Thursday, September 5th 2013
Up bright and early in anticipation of our trip to Brussels, we took a bus to St Pancras, leaving ourselves plenty of time for the inevitable bag and body searches, and went to fetch our tickets. In the modern age, you buy your tickets online and in exchange receive a code number. You enter this into one of the machines at the Eurostar centre, insert your credit card (presumably to prove you are the person who bought the tickets) and the machine disgorges your boarding passes.
We were too early to check in and went next door to King’s Cross station to have a leisurely breakfast at Pret. As soon as the gates were open for our train, we went through and submitted to the wretched search procedure. Bags have to be put on the conveyor belt to go through the X-ray machine. Hat, coat, belt and anything metallic have to be removed and placed in plastic trays which follow the bags through the device. I walked through the detector gate without the alarm going off as it usually does. Having virtually undressed for the X-ray machine, you have to get dressed again but – hey! relax! – we’re on holiday!
The Eurostar train leaves on time and zips through the countryside of Kent. There is not much leg room in standard class but the journey isn’t long (it’s about 2 hours to Brussels) and I can put up with it. We stop at Ebbsfleet International and then dive under the Channel. Shortly, we emerge once more into green countryside: France! The train stops briefly at Lille. I wish we could get out for a while but there’s no time. I make do with watching and listening to the activity on the platform. That’s as near as I will get this time.
We arrive at Bruxelles Midi and take the long walk from the Eurostar to the exit. We go to the cab rank but the first driver shrugs and says “C’est tout près”. He can’t be bothered for so short a journey when other passengers probably want to go a longer distance.
A helpful young cabbie is only too happy to take us. This is where I confuse matters by saying the hotel is called Floris. Floris is actually the name of the chain and our hotel is listed as “Floris Ustel Midi”, but the sign outside just says Ustel, and that’s the name by which everyone knows it. Fortunately, I say it is in the Square de l’Aviation, which the cabbie knows perfectly well. He takes us there, then gets out of the cab and starts searching for the hotel for us! In the end he decides it must the Ustel as that’s the only hotel in the square. How much do I owe him? “Sept septante,” he replies – my first Belgian expression of the trip.
We cannot check in at the hotel until 3pm but they allow us to leave our bags. We set out on a short tour, first photographing the war memorial in the Square that is dedicated to fairground workers killed in both World Wars. We couldn’t decide whether the sword point had been broken accidentally or whether it’s broken state was intended as a symbol.
We decided to walk around the block and, as it was now 2:25pm, perhaps have lunch if something turned up. Brussels was enjoying a sudden heatwave and the thermometer was showing 31°C, encouraging lethargic movement.
Walking around the block, we found a beautiful cafe called La Ruche (The Hive), decorated in Art Nouveau style. It was run by Moroccans and so we went in and ordered mint tea.
The menu included items suitable for vegetarians so we went on to have lunch and relax a while in agreeable surroundings. After this, we went back to the hotel, checked in and flaked out on the bed. Well, walking round the block and having lunch can be tiring – not to mention the unseasonable high temperature!
LinguistIc note. Two small enclaves in Eastern Belgium speak German but the greater part is divided linguistically by a wiggly horizontal line roughly across the middle. Above the line, mainly Flemish is spoken and, below the line, mainly French. The population distribution is about 59% Flemish to 40% French. The picture is complicated by the fact that for each language there is both a region (delineated geo-politically) and a community, the totality of people who speak the particular language, and that the two do not coincide spatially. As an example of this, Brussels, which is the name of both the city and the region in which it is situated, lies above the line within the Flemish region, but is mainly French-speaking (about 85% of the permanent population speak French as their first language) and it is included in the French community.)
A further complication arises from the fact that the French-speaking region, called Wallonia, has its own language, Walloon (Walon, in the language), which is a Romance language like French, but is different from it. Walloon is not a corruption or dialect of French, but is a genuine language that has followed its own evolutionary path from Latin. It has been largely sidelined politically and culturally, despite determined efforts by its supporters to return it to a position of political and cultural importance.
There are some small differences between Belgian French and the French of France but these are insignificant. For example, the taxi driver asked me for “Sept septante” (€7.70) whereas a French taxi driver would ask for “Sept soixante-dix”. Similarly, Belgian French speakers pronounce “90” as “nonante”, whereas in France this would be “quatre-vingt-dix”. Belgians, however, pronounce “80”, like the French, as “quatre-vingt” (unlike the Swiss who have the word “huitante”). There are a few other differences, mainly in locally used terms and phrases, some the result of Flemish and German influences on the language and others being simply local variations. Accounts of these difference from the French of France are often exaggerated and should be taken with caution.
French was the official language of Belgium until 1898 when Flemish was given equal status. So how do Belgians from the different linguistic communities talk to one another? Many people are conversant in both languages but language has political significance and some speakers will have no truck with the “other” language. Increasingly in Belgium, as in Switzerland and other countries divided linguistically, English is being used as the common language. For example, many Belgian bloggers write their blogs in English to give them currency in all regions (and outside Belgium). While English is useful in the tourist market, that is not the prime motive for learning and speaking it in Belgium. It is widely in use and generally spoken to a high level of competence.
After a rest at the hotel, we went out for another tour, walking more or less at random, heading towards any part that looked interesting. We found that, as in London and other cities, in Brussels there is an active community engaged in producing wall art of various kinds, from simple “tagging” to more or less sophisticated works, often on a large scale. “Painting” does not quite do as a description because in some cases material has been added or the surface has been gouged or inscribed. However professional the original, it has often been over-painted by later contributions, perhaps of a kind more comfortably described as “tags” or “graffiti”. Am I right to see two distinct communities at work, “wall artists” and “graffiti artists”?
Parked beside painted walls was this painted van. This too seems to be a fashion that is catching on. The first “graffiti van” that we saw was in Paris (see Paris 2007 – 1) but since then they have been appearing everywhere.
We found a tunnel under a railway bridge whose walls were covered with wall paintings. It was not quite as exciting as the Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel at Waterloo (see The Graffiti Tunnel) but there was a range of works, some more professional-looking than others. All had been attacked by taggers, often to the extent that parts of the originals were obscured. No honour among graffiti artists, eh?
I was startled by this sight, the biggest wall painting I have so far seen in any city. As you can see, it stretches over six floors of the apartment block that provides a wall as its canvas. How was it painted? Did the painter or painters hang from ropes? It’s hard to see how else they could have reached that high position. The subject is unknown to me. Perhaps it is a politician or other public figure who is receiving an implied criticism.
Despite the heatwave, it was nonetheless autumn and as we roamed the city, the sun started going down, producing views like the above with bright patches of sunlight and areas of shadow. The church is Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, dating from the 13th century.
We found a small, quiet restaurant specializing in crêpes and had supper there. Note the small blackboard bearing the words “Fresh Food” in English. The crêpes were very tasty.
By the time we emerged, evening was coming on and the city was beginning to turn on the lights, revealing itself under a different aspect.
We continued our explorations and found ourselves beside the church that we had seen earlier though it was now dressed in shadows.
Quite by chance, we found ourselves in the square where a famous Brussels fountain stands. There were numerous tourists here photographing one another in front of it, making it difficult to get a clear view. The figure is the Manneken Pis, a statue of a small boy urinating into the fountain bowl. Originally sculpted in 1619, the figure decorates a fountain that was once part of the city’s drinking water system. It has become involved in the city’s folklore and history and is now an important symbol of Brussels. On special occasions, the figure is dressed in a variety of costumes and the water may be replaced with beer or wine. Having been stolen a number of times, the original statue is now locked away and the visible figure is a facsimile made in 1965.
Further along, our attention was caught by the dramatic apparition of an illuminated spire, shining silvery white against the dark sky. We made our way through the crowds towards it.
Thus we found ourselves in the big square called Grand-Place de Bruxelles (“Great/grand Square of Brussels”), which, as is suggested by its name in Flemish – Grote Markt van Brussel – was originally the market place. Today, there was no market but the centre of the square was occupied by the tents of the beer festival, restricting movement and making it hard to get photos of the buildings.
The square was full of people, inhibiting movement but everyone seemed in happy and relaxed mood so the best thing was to relax and take it easy. The Maison des Brasseurs (“Brewers’ Hall” would be our nearest equivalent) is a splendid structure. The present building is a 1698 reconstruction of the original, destroyed in a French attack a few years before. The opulence of the edifice and its decoration is testimony to the affluence of brewers. Today, the building holds the Museum of Brewery.
The Maison du Roi or Broodhuis (“Kings House or Bread House”) was rebuilt in the 19th century in the original (and again popular) Gothic style. In the 13th century, the bread market was held on this spot and this is remembered in the alternative name of Broodhuis. The building’s predecessor, which was commissioned by the Duke of Brabant as a statement of his authority and power, came to be known as the King’s House although the King never lived here nor used it. Destroyed by the French in 1695, it was restored and rebuilt in 1860. Today it houses the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles, the Museum of Brussels.
The Town Hall is a Gothic masterpiece built in the 15th century. Looking at this complex structure with its soaring spire, one can well see how the Duke of Brabant felt the need to assert his authority with a symbolic building facing it on the other side of the square.
The building is so huge, in fact, that it is difficult to get a good photo of it in its entirety. Because of the height of the tower, you need to stand well away from the structure but you then lose detail. The beer festival tents obstructing one’s movements and view don’t make it any easier.
We now turned back towards the hotel to spend our first night in Brussels, but for quite some way, the spire of the Hôtel de Villa remained visible, floating above the roofs of other buildings.
Friday, September 6th 2013
We went down to breakfast early, meaning to make the most of this, our first full day. This hotel is not as fancy as the one in Berlin and the breakfast buffet was fairly basic but we managed to find enough vegetarian items to make a meal.
To the Londoner exploring Brussels, the overhead cabling is very noticeable – matched by the rails on the ground. Brussels is a city of trams and it is a very good service. In the heart of the city, the trams run in the streets, competing with the rest of the traffic; where there is more room, they run on special lanes beside the road; in still other places, the trams run in tunnels underground, like ersatz tube trains. Not having any knowledge about travel matters, we asked for advice and eventually bought 1-day travel cards, which are valid for bus, tram and metro.
Like any long established city, Brussels has older buildings, some of them historically interesting and many of them beautiful, and newer structures, some of which are very tall, like those I deplore for spoiling London’s skyline. In Brussels, of course, it is not up to me to criticise! This remarkably smooth, square-sectioned building is called La Tour du Midi (The Midi, or South District, Tower) and it houses the Office National des Pensions.
The word midi in French means “midday” or “noon” but, because in the northern hemisphere the sun is due south at midday, midi is also used to mean south, particular as a region rather than as a direction. Bruxelles Midi (Brussel Zuid, in Flemish) is the name both of this (southern) part of of city and of the railway station within it.
It was time to try out our tickets and take a tram ride. We chose the 81 tram travelling west to Anderlecht and the end of line. The terminus of the 81 is at Le Parc des Ètangs (Ponds Park) and we went for a walk beside the water.
The park is quite a pleasant spot and has all the attributes you would expect of a park, viz trees, grass and pathways along which to stroll. In addition it has what are referred to as “ponds” (étangs) but which we would probably call “lakes”. Though shallow, these are extensive enough to support a large number of water fowl of various species. A tall fountain provides a point of interest for the eye.
We watched this little group of prettily coloured Egyptian geese grazing beside the water and realized that they were a family with parents and young now almost as big as the adults. These youngsters will no doubt go off on their own in a while but for now they join in cosily with their parents.
A crowd of ducks was resting and preening under a tree, companionably grouped together. Though they kept an eye on us, our presence didn’t seem to disturb them, showing that they are used to people strolling in the park. As well as ducks and geese, there were also coots, one of which you may be able to see in the above photo, out on the water. These small birds can be quite aggressive and don’t hesitate to fly at ducks and even geese if these come too near their young.
We took a tram back to the Midi-Saint-Gilles district of Brussels. Like public transport in London, Brussels public transport has an automatic ticketing system. It differs from our Oyster card that you just tap on the pad in that the ticket has to be dropped into an orange box. When you do this for the first time and your ticket disappears, you wonder anxiously whether it will come out again! After some whirring, it does.
Here we discovered one of the tram network’s depot-workshops. As you can see, it is vast and I am sure that tram and train enthusiasts would have a fine time exploring the place.
In Saint-Gilles, we set out to explore again but I was distracted from our purpose by the sight of this dog in the window. He was sitting quite still with an intent expression on his face, enjoying the warm sunshine. The big windows and the backing of tulle curtaining created a solarium just the right size for him. I imagine that he is often troubled by passers-by tapping on the window from the way that he carefully avoided making eye-contact!
We were now looking for a district of Brussels known for its Art Nouveau architecture. Enquiries elicited the information that we should seek out a cafe or restaurant called La Porteuse d’Eau (The Water Carrier) as that marked the place. We asked several people and were given vague directions but we gradually homed in on it. It is itself an Art Nouveau building but we didn’t investigate, as perhaps we should have done, because we expected to find a whole street of such buildings. I did wonder whether the name, La Porteuse d’Eau, had anything to do with the constellation and myth of Aquarius because, although the various Greek myths about Aquarius involve males, Aquarius is often portrayed as female in art works. It seems, though, that the name derives from that of a nearby fountain. This was installed in 1898 to mark the joining of the river Bocq to the city’s water supply and the sculptor, Julien Dillens, is said to have taken his inspiration from a young woman he saw drawing water from the Bocq to slake the thirst of the tram horses.
We did manage to see some Art Nouveau façades and I show one above. Art Nouveau, despite its French label, was a Europe-wide phenomenon, though short-lived. I think that it was taken up with more vigour in some other countries, including Belgium, than it was in Britain.
This area, incidentally, now known as St Gilles after the local church of that name, was once a village called St Gilles-lez-Bruxelles surrounded by market gardens where the famous “Brussels sprouts” were grown.
For lunch we wanted to go to a bistro called Le Faucon. We had discovered it in March 2011 when we passed through Brussels on the way back from our stay in Bruges (see Bruges 2011 – Day 4). We knew it was near to the Porte de Hal (Hallenpoort in Flemish, an easy-to-find landmark. Built in 1381 it was one of the fortified gateways of the city. I recorded more information on it in the aforementioned blog post and will not repeat that here.
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of this spider, one of several, who had constructed huge round webs in the park in which the Porte de Hal stands. It is curious to think of these two worlds, that of spiders and that of humans, running in parallel but inhabited by denizens who are barely aware of one another and their world.
We found Le Faucon without difficulty and it was as we remembered it. We enjoyed a good lunch in pleasant surroundings. You may have noticed writing along the wall above the bar, just below the ceiling. It reads “C’est plein de mémères Qui ont depuis toujours Un sein pour la bière Un sein pour l’amour” (translation is left as an exercise for the reader). You may recognize this as a verse from Bière (1968), a song by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-78). The complete lyrics can be found here.
After lunch we went for a walk through the Porte de Hal gardens where we found this unusual monument. Dedicated to the “unknown pilgrim”, it marks the place where pilgrims used to gather to start their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The stone, and a memorial plaque beside it, were presented to the city of Brussels by the regional government of Galicia. Set in the ground is a metal oyster shell, the symbol of the pilgrim.
It began to rain so we decided to go for a tram ride, getting off when the weather seemed better. We did so and found ourselves in the neighbourhood of the Botanical Garden. An unmissable landmark here is Belgium’s second tallest building, a federal government office block. Problems of various kinds resulted in delays in completing the tower which eventually opened its doors in 1983. Outside the entrance is a board which announces the building’s name, in English, as the Finance Tower.
As famous as the Finance Tower (and perhaps more so) is the sculpture in front of it. This very striking work, entitled L’Âme Sentinelle (“The Sentinel Soul”), with its erotic and violent overtones, is by the Belgian sculptor Nat Neujean. It has provoked a lot of comment and seems at first sight an unusual work to stand in front of a government building but the Belgians are much less prudish than the British in such matters.
We visited what is generally called simply “le Botanique” and what the sign boards carefully describe as “The Former Botanical Gardens” (my italics). Built in 1826-29 in the style of the 18th-century orangery and enlarged several times during the 19th century, the gardens have been damaged and reduced in size as a result of major road rebuilding. The gardens have been restored and “le Botanique” also provides a home for the Cultural Centre of the French-speaking community of Brussels and Wallonia.
Nowadays, this amenity impresses more as a park in Classical formal style, rather than as a botanical garden in the strict sense of the word. It is a place in which to stroll or sit, relaxing in the calm atmosphere of plants, trees and shrubs, enlivened by a fountain. Noteworthy are the sculptures which decorate the garden.
The sculptures are mostly in the Classical vein but I liked this lively representation in bronze of a panther. If it looks rather wild the treatment is nonetheless sympathetic. Jean Gaspar (1861-1931) started to train as an engineer and passed his first professional examinations but became enamoured of art and persuaded the Belgian sculptor Jef Lambeaux to accept him as an apprentice. Jean’s brother Charles (1871-1950) was also of an artistic disposition but his chosen field was the then young art of photography.
We walked along the Rue Royale, so called because it was the route to the royal palace. There we saw the Èglise Royale Sainte-Marie (Saint Mary’s Royal Church) and, feeling in need of refreshment, looked around for a cafe. We found a “taverne” in Art Nouveau style and of course decided to explore. This turned out to be the famous Hôtel Cohn-Donnay which is such a treasure house that I have dedicated a separate post to it, also under this date.
By the time we arrived at Bruxelles-Nord (Brussel Noord) station, we felt like returning to the hotel for a rest ready for a further expedition later on. We thought to take the train back to the centre but it turned out that our day tickets didn’t work work for trains, so we took the tram instead.
We rested and made tea at the hotel and then around 7 pm went out again. While wandering around the Groot Markt yesterday, we’d seen an Indian restaurant and now decided to go there for dinner. Afterwards, we set off to visit another famous landmark of Brussels. To get there, we took a tram on route 3 to its terminus at a stop called Esplanade. By now, the daylight was fading, darkening the sky and the surroundings.
From the tram stop we walked in semi-darkness, the street lights being few and far between, but eventually saw our quarry across a car park. This was the Atomium, a strange and wonderful structure that might almost be regarded as the Eiffel Tower of Brussels.
From the narrow dark path we had taken from the tram stop, we now found ourselves on a well lit avenue that let straight to the Atomium. Every view was more impressive than the preceding one.
The Atomium is described as a monument but it could be called many things. It was built for Expo 58, the World’s Fair held in Brussels in 1958, and the design is of 9 spheres joined in a sort of matrix by arms. An urban myth was circulated claiming that the nine spheres represented the nine provinces of Belgium (since 1995 there have been ten) but this is incorrect.
The Atomium in fact represents a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Designed by André Waterkeyn, it is the only building left from Expo 58. The hollow spheres, originally covered in aluminium, now in stainless steel, are hollow, as are the tubes, and can be visited by the public. They are 18 metres in diameter. The whole structure stands 102 metres high.
The top sphere contains a restaurant and the lowest is an exhibition hall. We were unable to visit it because it was closed at this late hour. Another time, perhaps.
When it was time to return home, we looked for a tram stop as we were now the other side of the Atomium from Esplanade. We found that the Heysel football stadium was nearby and that fans were pouring out looking for transport home. Uh-oh. As is often the case in such circumstances, most of the entrances to the tram station were closed so that the police could monitor the comings and going more easily. We eventually found our way to a tram which was packed. It stood there for some time as more and more people boarded.
We decided to change trams at De Wand and it was a good move as most of the fans stayed aboard the first tram and the rest of our journey was more comfortable.
Content with our day, we returned to our hotel, made tea and took a well deserved rest. What adventures await tomorrow?
Friday, September 6th 2013
The Cohn-Donnay House
We discovered this unusual Art Nouveau house on our wanderings through Brussels today and visited it. Normally, I would include a description of such a visit in the account of our activities for the day in question but as this house is so beautiful and historically important, and I took so many photos, I have thought to give it a post of its own. The Cohn-Donnay House (Hôtel Cohn-Donnay) is an Art Nouveau gem in the heart of Brussels and I hope it will be looked after and treated with the respect and care that it deserves. Its transfer to business use – a brasserie-restaurant – is a little alarming in this regard. Ideally, it needs to be set aside and preserved, perhaps as a museum.
There are information panels succinctly explaining how the house was transformed in the Art Nouveau style and by whom, and I repeat their text below in both the French original and English translation.
Cette maison de maître de 1841 fut réaménagée dans le style Art nouveau par l’architecte Paul Hamesse en 1904. Sa remarquable intervention se limite pour la façade à l’élégant bow-window et au balcon qui le surmonte. Pour l’intérieur, il conçut avec goût un mobilier parfaitement intégré à l’architecture. Hall d’entrée, salles de billard et de jeu d’échecs, salon, salle à manger, “salon de poésie” … chaque pièce de l’habitation a son propre caractère, tantôt influencé par la Wiener Secession, tantôt par Mackintosh. Aujourd’hui, brasserie-restaurant: l’Ultieme Hallucinatie.
This large town house from 1841 was redone in the Art nouveau style in 1904 by the architect Paul Hamesse. His remarkable changes to the façade were limited to the elegant bow-window and the balcony above it. Inside, he tastefully designed furniture which was perfectly integrated with the architecture. Entrance hall, billiard and chess-board rooms, sitting room, dining room, “poetry room” … each room in the house has its own character, at times influences [sic] by the Wiener Secession, at times by Mackintosh. Today, it is the brasserie-restaurant l’Ultieme Halluciatie.
The building is called Hôtel Cohn-Donnay (in this context, “hôtel” simply means a grand house, not a hotel in the English sense) and is in the Rue Royale or Koningsstraat near the Église Royale Sainte-Marie (St Mary’s Royal Church). As the French text explains, and the English slightly mistranslates, despite the great changes within the house, the architect Paul Hamesse altered the façade relatively little, being content to add an enclosed terrace or bow-window at first-floor level, topped with a balcony with a delicately fashioned railing. When the green paint was applied I do not know, but I assume it is recent.
The entrance hall is relatively understated, though when you look closely you start to see Art Nouveau details, such as the pattern on the wallpaper. Apart from the lettering above the door (TAVERNE RESTAURANT), it feels more like the entrance to a house than to a restaurant .
As you enter the first room from the passageway, you see a glass and wrought-iron chandelier. The style is unmistakeable.
This sitting room would have seemed the dernier cri of modern design to both its owners and their visitors. The stained glass windows are decorated with Art Nouveau motifs and the central panes of glass were of enormous size for the time. It may be hard for us now to realize how visitors, used to 19th century style, would have experienced “the shock of the new” on entering this room.
As the quoted information panels say, each room is different and designed with its unique character. This ceiling, in a corridor, is one of the more elaborate, having a moulded pattern where others are painted. I think I see influences of Rennie Mackintosh here. For example, the flower motif, though different from Rennie Mackintosh’s signature rose, is, to my eyes, reminiscent of it. I would not be at all surprised to see this ceiling in a house designed by the Scottish master.
This metal screen has as its motif a stylized tree before which stand two birds in a mirror-image configuration. I am not sure what the birds are but think they could be pelicans. There are other examples in the house of mirror-image pairs of birds (e.g. see below). This screen also bears a couple of highly stylized flowers which are very similar indeed to the Rennie Mackintosh rose (for an example, see here).
As the designation “Brasserie Restaurant” indicates, there are two public areas, a dining room and a bar or brasserie. We were seated in the latter while we took coffee. I am not sure of the history of this area. The “windows” along the bar look suspiciously Art Nouveau (being the same as genuine outdoor windows in the courtyard) and you can see behind it a part of the ceiling I pictured earlier. That suggests the corridor at least was always there. I don’t know, then, whether the seating area has been added or is perhaps a courtyard that has been covered over. There is no information to help me.
Although the dining room was not in use at this hour, the patronne kindly allowed us to go in and look around. The decor was original and it was full of original furniture, pictures and ornaments. While this was good to see and interesting, I wince to think of these things being used daily in a commercial enterprise, being knocked, scratched and stained by spillage as must inevitably happen. Brussels and Belgium risk losing a valuable Art Nouveau treasure.
The ceiling, painted in brown and gold, has a sober but elegant and very (sorry, but I have to say it again!) typical Art Nouveau design that fits in with the general dark decor of this room. It’s hard to know now the original purpose of each room but the original dining room could very well have been here, as suggested by some of the items of furniture.
Not wishing to intrude for too long, we had relatively little time to take it all in but I think that in this room alone, with the decor, the furniture, the pictures and the decorative items (note the clock on top of the sideboard), there would be material for a catalogue of Art Nouveau art and design.
The bar overflows into a small courtyard and at the back of this stands an extraordinary building. I have called it the summerhouse but I don’t know for what purpose it was made. In some ways it resembles a Classical temple but the delicate fretwork (so delicate that it has broken away in some places) superimposes another feeling. The patronne invited me to go in and have a look. I needed no second prompting!
There was no vantage point from which one could take a complete view of the interior and I had to make do with partial views. The columns continue the Greek or Classical theme but other details depart from that style. The miracle is that it all fits together in some strange way.
It is Greek architecture seen through the eyes of an Art Nouveau artist. Perhaps we also see something of the feeling of the Pre Raphaelites but in a rather muted way. What strikes me about the stained glass and about the dome below is…
…that, surely, there should be light shining through them? Are these windows that have been covered over (perhaps to protect them) or were they designed to be illuminated with electric light? A greater mystery is: what was this building designed for? Was it indeed an elaborate summer house or was it more than that? I asked the patronne what the original purpose of the room was and she replied drily that she had no knowledge of the history of the house.
As we were leaving, I spotted another mirror-image pair of birds, this time on a fire screen in the entrance. I had missed it on the way in, partly obscured as it was by a rack of pamphlets. Although similar, these birds are different from the bird pair I pictured above.
Even as we stepped outside, two more items came to our notice, firstly the combined door knocker and letter box and, secondly, the button for the doorbell. This shows that Hamesse, like Rennie Mackintosh, did a complete job. No detail was too small for his attention and everything had to contribute to the design scheme. Nothing was bought off the shelf.
Because we were admitted as customers, we saw only the parts of the house that were open to customers. The rest of the building, with its many rooms, remains unknown. Are those rooms still furnished and decorated as by Hamesse or has time and fashion taken its toll and altered everything? I do not know. What I can say, however, is that what is visible on the ground floor is already a treasure and it deserves to be looked after. If it is allowed to decay and suffer wear, that treasure will be lost.
I say this, not to criticise – that is far from my mind – but in the hope that if any Belgians, especially Bruxellois, read this, they will be encouraged to take action to preserve the Cohn-Donnay House for present and future generations to admire and enjoy. It is part of their heritage.
Thursday, September 7th 2013
Today is my birthday and we have planned a trip to the seaside. There is a famous old tram route running along the coast and we hope to ride on this. We needed to take the train to reach the start of the tram track and after a quick breakfast, set out for Bruxelles-Midi station.
The rules allow that if you buy return tickets to the coast, you can return from any coastal station, not just the one you travelled to. Thus, we are travelling to Knokke, at the eastern end of the tram route, and returning from De Panne at the western end. There is a train every hour and we took the 9:26.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, double-decked trains run on several routes and our train was one such. We found seats on the upper level which gives better views of the surrounding countryside.
Knokke, or Knokke-Heist, seems to be a pleasant enough coastal town and a popular destination with tourists. We did not tarry long there and so could not get more than a passing impression of it.
A sleepy backwater it is not. The streets were busy and the shops full of customers. The sun was now shining and that helped to give a good impression of the town. We stopped briefly to photograph the stadhuis, or town hall, but I was not able to find out anything about it.
We walked through the town on our way to find the terminus of the coastal tram. We thus saw what we saw of it by chance and not by design. At the war memorial, a number of flags were being flown. They all seemed standard except the Union Flag which, as you can probably see from the photo, is a bad copy. The colours are wrong and the flag seems to have been made locally by people unaware of the importance of the broad and narrow white lines. (See here.)
On a traffic island at a crossroads stood this imposing pair of figures. Despite the lack of detailing, the gestures seem well caught and naturalistic. I wasn’t able to find out the title of the name of the artist.
The Coastal Tram (De Kusttram) runs for about 60 km along Belgium’s sea coast. It is a continuous and frequent service and you can travel the whole length at one go or break your journey at any of the stops. As Knokke is a terminus, there was plenty of room on the tram. Everyone else chose the seats along the sides of the carriages but we opted with the curved seat right at the back of the tram. Here we had plenty of room and could easily turn one way or the other to see the sights.
With many stops along the route and no prior knowledge to guide us, we had to choose at random. We broke our journey first at Blankenberge.
Blankenberge turned out to be a pleasant seaside town with a beach and all the usual seaside amenities, though without the more raucous elements.
The town as a whole gave a clean and elegant impression. It called to mind the seaside towns along the Channel coast of France, such as Le Touquet, which are, after all, but a few miles to the west. Nonetheless, it had its own very (Flemish) Belgian character.
I was intrigued by the amount of public art in the squares and streets. Blankenberge obviously loves its sculpture and it is of a high standard. I include just a few samples above.
In the square in front of the Church of Saint Roch (Sint-Rochuskerk) was an exhibition of sculptures by Belgian sculptor Irénée Duriez. These bronzes are very fine. This artist specializes in female figures and these were very lifelike and naturalistic. I suspect that Duriez is not widely known outside Belgium but you can find more information on his Web site (English version).
Taking to the tram again, we stopped off at the ferry port of Ostend. Previously, I have known this town merely as a staging post to other places but now I was looking at it for its own sake, albeit for a short time. We visited (and photographed) the magnificent railway station. Feeling in need of refreshment, we looked around and…
…found this permanently parked train carriage that had been converted into a cafe. It was used both by station staff and by casual visitors such as ourselves.
As Ostend is a seaport, it was not unexpected to find that it had a marina in which were moored the usual assortment of often luxurious yachts.
We broke our journey once more, this time at the little town of Nieuwpoort. It has been from ancient times a fishing village and fish market, though I am uncertain whether it still operates as such. It seems a pleasant enough little town with a few historic buildings though, as the information on them was in Dutch, I was unable to determine exactly what they were!
We at last arrived at the western terminal of the tram track in a town called De Panne. Larger than Nieuwpoort, it too seems a quiet and pleasant place. We retired to a cafe restaurant (on the corner in the above photo) for supper) and then, as we had time to spare before our train back to Brussels, took a brief tour of the town.
We confined our attention to the area around the station and so probably missed the more famous and sought-after parts of town. For example, De Panne (or La Panne, as it is known in French) has a fine beach and is a favourite with visitors from just over the border in France. This may be an explanation of a mystery. While we were having supper, we saw slowly crawling queues of cars, most of them with Netherlands registration plates, going past the cafe to the main road. These were possibly people from the Netherlands returning home after a visit to the beach, though I am not entirely satisfied with that explanation.
It is in Belgium that some of the bloodiest battles of two world wars were fought and it is unsurprising, though enduringly sad, to come across its many military cemeteries. We found this one near the church.
The serried rows of virtually identical close-set tombstones brings home the terrible waste of life brought about by war. While most of the gravestones indicated Belgian dead, eleven were British, creating, in the words of Rupert Brooke, a “corner of the foreign field That is for ever England.”
Now, however, it was time to make our way to the small but handsome railway station to catch our train back to Brussels.
The journey back from De Panne was long and tedious, much longer then the journey from Brussels to Knokke. The train stopped more often at small stations so it was a relief when it at last pulled into Bruxelles Midi. Back at the hotel, the card again failed to open our room door and Tigger took it to reception to be reprogrammed. This was all the more annoying because it had been kept in a metal card case to protect it from interference. Once in the room, we made tea and this cheered us up.
This has been the best day of an admittedly short tour and if ever we return the Belgium, the coastal tram will be on our list of things to do though we will do it in the reverse direction because we think it is better to start with the long and tedious journey to De Panne and end at Knokke, where there are more facilities and a shorter ride back to Brussels.
Linguistic note: the coastal region is north of the linguistic dividing line and so the language spoken here is Flemish. Unlike the situation in Brussels, signage is not bilingual in this region and is usually only in Flemish. However, people in service roles normally also speak French and English (and other languages as well). Information about tram and train services is likely to be displayed only in Flemish.
Sunday, September 8th 2013
This is our last day in Brussels and the main item on the agenda is the journey back to London but Tigger wants to visit a Moroccan cafe that we discovered on a previous trip and enjoy some of their mint tea.
The hotel breakfast was as uninspiring as ever and there was a shock waiting for me at the reception when I went to check out: they charged me €15 euros “city tax”! This was an unexpected expense as no one had mentioned it at any point until now. We left our bags in the keeping of the hotel and went out for our last look around.
I was intrigued by this building that advertises a sponge and chamois leather import business. The style suggests it was founded early in the 20th century and it looks as though it has come down in the world: the building looks a little sad as does the poor old clock, no longer in working order. To judge from the tattered typed labels beside the bell buttons, the family still lives here. It seems that Brussels, and Belgium as a whole, took to Art Nouveau and Art Deco more wholeheartedly than did the UK and many examples remain as well as styles deriving from these movements.
We found our Moroccan cafe but it was now called “Salon de Thé Bounja”, though the old name was still displayed outside. It was under new management and was changed inside.
After our brief final exploration, we returned to the hotel to collect our bags and then walked to the station. There we settled in a cafe and ordered iced tea. We had about two and a half hours before departure time and Tigger had a few minor purchases to make – presents for friends and colleagues.
Being non-alcoholic, I usually drink coffee or tea when I am out and about. The unexpected heat wave in Brussels caused me to think again, though, and I adopted Tigger’s idea of iced tea. This became “the drink of the tour”. The sort of concoction I mean is the one sold in plastic bottles in cafes and shops, usually made by Lipton. Depending where you go, they may serve it “straight” – just pouring it into a glass – or they might add ice and/or a slice of lemon. Prices vary according to how it is served and how posh the establishment is.
We ordered iced tea (here they served us the bottles with plastic cups reversed on top) and settled down to watch the world go by. At 10:30, we went to the nearby “Channel Terminal” and then waited until boarding began at about 11:45. Eurostar boarding formalities are quick and relaxed which is a little strange when you compare them with airport boarding facilities. Do they suppose that terrorists and smugglers all take the the plane and avoid the train?
The train took us out of Bruxelles-Midi for the last time. We sat and watched as first the Belgian, then the French countryside unfurled past the train windows. Passage through the Channel Tunnel always seems longer than you remember it to be. We emerged into sunshine and towers of white clouds. Then we ran into rain which rattled on the windows like a shower of dried peas. Another tunnel – a short one, this time – and we are again out in a countryside lit by sun and shaded by banks of white cloud.
The train reaches St Pancras at last and we walk out into London rain, a wet welcome home. A number 73 bus carries us up the road to the Angel and home. Only one thing is missing – Freya – but I will fetch her home tomorrow. For now we make tea and start sorting out our photos.
We had passed through Brussels on two previous occasions and found it interesting enough to want to make a longer visit. I am glad that we did and I have enjoyed our time there. Perhaps we will return another day, though there are other cities and regions in Belgium with a claim on our attention. Brussels, though, only two hours from London by Eurostar, will always be there to tempt us.