Friday, March 23rd 2018
Tigger’s birthday falls during this weekend and to celebrate it we are making a short trip to Brussels. We ‘discovered’ Brussels in August 2008 when we passed through it on the way to Waterloo on a courier run for Tigger’s firm (see A trip to Waterloo). We thought it looked interesting and that we should visit it properly one day. We passed through it again on our trip to Bruges in 2011 and made our first ‘proper’ visit in 2013 (see Brussels 2013). We returned in 2017 (see Brussels 2017) and by now I had decided that Brussels was one of my favourite cities. I was therefore looking forward to this trip and I can say (spoiler alert!) that I was not disappointed.
To the monolingual British, Brussels may seem a strange place. As the capital of Belgium, it is theoretically bilingual in the nation’s two main languages, French and Flemish. Street signs and public notices are written in both languages but with 85% of the population being francophone, the French language is dominant. (For more details, see my Linguistic note in Brussels 2013.) If you speak French, you will feel quite comfortable there but if not, English is the next best language to use as it is widely spoken to a high degree of competence.
Getting to Brussels from the Angel, Islington, is easy: walk or take to bus to St Pancras International Station and board a Eurostar service that goes to Brussels direct. Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:04 and was due to reach Brussels at 11:05 local time (10:05 London time). A slight complication is that the clocks go forward this weekend. This means that we must advance our clocks one hour on arrival in Brussels, advance them another hour on Sunday morning and then push them back one hour on returning to London!
A note on the name of Brussels. In Flemish, it is written Brussel (without a final ‘s’) and in French, Bruxelles. The Flemish version is pronounced much as you would expect (click here to hear it pronounced) but there is argument over the pronunciation of the French version. Some people, mainly non-Belgians, pronounce the ‘x’ as ‘ks’, but the consensus among Francophone Belgians is that the ‘x’ is pronounced like ‘ss’ (click here to hear it pronounced).
Our passports were checked by British and French immigration officers in London prior to boarding the train so that on arrival at Bruxelles Midi station there were no formalities. We simply left the train and walked off into the town. We wandered around for a while looking for somewhere to have lunch and eventually plumped for a bistro near the station. Afterwards, we returned to the station to take a taxi to our hotel. This was the Ibis Brussels City Centre, a rather bland name for a rather bland hotel.
The room turned out to be very small with a very small ensuite containing a miniscule shower unit. As we are spending only two nights here we are not letting it bother us. The bed is comfortable and there are plenty of power points for recharging our electronic devices. After making tea and having a little rest, we set out on our first visit to the town.
A close neighbour of our hotel is the Church of Saint Catherine of Brussels. If this were an English church we would describe it as Victorian because it was built between 1854 and 1874 but such a designation does not seem appropriate for a Belgian church.
Near the hotel is this unusual monument. By Patrick Rimoux, it was unveiled in 1996 and celebrates the centenary of the cinema with special reference to the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau, after whom the street is also named. Plateau is credited as being one of the first to produce moving images (see here).
One of the pleasures of exploring Brussels is viewing the buildings. There is a broad range of styles and it is usually not easy to categorize them according to British equivalents. Here we have four buildings in four different styles and I would be at a loss to know to what period they individually belong.
This is the Stock Exchange, built between 1868 and 1873. Highly decorated in a mixture of styles with sculptures by famous artists, including Rodin, it was meant to impress and reflect the expanding economy of the day. Its role as the centre of finance and commerce ended in 1996 and it is now used for public exhibitions.
It felt as though it was time for refreshments and across the road we spotted an establishment called Le Falstaff. Brussels is famous for its Art Nouveau buildings and Le Falstaff is one of the jewels of the collection. We went in and ordered hot chocolate which was served to us by waiters dressed in the traditional waistcoat and apron. We asked if we might take photos of the interior and permission was readily granted.
What is now a cafe-restaurant was originally built as two houses in 1886. These were bought in 1903 by a certain Madame Broekaert in order to convert them into a ‘taverne’ or cafe-restaurant. The interior decoration was done by E. Houbbion, about whom little seems known beyond the fact that he was employed by the famous Belgian architect and designer, Victor Horta.
Our next port of call was the Grand’Place (Main Square), also known in Flemish as the Grote Markt (Great Market Square). Here we find opulently designed and decorated buildings, arguably the most prestigious in Brussels. They include the Town Hall, the Museum of the City of Brussels and what is known in French as La Maison du Roi (the King’s House) and in Flemish as Het Broodhuis (the Breadhouse).
The City of Brussels Museum is built in Gothic Revival style, perhaps to match or at least blend in with the Town Hall that it faces. It was inaugurated in 1887.
The Gothic Town Hall is remarkable both for its age and the height of its belfry – 96m or 315ft. Building began in the 15th century and most of what you see from the square is of that age. There have inevitably been several episodes of additions and refurbishment mainly in the 19th century which was when the statues of the Dukes of Brabant were added to the façade. The statues we see on the Town Hall today are in fact reproductions, the originals being preserved in the King’s House Museum across the road.
This public building was completed in 1698 and is known as the House of the Dukes of Brabant, not because they ever lived there but because of their statues that grace the interior.
Here are a couple more pictures of buildings in the Grand’Place. (Identifying them is left as an exercise for the reader )
The Grand’Place is usually crowded both during the daytime and at night. There are sometimes exhibitions and markets here too, including the important Plaisirs d’Hiver et Marché de Noel (Winter Wonders and Christmas Market).
In common with other European cities (with the notable exception of London), Brussels provides horse drawn carriages to take you on a tour of the city. I have never been on such a tour and cannot vouch for the quality of the commentary delivered by the driver. If you look carefully, you can spot the canvas dung-catchers hanging beneath the horse’s hind quarters to avoid soiling the streets. I suspect that the dustbin in the foreground is provided for the purpose of emptying the dung-catchers.
This fine ‘Victorian’ shopping arcade was inaugurated in 1847 and is worth a visit, both for the beauty of the arcade itself and for the shops, theatre and cinema that it contains. It is formed of three parts collectively known as Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert or Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen (St Hubert Royal Arcades). The first part, shown above is the Galerie de la Reine or Koninginne Galerij (Queen’s Arcade).
You pass through a pillared intersection – this no doubt has a name but I don’t know what it is – into the next part whose name you have probably guessed.
Yes, this part, as you would expect, is called the King’s Arcade. There is a further section, called Galerie du Prince or Prinsenglaerij (Prince’s Arcade), but it is quite short and we didn’t visit it.
In case you are wondering about the pronunciation of Flemish-Dutch ‘ij’ in words like galerij and Parijs, the sound usually resembles that of the ‘ay’ in the English words fray or stay (listen here), though there is some difference of opinion, some preferring to pronounce it like the ‘ie’ in lie or like the word eye. In my experience, ‘ay’ is the most common.
The Coudenberg Palace takes its name from the hill on which it was originally built. That was back in the 12th century when the Dukes of Brabant chose this location for their court. In 1731 a fire ravaged the palace and the inhabitants moved out, never to return. The site lay derelict until the 1770s when the present palace was built. It now hosts exhibitions.
Nearby stands the Royal Palace of Brussels on land that was once part of the grounds of the Coudenberg Palace. Built in the 18th century and added to in the early 20th, the Brussels Palace is the official residence of the King and Queen of Belgium… except that they don’t actually live there. (They live in the Palace of Laeken.) The Brussels Palace might be considered to be the King’s business premises as it is here that he conducts affairs of state.
We took a bus and disembarked near the Palais de Justice (Law Court). I took my first photo in this trip of a tram. As previously mentioned, we like trams and ride them for pleasure when the opportunity presents itself. Public transport in Brussels is run by the STIB, Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company). The best way for the visitor to get about on public transport in Brussels is to buy a 24-hour pass for €7.50. You can buy as many as you like and they won’t expire because they only become ‘live’ when you use them for the first time. You do this by touching your pass on one of the electronic readers on the bus, tram or metro. The pass remains valid for 24 hours from that instant and you can make an unlimited number of journeys during that time. The trick is to validate your last one at such a time as to make it remain valid to take you to the station when you leave Brussels!
The Palais de Justice or Justitiepaleis (Law Court) was built in 1866-83. At present it is not looking its best, covered as it is in scaffolding. The renovations taking place were made necessary because at the end of the Second World War, retreating German troops had the bright idea of destroying the building by setting it alight. This caused the eye-catching cupola to collapse. Work did not start until 2003 and is still continuing. The square in which it stands, Place Poelaert, is named after the architect, Joseph Poelaert, who designed the original courthouse.
In front of the courthouse you can see the monument raised to the memory of the Belgian Infantry and their losses during the First and Second World Wars.
Nearby stands what is known as the Anglo-Belgian War Memorial. It was unveiled in 1923 and records the gratitude of the British to the Belgians for the help and support that they gave to British prisoners of war in the 1914-18 conflict.
Time was getting on and the light was beginning to fade (having been rather dull to start with). We went to a cafe, hoping for refreshments but the service was so slow that we left before anyone bothered to take our order. We conceived a plan to visit our favourite Brussels restaurant. We would be sure to get good service there. Wouldn’t we?
The restaurant resides in a district called Porte de Hal after the medieval fortified city gate that survives there.
And here it is, Le Faucon (The Falcon). We were sure to be well received and marched boldly up to the door… only to be told they had closed for the day! We made do with a nearby substitute before starting the journey back to our tiny hotel room. Thus ended our first day in Brussels.
Saturday, March 24th 2018
When we are travelling it has somehow been established that I get up first and find out how the shower works. That may sound simple enough but I have discovered that the most innocent-looking of hotel showers may conceal traps for the unwary. I gingerly entered the glass box and turned on the water. This shower seems to be quite well behaved but is so small that it is like trying to take a shower in a telephone kiosk… except that in a telephone kiosk you would have more room. The folding doors open inwards or outwards, as you prefer, but don’t provide a very effective seal so, if you don’t want to flood the bathroom for your partner, try not to point the shower-head at the doors…
Having done my appointed duty, I was content to relax on the bed while Tigger took her turn in the glass box.
We had originally thought to take a trip into Wallonia to visit one of its major cities, perhaps Namur or Liège. However, as we are staying only for two nights (returning to London tomorrow), this would have meant three days of railway journeys and we therefore decided to confine our explorations to Brussels on this trip. I was happy with this as there is plenty to see in Brussels and it’s a good town for wandering about in, whether on foot or using the buses and trams.
First, though, was breakfast. Knowing that cafes and restaurants don’t open early in Belgium, we thought to take a look at the hotel bar so see what they had on offer. We were in luck. It turns out that hotel guests can buy a voucher from reception for €5 and spend this in the bar. It entitles you to a coffee of your choice and two pastries or croissants. A breakfast of coffee and croissants? Perfect! It was only on taking my first bite that I remembered that in Belgium, croissants are given a thin sugar glaze. I don’t mind this; in fact, it helps to remind me that I am in Belgium!
Though we had a couple of visits planned, there was no hurry and we could take our time, exploring and photographing items of interest, as, for example, this medieval building not far from the hotel. A bilingual notice tells us that ‘This tower formed part of the first town wall built in the 13th century’.
The Brussels Opera has an international reputation. It resides is this fine theatre – the third on the site – called Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie or Koninklijke Muntschouwburg (Royal Theatre of the Mint). The first theatre here, which opened in 1700, was built on the site of the old mint, hence the name which has survived through subsequent centuries. In fact, both the opera company and the theatre are commonly known simply as ‘la Monnaie’ and ‘de Munt’, in French and Flemish respectively. For a more detailed history, see here.
The entrance to this office black is decorated with a massive bronze panel. I have not been able to find out what it represents.
Like all modern cities, Brussels has a mixture of building styles from ancient to modern and it seems to me to have avoided the worst excesses of hugeness and ugliness which are such a plague in London – or perhaps the shortness of our stay saved us from seeing these. Here are a couple more examples of modern architecture in Brussels.
A little further on, we came to the first of the places we wanted to visit today.
It is really two institutions in one, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and the Brussels Strip Cartoon Museum. We didn’t mind that we were getting two for the price of one because we had not come to see the cartoons or learn about their history but to see the building in which they reside!
Everyone knows Hergé’s young journalist-detective Tin-Tin, of course, and he figures largely in the exhibition along with others perhaps better known in Europe than in Britain. (for example, you can just see Lucky Luke near the left-hand border of the above photo.
So, then, for someone not particularly interested in strip cartoons, what is interesting about this building? The answer is that what is now the strip cartoon museum was once better known as the Waucquez Warehouse.
The building opened in 1906 and was commissioned by Charles Waucquez for the display and sale of his fabrics. The architect chosen was Victor Horta, whose name is synonymous with the Art Nouveau Movement in Europe. Brussels is justly famous for its collection of Art Nouveau architectural treasures among which the Warehouse, now Museum, takes a distinguished place.
What was designed as a centre for wholesale fabrics serves equally well for the display and explanation of strip cartoons and their history.
On the way down the stairs to leave the museum, we came across this splendid example of attention to detail:
See how the bannister makes voluptuous curves around the lamp, those curves being echoed in wood and metal at every level.
In no particular hurry, we left the museum and continued our explorations while nonetheless aiming for our next destination.
On an open space where roads meet, we found a shipping container perched precariously on one end. Why? Well, because it’s art, that’s why. I haven’t been able to discover the name of the artist but the work apparently celebrates 60 years of the shipping container.
It’s always interesting to see how each country has adopted that simplest of designs – the post box – to its own requirements. Belgium in fact adopted a tubular pillar box design similar to the British counterpart and painted red. There are also smaller boxes in less busy areas, like this one that stands on a slender post.
We passed in front of the Cathedral of Sain Michael and Saint Gudula. The two named are also the patron saints of the city of Brussels. The cathedral was founded in the 11th century but work on it continued until it was considered finished in 1519.
This contre-jour shot was taken in the commune of Ixelles and shows the spire of the Church of the Holy Cross. Brussels is divided into 19 ‘communes’ which, I suppose, correspond roughly with London’s boroughs. In case you are wondering, the ‘x’ in Ixelles is pronounced like its English counterpart, so the name sounds like ‘ikSEL’.
We had come to take a look at the AAM, the Archives of Modern Architecture. This non-profit organization was set up by art historian Robert-Louis Delevoy and others to collect architectural plans, sketches, notes and general ephemera that might otherwise be lost once projects were completed.
Apart from its collection of books and papers, most of the information on display consists of boards bearing text and images which, though interesting to the architecture buff, are not very photogenic.
After these explorations, we felt it was time for a rest and and some sustenance. We peered at the menus of various cafes and restaurants until we discovered the AMI. This is a purely vegetarian restaurant with many items on the menu that are vegan. We chose the soup-and-sandwich combination and very good it was too. On our next trip to Brussels we shall certainly pay this restaurant a return visit.
Sunday, March 25th 2018
This is the last day of our rather short stay in Brussels. Our train does not leave until 18:56 so we have a good part of the day to spend in town. We checked out of the hotel but left our bags there to collect nearer our departure time.
We did not have any specific destination in view and just wandered on foot or by tram here and there until it was time to collect our bags and make for the station. The photos below are therefore a rather random selection without any unifying theme.
St Catherine’s Church was built between 1854 and 1874.
It replaced a 15th-century church, most of which was demolished in 1893, leaving the bell-tower extant beside the new church.
This building occupying a corner and accommodating a café bar called La Machine, as well as being architecturally interesting, caught my eye because of the painted panel above the entrance or, rather, the motto written on it. This reads ‘CECI N’EST PAS UN GRAFFITI’ (‘This is not a graffiti’) which is a rather self-conscious reference to the painter René Magritte and his famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe. René Magritte, we need hardly remind ourselves, was Belgian.
This building, bearing the date 1881, is known as the Halles Saint-Géry or Marché Saint-Géry and was created as a covered market. It no longer functions as such but is now used for displays and exhibitions.
The interior is well lit by a glass roof running the whole length of the building/ There is also a gallery providing an upper level. The banner bearing the word ‘RÉVOLUTION’ was part of the current exhibition, not a call for violent upheaval.
This was presumably the main water supply for the market, as suggested by the deep basin beneath the spout.
We travelled about mainly by tram. We had bought 24-hour passes which are good value because, for €7.50, they allow unlimited travel on buses, trams and the metro for a period of 24 hours from the moment of first use.
This rather striking building, dating from 1879, is called the Maison Communale d’Anderlecht and is roughly equivalent to the town hall of an English borough. Anderlecht is one of the 19 communes into which Brussels is subdivided for administrative purposes. The style of design is known as ‘neo-Flemish Renaissance’ and looks back to the 16th century when the Flemish Renaissance was at its peak.
The Étangs d’Ixelles or Vijvers van Elsene (‘Ixelles Ponds’) are two long narrow lakes bordered by parkland within the commune of Ixelles. They remain from the draining of the marshes and now provide a popular area of recreation where you can stroll or sit, go boating and even fish on certain days of the week. The church steeple you can see is that of the Église Sainte-Croix (Church of the Holy Cross).
This slightly curious-looking building, standing on the corner of Rue de la Brasserie and Avenue des Éperons d’Or (their names mean, respectively, Brewery Street and Golden Spurs Avenue) has a café on the ground floor and offices to rent on the upper floors. Apart from that, I know nothing about it, such as when it was built or the reason for the unusual design which includes a tower. I photographed it because it was odd and I liked it!
I must admit to never having heard of Charles Théodore Henri De Coster until I came across his monument on the corner by the Ixelles Ponds. It is slightly unusual in that it shows, not the great man himself, but representations of characters from the novel for which he is mainly known. This was entitled Aventures de Thyl Uylenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzack au pays de Flandres et ailleurs (‘Aventures of Thyl Uylenspiegel and Lamme Goedzack in the land of Flanders and elsewhere’) and was published in 1867. Of the novel, Wikipedia rather disarmingly says that it is ‘a 16th-century romance, which was barely read in Belgium because it didn’t meet up to the conventional standard of Belgian nationalism, but became popular over the rest of the world.’ The monument was erected in 1894 by Charles Samuel (sculptor) and Frans de Vestel (architect).
At last it was time to bring our ramble to an end and take the tram back to the hotel to collect our bags for the journey home. That journey was uneventful. We boarded the Eurostar at Bruxelles Midi Station and stepped off it at St Pancras, London. A short bus ride later and we were home.
Brussels is one of my favourite cities and I found it as enjoyable on this admittedly short trip as on previous occasions. I look forward to further visits in the future.