14thCentury.

By chance we were in Bruges on Ascension Day, when a Holy relic is paraded along narrow cobbled streets, through a Market Place impressive enough to serve as the open-air venue for a conclave of all the nations.

There were pounding drums, mobile street plays, richly-hued costumes that would have made a Walt Disney producer salivate with envy. Ninety minutes had elapsed when the end of the parade came in sight, and that wasn’t a minute too long.

The Hotel Navarra could itself serve as a textbook to summarise the power struggles which have swilled back and forth across Continental Europe. In 1600 Don Juan de Peralta, Consul of the Spanish Province of Navarra and Alderman of Bruges, had a house built on this site.

In 1720 the premises were rebuilt to become the Hotel des Courtiers. Emperor Josef II of Austria stayed there in 1781. A triumphal staircase and grand halls were built when Napoleon Bonaparte was due to stay there, but the Little General caused great disappointment by cancelling his booking.

During World War I the hotel was a Red Cross hospital. For a brief period after the war it was the headquarters of the Belgian government.

When we were in Bruges there was an exhibition of glorious paintings by Van Eyck and other 14th Century artists. After feasting our eyes for a couple of hours we were led to the sobering thought that artistically we’re going backwards rather than forwards.

Being in Belgium inevitably leads to political rumination. Brussels is a 55-minute train journey from Bruges. Brussels, with its fancy EC headquarters buildings in which well-paid bureaucrats consider weighty matters, such as whether bananas should be straight or curved.

Of course you pay for your rail tickets in euros. Likewise your mid-morning coffee, your delicious Belgian beer and chocolates.

Food and drink in Belgium are not cheap. It’s euros, euros, euros at every turn.

I do like Bruges, Belgium and the Belgians though. I’m comfortable there, but I don’t feel like a member of the Euro club. I’ve never thought of myself as European.

Trade agreements, yes. But shared government and a common currency?

Like the majority of my fellow countrymen I have no wish to hand our financial affair over to faceless bankers based in another land.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. Resistant to dramatic changes. But as of now my answer to those who wish Britain to become a full member of the Euro club is:

“Merci monsieur, mais non. Euro if you want to. I’m content to paddle along with the £.’’


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