Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Young Adult novel set in Belgium (the author takes us on “an alternative tour of Belgium”)
26th March 2015
Urban Legends by Helen Grant, Young Adult novel set in Belgium.
Urban Legends is the third novel in the Forbidden Spaces Trilogy and once again we meet Veerle, who this time is trying to keep her head down after all the terrible things that have happened. But some secrets won’t stay dead. The brutal killer known as The Hunter is back – and he wants revenge!
The alternative tour of Belgium by author Helen Grant
Think of a trip to Belgium, and what pops into your mind? The Grand Place in Brussels and the Atomium probably feature, and it’s practically obligatory to stand in front of the Manneken Pis and say “Gosh, he’s much smaller than I expected.” (You’ll hear other people saying it too, in lots of other languages.) But Belgium has many other, less obvious treasures, some of which fascinated me so much that I’ve put them into my novels. Here are some of my favourites.
If you like visiting historic buildings, this 13th century church certainly has vaulting and columns galore. It also has some deliciously creepy things in it. There’s a very ornate Baroque pulpit with a grisly carved skeleton on it, reaching out over the terrified figures of Adam and Eve, the skull grinning at them in true horror film style. Even creepier is the carving of the anointing of Jesus in the tomb, tucked away in a dark corner. Robed figures crowd around the body, their faces deeply shadowed. Brrrr. And if you nip into the Treasury you can see the skull of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Fun for all the family.
I always feel Autoworld gets overshadowed by the Royal Museums of Art and History next door to it at Jubelpark. The name “Autoworld” doesn’t really have magic in it, either; it sounds as though it should be selling used Fiat Pandas or something. But actually this is a fun museum, especially if you have car-mad kids. It has over 250 vehicles, ranging from horse-drawn carriages to modern sports cars, and taking in some glorious vintage cars in between. The collection includes micro cars, eco cars and even motorcycles. I fell in love with the Triumph Spitfire; I used to have one of those. Sigh.
The Waterloo battlefield offers all sorts of delights to anyone interested in military history, including battlefield tours and the short sharp climb to the top of the Butte de Lion (Lion’s Mound) with its windy and spectacular views. There’s also a rotunda containing the Waterloo panorama, a 110 metre long, 12 metre high painting of the battle. Apparently, paintings like it were fairly common a hundred years ago, but very few remain now, so it’s a real curiosity and well worth seeing. There are battlefield sounds playing in the background too, so you can imagine yourself right in the thick of it, hearing swords clash and dodging cannon balls.
Aside from its massive Gothic beauty, Sint-Baafs Cathedral is home to one of Europe’s great art treasures: the Ghent altarpiece. It’s one of the world’s most stolen artworks, having been pinched by the French and the Germans at different times as well as having had parts of it taken by home-grown kidnappers in 1934. It also featured in the recent Holllywood film The Monuments Men. Visit the Ghent altarpiece and you can truthfully tell your friends you were in the same room as one of George Clooney’s co-stars.
Personally I found the altarpiece so fascinating that I gave it a role in my novel Demons of Ghent.
While you’re in Ghent, you might also pay a visit to the Torture Museum inside the Gravensteen Cast Its official name (in English) is the “museum of judicial objects”, but you won’t see any wigs and gavels in there. You can however, see thumbscrews, the rack and a guillotine, all housed in the atmospheric interior of a twelfth century castle with massive stone walls and tiny windows. It’s a gruesome and fascinating insight into the days when justice depended on getting a confession out of the accused by any means available. The torture museum makes an appearance in Demons of Ghent too. It was simply too grisly to leave out.
Another of my books, Silent Saturday, features an abandoned castle in Flanders. You can’t visit the one I had in mind, but if the age of chivalry’s your thing, you could pay Beersel Castle a visit. Unoccupied since the 18th century, it has an eerie, antique feel to it that hasn’t been ruined by any later prettifying. It has a great many rooms, passages and spiral staircases to explore, making it a real rabbit warren. You can also walk around the circumference of the moat, admiring the serene reflection of the castle in its still waters, and reflect on how very difficult it would have been to storm the place.
And finally, I’d like to extol the unique and slightly niffy wonders of one of my very favourite tourist sites in Belgium. Yes, it’s La Musée des Egouts – The Sewers Museum. I visited the museum when I was doing initial research into possible locations for my new book, Urban Legends. Improbably situated at a busy traffic intersection in Anderlecht, the Sewers Museum has exhibitions about the construction of the Brussels sewers, how they work, and some of the hazards you can find down there. After filling your head with interesting sewer facts, you can fill your nostrils too by going down into the sewers themselves (don’t worry, it’s not overpowering). It’s unusual and – with the low light and distant rumble of Metro trains – rather creepy. (At the time of writing, the Sewers Museum was temporarily closed, so check the website before you visit).
Sewers, vintage cars and thumbscrews – Belgium has so much more to offer the tourist than chocolate and the Manneken Pis…
Helen Grant writes YA contemporary thrillers. She has lived in Germany and Belgium, and her novels to date have been set in those countries. She now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two cats. You can follow her on Twitter and via her website
Urban Legends is Helen Grant’s sixth novel and the third in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy. It is published by Corgi (26th March 2015).
And if you are specifically Brussels bound, A Luxury Travel Blog features chosen highlights on their blog too.