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.

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 Booking.com, 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.