Thursday, April 27, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Bruges Part 2

Bruges during the day is definitely beautiful, but Bruges all lit up at night is stunning, and has the added advantage of being less crowded since all the tour bus and cruise ship visitors have left.  All the streets, canals, bridges and squares that were teeming with pedestrians, tour boats and horse-drawn carriages during the day become eerily quiet and empty at night, at least at the end of April before the height of tourist season.  It was so peaceful to walk around and take night photos of the gorgeous sights without other people getting in the way.

We did have some competition when trying to take photos at the corner touted as the best and most photographed view in Bruges.  From this vantage point, you could see the Belfry towering in the distance, and a series of Flemish-styled buildings that included the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, a 4-star hotel decorated with paintings by Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse.  The hotel was made all the more famous after being used as a filming location for the movie “In Bruges”.  This is the hotel where the two hitmen Ray and Ken stayed during their visit, and where Ray jumped out of a window onto a canal boat during a climactic chase scene towards the end of the movie.  Another beautiful sight that we spotted across the canal was the Duc de Bourgogne Hotel and Restaurant, which dates back to 1648.  Located in the Huidenvettersplein Square next to the Vismarkt (old Fish Market), the restaurant faces and provides excellent views of the canal.  We wandered into the restaurant without a reservation around 8:30pm on a Wednesday evening hoping to get any available table, since we had read that this place is usually packed in the summer.

Not only did we score a table, but we were assigned what we considered to be the best table in the restaurant, right next to the window with a direct view of the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel.  From our seats we could look through the windows of the hotel and see some of the décor and paintings.  On top of the stunning scenery, the interior of the Duc de Bourgogne was quite impressive, with luxurious drapes and valances, chandeliers, fireplaces, paintings and murals still reflecting the décor of the 17th century period when the restaurant was first established.  After seeing it many times on menus since we arrived in Belgium, we finally tried the classic dish of Flemish-style white asparagus topped with pieces of hard boiled egg and tomato, covered with a mousseline sauce, which is a hollandaise sauce lightened with whipped cream.  We shared this as an appetizer, along with a goose liver pate with marmalade on toast.  For our main courses, we both ordered the seafood bouillabaisse in a tomato soup base with potato, carrots and large chunks of local fish.  This was one of the priciest meals of our trip, but the ambience made it well worth it.

On our second day in Bruges, we wanted to visit a few more locations from the “In Bruges” movie that were not covered by the walking tour that we took the previous day.  We started at the Koningin AstridPark, where a depressed Ray goes to contemplate his fate.  This pretty little park is located on the south side of the Groenerei Canal, a few blocks away from the Burg Square.  Once a monastery cloister garden until it was turned into a public park in the 1850, it features a tiny man-made lake with a sculpture and fountain in it, a children’s playground, and a vibrantly painted pavilion to provide shelter and shade.  We were lucky enough to visit during tulip season and the colourful flowers were in full bloom.

Our next stop was Van Eyckplein, a square honouring 15th Century Flemish Renaissance master Jan Van Eyck, featuring a magnificent bronze sculpture of the painter, erected in 1878 with the Spiegelrei canal in the background.  While Van Eyck was not born in Bruges, he spent a large part of his life and died there.  A scene filmed for the movie “In Bruges” depicts Ken and Ray sitting in Van Eyckplein with the steeple of a 15th Century building called the “Poortersloge” (Burgher’s Lodge) and the rear of the Van Eyck sculpture displayed clearly behind them.  Having found an image from this scene on the Internet, I wanted to recreate the photo when we were in the square. But despite several attempts, I was unable to capture the same perspective regardless of where I asked Rich to stand.

The Poortersloge was a meeting place for the richest and most powerful citizens where they interacted with their trading partners.  It acted as an informal town hall where key political and economical decisions were made.  The burghers formed the Society of the White Bear, represented by the statue of the “Bear of the Loggia” positioned at the side of the building at the corner of Academiestraat.  The other building of note that can be seen from the square is the Tolhius, a fancy 15th Century Renaissance building decorated with bright red doors and the coat of arms of the dukes of Luxembourgh.  Goods were cleared through this building and taxes and tolls were levied here.

We spent several hours of our second day in Bruges inside the Groening Museum, which features Flemish and Belgian paintings spanning from the 15th through the 20th centuries, with pieces from the Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical, Realist, Modernism, Flemish Expressionism and Post-war Modernist periods.  The museum was built on the former site of the Eekhout Abbey, a medieval house of Augustinian Canons, as is reflected by the lush grounds and the ecclesiastical architecture of some of the original buildings and walls.  The highlight of the museum is the collection of 15th-16th century paintings by local artists in a style later named as “Flemish Primitives”.  Characteristics of this style included an extreme attention to detail, highly realistic renderings of materials and textures, use of symbolic or religious representations of common-place objects and images to invoked emotions from the viewer.   Many of the masterpieces from this period were confiscated and removed to Paris during the French Revolution and not returned to Bruges until the early 19th century.

Jan Van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434) is an oil on oak panel painting that provides an early example of the use of perspective and features intricate details in the carpet and the vestment robes of Saint Donatian.  Dutch artist Gerard David’s diptych The Judgement of Cambyses (1498) depicts the arrest and subsequent flaying of corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes, who accepted a bribe and delivered an unjust verdict.  King Cambyses II of Persia ordered that the judge be flayed alive and his skin was used to cover the throne of Cambyses’ son.  The painting acted as a warning to local magistrates and was a symbolic public apology for the imprisonment of Emperor Maximilian I in 1488.  Jan Provoost’s diptych Death and the Miser (1515) was interesting to compare against the other diptych and triptych examples of the times since it took a single scene and separated it across two panels as opposed to depicting a separate scene in each panel.

We spent quite a bit of time closely reviewing the fantastical and fascinating triptych called The Last Judgement (1482) by Hieronymus Bosch.  The left panel depicts Paradise with blessed souls being shipped to the Garden of Eden on a pink boat.   The Judgement is shown on the centre panel, with  Christ sitting as judge at the top, surrounded by apostles and angels playing the Trumpets of Last Judgement.  They overlook a scene where sinners are being punished in horrific ways including burning and being force-fed impure food (a symbol for gluttony).  The panel on the right represents Hell under siege by demons who torture lost souls while buildings are ablaze in the background.  Bosch uses cheery pink, green and blue hues to depict Paradise, then transitions into darker red and black tones as he moves towards Hell.  He painted a second similar triptych with the same title that is on display in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Bosch’s bizzare, often nightmarish imagery with strange half man/half animal or demonic figures conveying religious or allegorical undertones, was an obvious inspiration for Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Mad Meg, which we failed to see in Antwerp because it was being restored.  In fact, Meg’s facial features look quite similar to the face of the large pink-hooded demon who is in the process of devouring a man, depicted in the central panel of Bosch’s Last Judgement.  The Groening Museum has a Bruegel in its collection as well—The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1506), which features Brugel’s characteristic trademark of portraying large multitudes of figures within his scenes.  In this painting, the central figure of John the Baptist is preaching to throngs of peasants, gypsies, beggars and soldiers, while Christ himself looks on from the back.  Both Bosch and Bruegel's works require close inspection so as not to miss any details, since each character or element may convey an important aspect of the overall story or message of a work.

While the paintings from the Flemish Primitives period dominate much of the Groening, the museum does contain some interesting modern works as well including paintings by noted Surrealists Rene Magritte (The Assault) and Max Ernst (Vestal Virgins), both from 1973.  We would see more examples of Magritte in Brussels but I must admit that I don’t really understand what his works are about.  In Magritte’s The Assault, I see clouds, a ball, a building with windows and a bare torso, but what does it all mean?  While the exaggerated and distorted depiction of the two elongated yet rotund couples in Expressionist painter Frits van den Berghe’s Lovers in the Village caught my eye, what was particularly intriguing to me was how similar his name was to the collector Fritz Mayer van den Berghe whose museum we visited in Antwerp.

The most eye-catching painting in the modern section was the giant floor-to-ceiling rendering of The Last Supper (1927) by Belgian Expressionist artist Gustave van de Woestyne.  While there was no doubt about the theme being depicted, the stylized representations of Christ and his disciples, with their overly large solemn eyes and gaunt faces were quite startling to behold, especially when compared to other more traditional paintings of The Last Supper, like the one by Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Pourbus created in 1548.  Van de Woestyne’s version is more conceptual, with the figures crowded around the narrow but tall table acting more as symbols as opposed to realistic depictions of this iconic scene.

The works of Pieter Pourbus caught our attention since we had reservations that evening to dine at the restaurant named in his honour and situated in his former home.  The historic house was built in 1561 and features wood beams in the ceiling and two open fires.  Still taking advantage of asparagus season, we ordered another white asparagus dish covered with shrimps, prosciutto and a sauce.  For the main course, Rich ordered fried sole in a white wine sauce with mashed potato and steamed vegetables.

I chose the set meal with an appetizer of scampis in cream sauce, monkfish in peppercorn sauce with fries and salad, and a dessert of chocolate mousse which I shared with Rich.  After dinner, we took one last evening stroll through the picturesque streets of Bruges, before returning to our hotel to prepare for our journey to Ghent the next morning.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Road Trip to Bruges - Part 1

After thoroughly exploring Antwerp, we planned a three-night road trip where we would take the train to Bruges and then Ghent, before returning to Antwerp for a final day prior to leaving for Brussels.  We had packed a smaller travel bag in anticipation of these excursions, so that we could leave the bulk of our luggage at our home swap location.  It is about a 2-hour train ride from Antwerp to Bruges, a 1-hour train ride from Bruges to Ghent and another hour from Ghent back to Antwerp.  The train system in Europe runs like clockwork and the fares within Belgium are relatively inexpensive.  Our home swap hosts helped us buy a Belgian Rail Pass for 77 Euros, which was good for 10 rides from any destination to any destination within Belgium.  It is amazing to only pay 7.70 Euros to travel between Belgian cities when it costs about 3 Euros to take the bus within a city.  The rail pass can be used by multiple people per trip and involves filling out one line on the card per passenger, with the day of the week, date of travel, starting location and final destination.  While the train traveled to our destination (usually making multiple stops along the way), a ticket agent would come by, inspect our pass and punch holes against our travel itinerary lines to confirm our payment for the ride.  This made it really easy for us, since it saved us from lining up to buy train tickets for each of our stops.  We planned to use 8 rides including our final trip to Brussels once we left Antwerp, so we paid our hosts for the 8 rides and mailed them back the pass with the remaining 2 rides once we reached Brussels.

I have wanted to visit Bruges ever since I watched the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson.  While the plot is about a pair of hitmen hiding out in this idyllic setting after a botched assassination, the true star of the film is Bruges’ historic city centre with its beautiful meandering canals lined by quaint houses and restaurants, and spanned by stone bridges.  Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this romantic locale more than earned its reputation as the “Venice of the North” and lived up to all expectations set by the views seen in the movie.  Bruges is every bit as quaint, romantic and beautiful as depicted in the movie.  The only caveat is that it is also quite the tourist destination so many of the popular sites will be packed with people.  It was not too bad since we arrived mid week at the end of April, but I could only imagine how it would be in the heart of summer. 

Having only 2 days to explore Bruges, we wanted to be as close to the city centre as possible.  When searching for a place to stay, we used the travel website, which provides a map showing all the choices found within a desired area so that you can select by location.  We chose the Hotel Mallenberg, which was modestly priced at 105 Euros per night (tax included) and had a terrific location steps away from the major tourist sites of the historic city centre.  As an added bonus, we were delighted to find that the hotel itself was an older Flemish-styled brick building with the classic crow-stepped gable façade.  While our room was totally modernized, the basement level, where the complimentary breakfast was served, still featured brick and stone walls and built-in alcoves that seemed to be part of the original structure.

Our hotel was situated next to Burg Square, a large cobble-stoned square that used to be the site of a fortified castle, and is now encircled by some magnificently ornate buildings.  The beautiful Gothic-styled Town Hall (“Stadhuis”) was constructed from 1376-1421 and has been the location from which the city has been governed ever since.  The building features columns of stone sculptures of biblical characters and past Counts of Flanders interspersed with long, narrow stained glass and rose windows and three turrets rising above a roof that is accented by red canopied windows.  I’m not sure why it did not occur to us at the time to go into this building with the amazing façade since apparently the interior is equally stunning as well and was open for public visits.  No matter how much research I do prior to going on a trip, later on while blogging about our experiences, I always realize that we missed something great.  Belatedly, I found a photo of the interior on the internet while preparing for this blog.

Next to the city hall is a smaller but equally beautiful Civil Registry Building, built during the Renaissance period in 1537.  It was also used as a Court House for centuries, as illustrated by the bronze sculpture of the blindfolded Lady Justice holding her scales at the pinnacle of the centre dormer window of the building.  On either sides of her are sculptures of Moses and his brother Aaron.  At the base of the building is a plaque of Bruges’ coat of arms featuring a lion and a bear.  A pedestrian passageway leading to the old fish market” (“Vismarkt”) can be found between the Town Hall and the Civil Registry.  On our Bruges walking tour, we heard a legend (tall tale?) about how it got its name of “Blind Donkey Alley”.  Apparently in the late 14th Century, people from Ghent invaded Bruges and stole a gold dragon sculpture from the top of the Bruges Belfry and used a cart and donkey to make their escape.  But when the donkey reached the alleyway which marked the city limits, it refused to cross.  The robbers blinded the donkey so that it would not know where it was and led the donkey out of Bruges.  But in honor of the donkey’s heroic efforts, the passageway got its name.  The gold dragon sculpture now sits atop a tower in Ghent, but of course, that walking tour provided a totally different story of how it got there.

On the other side of the Town Hall is a highly ornate building housing the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a Roman Catholic church built in the 12th Century as the chapel for the Count of Flanders.  The exterior features gilded statues and medallions of Counts of Flanders and their spouses. A small, austere Romanesque chapel (St. Basil Chapel) can be found on a lower level, but the one to see is the larger, vibrant, colourful Gothic chapel on the upper level.  Named “Chapel of the Holy Blood”, it is decorated with stained glass windows depicting sovereigns of Flanders including Philip the Bold, paintings and sculptures, a curved wood-planked ceiling embellished with floral motifs, a pulpit shaped like a globe and a gilded retable at the centre of the high altar, backed by a massive painting depicting Christ shedding his blood, and the retrieval of the relic that gave the basilica its name.

The basilica is named for its most prized possession, a vial purported to contain a piece of cloth stained with the blood of Christ, which according to legends was brought back from the 2nd Holy Crusades by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.  The lower panels of the mural behind the high altar depict Thierry of Alsace receiving the relic from the King of Jerusalem and then presenting it to the chaplain of the basilica.  The vial was once a Byzantine perfume bottle which was then encased in a glass cylinder capped on each end by gold coronet covered with carvings of angels.  At one end of the chapel, an old clergyman sits in front of the reliquary, which you can walk past and inspect for a small donation to the church.  On Ascension Day, as part of the annual Easter celebrations, the ceremonial “Procession of the Holy Blood” takes place with the relic being the featured attraction.

Right next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, we found the restaurant Tompouce, which had everything we were looking for in a lunch spot.  It was right next to our hotel so that we could drop off our bags, have lunch and then return to check in.  Being a chilly day, we were attracted to the sign promising a covered, heated glass terrace with a great view of the Burg Square.  And finally, the menu advertising mussels in curry sauce sealed the deal.  These mussels were plump and juicy with a thick, flavourful  curry sauce cooked with onions and celery.  This was a much better mussels experience than our first attempt in Antwerp.  The shrimp croquette appetizer was also very good, coming with a small salad and a side of tiny shrimps.  Rich had a Chimay Trappist beer and I ordered a hot chocolate to finish off the meal.

Market Square (“Markt”) has been the main hub of Bruges for centuries, acting as a general meeting place and the site for festivals, fairs, concerts, performances and tournaments.  It has acted as a marketplace since the 10th Century, hosting a weekly farmers’ market which continues to the present day.  We arrived in Bruges on Market Day and found the square covered with food stalls hawking fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and flowers, and multiple trucks which detracted from the historic look and feel of the area.  But by the afternoon, the square had been cleared and we were able to walk around and get a good look at the buildings including former banks, guild houses and Flemish residences with the crow-stepped gables which have since been converted into shops and restaurants.  On the east side of the square is the Provincial Court or “Hotel de Ville” which is just slightly less ornate than the Town Hall in Burg Square.  Dating back to 1477, the oldest building in the Markt is the Boechoute House, which features a terrestrial globe on its roof which measures solar time.  The markings of what I originally thought was a clock at the front of this building turns out to be directional, possibly to measure wind direction?  Two buildings to the right, the Craenenburg House was used to briefly imprison Maximilian I of Austria when he was captured by local militia in 1488.

The highlight of the Market Square is the Belfry, an 83 metres (272 feet) tall Medieval bell tower originally built in 1240 as an observation post which housed a treasury and municipal archives at its base.  For 10 Euros, you can climb the steep, narrow winding staircase of 366 steps that lead you towards the top of the Belfry.  Several platforms along the way act as rest stops as well as mini museums where you can read information about the tower as well as view items like the wooden chest in the treasury that used to hold gold pieces, the clockwork mechanism, the Great bell that was originally rung manually, and the carillonneur’s chamber containing the keyboard that plays the 47 carillon bells.  Rich did not want to make the climb, so I tackled it alone.  After buying my ticket, I had to wait for my turn to proceed.  The Belfry had quite the sophisticated turnstile system that kept track of how many people entered and exited in order to control the capacity at the top.  Once the maximum number of people had entered, the entry turnstile would not function until someone departed through the exit turnstile.  This provided a very efficient flow of people coming in and out.

It was a long, difficult ascent to the top and sometimes, the steps were so steep that it felt like you were climbing up a vertical wall, grabbing onto the next railing or rope to keep your balance.  But the gorgeous panoramic view of Bruges at the top made it all worthwhile.  I could see Our Lady Church, the Burg Square, our hotel, and the canal traversing through the city and more.  While I was taking my photos through the wire mesh that covered the windows, the giant bells directly above us started to ring and were deafening.

In the centre of the Markt stands the statue dedicated to Jan Breydel and Pieter De Coninck, two guildsmen who led a major uprising called the “Bruges Matins” against the French king in 1302.  Breydel, a butcher and Coninck, a weaver, led the Bruges militia in a nocturnal attack of the French garrisons that resulted in the massacre of most of the French troops.  This revolt culminated in the Battle of the Golden Spurs, fought several months later between French knights on horseback versus foot soldiers amassed from civic militias from multiple Flemish cities who joined in the fight.  The battle was fought outside the city of Kortrijk, just south of Bruges, on a battlefield covered with streams and ditches dug by the Flemish militias, making it difficult for the cavalry to advance.  Using this advantage, the well-trained Flemish foot militia defeated the mounted, heavily armoured French knights, leading to a change in the nature of warfare henceforth.  The battle was named for the 500 pairs of golden spurs captured on the battlefield.  Although the victory was short-lived, with the French recapturing control of the area in 1304, this was still a significant triumph and source of national pride for Flanders, marked by the sculpture erected in the square in 1887.

We took the Legends of Bruges Free Walking Tour to get a bit more background and history about Bruges, as well as hoping to be shown some more obscure sites than the Market and Burg Squares which we had already thoroughly explored on our own.  One such location was the Half Moon Brewery (De Halve Maan), a 150-year-old brewery run by the Maes family, who successfully crowdfunded the money to build an underground pipeline from the brewery to its bottling plant 3.2km away, alleviating the need for tankard trucks to traverse through the old town.  Part of the pipeline is on display running through the cobblestone grounds in front of the brewery.  Another interesting site on the tour was the Ten Wijngaerde Princely Begijnhof, a sanctuary and residential community for pious women since the 13th Century and a convent for the Benedictine nuns since 1927.  The complex includes a church and 30 houses dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  The main gate is accessed by the 3-arched, stone Wijngaard Bridge.  One of the legends that was told on our walking tour involved the stone tomb-like post at the foot of the bridge, marking the beginning of the Beijnhof property.  According to legend, the Beijnhof had its own laws and so a fleeing fugitive could not be arrested once he passed that point.

In the movie “In Bruges”, hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fines) in order to hide out after Ray accidentally kills a little boy while executing a hit on a priest.  While there, they interact with the cast of a movie being shot, including a midget actor named Jimmy and a female drug dealer named Chloe.  During our walking tour, the guide made numerous references to spots that were featured in the movie “In Bruges”.  Many scenes including the movie’s finale were filmed in the Markt Square and the Belfry including two occasions when Ken climbed the steps of the Belfry.  We strolled over the romantic Bonifacius Bridge where Ray woos Chloe and gets her phone number, which led to Our Lady Church and the Gruuthusemuseum where Jimmy's movie was being shot. Just outside the museum, the beautiful Arentshof Park hosts a set of bronze sculptures by Rik Poot, depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing War, Famine, Pestilence and Death.

Other iconic Bruges locations featured in the movie “In Bruges” included the Groeningmuseum of Flemish Art which Ken forced Ray to visit in order to gain some culture, the old fish market called Vismarkt, where Ray ran through during a climactic chase scene, various locations along the canal including the Hotel Orangerie where Ken and Ray embarked on a canal tour, and the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, a stylish hotel, decorated with works by artists such as Matisse and Klimt which was used as the location where Ken and Ray stayed and were forced to share a room. 

In addition to walking around the area, we also took a 30 minute canal boat tour that let us see the buildings and bridges from a different perspective.  Because the tour was given in the three languages commonly spoken in Belgium (Dutch, French and English), it was sometimes difficult to understand which building or landmark was being described because by the time we heard the description in English, we either already passed it or had not reached it yet.  Still, it was fun cruising by the large swans and traveling under the bridges.  One bridge was so low that we all had to duck our heads in order not to hit the top of it.  Near the Beijnhof, we rode through the area called Minnewater, also known as the “Lake of Love”, based on a legend about star-crossed lovers Minna and Stromberg from rival tribes.  There was a large contingent of swans swimming in Lake Minnewater.  Another legend tells that this was decreed by Maximillian of Austria in the 15th Century to punish Bruges for executing his town administrator Pieter Lanchals, whose coat of arms contained a swan.

With still so much more to see and do in Bruges, we planned a second day, which will be described in the next blog.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp: Stadspark, Fomu, Architecture Walk

Our 5th day in Antwerp saw us heading back to the south-west part of the city to visit the Photography Museum (FoMu).  This time, we would take a different route through Stadspark, a 35 acre triangular park located south of the Antwerp Central train station.  Unfortunately, the Museum of Modern Art, which is also in that area near FoMu, was closed for renovations.  Accordingly, this would make it a light touring day for us, which wasn’t such a bad thing, since we had been on the go non-stop since we arrived in Antwerp and were due for a rest.

Stadspark (meaning “City” park) was created in 1869 on the site of a former Spanish military fortification called Fort Herentals.  Designed by landscape architect Friedrich Eduard Keilig in the style of a romantic English landscape garden, Stadtspark features expansive lawns, groves of trees, and a pond converted from the former moat of the fort.  A pretty iron suspension bridge, painted white, was built to span the pond and is attached on either end to artificial rock formations.  Statues and sculptures are scattered throughout the park, including a massive bronze WWI/WWII war memorial in the south-west corner of the park.  This was the first Sunday after Easter and we were delighted to walk by an open field where a large group of children with baskets were participating in an Easter Egg hunt, directed by several adult helpers dressed in Easter bunny suits.

After exiting Stadtspark, we came across a farmers market and a flea market in the Theatre Square (Theatreplein) in front of the Stadsschowburg Theatre, which was advertising performances of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita.  Nearby, we came across Stripwinkel Beo, a store which specializes in comic books including popular Belgian, European and American comics, and vintage comics including first editions.  They also sell comics-related figurines and toys.  It was interesting to see the comic book versions of some of the comics murals that we had visited over the past few days, including Suske and Wiske, and Fanny K from the Kiekeroes.

While we had not previously heard of most of the Belgian comics prior to this trip, we were now getting familiar with some of the more common ones.  We wondered why references to TinTin were so prevalent, but not Asterix and Obelix, which was a comic book series that I read many of in the past.  We finally found some of these Asterix books in Stripwinkel Beo, but discovered that the comic strip was not Belgian in origin but actually French.  There were many interesting comic books in this store and it was fun browsing through the collections.  Unfortunately, they were mostly in Dutch, so the best we could do was to look at the drawings, although many of the words in Dutch are close enough to English that you can take a good guess at what they mean.  Knowing how much I love Broadway musicals, Rich was excited when he found a comics book titled “Broadway – Een Straat in Amerika”.

En route to the photo museum, we looked for the last comics mural on our walking tour we had been following for the past few days.  It was supposed to be on Leopold de Waelplaats and we even had a photo of what the mural should look like, but despite walking all around, we were unable to find it.  We did come across a huge monument on a circular street called Lambermontplaats in honour of Auguste Lambermont.  This Belgian statesman led a 7 year battle from 1856-63 in order to end historic levies imposed by the Dutch government on commercial navigation along the River Scheldt into Antwerp port.  The levies dated back to the times when Belgium was under Dutch rule.  Upon his success at negotiating the termination of the crippling tolls that were strangling Belgian trade, Lambermont was made a baron and this monument was erected in 1912 in his memory.  This monument is nicknamed “the little boat”, since from one direction, it is shaped like the bow of a ship.  Further north on Verlatstraat, we found a classic example of Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture in a building that is now the Hair Linea salon.  Just before reaching FoMu, we passed the pretty "Waterpoort" (Water Gate), which is based on a design by Ruebens.

The Fotomuseum (FoMu) has a large collection of historical and contemporary photography, from which a subset is presented each year as temporary exhibits, along with other traveling exhibits from external sources.  The ground floor of Fomu is home to “Cinema Zuid”, which specializes in presenting classic old movies, cult, avant-garde or experimental and alternative films.  The lockers available for storing items like coats, bags and umbrellas are unique in that they do not use the traditional alphanumeric numbering system to differentiate each locker.  Instead, each locker is associated with an iconic photo, like Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Time Square (aka “The Kiss”).  The photo is displayed on the inside panel of the locker door as well as on the outside of the door, and on the keychain attached to the locker’s key.  What a great way for a photography museum to highlight the beauty of photography.  Use of a photo booth is available on the ground floor for 2 Euros and the results of some of these photo strips decorate the stairwells.

There were exhibitions on three levels of the museum.  We decided to take the elevator up to the top floor and make our way down.  Looking at the elevator buttons, we were amused to see that the entire ”3rd floor" was dedicated to toilets.  The exhibit on the 4th floor was called Braakland (meaning Fallow Fields), providing a forum for experimental photography with rotating themes being featured over a 7 month period.  The theme on display during our visit was “Changing Perspectives” where Belgian photographers explore the use of old and new photographic techniques using different cameras from the FoMu collection.  The photograph that I found most interesting was one called “Refractive Lens Exchange” by Jeroen Bocken.  When I first glanced at the photo, I did not realize what I was looking at.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the face of a man covered in plastic with only his left eye exposed, possibly ready for some sort of surgery.  Descending to the 2nd floor (past the floor with the toilets), we came across the large black and white photo of an older man dancing.  This was part of the exhibition of works by Alec Soth, an American photographer known for documentary-style photos that tell a story.  This photo was of 88-year-old Bil (his mother could not pronounce the second “L” in his name), a Baptist from Sandusky, Ohio who learned to dance at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio at age 28 and has been ballroom dancing ever since.

Alec Soth’s exhibition titled “Gathered Leaves” covers four photographic projects that he worked on over the last two decades, each resulting in a published photographic book. His "Niagara" series looks at Niagara Falls from the perspective of affordable honeymoons, capturing photos of brides and grooms, wedding rings displayed in a pawnshop, bars and other wedding venues, and seedy motels.  In his “Sleeping by the Mississippi” series, Soth followed the 2000-mile course of the mighty river, capturing slice-of-life images of the people he met.  His shot of a forlorn-looking woman named Kym sitting on a bright red banquette in the Polish Palace Nightclub in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the red walls covered with Valentine decorations, evokes sympathetic curiosity.  Similarly interesting is the photo of Crystal from New Orleans, Louisiana, dressed in her Easter finery while sitting on a bedspread covered with Disney princesses.  Alec Soth’s photos contain such interesting details that make you want to know more about the stories of the subjects.  His third series called “Broken Manual” explores how and where people go to hide and escape from civilization.  Traveling around the world, Soth photographed hermits, runaways, survivalists and monks who lead secluded lives “off the grid”, as well as their secret hideaways.  Included in this exhibit is a copy of Doug Richmond’s 1985 manual describing how to plan a disappearance, as well as a film shot by Soth called “Somewhere to Disappear”.

I found the final book called “Songbird” the most interesting in terms of the potential stories that lie behind the photos, sometimes hinted at by the captions accompanying them.  This series of black and white pictures deal with community life in small towns and cities, where Soth attended festivals, dances, meetings and other communal gatherings to capture every-day people in action.   The innocuous photo of a solitary man walking in a wide-open space takes on new meaning when you learn that he is on the Facebook main campus in Menlo Park, California.  It is ironic that this man seems so alone when he is in walking on the site of the company known for interacting with friends and making connections.  Perhaps this is a commentary on how "online friendships" are replacing actual personal interactions?  The long line of men in cowboy hats are walking towards an execution in the Huntsville Prison in Texas.  I felt a strange empathy for the little short contestant of a local “Miss Model” contest in Cleveland, Ohio and you could almost make up an entire backstory about the cool looking dude with his girl at the rodeo dance in San Antonio Texas.

The exhibition on the ground floor was dedicated to father and son Belgian photographers Rik and Herman Selleslaggs, whose joint archival collection of over 250,000 items, consisting of photos, negatives, contact sheets, glass plates and slides, was donated to FoMu in 2015.  Rik Selleslaggs (1911-82) ran a photography agency, taking photos of life in Brussels during WWII, focusing on product photography after the war, and documenting the effects of the worst flood in Dutch history, which occurred between Jan 31-Feb 1, 1953.  A severe storm and high tides caused the dikes along the River Scheldt to burst, resulting in deaths in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

Rik’s son Herman Selleslaggs (born 1938) joined his father’s agency when he was 16 and eventually took over as the documentary press photographer while his father concentrated on the more profitable business of creating images for advertisements.  Herman is known for his photographs of politicians, athletes, actors, writers, musicians and celebrities including subjects like Paul McCartney, Alfred Hitchcock, novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, Pink Floyd, and Mick Jagger.  One of Herman’s most famous shots is of McCartney jumping off a trampoline.  Herman worked as the in-house photographer for the magazine HUMO for over 50 years, creating an iconic image of Flemish cowboy and singer Bobbejaan Schoepen standing in a swimming pool.  HUMO repurposed that image multiple times, replacing Schoepen’s head with that of other personalities.  A few shelves provide a small example of the hundreds of boxes of donated archival material that FoMu will have to carefully sort through, categorize, digitize, clean and repackage for preservation.   Herman removed some of his most famous photography series and stored them in separate boxes that were available for perusal as part of the exhibition, but white gloves had to be worn to protect the images.

After touring the FoMu Photography Museum, we wandered around the Zuid district in search for lunch.  Unfortunately it was Sunday and most of the shops and galleries in this area were closed.  We picked the Ice Shop, Burger & Bagels since it was one of the few places that was open, but were very happy with this random choice.  We really liked the stylish décor highlighted by the beautiful mural with the logo “Ice is Nice” featuring images of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and John Lennon.  We were even more impressed when we found out that the mural was painted by the owner.  Being another cool day, we ordered a hot chocolate to warm up and were pleasantly surprised to receive a cup of hot milk and a bag of Bernard Callebaut chocolate pieces, which we were told to pour into the milk and stir.  There was an extensive burger menu to choose from.  I selected the “Mountain Goat” which contained Black Angus beef patty, caramelized onions, goat cheese, guacamole and mayo.  Rich had the “Soprano” with mozzarella, pancetta, sundried tomato, parmesan and pesto.  It was funny that the names of the burgers were in English but the ingredients were in Dutch.  We could figure out the words that resembled English or French such as tomaten or champignons but had to reply on Google Translate to look up words like “gekarameliseerde uien” (caramelized onion) or “zongedroogde” (sun-dried).  The burgers were big and juicy and delicious.

For dessert, we decided to have another try at the Belgian waffle with stewed cherries and whipping cream.  We first experienced this treat at Désiré de Lille but were a bit disappointed that it arrived so quickly, implying that the waffles had been pre-made.  This time, we waited while our waffle was made-to-order and came out fresh, crisp and hot.  There was a noticeable difference to the quality and taste of this waffle compared to the previous one.  The use of mostly black, white and red colours to decorate this restaurant made it a perfect candidate for taking a photo using the special mode on our camera, which turned the picture into a black and white image, except for one colour (in this case, red).   Coca-Cola was prominently on display in the restaurant including what looked like a temperature-gauged fridge mounted on the wall, and the most interestingly designed coke can that I have ever seen. I wonder where they got this?

The itinerary for our 6th day in Antwerp was quite different than the previous days, which were spent visiting museums, churches and shopping districts.  On this day, we planned to take a self-guided architectural walking tour through the areas of Zurenborg and Berchem, and especially the street Cogels-Osylei, which has been touted as having a large collection of Art Nouveau houses.  When we arrived on this street, we saw a long line of gorgeous homes, but only a few of them were Art Nouveau in style.  In addition, there was quite the eclectic mix of styles including Gothic Revival, Flemish Neo-Renaissance, Greek Revival, Neoclassical, British Tudor.  There was even one that was Art Deco Streamline Moderne, which looked really strange next to its much more elaborate and ornate neighbour.

While the majority of houses on Cogels-Oyslei were not in the Art Nouveau style as we were expecting, the varying architectural styles and design motifs were amazing to see, especially all congregated on one street.  We saw multi-coloured and multi-patterned bricks, turrets, crow-stepped gables, ocular windows, Juliette balconies, majestic archways and more.  It is good to know that every house on Cogels-Osylei has been declared a heritage site and will therefore their stunning façades will be protected.  Many artists seem to live here, including photographer Herman Selleslaggs who we learned about at FoMu.

The Art Nouveau buildings that we did see featured many of the expected elements of the style including arches and curved forms, asymmetrical lines,  colourful, decorative mosaics, use of nature motifs such as flowers stalks and buds, vines, insects and birds, ornate wrought-iron railings with curlicue patterns, and a general sense of grace and elegance.  The best example on Cogels-Osylei is the house at #50 named “Huise Zonnebloem” (Sunflower House).  Designed by Jules Hofman in 1900, its highlights include horseshoe-arched windows, golden sunflowers and heart-shaped designs cut out in the banister.  Most of the other examples of Art Nouveau can actually be found on streets adjacent to Cogels-Osylei including Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat and Generaal van Merlenstraat.

On each corner of the intersection of Generaal van Merlenstraat and Waterloostraat sit four corner-house buildings designed by architect Joseph Bascourt and built in 1899.  Collectively called “The 4 Seasons”, each building is decorated with a mosaic representing one of the four seasons—Spring (“Lente”) is represented as a young girl surrounded by spring flowers (possibly bluebells?), Summer (“Zomer”) as a mature woman with flowing hair, Autumn (“Herfst”) as an older woman with harvested grapes and Winter (“Winter”) as an old man in swirling snow.  In keeping with the seasonal themes, the trim and windows of each house was painted to reflect the corresponding season with spring and summer painted in green, autumn and winter in reddish-brown.

While looking at all the beautiful structures in the Berchem district, we came across a mansion that had been turned into a Belgian café called Wattman.  We thought it would fun to actually see the inside of and to dine in one of these grand houses, so we decided to have our lunch here.  Unfortunately, while a few original features of the house could still be seen within the restaurant, most of the rooms including the walls and floors had since been modernized.  I would have loved to be able to see the upper floors and hoped that the toilets might be there, but no such luck.  The toilets were on the ground floor and that room had also been modernized.

After the architectural tour of the Zurenborg/Berchem districts, our original plan was to continue south to the Middleheimmuseum Outdoor Sculpture Park.  However when we checked Google Maps for directions, we realized that it was Monday and the park was closed. So we deferred this visit to the next day, which was supposed to be our rest and packing day before we set off on a 3 day road trip to Bruges and Ghent.  Rather than walking south after lunch, we walked back through Zurenborg and came across a few more architectural gems as we headed home, taking note of more examples where disparate architectural styles sit side by side.  As it turned out, the next day was cold and wet and the park was far away from our home.  We decided that we didn't want to be wandering outside in this weather so we ended up skipping it all together and taking our rest day after all.  So, this day marked the end of our exploration of Antwerp.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp: MAS Museum, Port Area, Steen Castle

After three days of exploring the south-west portion of Antwerp, the fourth day would see us heading north towards the Port area.  We planned to walk towards the Museum aan de Stroom, a museum of Antwerp history, whose name aptly translates to “Museum by the River”.  After that, we would tour the port area, have lunch at a local pizza place, and then walk back south to visit the Steen Castle.  On the way home, we intended to swing by the De Wilde Zee food shop area again (this time trying not to lose our dinner like we did on the previous day), pass by a few more comics murals and then head home.  This would be another long walking day and we were starting to think that a rest day might be in order soon.

The Museum aan de Stroom (Nicknamed MAS) focuses on the history of Antwerp and contains over 500,000 items including artworks and utensils in its collection.  Progressively telling the story from floor to floor, the museum explores the politics that shaped Antwerp, the importance of ports, influence of food supplies and more.  This massive museum sounded interesting but also exhausting, since we had already spent several days walking through museums and art galleries. We decided that we would not pay to visit MAS, but instead would ride the escalators up to the top floor for free so that we could see the panoramic view of Antwerp.  The 60-metre high MAS building, made from Indian red sandstone and curved glass panels, is quite stunning to behold and is considered to be Postmodern architecture.  The glass openings are staggered so that they face a different direction on each floor, providing a different view of Antwerp as you stop at each level.

From the lower levels, we had some great views of the port area that surrounds the MAS.  There was a majestic building across the River Scheldt that we were not able to get anyone to identify for us at the time of our visit.  After we returned home, I asked our home swap hosts and found out that it was the Pilotage Building, built in 1895 by architect Ferdinand Truyman.  Designed in the Neo-Gothic style, this building provided maritime and port services including housing for the ship “pilots”, office space, warehouses, postal and telegraph offices, and archive space.  We walked up to this building later on, so that we could see its ornate details up close.  At the back, there was a war monument dedicated to the Korean War.

Right next to the MAS, there was a clever set of sculptures depicting figures climbing up the side of a building.  It was interesting to be able to see it first looking up from street level and then looking down from above.  As we rose higher and higher, we could see further out into the streets of Antwerp, back towards the old town and the home where we were staying.  Off in the distance, the tall spire towering over the other buildings probably belonged the Cathedral of Our Lady.

When we returned to the bottom of the MAS and walked across the courtyard in preparation to tour the port area, we stopped to read a plaque describing the 1600 square metre stone mosaic that was imprinted on the courtyard floor. Created by Antwerp artist Luc Tuymans, it depicts the “Dead Skull” on a memorial plaque found on the exterior wall of the Cathedral of Our Lady.  As it happens, I took a photo of that plaque when we visited the Cathedral.  However, from our vantage point standing on the stone courtyard, we could not see the image.  All we saw were a few blotches of darker grey stone mixed in with the lighter grey stone.  I decided to go back up the series of escalators, looking out at level where there were windows facing in the proper direction.  As I got higher and higher, the image started to take shape and by the time I got back to the top floor, I could clearly see the reproduction of the Dead Skull carving.  Rich declined to join me on my trek back up the MAS, opting instead to sit down and rest.  On my last photo, he is the little black speck sitting on the wall at the top of the mural.

In the harbour of the Port area, we saw motor boats, sail boats, a freighter, a tall ship and a “hotel” sailboat called the Majorie that offered 12 rooms.  A sculpture on the other side of the habour across from MAS shows the figure of Jan Cornelis Van Rijswijck, Mayor of Antwerp from 1892-1906, standing at the bow of a steamship.  At the far end of the port, we saw the recently opened Port Authority building, which was created by taking a disused heritage fire hall and adding a huge glass extension on top.  The new structure consists of transparent and opaque triangular panes that sparkle like a diamond and reflect the colours of the water and sky and changes in appearance as light conditions vary.  The building also looks quite different depending on which angle you look at it and from some vantage points, it actually looks like a diamond, paying tribute to Antwerp's Diamond trade.  Designed in 2009 by Zaha Hadid Architects, the addition measures 100 metres in length and brings together 500 Port Authority staff who were previously situated in separate sites.  Because the building below is a heritage site, the extension had to be propped up above it, ensuring none of the original façade was damaged or concealed.  This mix of old and new architecture reminds me of the glass structures added to the Louvre in Paris and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

While we were in this area, we had a special place planned for lunch.  We learned that the brother of our home swap host was co-owner of Otoman Heavenly Pizza, which specializes in creating pizza crust made from the yeast of the popular Belgian Duvet beer.  We found it interesting that beer is so prevalent in Belgium that it is even found in pizza. The menu featured multiple tomato based “Otomat” pizzas, as well as white pizzas made with a sour cream base that are cleverly called “Notomat” pizzas (pun obviously intended).  We chose a tomato-based pizza with chicken, mushrooms, bacon, ricotta and mozzarella topped with arugula, as well a white pizza that was a play on a traditional Flemish dish.  This was a white pizza with white asparagus, hard-boiled egg, fresh parsley, nutmeg, and old cheese.  Being asparagus season, Asperges à la Flamande featuring white asparagus, hard-boiled egg and mousseline sauce is a specialty dish that we tried several more times during our trip.  We also ordered the most delicious salad made with chicory, sliced apples, pecans, crispy onions and a honey dressing.  Chicory is not an ingredient that we are familiar with but it is definitely one we will try again in the future.  We really enjoyed our meal at Otoman and it was an extra treat knowing the connection to our home swap hosts.

After lunch, we walked south along the east bank of the River Scheldt until we reached Steen Castle, a Medieval stone fortress built after the Viking invasions in the Middle Ages that was used to control access to the river.  The oldest building remaining in Antwerp, the castle got its name since "steen" is Dutch for "stone" and this was one of the few structures built in stone at a time, when most other buildings were made of wood.  The fortress was used as a prison until the early 1800s, then a residence, a saw mill and a fish warehouse.  Most of the structures were demolished in the late 1800s.  The remaining building was turned into a Museum of Antiquities, and then the National Marine Museum until 2011 when MAS opened and the artifacts in Steen Castle were moved there.  Today, the castle seems to be a Visitors Centre holding workshops for children.  The remaining part of the castle is still quite impressive and it is free for people to roam around the grounds.

At the entrance bridge to Steen Castle is a large bronze sculpture created in 1962 by Albert Poele, depicting two humans looking up at the Flemish folkoric shape-shifting giant Lange Wapper, who played tricks on and teased drunks and cheats.  He seems like a nicer giant than Druon Antigoon, the vicious giant depicted in the sculpture at the Town Hall, who cut off the hands of the townspeople.  A memorial to Canadian World War II soldiers describes how 550 soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Infantry division defended the Antwerp port against enemy attack, securing the harbour’s vital equipment.  Around 6500 Canadian soldiers were killed in this campaign.  On November 28, 1944, a Canadian supply ship became the first vessel to traverse the River Scheldt, bringing supplies that contributed to the Allied Victory.  It was quite poignant and made us proud as Canadians to see this plaque in tribute to our troops.

Across from Steen Castle, we spotted the 16th Century red brick and white sandstone building with the central crow-stepped gable flanked by stairwell towers on either side.  This was the Butchers’ Hall or Vleeshuis (translated as Meat House), the former butchers’ guild hall and possibly also the slaughterhouse.  The butchers’ guild was the oldest trade guild in Antwerp, resulting in many wealthy butchers.  Today, the building houses the Museum of Sound and Music, with artifacts including musical instruments, manuscripts, paintings, and models reflecting 600 years of musical history.  The museum follows the changing musical entertainment styles through history, including minstrel singing, bell ringing, opera singing, church music, public concerts and dance.  We didn’t go into this museum either, since by this time the day was waning and it was time to go in search of supper and to start the long walk back home.

On the way home, we continued with our Comics Mural tour, passing by three more large-scaled drawings.  On Keizerstraat, we found the mural depicting the character “Cordelia” who is considered a to be semi-autobiographical representation of the artist, known as Ilah.  On Paradijsstraat, a scene from artist Merho’s comic strip “De Kiekeboes” shows father Marcel and mother Charlotte on a stroll, while daughter Fanny rides her bicycle and son Konstantinople rollerblades.  On Frans Halsplein, numerous characters from the comic strip Jommeke by Jef Nys are depicted, including the titular blond-haired protagonist and his best friend’s black poodle Pekkie in the foreground.  It took a bit of effort to locate some of these murals since we often only had a street name to go by, as opposed to an exact address, but it was always thrill when we finally find them.

We returned to the De Wilde Zee shopping area and picked up enough food to last us for our next two dinners.  Having scouted out meal potentials on the previous day, we were able to make our choices quite quickly.  At Pastaiolo, we ordered a tub of mushroom ravioli in truffle cream sauce, and a zucchini tortellini in a tomato sauce.  From the seafood deli Van Bladel, we had our eye on the shrimp salad, and the seafood paella with large prawns, mussels, calamari and clams.  These dishes made for a hearty main course that we accompanied with the big bag of shredded greens that we bought from the local supermarket on our first day in Antwerp.  It is nice to be able to eat a meal at home after a long day of walking around, as well as having a quick breakfast in the morning before heading out for the day.  This is one of the nice advantages of home swapping that we appreciate the most.