Friday, March 24th 2017
The day started with a small confusion. Usually, we book the hotel room only, without breakfast but sometimes breakfast is included in whatever deal we have chosen. We realized that we were not sure whether breakfast was included with our room or not on this trip. The obvious solution was to ask at the reception desk.
We went down in the cranky lift-without-a-door and spoke to the young man behind the desk in the miniscule reception area. We posed our question, he perused the check-in data and… yes, he said, we had included breakfast in our booking. So we went into the ‘taverne’, as the hotel calls its cafe-bar, and selected a table. We perused the menu and looked around for the waitress. Then the young man from the reception came hurrying up: no, no, no breakfast. We had not included breakfast in our booking. He had been mistaken.
That was fine, as far as we were concerned, because hotel breakfasts tend to be overly expensive and are usually not particularly suitable for vegetarians. We set out for the town centre, intending to look for a cafe on the way and have coffee and croissants. Some time later, we were still walking and still looking. Cafes were not only few and far between but those we did find were not open. Yes, on a weekday.
We ran into the same problem in Marseille (see Marseille 2015) until we discovered the lovely cafe called La Samaritaine in the port and took breakfast there every morning. The continental tradition of early-opening cafes seems to have died while I wasn’t looking. Sad.
We eventually explored the City 2 shopping centre in town and found an outlet there selling croissants and coffee. I also discovered that in Belgium, croissants are sugar-glazed, not plain as in France. You get used to it but they do tend to stick to your fingers.
Our hotel, the Frederiksborg, is beside Parc Élisabeth, at top left on the above map. The park serves two purposes, firstly as a green open space where people can jog, walk their dogs, etc and, secondly, as a ‘lid’ to a long tunnel that carries traffic out of the centre of town into the suburbs. It was by this tunnel that the taxi brought us to the hotel last night.
As this photo shows, the park is long and narrow, though it is none the worse for that. There must be a reason why it named ‘Élisabeth’ but no one is saying what this reason is.
At one end of the park is the massive Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Bruxelles. It is in Art Deco style and is reckoned to be one of the ten largest Roman Catholic churches in the world. Building began in 1905 but was interrupted by the two world wars and the basilica was completed only in 1969.
Having found breakfast, as described above, we went on a ramble, examining and photographing whatever caught our interest. One such was this church in the Rue Neuve. It rejoices in the name of Église Notre-Dame du Finistère and was built between 1708 and 1730, though the tower was topped off finally in 1828. In contradistinction to the Netherlands of which it once formed part and which today is largely Protestant, Belgium is mainly Catholic.
Though Belgium has a long history going back to pre-Roman Celtic1 times (see Wikipedia History of Belgium), the modern state dates from 1830. After the defeat of Napoleon, Europe was reshaped by the victors and the land we know as Belgium was summarily handed to the Netherlands and integrated into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Given the great differences, cultural, religious and otherwise, between the two nations, such an unnatural pairing was obviously destined not to last. In 1830 occurred a general uprising called the Belgian Revolution. The struggle succeeded and Belgium was recognized as a separate, independent nation. (Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, chosen as Belgium’s constitutional monarch, was Queen Victoria’s uncle.)
A square originally called Place Saint-Michel was redesigned in honour of those who died to free their country and was renamed Place des Martyrs. Many of those who died fighting for independence lie buried in crypts below the surface of the square. In the centre, a monument in honour of the fallen – les Martyrs – stands above the entrance to the crypt. In neo-Classical style, it was created in 1836-8.
At one end of the square is a separate monument to Frédéric de Merode (1792-1830). A member of a long established aristocratic family, he fought in the Revolution, which he help finance, but died as a result of wounds received in the fighting.
We passed the Place d’Espagne without going in but I couldn’t resist taking this photo, albeit from behind, of the valiant heroes of the novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. In the background we can see the tower of the Hôtel de Ville (town Hall). Is Don Quixote consulting Sancho on whether he should attack it as he attacked the windmills? The sculpture is a copy of part of an original in the Plaza de España in Madrid sculpted by Lorenzo Collaut Valera and was unveiled in 1989.
This is a view of the Brussels Central Station, with its memorial to staff who died in two world wars. I came into the station for a toilet break. I saw that toilets cost 50 eurocents and assumed that there would be a slot machine requiring the exact coinage. Not having a 50 cent coin I went into the bookshop where I had bought a book (Joseph Incardona, Derrière les Panneaux il y a des Hommes) and asked them to change a euro into two 50s which they gladly did. I needn’t have bothered because, in the corridor where there are the doors for the Gents and the Ladies, there was a table at which was seated a lady collecting people’s 50 cents. The piles of coins on the table left no doubt that she was willing to give change…
Incidentally, if you are out and about in Belgium and need the loo but can’t see one, try a restaurant or cafe. Many allow none customers to use their toilets but ask them in that case to pay 50 cents. That seems a very sensible arrangement to me.
This striking building is called Bâtiment Dynastie, at least, I think it is. There seems some confusion over the name, perhaps because it is part of a large complex whose parts play various roles. I have seen it referred to as the Palais des Congrès but the real Palais was demolished to allow building of a glass structure called Brussels Meeting Centre (yes, in English). Among other events, the Bâtiment hosts art exhibitions. It was built in the 1950s as part of the complex called the Mont des Arts (Hill of the Arts).
Enter through the arc, then turn and look back and you see this big clock with its 24 bells and figures from folklore and history. The best time to see it and hear it is midday when the great bell sounds 12 times after a merry tune has been played on the bells. The tunes are alternately from francophone and Flemish folklore.
On the side of the building appear some rather fine reliefs of which two are shown above. The upper one is by Alphonse Darville (1910-90) and the lower by Dolf Ledel (1893-1976).
Beside the path is a bronze sculpture by Eugène Caneel (1882-1966). This is not its first resting place or its first title. Currently called Les Enfants Dansants (‘Children Dancing’), it has also been known as Enfants au Chevrau (‘Children with a Kid’).
The Garden of the Mont des Arts is famous and while we were there gaggles of tourists were being led around and lectured to by guides. The Mont is supposed to afford a good view over the city but it’s not really high enough for that.
In the sloping street opposite the Mont, called Coudenberg (‘cold hill’ in Flemish), we spotted two beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. The one above advertises itself in luxurious gold script as Charles Delacre’s Pharmacie Anglaise (‘English Pharmacy’). Why ‘English’? I have no idea. Perhaps you had to visit the shop and see what they sold to find out the answer. It was built in the 1890s and the ground floor is now a bar but the façade remains as a sample and reminder of Belgium’s Art Nouveau treasures.
Almost next door to the pharmacy is a splendid building, partly in Art Nouveau style (as the façade exemplifies) and partly in neoclassical style, whose original name – Old England – is still proudly displayed. It was built in 1899 as a department store. I don’t know when its original role came to an end but since 2000 is has been the city’s Musée des instruments de musique (‘Museum of musical instruments’), MIM for short.
Nearby is the Place Royale whose main feature is the Église Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg (‘Church of St James on Coudenberg’). On the site there existed a monastery, the Abbaye du Coudenberg, whose origins perhaps go back to the 12th century. The name – Saint James – suggests to some that the monastery might have also provided a hostel for pilgrims on their way to St James of Compostela. The present church was built in neoclassical style in the latter part of the 18th century (though the bell tower was added in the 19th century) and designed to act as both the parish church and the abbey church. The monastery finally succumbed when Belgium was occupied by the armies of Revolutionary France who turned the building into a ‘Temple of Reason’ but later returned it the ownership of the Catholic Church.
Our major visit of the day was to one of Belgium’s most important art exhibitions. Near the Place Royale is a complex called the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (‘Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium’). Properly to visit the whole would take a long time but we were happy to confine our interest today to one part of the site, the Musée Fin-de-Siècle. Even this, extending as it does over several floors, takes some time to view in its entirety.
I cannot here give a complete description of an exhibition that covers the many styles and artists that are loosely grouped together under the umbrella of ‘Fin de Siècle’. The most I can do is show a few examples of the works I saw, hoping that it gives an idea of the whole and perhaps encourages the reader to visit these museums in person.
Each exhibit was labelled with the name of the artist and the date of completion together with helpful notes where appropriate. This information was given in three languages, French, Dutch (Flemish) and English.
This painting caused a sensation at the Salon de Bruxelles in 1875. It contrasts dignified (and sober) working class people on the left looking reprovingly at the drunken behaviour of bourgeois pleasure-seekers emerging from a night of dissipation on the right. In art terms, it is seen as a manifesto of realism.
As well as art in the conventional sense, there were furnishings too. A couple of items are shown below.
I have seen other exhibitions of art of the Fin de Siècle period but none as large and well stocked as this one. It was quite an education.
As we had only a short time in Brussels, we now hurried off to the next museum we wished to see. This was the Horta Museum, dedicated to the life and work of Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) which is sited in his house. The house itself is beautiful and exemplifies Horta’s techniques and artistic orientation. It contains a varied exhibition intended to give an overview of Horta, his work and the period in which he was operating. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed and I therefore cannot show you any pictures except for the façade of the house as seen from the street.
Having immersed ourselves in the contents of two museums, we were ready for a rest and refreshment. Where better for that than somewhere where we could enjoy a good cup of tea?
That somewhere was Tea for Two at number 394 Chaussée de Waterloo. This imitation English tea room has everything you need for a ‘proper’ cup of tea, including an extensive menu (in English) that even included my favourite, Russian Caravan. The walls are covered with shelves and cabinets containing tea and tea-making utensils for sale.
On the way back to the hotel by bus and metro, we discussed where to have our evening meal. In the end, being tired and unwilling to engage in another search, we took the easy way out and dined in the ‘taverne’ attached to our hotel. It suited our purposes and had the advantage of being but a short ride in the cranky lift from our bed.
1The Romans found the land occupied by tribes called the Belgae. Some of these Celtic proto-Belgians crossed the sea and settled in Southern England.