The large windows in which ladies of the night display their charms came as much of a surprise as on my first visit to Amsterdam in my early twenties - though one innovation is the fluorescent strip lighting which amplifies the disturbing incongruity of the spectacle. It seems discourteous to look, but when you avert your gaze this also causes offence. When one of the filles de joie vigorously rapped on her window in an attempt to drum up a spot of trade from the Weasel, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
It was interesting to discover that Ghent's architectural distinction extends even to the red-light district, though for some reason it tends not to figure large in advertisements for the ancient city. Under an impressive portico, a trickle of furtive clients entered a miniature version of Burlington Avenue. I was relieved that most of the dozen or so premises lining the gallery had their curtains drawn or were temporarily unoccupied, though I was given a basilisk glance by one professional temptress who was dexterously, if riskily, spraying her hair while smoking a cigarette.
It is hard to imagine a less priapic experience, but at least my perambulation through Ghent's night town answered one conundrum. This concerned an Italian shoe-shop near our hotel. Most of the window display was occupied by perfectly ordinary, fashionable shoes, but why was one corner given over to an extensive range of thigh-high, high-heeled boots as worn so fetchingly by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman? In one case, the boots did not even stop at the thigh but continued onwards and upwards, eventually becoming attached to a wide leather belt. The overall effect was not sexy but plain odd, like high-heeled waders. Still, this bizarre footwear obviously answers a demand from local business. As work garments, I hope they can be set against tax.
After collecting Mrs W, who gave me a light grilling about my experience in the arcade ("Do you often go in for that sort of thing?"), we set out for supper. Because so many people speak such good English in this part of Belgium, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting you are abroad. So it can come as a surprise to be presented with a menu entirely in Flemish. At a fine restaurant called Karel de Stoute in Ghent's old town run by a Nico Ladenis lookalike, we guessed that hertekalf met honing en whisky was a yummy way of cooking venison and kippenlevertjes met appeltjes en paddenstoelen was something to do with chicken-liver and apple. But what on earth was piepkuikentje klaargestoofd in een sausie (we shrewdly guessed that it was not unconnected with sausage) or duel tussen een kwartel en een jung duifie?
Not being drawn to duifie either young or old, I decided to play safe and have entrecote van het paard met geflamveerde champignonroomsaus. Steak in mushroom sauce was OK by me. So it was a trifle disconcerting when our waiter confirmed my choice by saying. "And you're having the horse, sir?" "Horse. you mean `horse' as in clip-clop?" "Yes, sir. It's a cut from the most tender part of the horse."
Despite this persuasive elucidation, I felt a sudden need for a rethink. I made sure that lamskroonntje was actually lamb before I ordered. The cutlets turned out to be wonderfully toothsome, all six of them. But they were accompanied by a Belgian culinary favourite even more mystifying than horse. The potato croquette is equally uninspiring in any language.
Returning to this country is rarely an elevating experience. Disenchantment after our weekend in Belgium started even before we left the platform at Waterloo International. We found ourselves in a crush of departing passengers caused by a hold-up on the way out. In their ever-genial way, HM Customs & Excise had deliberately turned off a travelator in order that a trained dog could give all arrivals a good sniff over. "Keep to the left so the dog can do its job," bellowed a Gauleiter as we shuffled along. The canine cannabis-detector was on the large side, with a fair bit of black labrador in it. Understandably alarmed, a little girl in front of us started crying when the big wet nose gave her the once-over. For that matter, Mrs W, no dog-lover herself, was less than happy.
After a similar experience of being forcibly sniffed, the eminent clinician Dr Oliver Sacks accurately described it as "deeply chilling - we had a sense of how helpless and terrified one could be in the hands of a totalitarian bureaucracy". Mind you, his encounter occurred on a military base in Micronesia with "some of the tightest security on the planet", rather than at a major terminus in central London. There was one indication that even the UK excisemen, with their limitless powers to stop, search and probe, recognised they were pushing their luck. In an effort to make the encounter a little more "user-friendly", they erected a temporary sign (bearing a photo of the mutt) introducing us to "Drug Dog Donovan". I am undecided whether it is pure coincidence or an example of bureaucratic humour that the probing pooch happens to be named after one of the great versifiers ("Sunshine Superman", "Mellow Yellow" etc) of Sixties drug culture.
To my lasting delight, I told a Ghent taxi driver, "Take us to the Hotsy- Totsy Club". Despite its euphonious moniker, the joint turned out to be sadly lacking in gangsters and their molls. Nor was there a chorus line of high-kicking beauties. In fact, the Hotsy-Totsy is a bohemian niterie, filled to the rafters that night by an event in Ghent Jazz Week. Scarcely a week passes without some cultural celebration erupting in this lively burg. "You should have been here for the Film Festival," yelled a bar-fly. "I met..." But a drum solo obliterated the name. I guessed he'd say Peter Greenaway or another worthy of the avant-garde. "... Gina Lollobrigida." Wow! La Lollo. Star of Flesh Will Surrender and This Wine of Love. Why on earth did we ever think that Belgium was dull?Reuse content