Monday, April 9, 2018

Bundled up in Belgium

The time of year for l'aventure des soeurs Beck is dictated by when my sister is in France for her annual trip to improve her French language skills (of which she is far more proficient than I). This year we've picked Belgium/Belgique/België as our destination, and although the calendar says spring has arrived, Mother Nature replies, "Au contraire, mon frère!"

We've based ourselves in Brussels for the week in an apartment near the Midi train station. We spend a couple of days in the capital city and take day trips to Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent. This is a country known for its comic strip art, lace, diamonds, art nouveau architecture, art, waffles, fries, beer and, best of all, chocolate. It's also a country that's part French, part Flemish (and a little bit German), so in this post, I include some place names in English, French and Dutch).

Brussels/Bruxelles/Brussel) Highlights

Saints Christophe, Michel, and Georges are perched above the portal of
Brussels' Hôtel de Ville.

The Grand Place in the heart of Brussels is where our tour begins. Guild halls, the Hôtel de Ville and stately residences from the 17th century surround the large plaza where, I imagine, outdoor cafés and market stalls are bustling in warmer weather. Today, however, the wind is ripping through the square and we struggle to hear our guide explain the history and the architectural details that surround us.

The guild houses were rebuilt after an attack by the French in 1695
destroyed much of the Grand Place in Brussels.

Whether by accident or design, the portal of the Hôtel de Ville
in Brussels is off-center. 

Our walking tour takes through the neighborhood where we see Manneken Pis, the Cupid-inspired statue of a boy peeing, and his younger "sister" Jeanneke Pis, who was installed a few blocks away in 1987. We wind our way up Rue des Bouchers and check out some of Brussels' famous comic art murals nearby.

Blossom are promising to appear on a pretty street corner
in Brussels. 

Brussels' large murals such as this include the street scenes
in which they are set.

I'm amused by the whimsical art on Brussels' streets such as this bronze
dog doing his business.

A highlight of the tour, if only because it offers us a break from the frigid weather, is Galeries St-Hubert, Europe's first shopping arcade. Shopping isn't on our agenda today, although we admire the Easter candy in the windows of the chocolatiers.

Luxury shops and cafés are housed beneath the New Renaissance-style
vaulted glass ceilings of Galeries-St-Hubert in Brussels. 

After lunch, we head up to the Quartier Royal in Brussels' upper town. Our destination is Musée Magritte, which houses the world's largest collection of Surrealism art by René Magritte (1898-1967) and is one of the few museums open on Monday.

Musée Magritte is part of a complex of museums in the upper town of Brussels.

Brussels' skyline with the Basilique National du Sacré-Cœur in the distance
is seen from the Quartier Royal.

Old England, a former department store, is a great example
of art-nouveau architecture. It now houses Brussels' Musical
Instrument Museum.

On another day, we walk across town to the Quartier Européen and visit the EU Parliament complex. A visit to Parlamentarium, the interactive visitors center is a bit disappointing because its technology seems out-dated, but the temporary exhibition "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" is interesting and eerily relevant. The exhibit is on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum until May 13, 2018.

Brussels is one of three cities that houses the European Union.
Committee meetings are held here; the administrative center is
in Luxembourg; and the seat of the EU is in Strasbourg, France.

An exhibition of Nazi propaganda is on temporary display
at the EU Parliament in Brussels.

With GPS in hand, we find our way back across Brussels to the Horta Museum. The museum is actually the house and studio of Victor Horta (1961-1947) famous art-nouveau architect. Our self-guided tour takes us through the home where space, light and utility cleverly mingle with style.

Bruges/Brugge Highlights

We pick the week's only sunny day to visit a city I've been longing to see: beautiful Bruges. Soon after our train leaves Brussels, we notice we are no longer hearing or reading the station announcements in French. Instead, we receive notifications like this: We komen aan in Zottengem, (which we can inexplicably understand). We have entered Flanders. The architecture of Bruges reflects this with its brick buildings and stair-step roof lines.

With the canal as a backdrop, I stop to rest during a practically perfect day in Bruges.

Market Square (Marktplatz) is dominated by the 83-meter-high Belfort and is surrounded by colorful buildings housing shops and restaurants. On this beautiful day, there are loads of people here catching up on their Vitamin D. We follow a route suggested by the tourism office and enjoy a stroll along the canals before having lunch at a charming little vegetarian restaurant, De Plaats, where our waitress is also owner, chef and resident artist. (I wish I had taken photos of the restroom.)

Bruges has held a market on its main square since the 10th century.

The Belfort in Bruges was built between the 13th and 15th centuries.
It serves as a reminder of the city's past as a center of world trade
and also was prominently featured in the 2008 film 'In Bruges.'

After lunch we skip the more prestigious museums — the Groeninge and the Gruuthuse — and instead visit the quirky Volkskundemuseum, known as one of the best folk museums in Flanders. We wind our way through low, brick 17th-century almshouses and check out scenes depicting the traditional crafts of the region.

A wooden candy mold is displayed at the Volkskundemuseum
in Bruges.

A cobbler shop is one of the recreated scenes at the
Volkskundemuseum in Bruges

Before we catch our train back to Brussels, we stop for hot chocolate and stock up on some treats to bring back to loved ones.

I adore this sign outside a Bruges restaurant.

Ghent/Gand/Gent Highlights

A rainy day in Ghent overshadows its many charms.

We anticipate non-stop rain on Thursday, so instead of slogging around Brussels, we head to Ghent, about halfway between Brussels and Bruges. To add to our frustration with the weather, we can't find the tourism office and take several wrong turns before we find the historical quarter. By this time, we're soaked and much in need of some hot tea and lunch.

Hardier tourists than we opt for a ride along the canals in Ghent
on this rainy day.

A major industrial center in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ghent wound up with a lot of pollution problems. The city cleaned up its buildings and the canals in the 1980s and although it's overshadowed by Bruges from a tourism perspective, it has many appealing sites including the Korenmarkt square, Het Geravennsteen castle and several museums.

The giant cannon, Dulle Griet, sits along the River Leie in Ghent. If it had
ever been used, it could have fired cannonballs the size of beach balls. 

We bypass most of Ghent's popular sites, but appreciate the charms of Graslei, the quay along the harbor, and Werregarenstraatje, a narrow alley with every surface covered in graffiti.

I can't pronounce Werregarenstraatje, so I call this Graffiti Street. Ghent
artists are welcome to create at will along this alley.

Footprints seem to stroll past the art on Werregarenstraatje
in Ghent.

We also stop in a bakery and after partaking of some samples, are enticed into buying a large piece of bread pudding — perhaps the best I've ever tasted.

Antwerp/Anvers/Antwerpen Highlights

A statue honors Silvius Brabo, a hero of Antwerp who, according to
legend, cut off the hand of a giant named Antigoon and thus saved the city.

We've chosen to spend our last full day in Belgium in Antwerp, the country's second-largest city and the largest in Flanders. Our first sight to see is right where we arrive: Centraal Station, one of the world's finest train stations.

The eclectic architecture of Centraal Station in Antwerp
defies traditional style.
Centraal Station in Antwerp is pretty spectacular. One of the
first flash mob videos I saw on YouTube was set here.

We quickly find a tourism office at the train station where we are advised to ignore the massive road works and instead look up as we walk down the city's main street. Good advice. The buildings are quite spectacular.

There's a lot of road work in Antwerp, as seen by this view looking
back toward Centraal Station. 

Those who look down while walking may miss the fine
architectural details along Antwerp's main shopping street.

Aside from a pleasant and surprisingly affordable lunch in a Grote Markt restaurant (where I have my only beer this trip), the highlight of our day here is a visit to Rubenshuis, the home and studio of painter Pieter Paul Rubens from 1611 to 1640. The house was pretty much a ruin when it was bought by the city and restored during World War II. It's cool to walk through the rooms, but we are surprised that most of the paintings here are by other artists.

Rubenshuis in Antwerp was where Rubens lived and painted for the
last 29 years of his life.

A statue of Flemish folkloric character Lange Wapper
stands in Antwerp.

Antwerp's Museum Aan De Stroom (MAS), meaning Museum
on the River, contains maritime and folkloric art.

Art that makes me smile can be found in the most
unexpected places. These guys are scaling a building
along the docks in Antwerp.

Another Beck sisters' adventure ends and as Sandy embarks on her trip back to New England, I return home by train where I learn that an hour-and-a-half is not enough time to change stations in Paris, especially when the train from Brussels is 45 minutes late. Oh well!/Tant pis!/Ach ja!

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