Monday, May 1, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Mannekin Pis

If there is one symbol that represents the city of Brussels, based on its ubiquitous presence, it must be the tiny bronze sculpture of the naked boy peeing an actual stream of water into the basin of a stone fountain. Named Mannekin Pis and standing about 2 feet tall, the statue was created around 1619 by Brussels sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder.  This original figure survived many misadventures through the centuries including thefts, kidnappings and acts of vandalism.  It had to be restored multiple times before a replica was put in its place and the original moved to safe keeping behind glass in the Brussels City Museum.

One of the first attempted thefts of Mannekin Pis was by French soldiers in 1747.  To appease the outraged Brussels people, King Louis XV of France appointed Mannekin Pis a “Chevalier of the Order of Saint Louis” and presented the city with a nobleman’s outfit for the sculpture, including a  gown made of fine blue silk embroidered with gold, a hat, white gloves, a sword, and the Cross of St. Louis.  Since then, it has become quite the tradition to dress Mannekin Pis, with costumes being created and sent from around the world, many of them representing the national dress of the presenting countries, as well as uniforms representing trades and professions or pop culture icons.  Prior to 1945, the costumes were created so that both sleeves were stuffed, causing them to stick out on either side.  At the end of the sleeves were gloves, similar to the Louis XV gift.  In 1945, a pattern was created that took Mannekin Pis’ natural arm positions into account.  The sculpture is dressed in different costumes that are regularly changed on a pre-published schedule and often accompanied by a festive ceremony including a parade and brass band music.  Mannekin Pis has its own official dresser who is responsible for putting the costumes on and taking them off.   When we first arrived in Brussels, the statue was not dressed but a couple of days later when we passed by again, it was dressed as a “Reporter Without Borders”, decked out in a t-shirt, blue vest and pants and carrying a camera and a newspaper.  It was too bad we missed the dressing ceremony.

Two modern sculptures have been inspired by and created as tributes to Mannekin Pis.  Designed in 1985 by Denis Debourvrie, the statue of a little girl squatting to pee is called Jeanneke Pis and provides gender equality in terms of peeing sculptures.  Unfortunately the gates were closed around the statue when we visited, so we had to peer through the bars to get a good view.  The other sculpture is called Het Zinneke, depicting a dog urinating on a post, created in 1998 by Tom Frantzen.  This sculpture is positioned right on the edge of the street so that you can walk right up to it.  That makes it more at risk of damage and in 2015, it was struck by a car and had to be repaired by the sculptor.  I guess that's why the Jeanneke Pis is behind bars, in order to protect her from damage.

In addition to these sculptures, there are commercial references to Mannekin Pis in shops and eateries throughout the historic centre.  This includes the expected souvenir sculptures and dressed dolls, key chains, bottle openers, mugs, as well as a giant chocolate rendering, and versions touting all types of food from Belgian fries to gelato to waffles to candy.

Mannekin Pis has over 1000 costumes which are administered by the association called “Friends of Mannekin Pis”.  Recently a new museum called GardeRobe Mannekin Pis was established in order to display a rotating subset of these costumes which are vibrant, elaborate and intricately designed.  Mannekin Pis receives around 15-20 new costumes per year and is dressed 130 days of the year with a different costume placed on him approximately every 3rd day.  He is not allowed to wear anything that can be interpreted as political, religious or commercial.  Many countries are on display with costumes representing their national history or culture.  It is interesting that the wardrobe from Canada is a Montreal Canadiens hockey uniform with hockey stick and toque (what happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs??).

As only about 100+ costumes can be physically on display in the museum at any time, the ones that are not currently being shown can be viewed online via kiosks.  You can search by themes such as Historic Costumes, Sports, Professions, Folklore, Military, Radio and Television, Carnival, Arts, Characters, Music, Personalities, etc.  Once you pick a theme, you will be given a list of costumes that fall into that theme and then you can drill down to see a larger image and get more information.  Through the online catalogue, we found two more Canadian related costumes – a “Traditional Costume from the Province of Quebec”, and a “Canadian Bagpiper”.

Because they were easily recognizable, I liked some of the pop culture costumes including Elvis, Dracula, Obelix from the French comics Asterix and Obelix, and actor/singer Maurice Chevalier, who was present for the dressing ceremony of his costume.  It was fun taking on the role of Mannekin Pis dresser, choosing from a pile of sample clothing and putting them onto a replica statue.  As we left the museum, we noticed the giant mural of Mannekin Pis dressed in jeans, sneakers and a “30 years of Belgian Hip Hop” t-shirt, with a boombox at his feet.  The representation of the little peeing boy really does seem like it was everywhere in Brussels.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Galeries St-Hubert, Grand Place, La Botanique, Hotel Metropole

Having spent 8 days on a home swap in Antwerp, 2 days in Bruges and 1.5 days in Ghent, we were now ready to take the last leg of our Belgian vacation, which was a week in Brussels.  Once again, we chose a rental apartment that was right in the centre of the old town, and this time, just a few blocks away from the Brussels Central train station.  After having such an easy time finding train schedules with direct routes between Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, we were very surprised when planning our travel to Brussels Central that the route provided for us by the Belgian Rail online trip planner involved 2 transfers from the train including a streetcar followed by a bus!?!  We couldn’t figure out why this would be, until our home swap hosts informed us that the Brussels Central station was closed for repairs on weekend that we wanted to travel.  Instead we had to take the train to Brussels North or South stations, each being about a 25 minute walk or a short bus ride back to the centre of the city.  We went to Brussels North station and intended to take the bus, but could not find the stop for it and opted to walk instead.

We rented a large apartment in a gated apartment complex, one block away from a major shopping complex and within walking distance of most of the major attractions.  The roomy apartment had a full kitchen, dining room and living room, a desk and chair for my computer and a double bed.  It was probably larger than we needed since we never went into the living room and didn’t actually cook in the kitchen.  We did use the refrigerator and kettle, as well as the microwave to reheat take-out meals.  As is typical in European homes, the “bathroom” was split into a room for the toilet and another room for the shower.  The toilet room was so small that we could not close the door without feeling claustrophobic, and had to move the toilet paper stand outside the room to create more space.

While the location of our accommodations was perfect, there was an issue when we found out that the WIFI was not working and could not be easily fixed.  To her credit, the agent that looked after the place took personal responsibility for the situation and worked persistently with the unit owner to find a solution.  In the end, she gave us money so that we could buy a temporary 30-day internet access from the Telecom company Proximus.  Unfortunately there was an issue with the Proximus server and because it was a holiday long weekend in Belgium, we were unable to get support and I went without internet on my laptop for 3 days of our stay in Brussels.  Luckily we also had a Belgian data plan on our cell phone so we still were able to access the Internet that way.  But it meant that each evening when we were relaxing in our apartment, Rich and I were constantly jockeying for time on the phone, rather than each being able to surf on our own devices.  While I always like renting an apartment in order to have a bit of extra space and the availability of a refrigerator, in retrospect, we would have done just as well at the Hotel Ibis down the block, and most likely would not have had the WIFI issues.  I will have to take that into consideration when booking accommodations for our next trip.

Completed in 1847, Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (whose name unfortunately makes me think of the similarly named roast chicken chain) is an elegantly covered shopping arcade with a glass-paned roof that is supported by decorative ironwork. It consists of a 213 metre long passage traversing north-south, that is divided into two main sections separated by a colonnade at Rue des Bouchers.  To the north of the divide, the passage is called Galerie du Roi (King’s Gallery) while to the south is the Galerie de la Reine (Queen’s Gallery).  A smaller passage perpendicular to the main one is called the Prince’s Gallery.  Glazed, arched storefronts and cafés separated by ornate classical columns or pilasters line both sides of each passageway.  There is also a Cinéma des Galeries that screens movies, and two “royal” theatres holding live performances.  The Théâtre du Vaudeville where operettas and revues once played, is now used as an event space.  The Théâtre des Galeries stages both classical and contemporary plays.  While waiting for our apartment to be ready for check-in, we had some breakfast at Mokafé and sat at a table in the passageway so that we could continue to admire the architecture.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert used to be a meeting place for noted writers including Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas as well as painters and artists.  Today, high-end stores sell jewelry, leather goods including hand bags and designer gloves, books, home décor, accessories, gifts and souvenirs.  Rich was especially interested in the Vacheron Constantin watch dealership, which he called one of the “holy trinity” of high-end watch brands, along with Patek Phillipe and Audemars Piguet.  The Vacheron Constantin watches are known for their high level of finishing as well as their high prices.

The shopping arcade is also a chocolate mecca, with representation from all the major Belgian and French brands including La Belgique Gourmande, Léonidas, Corné Port Royale, Godiva and Neuhaus, which sold the “Incredibles”, our favourite chocolates that we first tried in Antwerp.  Neuhaus was represented twice in the mall, with both a smaller boutique and a larger salon store which included a huge window display that revealed what the crispy/chewy nougatine biscuit looked like inside an Incredible.  There were so many chocolatiers available that it was difficult to choose between them.  We sampled chocolates from several of them and decided that we liked the hand-made and hand-decorated truffles and pralines from Mary Chocolatier the best.  In business since 1919, Mary Chocolatier was awarded the title of "Certified Royal Warrant Holder of Belgium".  Rich declared that the Mary chocolate covered marshmallow was one of the most delicious treats that he had tasted so far in Belgium.  We spotted a series of beautiful Art Deco inspired tin boxes of chocolate chip cookies at the shop Delices du Roy.  We didn’t particularly want the cookies, but thought the box would make a great souvenir.  So we bought the tin, gave away the cookies to the agent who helped us with our WIFI in our apartment, and filled the box with chocolates and truffles from Neuhaus in order to safely transport them home.

Another big name in high-end Belgian chocolate is Pierre Marcolini, a Belgian chocolatier with Italian roots on his mother’s side, who was an award-winning pastry chef before mentoring with French chocolatier Maurice Bernachon.  Because of this dual background, in addition to chocolate, the Pierre Marcolini shops also offer amazing cakes and eclairs, many chocolate-based.  Marcolini produces his own couverture chocolate, creating a high percentage of cocoa butter using beans supplied from plantations around the world including Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, Venezuela, Cameroon, Peru, and Cuba.  His specialty bars come in a square box that contains 9 pieces each engraved with an alphabetic letter, collectively spelling out MARCOLINI.  The chocolate from each box is created from beans originating from a specific country.  The store also sells artisanal truffles either individually or in gift boxes.  We bought several of the boxed squares to take home as souvenirs and ate the cakes regularly during our Brussels stay.

We were very lucky to be in Brussels and staying near the Galeries Royales St-Hubert during the week when it was celebrating its 170th birthday with a nightly LED light show accompanied by live piano music.  The orchestral music performed the night that we were there was Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, composed in 1847, the year that the shopping arcade was inaugurated.  We heard the music from afar as we were returning from dinner and got there in time to catch the finale of the light show.  The beautiful glass ceiling shimmered as it transitioned into different hues in time with the music.  This was truly a spectacular performance that we fortuitously caught on the final day of the celebration.

Located just a couple of blocks from our apartment, the Grand Place (or GroteMarkt in Dutch) is the major public square and one of the most visited tourist locations in Brussels.  It is home to the Gothic-styled Town Hall, first built in 1420 and added to throughout the 15th Century.  The Town Hall features a 315 foot tower and belfry topped by a gilded metal statue of Michael, the archangel and patron saint of Brussels, slaying a dragon.  The tower and entryway to the hall is asymmetrically positioned with the width of the building to the right of the tower measuring noticeably less than the width to the left, an oversight that supposedly angered the architect.  The various windows are of different shapes and sizes since they were added by different people over the years.  Across from the Town Hall is the “Bread House”, one of the many elegant guild houses that line the square.  The Bread House (Broodhuis) was built on the site of the former bread markets and currently houses the Museum of the City of Brussels.  In one of the paths leading out of the Grand Place can be found a monument featuring a reclining bronze sculpture of Everard t’Serclaes, a citizen of Brussels who led a group of patriots in reclaiming their city after it had been captured by the Flemish army in 1356.  According to legend, if you rub the figure of t’Serclaes or the little dog at his feet, then you will have good luck and will return to Brussels.

The Guilds of Brussels were associations of craftsmen, artisans and merchants that collectively marketed their wares in the Grand Place (also known in Dutch as the GroteMarkt).  As the guilds increased in power, they built palatial buildings around the perimeter of the square, many of which still stand today although they had to be rebuilt or restored several times over the centuries after being damaged by war and fire.  The House of Brewers, noted for the gold sculpture of a horseman at its pinnacle, is now the home of the Beer Museum.  The house with the frieze depicting a white swan in front was once the Weaver’s Guild.  The ground floors of many of these guild houses have been converted into modern stores, coffee shops and restaurants.  A plaque in front of one of the stores proudly proclaims that “Victor Hugo lived here”.

We arrived in Brussels and visited the Grand Place on the last day of “Catalan Week” and got there just in time to watch a performance of “La Dansa de la Gala de Campdevànol”, an ancient ceremonial dance thought to be a celebration of the abolishment of feudal rule by Ferdinand II in the 17th Century.  The leader of the dance (the capdancer) is dressed in a long black coat and top hat while six couples are more colourfully clad with the women in floral skirts, aprons and shawls while the men wear vests, breeches, and sandals.  A live orchestra sat on the side and provided the music while the crowd formed a circle around the dancers.  This was an unexpected treat to start off our visit to Brussels, but we were not clear what the Belgian connection to Catalonia was?

I love sculptures and much to my delight, the public squares adjacent to our apartment were full interesting examples of them.  In the tree-lined Place de l’Agora is a bronze sculpture of Charles Karel Buls, former mayor of Brussels from 1881-1899, who was responsible for mandating bilingual street signs in Dutch and French.  The sculpture perfectly recreates his magnificent beard and includes the depiction of his dog playfully jumping onto his lap.  When walking downhill towards our apartment from the Brussels Central Train Station through Place d’Espagne, we caught sight of a beautiful view of the spire of the Town Hall in the horizon, with two sculptures directly in line in the foreground.  Mounted up high on a pedestal is a rendering of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, characters from the 1605 novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.  With his arm outstretched, it seems like Don Quixote is hailing the sculpture below, a bronze by Bela Bartok (1945) of a slender man with downcast eyes and his hands in the pockets of his trench coat.  On Rue de l’Ecuyer, just north of the Galeries St-Hubert, is the whimsical modern sculpture of a female cat(?) in a bright pink tank top and black short shorts riding a bicycle.  The 2005 sculpture, made of polyester and metal, is called La Cycliste" by Alain Séchas but is colloquially known as “La Chatte à Bicyclette”.  It is interesting to note that at least in this area, the street names are mostly in French as opposed to Dutch.

The 6-hectare Botanical Garden of Brussels was originally built from 1826-29 to be part of the National Botanic Garden of Belgium before that institution moved to the neighbouring suburb of Meise in 1958.  It features a large domed orangery, French-style gardens, tree and floral-lined walking paths, fountains and sculptures. No longer the centre for botanical and horticultural preservation, since 1984 the former orangery has been used as a cultural centre called La Botanique, where concerts, art exhibitions, film screenings and other cultural events are held.  The lush grounds still remain as a popular public park for strolling or jogging.

One of the oldest gardens in Brussels, the Botanical Garden boasts 52 sculptures, created between 1894 and 1898.  This was a project overseen by two well-known sculptors, Constantin Meunier and Charles van der Stappen, as part of a larger initiative by the Belgian state to beautify the space which also included fountains and electrical lighting. The bronze sculptures have all turned green with age and feature renderings of labourers at work and various animals including an eagle, oxen, fish and an alligator devouring a snake.  We stumbled on this beautiful garden by chance while exploring the area en route to the Hotel Metropole where we planned to have a drink.

Built in 1890, the Hotel Metropole is the only 19th Century hotel still in operation in Brussels today, offering 262 rooms, 22 spacious suites, conference and meeting rooms, a café, bar, and a restaurant.  It was one of the first luxury hotels to install electricity and central heating.  Starting at 250 Euros per night, it was too expensive and too far from the touristy areas for us to stay here, but we thought it would be fun to visit the bar to have a drink and some snacks.  The lounge/bar is elegantly decorated with Corinthian columns, rich red banquet benches, gilded ceilings, and ornate chandeliers. This was the location where the Black Russian (vodka & coffee liquer) was invented in 1949.   It was such a cool ambience being in this bar.  Both the décor and the waiters dressed in the old classical style  made you feel like you were entering a time warp. 

Rich had a beer from a Brussels Brewery called Brasserie de la Senne, named after the River Zenne which flows through the city.  I had a Finley Orange Spritz mocktail, which tasted more or less like orange fizzy pop, possibly imitating an Aperol Spritz but without the alcohol.  Considering that we were in such a fancy hotel, the appetizers were relatively inexpensive, ranging from 5-7 Euros.  We had some onion rings, croquettes, mini sausages with a mustard sauce, cheese cubes and a variety of olives.

After our drinks and snacks, we wandered into the lobby for a look and also peeked into one of the conference rooms.  The hotel reception desk was created by re-purposing the wicket windows of a former bank.  The ceilings of the lobby area featured stained glass windows, ornate paneling and more chandeliers.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Belgium 2017: Ghent - Day 2

On our second day in Ghent, we planned to visit the Ghent Design Museum, followed by lunch before heading back to our home swap in Antwerp to pack up and prepare for our final week in Brussels.  The Ghent Design Museum is the only museum in Belgium that features an International design collection.  It is housed in an 18th Century mansion with ornate wooden banisters, chandeliers, and murals painted on the ceilings.  But it also has a modern wing which makes for an interesting juxtaposition of old vs new architecture and design.  The museum also features the most unique toilet area that I’ve ever seen.  The public toilets of the museum are situated within a giant toilet-paper shaped structure, which we first spotted from the outside during our city walking tour.  It isn’t often when the trip to the washrooms is thought of as one of the highlights of visiting a venue!

The Design Museum has some interesting pieces in its collection.  The “Book Table” is created by Netherland designer Richard Hutten and is made of stacks of English and Dutch hard-covered books coated in resin.  A bright neon blue sofa looks like it is made of bubbles.  Frank Gehry’s 1970 “Red Beaver” chaise and ottoman is made from layers of pressed cardboard painted red.  Le Corbusier’s 1928 lounge chair made from steel covered in polyester, leather and animal hide was an inspiration for a modern version in red polyurethane by Belgian furniture designer Maarten Van Severen in 2000.

I was particularly enamoured with the elegant, yet unadorned train compartments designed in 1934 by Belgian painter, architect and interior designer Henry van de Velde, who worked in the Art Nouveau style in his early career, and later played a role in establishing the Bauhaus style as part of the German Werkbund association.  Van de Velde created this train interior while he was artistic advisor for the National Railway Company of Belgium (NMBS).   The two compartments had plush velour seats, netted overhead bins, metal coat hooks, carpeted floors and were surrounded by beautiful smooth, sleek wooden panels.  Leaning towards modernism, no trace of the ornamentation or embellishments of the former Art Nouveau style was present.  The rounded edges and shapes formed by the panels on the sides of the seats were particularly appealing.  The compartment on the left was for smoking and included an ashtray in the little side table by the window, while the one on the right was non-smoking.  The sign accompanying the exhibit indicated that a first and second class compartment had been donated to the museum, but other than the difference in the colours of the seats, I could not tell the difference between the two sides.  Or perhaps these were both the first class compartments and the second class got to sit on the little fold-down wooden seat on the outside wall?

Another highlight of the Ghent Design Museum is the Alonso International Glass Collection, accumulated by Spanish diplomat Antonio Alonso.  Alonso was fascinated by the qualities and technical possibilities of glass design.  His favourite designs were by “Val Saint-Lambert”, a Belgian crystal glassware manufacturer founded in 1826 that was the official glassware supplier to King Albert II, 6th King of Belgian from 1993 to 2013.  The signature piece by Val Saint-Lambert is called the “Oignons de Jemeppe”, beautifully decorated vases made from opal glass mixed with translucent and opaque enamels, shaped like onion bulbs with a long stems.  The colours and patterns imprinted on these pieces were stunning.

There was a section featuring designs by contemporary artists including works that looked like modern interpretations totem poles, as well as examples of wallpaper, rugs, material, clothing and decorative arts. The rug by Christoph Hefti (2015) called “The Visitors” is made from dyed wool and silks, and reflects mystical and spiritual themes inspired by his travels to Nepal.  I was fascinated by a floor covering by Sophie Schreinemacher (2016), made of connected pieces of wood shaped like diamonds, that could be shifted in shape so that it seemed more like a puzzle than a rug.  I watched an animated video where this object seemed to take on a life of its own, morphing into various forms so that it could tuck behind a door or under a stool.  I also liked the “day bed” by Hannes van Severen (2014), made from many layers of what looks like multi-coloured felt, with some of the layers rolled up to form a pillow.  I’m not sure how functional or comfortable this “bed” would be, but it definitely looked cool and stylish.

The Ghent Design Museum is currently in the process of re-curating their permanent collection, so many items were not on the display floors.  Instead, an area called the “Storage Depot” contained many of the pieces, stored on metal shelves stacked four levels high.  We could walk along the aisles of the shelves and inspect the items including chairs, stools, end tables, lamps, pottery, glassware, decorative arts and vintage electronics.  There were some very beautiful and interesting pieces tucked away in these shelves but the items on the upper shelves were difficult to get a close look at.  It will be nice when they get displayed properly in the galleries again.

Prior to heading back to our home swap in Antwerp, we wanted to have a leisurely lunch to make up for the rushed snack we ate the day before, in order to make it to our walking tour in time.  It was great that we had a rail pass that allowed us to board any train at any time as opposed to a fixed ticket, so we really were not under any time pressure.   We wandered back to the Old Port area and since it was a relatively warm and sunny day compared to the day before, we opted for a restaurant with an outdoor patio so that we could have a view of the water and the street life around the port.  We picked the restaurant De Graslei and after venturing away from it the night before, we were back to dining on traditional Belgian fare.  We were given an amuse-bouche of a fish paté on toast, followed by another cheese croquette and a pepper steak with fries.  At this point, the meal was nothing special since we had eaten similar dishes for almost two weeks now, but the ambience was wonderful.  We had a nice time chatting with an old British couple that sat next to us who were just in town for the day as part of a cruise.

After lunch, we watched the boaters and kayakers enjoying the nice weather on the canal, before heading back to the hotel to pick up our luggage.  Because we chose to stay in a hotel this time, it was no problem to leave our bags with the front desk after checking out.  Along the way, we spotted a mural with references to scenes from the Ghent Altarpiece, which we had spent so much time admiring the day before.  Once we had our bags, it was back to the busy Korenmarkt where we would catch the bus that would take us once again to the Ghent train station.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Belgium 2017: Ghent - Day 1

Having spent two lovely days in Bruges, our next stop was a day and a half in Ghent before heading back to our home swap in Antwerp.  Since we did not have that much time planned, we wanted to get there as early as possible and left right after breakfast.  Luckily the train ride from Bruges to Ghent only took 25 minutes.  It still seems incredible to me that traveling between these two cities in Belgium takes less time than most journeys that we take locally within our home city, either via transit or driving.  Although most people that we have communicated with so far in Belgium could speak English, it was a bit disconcerting that all the written and spoken messages on the trains were only in Dutch and French.  Had there been an issue with a train, I’m not sure my high school French would have been sufficient to figure out what was going on.

We chose to stay at Ghent’s Novotel Centrum Hotel, right in the heart of the old town and within walking distance of all the sights that we wanted to see.  Unfortunately the train station was almost 3 kilometres away from the city centre and over 30 minutes by foot.  Instead, we took a bus that dropped us off at the Korenmarkt, the main city square just a few blocks from our accommodations.   Just outside our hotel, we could spot the three major towers of Ghent—the St. Nicolas Cathedral, the Ghent Belfry and St. Bavo Cathedral.  We planned to take a Ghent walking tour in the afternoon, where we would learn more about some of these sights.  We wondered about the strange modern-looking structure made of wood, glass and concrete that stood in front of the Belfry and resembled mountain peaks from afar.  This turned out to be the “City Pavilion”, a multi-functional event space, open-air concert hall and café that has people divided in their opinions of whether this is an architectural masterpiece or an eye-sore. 

The must-see attraction when visiting Ghent is St. Bavo’s Cathedral, so we made this our first stop after checking into the hotel.  St. Bavo houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, created by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432.  Prior to entering the special area to see the altarpiece, we first inspected the beautiful 89-metre Gothic cathedral with a Baroque high altar in white, black and red flamed marble and the gorgeous Rococo pulpit named Triumph of Truth Over Error.  Created by Laurent Delvaux (1741–1745), the pulpit is made of Danish oak, gilded wood, Carrera marble, a wrought iron fence and features angels, cherubs and woodland and floral elements.   Peter Paul Rubens' painting Saint Bavo Enters the Convent at Ghent (1624) is hung in the north transept.  The depiction of women carrying babies and the rippling muscles of the male figure at the bottom of the painting has many similarities to Rubens' masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents.  Just like in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady where we saw the sculpture of the “preening bishop”, this time, we were amused to see a sculpture of a reclining bishop that appears to be taking a nap.

The Ghent Altarpiece (also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) is a giant polytych consisting of 12 panels connected by hinges, with 4 panels on each side forming folding winged doors and 4 panels in the centre.  Taken as a whole, its main theme is Man’s salvation through the sacrifice of Christ.  There is debate over which aspects of this work are attributed to the lesser known Hubert Van Eyck and which to his more famous brother Jan.  The common consensus is that Hubert planned and created the initial frames and structure of the altarpiece but died before it could be completed.  Jan then painted most of the images on the panels.  The Ghent Altarpiece is considered one of the world’s most important and treasured art pieces and also one of the most stolen.  The various panels have been separately pilfered, confiscated or sold and then returned multiple times through history.  In fact, the bottom-left panel titled “The Just Judges” was stolen in 1934 and has never been found.  A modern day reproduction, created by Jef Van der Veken in 1945, stands in its place.  The missing panel is one of the great art theft mysteries in history and even recently, rumours continue to swirl regarding where it might be and hope is abound that it may one day be reunited with the rest of the altarpiece.

The altarpiece is stored behind glass in a separate temperature and humidity controlled chapel within the Cathedral.  No photos are allowed while you are in this room but luckily there are many images on the Internet including the “Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the GhentAltarpiece” website sponsored by the Getty Foundation that provides extreme closeup views of each panel.  Instead you are handed an audio guide that provides such a detailed explanation of each of the panels that we ended up spending almost an hour inspecting it, jockeying for position with the hoards of other visitors.  The enormous work stands over 11 feet tall and 15 feet wide and after a while, my neck started to hurt from craning it back for so long to view the top panels.  In order to preserve this masterpiece, which has endured upheaval and plundering during three major wars (French Revolution, WWI, WWII), fire damage and being stored in salt mines, the panels have undergone constant conservation and restoration efforts.  We were very lucky to have been able to see the entire work intact, as the latest restoration had completed mere weeks before our arrival in Ghent.

The left-most and right-most panels of the top row present very realistic, almost life-sized portrayals of Adam and Eve in the nude, covered only by fig leaves.  Inspecting high-resolution closeups of the two nudes on the Getty Foundation website, it is amazing to see the level of detail depicted including fine strands of hair, blemishes, veins, toe and finger nails.  There are a couple of theories to explain Eve's protruding stomach. One is that she is pregnant while another suggests that van Eyck might have used a clothed model reflecting the bulging fashion of the times.  I am more curious about what the small wrinkly, yellowish fruit or nut is that Eve is holding, since it definitely does not look like an apple.  Above Adam is a small depiction of Cain and Abel’s sacrifices to God, who accepts Abel’s offering of a lamb but rejects Cain’s offering of crops.  This leads to the scene above Eve when Cain kills his brother Abel in jealous anger for being snubbed.  In contrast to the vibrant colours in the rest of the paintings, these two sections are illustrated in a monochrome style called “grisalle” that is used to give the illusion of sculpture.

Moving inward, the two panels next to Adam and Eve each depict Celestial angels, singing and playing musical instruments.  Careful inspection of these panels provide good examples of the Flemish Primitives style of painting, which focuses on intricate details as can be seen in the robes of the angels as well as the musical instruments and music stand.  Surprisingly, the angels are depicted more like earthly as opposed to heavenly beings, dressed in ecclesiastical cloaks and crowns, with no signs of wings or halos.  The faces of the angels are all similar but each shown with a different expression.  It is said that you can tell which note each singing angels is producing by looking at the shape of her open mouth.  The three central figures on the upper panels represent the Virgin Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right.  Our audio guide described at length the debate over whether the crowned central figure dressed in red robes represents God or Jesus Christ.  Some believe that this is God, who is usually depicted with a papal crown and lacks the usual stigmata and bare feet that are used to portray Jesus.  There are also Latin inscriptions that translate to “Here is God .. King of Kings”.  Others take the youthful face and the presence of grapes (symbol for the blood of Christ) and pelican (representing Christ’s sacrifice) in the background as an argument for this being Jesus.  Also, Jesus is usually depicted between the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, while God is usually portrayed as part of the holy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Perhaps the most plausible explanation comes from those who believe this is a composite of both God and Jesus.

The five panels of the bottom row form a continuous scene depicting all the different groups converging to participate in the adoration of the Lamb of God, as described in the Revelation to John (Book of Revelations).  The two left panels show the arrival on horseback of judges and knights while on the two right panels, hermits and pilgrims approach by foot.  The central panel reveals four more groups approaching from all four corners—Bishops and Cardinals from the top left, female martyrs holding palm leaves from the top right, Jewish prophets from the bottom left and the 12 apostles followed by popes and clergy from the bottom right.  All these groups are advancing towards the altar on which a wounded Lamb stands, blood gushing from its leg into a golden chalice (the Holy Grail?).  The lamb is symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice and I guess is the origin of the phrase “sacrificial lamb”.  Surrounding the lamb are 14 winged angels, some holding items referring to Christ’s crucifixion, including the cross and the thorny crown.  Above the lamb is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and directly above that is the red robed God/Jesus figure forming a vertical trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and supporting the argument that the ambiguous figure is or at least has attributes of being God.  Directly below the lamb is the Fountain of Living Water, a common Christian symbol associated with baptism.

The four panels on either side of the Ghent Altarpiece are painted on both sides and form wings or doors that fold inwards, covering the centre four panels.  The altarpiece was intended to be closed most of the time and open only during “High Mass” held on Sundays and religious holidays.  The upper panels depict the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel (on the left) informs Mary (on the right) that she will be the mother of Christ.  Above them are renderings of prophets and sibyls (female oracles).  The two middle panels on the lower row are statue-like images of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, painted in grisaille.  Most interesting are the two colourful panels on the lower left and right, depicting a kneeling man and woman dressed in red robes that stand out relative to the pale or grisaille hues of the other panels.  These are depictions of the donor Jodocus Vjid and his wife Lysbette, who commissioned the altarpiece.  When we first arrived to view the altarpiece, it was in its open position, but you could walk behind it to inspect the back panels.  The outer wings close each day between noon to 1pm and we were lucky enough to be present to witness this process prior to leaving the cathedral.

After our extended visit at St Bavo Cathedral, we grabbed a quick sandwich to-go and ate it while heading to the start of our guided walking tour.  Having already taken a tour of Bruges, we found many similarities between that city and Ghent.  Both cities have picturesque canals running through them, ornate town halls, an old fish market (vismarkt), and a tall belfry (bell tower).  On the Bruges walking tour, we were told of how their precious gold dragon sculpture was stolen (captured as a war trophy) by Ghent in the 14th century and that we would see it atop the 91-metre Ghent Belfry.  Sure enough, there it was at the tower’s highest peak, acting as a symbol of the city’s power and freedom for the city, although the Ghent tour guide denied that they stole it.

Our tour guide explained the historic significance of a noose which he wore around his neck.  In the 16th Century, the people of Ghent rebelled against King Charles V of Spain to protest high taxes levied against them to pay for wars being waged.  The rebellion was quashed by 5000 Spanish soldiers and the leaders were given the choice of surrendering and submitting to the taxes or death by hanging.  We stood on the square called Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market)  where 26  town leaders chose death.  The rest were made to apologize to the King and march around town with a noose around their neck.  The Noose of Ghent is a revered symbol today and the march is re-enacted each year as part of a festival in July.  At the centre of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde, a 14th Century political leader who negotiated with the King of England for trade and protection.  The stone castle Gravensteen was built in 1180 and served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until the 14th Century.  Our tour guide said that the castle was used more for protection against local rebellion than from foreign invasion.  The castle now hosts a museum of torture devices.  We were also shown 15th Century wrought-iron cannon that is nicknamed “Dulle Griet” or Mad Meg, after the Flemish folklore that also inspired the famous painting in Antwerp by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  It was used in an unsuccessful siege in 1452.  Today, its opening is covered with Plexiglas to prevent people from climbing inside.

We passed several elaborately decorated buildings including the 16th Century Mason’s Guild Hall that features a stepped gable roof topped on each step with sculptures of dancers that twirl in the wind.  On the street called Kraalei is a Baroque house dating back to 1669 which is called “the Flute Player” because of the figure that sits on top of it.  Today it is a Thai restaurant.  The house to the left of it is called “The Seven Works of Mercy”, featuring six stone carvings on its façade.  What happened to the seventh work is a mystery.  It is home to Temmerman, the oldest candy store in Ghent.  Another pretty building is the Keizershof Brasserie found in the Vrijdagmarkt.

Following our walking tour, as we headed back to the hotel, we came across Werregarenstraat, a long alleyway covered with colourful graffiti, including tags and street art.  This is one of the few areas in Ghent where graffiti is tolerated and the street has become a bit of a tourist attraction.  I especially liked the art placed behind a window grill that made it look like a man was in jail behind bars, as well as the graffiti-covered sculpture with arms outstretched as if asking for a hug.

After two weeks of indulging in traditional Belgian fare, we were ready for a change.  For dinner we chose the Italian restaurant Marco Polo and ate pizza and pasta.  After our meal, we wandered back through the streets that we visited earlier during our walking tour and looked for opportunities to take night photos with the lights shining on the buildings.  There were many excellent opportunities for night shots, especially along the canals where the reflections of the buildings glimmered in the water.  We would spend another half day in Ghent the next morning before heading back to Antwerp.

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.