As we potter south through Belgium in our camper van, en route to Luxembourg, I am astonished at this otherwise civilised nation’s apparent disregard for basic health and safety rules.
They’re not quite as lax as those in Greece, where I’ve seen a lump of jagged concrete serve as a landing pad at the bottom of a children’s slide, but they still come as a surprise, considering we’re all meant to be part of the same European community, with high standards for such things. We see many perilous features that an English tourist attraction would never get away with.
A Dangerous Climb
To reach the Citadel that overlooks the riverside town of Dinant, many of the 411 steps that we climb are badly worn and slippery with water or ice. On the way back down, I try not to look below me, because we are protected from a precipitous drop only by a single, slim railing.
The next day, we besiege the castle at the tranquil riverside town of Bouillon, an intriguing maze of a place with a warren of different-shaped chambers, cellars and halls linked by numerous, ancient, spiral stone staircases. As in Dinant, many of the treads are worn and wet. Yet mostly there is no handrail to save the less than sure-footed visitor (e.g. me) from a tumble. The few handrails that do exist are mostly pitted with rust. Duct tape has been used half-heartedly to repair places in which the rust has worn right through.
Most of the rooms are damp underfoot, many are scattered with puddles. Often, we look up to find icicles or stalactites hanging perilously above us. Raised paths atop the castle walls lure the visitor to enjoy the view, but only feeble, low-slung barriers stop them taking an accidental step to certain death. Only eagle-eyed visitors will notice a single faded, low-profile sign reminding them that it’s not a good idea to sit on the walls, but that’s as far as the official warnings go.
A Cellar Full of Danger
Walking through the cellars, we have at most five feet clearance of headroom. There is nothing to alert taller people to watch their heads. While my four-feet-seven daughter skips carefree ahead of me, I stumble forward, hunchbacked, wondering how many cases of concussion the castle has to treat each year.
Along the way, my daughter gleefully collects icicles. We break them off from low arches, and she brandishes them as weapons against cut-out figures of crusaders dotted about the main hall.
I need no reminding that this castle is not managed by the National Trust, I think to myself, as I cling to a flimsy wooden handrail while descending shaky wooden steps. The National Trust would never be guilty of such lassitude. It wouldn’t dare.
A Safe Perspective
But then we reach a room that casts a whole new light on our tour. It is the torture chamber. Displayed above a rack are helpful, thorough directions on its use. It’s the most detailed sign we have seen so far. Evenly spaced along its bed are five spiked spools, designed to pierce the victim’s flesh many times over, just in case it’s not tortuous enough to be stretched by his hands and feet, with the tension maintained by a granite weight the size of a millstone.
There’s no photo here because I couldn’t bear to look at it for long enough to take a picture. Besides, my daughter had already danced off into the distance with her icicle, refusing to look, just as she’d shielded her eyes from the guillotine cheerfully displayed at Dinant, alongside a mini guillotine designed to chop off hands, rather than heads (torture-lite, I suppose you’d call it).
Suddenly, my 21st century attitude to health and safety seems ridiculously cautious. Taking this torture chamber as Belgium’s baseline for danger, losing my foothold on a stone staircase would be very small beer indeed. I continue my tour without complaint.
If you’d like to read more about our trip through Belgium, these are the other posts I’ve put up so far (more to follow shortly):
(More to follow shortly – click the “Follow” button on the right to make sure you don’t miss an episode!)