Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brussels / Bruxelles

We arrived at the south (Midi) Station in Brussels / Bruxelles and took a taxi to our apartment. The route was unimpressive (but advised over arriving in the North / Nord Station, as it is in a pretty seedy district.) As we got closer to our apartment, we found ourselves in quite a crowd. We don’t know if it is typical or not but it was a weekend and our apartment is extremely central. Yes, it turns out that Monday was a holiday here in honor of the "Assumption of Mary". 

Later we walked out to pick up a few groceries and discovered a couple busy alleyways FULL of little restaurants and folks eating mussels, paella, fries, etc. We ate in while doing laundry. Our reblochon cheese, bread, tomatoes and Brugge Tripel Beer were quite satisfying. 

Sidebar about beer styles here: Monk-run Trappist breweries used the terms Enkel, Dubbel, and Tripel (single, double, triple) to indicate the amount of malt used and resulting alcohol content. Today these terms indicate the style. Enkel is a very light ale; Dubbel is a darker and sweeter beer; and Tripel is a very strong, golden-colored pale ale.

The Brugge Tripel is the best of these 3 Tripels. Duvel is 2nd best.
We had arrived in Brussels in time for the last day of the bi-annual display of a floral carpet in the Central Square. So first thing Monday we headed out to see it. It is not clear whether the carpet or the surrounding buildings in the Central Square were more spectacular. The pictures may help you decide. Keep in mind the Central Square is named the Grand Place / Grote Markt for a reason. It’s big, 223 by 361 ft. And it is surrounded on all four sides with opulent buildings ...guildhalls (a guild is a union of a specific trade), the city's Town Hall, and the Museum of the City of Brussels. Each with serious amounts of gold trim, lots of spires, did we mention the gold trim, and sculptures.

Guild Houses lining one side of "Grand Place"
A close-up of a bit of the carpet. Think of it as the Rose Parade in 2-D.
This year's carpet honors 150 years of "Belgo-Japonese" relations. 
The City Hall building, dating from 15C, is quite elegant. Normally visitors take a tour. But while the Floral Carpet is on display, folks line up to get a view of the floral carpet from above (and some of us took advantage of the opportunity to glimpse the elegant rooms.)
One of the rooms in City Hall. 
We found St Michael perched in many places in Brussels. He is the "symbol" of the city.
After the viewing the Floral Carpet (both from the ground and from above in the City Hall, we headed for the Hop-on-hop-off bus to take a look at greater Brussels before lunch. We were touring on a Monday (and by now we had realized it was a Monday holiday). Museums were closed, so we had to defer our museums visits. A highlight of this tour is the Atomium, a giant, silvery iron molecule, with tubes (containing escalators and stairs) that connect the atoms that was the  symbol of the 1958 World’s Fair. It was intended to be a temporary structure but has lasted and is quite popular.

The Atomium
We also observed some cute windmills along the canal. ;-)

One of the highlights, and a symbol of Brussels is the Manikin Pis fountain. It’s quite small, maybe 3 feet tall, and not unique, but he has caught the imagination of locals and visitors alike.  He is frequently dressed in a theme costume, but for us he was there in his full natural splendor.

Another item for which Belgium is noted is their Waffle.  They come in sweet and savory styles.  But the following sample of combinations suggests that the sweet are far more popular.

The food and wine for lunch were good, we wish we could say the same for the service. We made the mistake of visiting those crowded, atmospheric alleyways. It turns out the continuous stream of restaurants serve up nearly the same thing and each has a shill outside trying to convince you that theirs is the best. We should have known better but we yielded…and ended up at Le Marin. Despite the hustle to get us seated, there was quite a wait. Not bad though because we had previously sat down at another restaurant and didn't even receive a menu, hence we had moved on. Pat chose the Mussels and Bill had Loup (sea bass) with fries. The fries were quite good  but not truly special. The Pouilly Fume went quite well with both dishes. (Pat discovered her mussels to be quite dry until she got halfway through them. Those had been sitting in the sauce. Our waiter belatedly explained that mussels needed to be flipped somehow so that all are moist. Thanks.)

After lunch we took the second loop to see central Brussels. The range of architecture along the way caught our interest.
The cathedral displays an intriguing combination of old and new

We don't know what building this is, but it's different...
Here's some "fin de sicle" (end of the19th century) iron work
Dinner was at the Winehouse Osteria.  A great combination of Italian food and wines with a knowledgeable waiter/manager/....  We started with a Brut-style sparkling Pergolaat from the Collio (Friuli Venezia).  It was inexpensive and really quite good. We shared two bean puree and vegetable dishes (one with eggplant and one with endive) along with lasagne Emiliana, meaty with a little parmigiano. For dessert we had the Sabayon Maraschino & Melon.  Delightful.

Walking home we noticed a pretty cool piece of graffiti.

Further on we passed again through the Grand Place and were fortunate to catch the light show. Nice touch with the floral carpet.

Next day: We went out for breakfast,. We had to have authentic Belgian waffles. Pat went with strawberries and whipped cream for Pat. Bill chose strawberries and banana.  A tasty start for the day.  We continue with a self-guided walking tour of Brussels with parks, views over the city, museums and more.  We started at the Museum of Costume & Lace. This turned out to be more of a museum of wedding fashion over the ages. Nice though.

Regarding the dress on the right, the commentary had to do with the shift from hiding an unborn child
to showing it off as a token of the couples love.
Later as we wandered around town, following Rick Steve's Walking Tour, we had to pause to read this sign closer. 

This highly regarded chocolatier decorated their shop with  fresh flowers and vines
in honor of the special weekend
We enjoyed Place de Petit Sablon. A serene small park with 48 small statues representing the craftsman guilds— weavers, brewers, and butchers—of 16th-century Brussels. We are really not sure what this guys profession is but he caught our eye.

We moved on to visit the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, with plans to also visit the Margritte Museum. They are affiliated but they appeared to be neighboring buildings. Starting at the Fine Arts Museum,  we were presented with a "Plan" (aka map). After a cursory glance at the map, Pat said to the docent, "I'm confused".  She replied, "Me too" but then proceeded to clarify things. It turns out there are 3 museums that occupy 10 floors of a 3 story building. Got that?  We still do not fully understand, but the building is on somewhat of a hillside and apparently they dug deep as well because the floors are numbered -8 to +3 of a rambling building. 

We began with the Fine Arts Museum to see the "dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Bruegel, Bosch, and Rubens". 

by Peter Brueghel II, late 1500's
We decided to move on to the Fin-de-Siècle Museum which covers art (sculpture, paintings, furnishings) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including an extensive Art Nouveau collection. There were a lot of great pieces here. Pat liked the lines of this bronze by Mucha (naturally) and since it ties to our earlier visit to Prague, we are sharing it here...

By now we were very much ready for lunch. We had spotted an interesting restaurant only a few blocks back so off we went. 

Lunch was at Les Petits Oignon. Organ meats. Kidney for Pat and veal liver for Bill. Excellent with a Nero Davola from Sicily. A great meal. Dessert was "Pain perdu à la crème pâtissière et vanille bourbon, façon Ducasse", basically a cross between French Toast and Bread Pudding. We loved it.

The thing is, we were museumed-out for the day. So sadly, we opted-out of the 3rd Musuem in that complicated maze, the Magritte Museum which contains numerous works by the Surrealist painter René Magritte. (Apparently not his best works, but we would have enjoyed it.) Next time.

We wandered more but basically ended up shopping for an evening snack and returning “home”. Pat had shared her cold with Bill. She was feeling much better, but Bill needed some rest. So Pat went shopping! She had spotted some lovely tapestry cushions earlier and had to take a look closer. The look was successful. She bought two! FYI, the source is Gobelins Art. Their card lists a website but it doesn't work for us just now. Still, here it is:
Our new cushion covers.
Then she went to check out the atmospheric Galleries St Hubert, a glass covered (think 18C greenhouse style) shopping arcade. The architecture is lovely. The shopping, sad. So she wandered further and found some decent shops but only bought the ground coffee and breakfast food that we needed.

Dinner was a light repast “at home”. More Reblochon cheese (Bill's favorite cheese) with fresh tomatoes, yellow pepper, a three tapenade package (green olive, black olive and sun dried tomato), and Duvel Triple, a little lighter than the Brugge Tripel we had the night before. We much preferred the Brugge.  

Our good weather held. And we were off for a day in Bruges / Brugge. We had originally wanted to stay there but logistically Brussels makes so much more sense for the activities we had planned. After our day in Bruges we would be happy to return and stay longer. It is so cute. It is a nice size. And it has so many places where you just want to hang out.

We arrived at the train station and made our way across town to the Markt. Luckily it was also market day and we enjoyed the many flowers (mostly plants, not cut flowers), vegetables (and all of the lettuces were plants, not cut leaves), cheeses, pastries, fudge, cured meats, as well as meat & poultry roasting on spits. Given it is mid-August, we were quite surprised to see many ready-to-plant items that definitely will not make it through the winter.

Tempting Fudge...but we successfully fight the temptation
Houses along the Markt
We climbed the bell tower, 360+ steps, heard the carillon close up at the top and saw the organist at work on our way down.  There are truly fine views over the city...through a fence that makes taking photos more challenging. Just as you think you have the shot perfectly framed you notice you've got wire in the way...

Here's the story on the evolution from watchtower to belltower to carillon. We hope you can read it.

After the climb back down we continue our walking tour of the city heading generally back in the direction of the train station. The canal has a lot of charming spots. The canal boats add little to the charm...

We spotted an appealing canal-side restaurant and found our way to it to discover that it is Brasserie 3 Square Brugge at the Bourgogne de Flandres brewery. This offered very fine food and a new drinking experience, blended beers. To explain this, first ...Belgiums’ most distinctive beers are lambic-based. Unlike most beers, which are fermented with carefully special brewer's yeast, the beer ferments naturally from wild yeast floating in the marshy air around Brussels. This process gives the beer a distinctive flavour: dry, cidery, and usually with a tart  aftertaste. In Bruges,  Bourgogne de Flandres offers beers blending typical dark beer blended with lambic beer and the result works nicely.

Bill got a "blended". We both liked its fruity-beery combination. Pat had a "Waterloo strong dark brown beer” with her Greek Salad with grilled Sardines.  Bill had "slip sole”. Both very tasty with the fries!!  Pat was pleased to get an herbed mayo to go with the fries. We had a second round of beers. Bill had Martin’s Pale Ale and Pat had a pure Bourgogne de Flanders (the same beer that was blended with Lambic in Bill’s first drink). Everything came it its proper glass - including the name.

After lunch we continue our walk back along the canal. This place just oozes charm. We stopped at the nearby Groningen Museum which is noted for it’s collection of “Primative Flemish” paintings. Bill found the work quite interesting. Pat was fascinated by some of the pieces. There are some exceptionally notable (Religious) pieces, but two, less renowned works, appealed to us. One made Pat think of Norman Rockwell’s work… 

"The Peasant  Lawyer", a copy of a piece by Pieter Breughel II. We enjoyed it's Norman Rockwell feel.
Another which appeared to be a simple image of Mary & Baby Jesus sitting outside had  ridiculous amounts of detail in the surrounding scenery. The photos do NOT do the detail justice. ...but here's the overall artwork.

And here are details from the surrounding scene. 

Our route brought us to the train station for the 1 hour trip  back to Brussels. Conveniently we discovered “Baubles” on the short route from the train to our apartment. Their only offering: sparkling wine by the glass, and they offer quite a range. Bill had a special Solera-Style  Blanc de Blanc (Bill). Pat had a Blanc de Noir (Pat). 

We noted that they use a VERY heavy duty "vacu-vin" gadget to preserve the remaining wine. He says opened wines will last weeks (months?) using it. It was tempting to investigate getting a couple of these. Then we hefted one. They are HEAVY and bullky. And then there is the vacuum system needed to remove the air. We'll stick with the "vacu-vin" and drinking our wine within hours/days.

We snacked at home again with more Triples (Triple Karmeliet), Reblochon, bread, a selection of three tapenades, accompanied by tasty tomatoes and red & yellow peppers.

Thursday morning we were off to Antwerp / Anvers. Brussels is very international and sits on the border between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and the Wallonian (French-speaking). While we had sort of noticed the lack of English signs in Bruge, we were more aware of it on this daytrip. Perhaps first because we were unaware that we were going to "Anvers" and we needed to confirm that we were on the right train. Anyway, the lack of English or French prevailed throughout the day, reminding us of when it was more difficult to travel in France...back when the French would not deign to use English.

Our touring started at the ornate train station with it's iron and glass architecture. Also interesting is that the station was designed assuming trains arriving on ground level and "dead-ending" at the station, ie leaving over the same track they arrive on as has been common in many stations in Europe...until the advent of high-speed trains which need the efficiency of continuing on in one direction (or even passing through the station without a stop). Underground levels have been added here and they display many maps to help (those who speak Dutch) to understand which levels accommodate what trains.  

The grand train station in Antwerp
On our walk to the river we passed through the Diamond District, and by massive / solid buildings with grand facades including the first American-style skyscraper in Europe built in 1932 (it hardly qualifies as a skyscraper today) and a grand shopping arcade (Stadsfeestzaal). We passed up visiting the Paul Rubens house (noted for it's architecture and a few paintings, but not his best...we are getting very selective in our museum stops.) Pat enjoyed window shopping in this city where tourism is not the primary source of income. 

We did visit the "Cathedral of Our Lady".  It is said to be quite nice normally and an especially fine visit currently as it displays some of the finer works by Belgian Artists (including Rubens) from the local Fine Arts Museum which is under renovation.  The Cathedral combines the usual ornate/impressive wood, gold, and stained glass. 

Apparently the construction of the church experienced significant delays. Maybe that is why the chose to build a monument to the construction workers outside. Did they think this would prompt completion?

The Madonna of Antwerp, lit by the adjacent stained glass window, is impressive. It was also impressive to see that under that elaborate robe, are simple mannequins of Mary & Jesus. 
The elaborately robed Madonna
The Madonna and Child less elaborately robed
The city was preparing for a weekend festival. The central square was being decorated with flags, banners and balloons. Interesting decor along the tops of the buildings in the central square.
In front of city hall is a fountain commemorating a legendary hero.
He has a special robe on for the upcoming festivities.
At the river front we saw the last remnants of the old walled city, a small castle. That figure towering over two quivering peasants is the legendary Giant that was killed by the legendary hero in the previous photo.

Lunch was at Bia Mara, a fish and chips chain(?) with three locations, Brussels, Antwerp and London. Bill had the Fish and Chips with Spanish Bravas sauce (spicy) and Pat had Sardines with Dill Dijon sauce and chips with Garlic Truffle sauce. The highlight was the beer, and IPA called Dark Sister, very yummy.

We walked back along streets lined with restaurants and shops. And we paused while Bill contemplated how to get into this oversized beach chair.

We headed back to Brussels mid-afternoon knowing we must pack for our move to Paris. We found apple and cherry tarts for breakfast. And, planning to eat-in again, we selected chips (Kettle Chips with Pepper...more peppery than those in the states) and a handy tray with cheese, olives, and dried meat to go with the remaining bell peppers and wine waiting in the apartment.

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is very nice to read with gorgeous photos. You should turn this into a book. I really mean that!