Thursday, March 23rd 2017
This trip to Brussels is in celebration of Tigger’s birthday. We shall be staying for three nights, returning to London on Sunday. Our last visit to the Belgian capital was back in 2013 (see Brussels 2013) and we felt it was time we renewed our acquaintance with it.
Belgium has had a complex history within Europe (e.g. see here and here). As a result, a number of languages are spoken within its borders. The main four are Flemish (a variety of Dutch), French, German and Walloon (a romance language related to French but derived independently from Vulgar Latin). The first two are the official languages of their respective regions, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. For a more detailed description of the linguistic divide, see the Linguistic note in Brussels 2013.
The geopolitical situation of Brussels is a little strange. The Brussels-Capital Region to which it belongs resides entirely within Flanders and Brussels, as the nation’s capital, is therefore nominally bilingual so that Flemish and French have equal status here. In practice, though, French is the dominant tongue, spoken as their first language by something like 85% of the population. Brussels is a member of the French-speaking community but separated from it within Flanders.
Though French is the universal medium of expression in Brussels, you never for a moment think you are in France. The people, the culture and the general ‘feel’ of the place are quite different. Brussels has a character of its own. With rare exceptions, I found the people courteous, friendly and helpful. As is usual throughout Europe today, English is widely spoken as a second language but it is definitely an advantage if you speak French.
Tigger had to go to work today so we could start out only in the evening. We had tickets for the 19:34 Eurostar, calling at Lille and Brussels. We were due to reach Bruxelles Midi station at 22:38 local time (one hour ahead of UK time). The journey passed without incident and as all the baggage and passport control procedures had been completed in London, we could leave the train and walk out of the station without hindrance. Outside the station we found a queue for taxis. There were also unofficial taxi touts but we avoided these. The cab ride to the hotel took longer than I expected and was quite expensive, around €30. (A weakened pound ensured that we received only €1.02 per pound.)
We had booked a room at the Hôtel Frederiksborg in Avenue Broustin. A couple of days before our trip I looked at the hotel information and saw that they close at 23:00. Realizing that we would probably not reach them by that time, I sent them an email asking how to proceed. I never received a reply to that email and so telephoned them the day before we were to leave. They told me I should ring the doorbell and someone would let us in.
When we arrived, the hotel was locked up tight, so we went in search of the doorbell. We found it at a side entrance and gave it a long, hard press. Nothing seemed to happen and so, after a while, we pressed it again. We could see through the glass door panels into the hallway and I noticed that on the right was a metal shutter reaching down to the floor and that this was very slowly rising up. Once the shutter was open, they came and let us into the tiny reception area previously hidden behind it.
After checking in, we took the lift to the third floor where our room is. The lift is so small that we could barely fit both of us into it with our bags. Not only that, but the lift does not have a door of its own, so we had to be careful not to touch the wall as the lift went up.
The room is quite small and the bed takes up most of it. Behind me in the photograph is the small bathroom and toilet (or what the smart people call the ‘On Sweet’). Getting in and out of the shower is an art in itself. The room is very warm but there doesn’t seem to be any source of heat. We regulate the temperature by opening and closing the window!
But let us be positive: there are enough power points to keep our gadgets charged and a table or sideboard on which to put our kettle and tea cups. With that and a reasonably comfortable bed, what else do you need?
What’s in a name?
There’s no doubt that Brussels is an ancient settlement but just how ancient isn’t known for certain. Some cite a reference by the Bishop of Cambrai in 695 to a hamlet he called Brosella but others think that may in fact refer to Broxeele in Northern France.
The generally accepted etymology of the name of Brussels sees it as a combination of Dutch words broek (‘marsh’) and sele or zele (‘house’ or ‘home’). For its founders, then, it was their ‘home in the marsh’. For us, over the next few days, it will be our home in the fascinating country of Belgium.
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.
Saturday, March 25th 2017
This map shows where today’s expedition took us and the next one gives some idea of the area we explored.
We first came to Blankenberge in 2013 when exploring Belgium’s sea coast by tram (see Brussels 2013). Blankenberge is a seaside town, well known for its amenities and pleasant aspect, a good place to spend a sunny day. It is also fascinating for its beautiful buildings, many of them designed or decorated in Art Nouveau style, which date from its heyday during the Belle Époque. It was mainly these we had come to see and the Belle Epoque Centrum, the museum that commemorates that happy period.
Blankenberge lies on the coast of the North Sea and is in West Flanders. The language spoken there is Flemish but we had no problem conversing either in English or French. The population seems virtually tri-lingual! We met the same friendliness and courtesy that we have found in Brussels.
Our first contact with the people, so to speak, was when we took refreshment in a cafe called Chopin.
After this pleasant interlude, we continued our explorations and here we are looking along Kerkstraat (‘Church Street’).
Next, we walked up Molenstraat (‘Mill Street’) where we found a piece of public art.
It is entitled Meisjes op bank (‘Girl on bench’) and is by Hanneke Beaumont.
At the top of Molenstraat is a square fronting Sint-Rochiskerk, the Church of St Roch, dating from the 1880s. The last time we were here, there was an exhibition of sculptures by Belgian sculptor Irénée Duriez in the square but today it was empty.
Running beside the church is a street called Elisabethstraat which contains a number of fine houses dating from the Belle Époque. We had come to see three of these in particular because they have been combined to form the Belle Epoque Centrum which we hoped to visit. (Though ‘Belle Époque’ has an accent in French, this is left off in the name of the Centrum and other places where the Dutch language is used. I have therefore included the accent or left it off as the context indicates.)
It turned out that we had slightly miscalculated because the Centrum opens only at 2pm and we were too early. I took a photo of the handsome Hotel Belle Epoque and then we went to have a look at the seafront.
This view along the beach shows the pier in the background. A pier would have been a must-have feature in a town that was developing itself as a major seaside resort. The pier is called Pier van Blankenberge and Jetée de Blankenberge in Dutch and French, respectively, but when it comes to English, a grander name is applied: the Belgium Pier! The original, built of cast iron in 1894 no longer exists, having fallen victim to the war in 1914. A concrete replacement was erected in 1933 but the present pier dates from 2003. We did not visit it this time but perhaps will manage to do so on another occasion.
The beach is clean and well kept and, to me at least, evokes a feeling of yesteryear. One almost expects Monsieur Hulot to come charging out of one of the beach huts, ready to plunge with gusto into the sea.
We turned inland again, thinking for have lunch and, on passing through Manitobaplein (‘Manitoba Square’), I photographed the finely modelled façade of the Hotel Manitoba.
Back in Molenstraat, we found a courtyard and within it the entrance to a cafe-restaurant called Taverne Edenhof. Here we spent an agreeable hour over lunch.
The Belle Epoque Centrum was now open and so we entered, bought our tickets and proceeded to view the exhibition. The recommended route is to take the lift to the top of the building and work your way down. Three adjacent houses have been combined to make the museum. The museum’s own introduction is as follows.
The Belle Epoque is not a style period in the arts but a period from 1870 to 1914. During the Belle Epoque period Blankenberge gained European recognition as a seaside resort.
These three Belle Epoque villas date from 1894 and are built to plans by the Antwerp architect-contractor Hendrik Van Gastel. Initially this was a set of four narrow middle class houses in mirror image. Three villas were restored to their original state and turned into an information and visitor centre where people can learn about the glory of the Belle Epoque (1870-1914) in an interactive way.
The exhibition covers a wide range of topics in art, design and the life of the times. I cannot give a complete report of all this here and will content myself with providing a few visual samples. We started on the roof terrace.
On the terrace is displayed a stained glass window from one of the component villas. The tower of Sint-Rochuskerk is seen in the background.
The mosaic sofa is made with tiles from Belle Epoque villas and is very pretty to look at if a little hard on one’s derrière.
This reconstituted section of tiled flooring was original on the terrace of one of the constituent villas.
Period Dress for Women
(Left) Ball gown with bustle (in fashion up to 1890)
(Centre) How a woman would appear with a tightly laced corset
(Right) ‘Ball gown for the liberated woman’ (influence of Suffragette movement post 1903)
This display gives a glimpse of women’s clothing during the period under scrutiny. The ball gown with a bustle would be difficult enough to manage but imagine the discomfort increased by the wearer being tightly laced into a corset designed to make her waist seem impossibly slender. It is unsurprising that fainting fits were common among women of the time. The rise of the Suffragette movement did more than (eventually) give women the vote: it began a process of re-evaluation of the status and rights of women and their relationships with men. The hated corset was dispensed with and women’s clothes became looser and more comfortable, as exemplified by the red gown.
This photographer obviously counts the wealthy and influential among his customers and feels the need to dress accordingly to avoid embarrassment. Should I dress like this when out taking photos? If I did, I would attract the sort of attention that I am at pains to avoid…
Many of the exhibits feature beautiful ceramic work, from the mosaic sofa through the floor tiles to the cabinet shown above which contains a set of beautiful tiles used for decoration of house interiors and exteriors. The name plate with its fanciful plant motif provides a sample of the imaginative fonts that proliferated particularly during the Art Nouveau period.
These hall stands combine delicacy and apparent fragility with elegance.
The plant is a fern rather than the much (and unjustly) scorned aspidistra but the plant holder is a fine piece of work featuring what I believe is intended to be a griffin rather than a dragon. (A griffin traditionally features the body of a lion with the head of an eagle.)
These stained glass windows were once in place in the constituent villas. Work of this quality and creative beauty is not usually seen today, no doubt because the cost would be prohibitive. We are lucky that such examples remain to be enjoyed by us still today.
Leaving the Centrum, we began making our way slowly back to the station but keeping our eyes open and admiring the many examples of beautiful house façades encountered along the way. Blankenberge is a treasure house of Belle Époque, Art Nouveau and eclectic styles of building and decoration.
We stopped for refreshment at Bolly’s Grill. The temperature in Belgium is a few degrees higher than in London, making cold drinks welcome whereas at home we would probably prefer tea or coffee. When we are in Europe, our favourite drink is ice(d) tea, usually Lipton Ice. We seem to develop a passion for it perhaps because we have unconsciously come to associate ice tea with being in Europe.
One of the consequences of the increasing use of English as a world lingua franca is that businesses on the Continent use English much as we once used French in the UK for its supposed cachet. The difference, I think, is that, whereas the English used French to give themselves an air of superiority and sophistication, English is used on the Continent today in the opposite way, to indicate what is popular and trendy. And, I insist, the English that is used throughout Europe is British English, not the American variety.
And so, finally, to Blankenberge Station to catch our train back to Brussels. The railway reached this seaside retreat in 1863 though the station building is obviously of much later date. The line passes through the city of Bruges (Brugge) that we visited in 2011 (see Bruges 2011), recalling happy memories.
The Belgian Railway, SNCB (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges) or NMBS (Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen), is nationalized, unlike the ridiculous mess that is the British railway system. Our experiences of it has so far proved positive. Many trains in Belgium (as in the Netherlands) are double deckers, which not only increases capacity but means that you have a good view of the landscape if you can find a seat on the upper deck.
On our first trip to Blankenberge (see Brussels 2013, September 7th), we made a note then to return. We have done so and our second visit proved as rewarding as the first.
Sunday, March 26th 2017
This was our last day in Brussels and as our train was to leave at 11:56, there was not much time to do anything apart from pack up and make our way to Bruxelles Midi Station, our point of departure. The clocks changed to Summer Time during the night, meaning that we have had one hour less sleep. On the other hand we would gain an hour on returning to London because the UK is on Western European Time which remains one hour behind Central European Time.
Having washed and dressed and packed, we left our small, slightly mis-shapen room for the last time. Cramming ourselves and our bags into the cranky lift-without-a-door, we let it transport us to the ground floor. There we met a manager we had not seen before and checked out in the small reception area.
Brussels has a very good public transport system, run by a company called the STIB, which stands for Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company). The best way to to pay fares is to use the electronic smart card called MOBIB. This acronym stands for MOBility In Belgium (yes, they name it in English). You can buy MOBIB cards from ticket machines at stations or at ticket offices with human clerks. There are cards valid for various periods and I think there is also a personal version that can be recharged like the Oyster Card used in London.
We had already bought 48-hour MOBIB cards for travelling around on Friday and Saturday and last night we bought MOBIB cards to take us to the station this morning. For a few euros you get a card that is valid on all public transport (buses, trams and metro) for one hour from the moment that you first touch in on any vehicle.
Tigger knows I tend to become anxious if we tarry in going to the station so proposed that we make our way there straightaway. We could have breakfast at the station.
We went to the stop on Avenue des Gloires Nationales (National Glories Avenue) and caught a number 87 bus. This took us to a station called Simonis where we changed to the metro. It was a short ride from there to Bruxelles Midi train station. The only problem was that on this large metro station, although there were abundant signs directing you to street level and to other metro lines, there was absolutely no sign indicating the way to the train station, a strange lapsus. In the end, I had to ask a couple of metro employees.
Having arrived at our destination, the first thing to do was to locate Eurostar Departures. They had sent us an email saying that it had been moved from its normal position to a temporary location and we wanted to make sure we knew where it was. In the event, it was not difficult to find as it was well signposted.
We now had plenty of time for breakfast before facing the travails of the baggage search and passport control. We knew where to go for breakfast as we had been there before.
Sam’s cafe has seating inside and ‘outside’ on the station concourse. You order at the counter and then find a vacant table or, as in our case, one of you finds the table while the other buys the breakfast. We had coffee and our last sugar-glazed Belgian croissants.
We relaxed and watched the people going by and the activities of a busy urban station. I have become fond of Brussels and its inhabitants and was a little sorry to be leaving. Everyone I talked to was polite, friendly and helpful. One specific case stands out and I will recount it.
Having finished breakfast, we decided we should report to Eurostar Departures, knowing that you need to get there in good time in order to complete the formalities. However, by the time we had been through the baggage search (much less rigorous and fussy than when you travel by air) and passport control (both the Belgian and the British), we still had some time to wait.
At last the platform of our train was announced and we all progressed up the moving carpet and set about finding our reserved seats. The train stopped only at Lille and then at St Pancras International. Somehow, the train gives less of a sense of international travel that flying does. I had to remind myself ‘Now we are travelling through France’ and then ‘Now we are travelling through Southern England’. Disembarking at St Pancras and following the tortuous route to the exit, it almost seemed as though we hadn’t been away.
But we had. And we had seen some very interesting places and met some very pleasant people and I look forward to doing it again in the not too distant future.