Friday, August 21, 2015

Staying in the B&B: Brussels and Bruges

Everyone rides the train in Europe and few understand that folks from the US are mostly
Live news report
clueless about how to use this sort of transportation. So with the help of a few kindhearted souls we made our way from Maastricht to the interesting city of Brussels.  Being near the border of France, the city is officially bilingual; and English is very common, as well since there are so many tourists. Historically a Dutch-speaking city, Brussels has seen a major shift to French since Belgian independence in 1830. Founded by a descendant of Charlemagne in the, 10th century Brussels has grown from a fortress town to a fair-sized city and, in effect, the capital of the European Union (EU) as well as headquarters for NATO. While we were there, a great debate was occurring about whether Greece was going to adopt the austerity measures set out by the EU or whether they were going to go ahead as usual.

Our home for the next few days was to be the Hilton Brussels Grand Place because it is within walking distance of the major attractions and ‘when you come out of the train station,
Brussels train station entrance
you can’t miss it’. Yes, you can. The train station is not some small platform with only one exit, but a sprawling labyrinth lacking obvious signage. Arriving from Maastricht, we emerged in a park populated by several local drunks and a person having a psychotic break. After asking directions at a nearby store, we eventually found our way up the hill and into the hotel. We couldn’t help chuckling when the rather embarrassed desk clerk stated, ‘Oh ladies, I am so sorry you were lost. I take the train to work every day and I didn’t know there was more than one exit.’ We were in the train station several more times and only once found that main exit.

The Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is surrounded by magnificent guildhalls, the Town Hall, and the Museum of the City of Brussels (also known as the Breadhall and
the King’s House). The oldest part of the Town Hall, along with a small belfry, was built
Top L to R: Guildhall, Town Hall, Guildhall
Bottom L to R: Unicorn, Museum of the City of Brussels
between 1402 and 1420; but as craft guilds were admitted into the city government, a second, shorter wing was added between 1444 and 1452. This building, along with the others on the Grand Place, was nearly demolished by the French in 1695. However, the guilds rebuilt the square within four years, using a mixture of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV styles. The amazing Town Hall has a 310 foot Gothic tower with octagonal openwork. On top of the tower is a gilt statue of the archangel Michael slaying a demon, dragon or devil; this same design is featured on city accoutrements, such as trash bins and manhole covers. Decorating various levels of the Town Hall are reproductions of statues of nobles, saints and allegorical figures; the originals are in the Museum of the City of Brussels. The Museum was originally built (1503 to 1536) as the seat of power for the Duke of Brabant and as a symbol to counter the municipal power represented by the Town Hall. Previously this space had held the first cloth and bread markets, hence the name Breadhall. Eventually the building ceased to be used by the government and by 1887 became a museum. The guild halls are now used as hotels, shops and restaurants. On our way to the Grand Place we were surprised to see a number of people in medieval dress; when we rounded the corner, we were a bit disappointed in the square. It was full of bleacher seating so we couldn’t fully see the buildings; there were also all sorts of costumes out behind the Town Hall. However, the next day when we went looking for a place to eat, the bleachers were gone and we saw the Grand Place in its full glory.

Up the hill from the Grand Place and beyond the main entrance to the train station is the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. When I saw the building I thought we were entering a palace with its 1887 Beaux-Arts architecture and amazing statuary. This magnificent
Top L to R: Triptych, Magritte painting
Bottom L to R: Smurf, Circe, Charles Buls
edifice houses five different museums that descend deep underground. We came to see the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish primitives), and Peter Paul Rubens (Baroque paintings). However, I was delighted to see a large collection of the works of René Magritte. The top floor is dedicated to religious works; from this level you can see down into the entry hall that is given over to large sculptures. The basements (six of them) contain more paintings, along with sculpture, glassware, furniture, and ceramics. It’s an amazing place that even one day was not enough completely explore its offerings. On our way back to our hotel we encountered two other sculptures that made us smile. One was of a man seated next to a fountain with a book and his dog. This was Charles Buls; he served as Mayor of Brussels for 18 years at the end of the 19th century. The other statue that surprised us was that of a Smurf! Belgium is the home of Peyo, the creator of these critters and this statue sits in front of the first store dedicated to them.

The old city, itself, is a busy place full of shops, places to eat, and lots of people. Some of our time was spent scouring the wonderful lace shops and the tapestry stores. I looked for
Top L to R: Chocolate Galleria, Bins of chocolate
Bottom L to R: Chocolate going home, Chocolate shop
anything that had to do with rabbits; Barb looked for poppies and lacy gifts. One of the gallerias had the commodity that Belgium is so famous for: Chocolate! There are lots of chocolate shops in this city and you’ll need a guide to decide which ones you’d like to visit. There are basically three different sorts of chocolate candy in Brussels. If you are from the southern US, a praline (praw-lean; a pray-lean is a similar candy made north of the Mason-Dixon Line) is caramelized sugar with pecans (pu-con; a pee-can is something you use when you don’t want to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night) in it—but I digress. In Brussels, Pralines are filled chocolate candies; Truffles are made from ganache; and Gianduja is a nut paste. The chocolate shops may specialize in one of these forms or have a selection that includes many more tasty treats; they may also be run by a single family or by a conglomerate. I was very surprised to learn that Godiva chocolate was sold by Campbell Soup Company to Turkish Yıldız Holding; I thought they were still a Belgian company.  Knowing that the storage temperature for Belgian chocolate is 64oF (18oC), we were waiting when the shops opened. Once inside we purchased several pounds of these delicacies, then rushed back to our hotel room to keep them from melting.

Although we had a great time in Brussels, we had heard that there was a small town that had art and history that rivaled that of the capitol city, so off we went to Bruges. This time our train trip was without incident, although upon our return we still didn’t find the main
Top L to R: Bruges house, Markt
Bottom L to R: Canal, Gothic belfry
entrance of the Brussels train station. The Bruges city center, partly made up of the Markt and the Burg, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a portal to the Amber Road (an ancient trade route), Bruges began sometime in 1600 BC and was evidently conquered by Julius Caesar's armies, the French, and Vikings.  In the 11th and 12th centuries, canals were built and the city enjoyed an active commercial life trading spices, cloth, wool and wines. By the 15th century artists and bankers from all over Europe arrived; the weavers of Burge were touted as some of the finest on the continent. Lace makers are still at work here, along with people selling tapestries and chocolatiers. We did enjoy walking along the canals and wandering by the gardens; the canals give Bruges its nickname, The Venice of the North. Bruges still has most of its medieval architecture intact. As the bus from the train station came into town, we got off to see the Church of Our Lady, with its brick spire rising 401.25 feet (122.3 m), making it one of the world's highest brick towers/buildings and a recent modern art sculpture that graces one side. The sculpture, Madonna of Bruges, is in the transept; it is thought to be the only sculpture by Michelangelo that left Italy during his lifetime. It was an easy stroll into the center of town where we visited the Markt, admiring the 12th century Gothic belfry and the Provincial Court, a neo-Gothic style structure. We also made our way to the Burg with its variety of European architectural styles. Gothic, renaissance, neo-classical, and Baroque styles can all be seen here.

Of course we had to see the Groeningemuseum, a municipal museum built on the site of the
Top L to R: Equestrian statues, triptych
Bottom L to R: Abbey entrance, Expressionism
medieval Eekhout Abbey. The abbey was built sometime in the 11th century but completely demolished in 1803, leaving a single door that still stands today and is the entrance to the museum. Leading up to the entrance is a garden with lovely flowers and unexpected views through arched openings in the walls. We came to see Flemish Primitive art, but were delighted by the wide range of Renaissance and Baroque masters, as well as pieces from Flemish expressionism and post-war modern art. Leaving through a different portal brought us to a garden with some modern equestrian statues. I particularly enjoyed these pieces of modern art.

On our way back to the train we stopped off at an unusual museum. Saint John’s Hospital is an 11th century hospital next to the Church of Our Lady. One of the oldest surviving hospital
Top L to R: Painting of Wards, Sculpture
Bottom L to R: Church of Our Lady, Triptych
buildings in Europe, during the Middle Ages it was where sick pilgrims and travelers came for care. Now the hospital complex holds the Hans Memling museum with triptychs and other works of art, as well as medical instruments and hospital records. I particularly liked the displays that showed the nuns working with patients on the wards.

For information on What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, go to ‘Review of Traveling through the Netherlands’. 

Top L to R: Tapestry store, Chocolate shoes
Bottom L to R: Lace shop, Giant meringues 
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