Last night of the trip. Tomorrow we are returning to London, Greenwich, school and work. I will be very busy and there will be, I predict, another major blog break.
Our last two days were spent in Brussels. We arrived on Friday morning and got to our hotel, Les Bluets. We were a little afraid as a scan through the internet revealed that many people found the owner to be somewhat unpleasant and bordering on a dictator. Their claims were exaggerated, although she was on several occasions very specific about the behaviour she considered to be appropriate. For example, when we arrived, she warned Jeff several times (within three minutes of our arrival) to be careful with his huge backpack, as a previous hotel guest had knocked over ‘something very important’. Likewise, at breakfast, she directed the seating plan, putting us at the same table as six middle-aged German women, while leaving another table open for a family who was apparently coming down for breakfast. We were later joined by a German couple at the same table. We sat slightly isolated as the Germans laughed about what we could only assume to be the unusual breakfast arrangements. Below is an image of the ‘breakfast hall’:
The hotel itself is designed in a very old-fashioned style with many knick-knacks placed throughout the house. Some earlier guests had commented that the house is more like a museum than a hotel, although Jeff felt like it was similar to visiting someone’s grandmother. All of this having been said, I like this hotel the most of the places during this trip. It feels very comfortable and welcoming and the price and location are reasonable.
Shortly after checking in, we took the metro to the city centre. We started at the Grand Place (see a picture here), the main city square. We have seen several city squares on this trip but this was by far the most magnificent. It is bordered by the Hotel De Ville and a number of guildhalls for merchant guilds including Bakers’, the Wheelbarrow and The Bag. Around the Grand Place, we also checked out the Galleries St Hubert, a kind of early shopping mall built in the nineteenth century. Today, the arcade houses beautiful shops and cafés:
After looking around the Grand Place, we walked towards the Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts and the connected Musee Magritte Museum. On the way there, we walked through the upmarket neighbourhood of Sablon (with its hundreds of antique shops, art galleries and boutiques). We also stopped by the Place Du Petit Sablon, a lovely little park with bronze statues depicting medieval guilds. Below is a picture of one of them:
We finally made it to the museums but realised we did not have enough time to take in the exhibits that day, so we decided to keep walking. We walked by Palais Royal and Parc de Bruxelles. In the park, we took a brief break so Jeff could check the computer. We somehow managed to lose our Belgium & Luxembourg guide along the way and so we bought and downloaded an e-version of a Brussels guidebook. This was quite useful, although it meant that we had to refer to our laptop every once and a while.
We located a nearby district Rue St Boniface which has a number of cafes and restaurants. We then had an early dinner at L’Ultime Atome, a popular brasserie. I had mussels with cream and garlic (pictured below) and Jeff had confit de canard. Jeff’s duck was very delicious and my mussels were better than those I had in Middelburg. The only drawback of the restaurant was that they charged customers 30 cents to use its washroom.
On our walk home, we checked out a second-hand bookstore called Librairie Hankard. After exhausting Peter Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London, Jack Rackham’s The Rag & Bone Shop, Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man, Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, I was greatly in need of a new book, and I chose a monograph on surrealism by Patrick Walberg, in anticipation of our trip to the Magritte Museum.
We walked home as the day died. It was beautiful and the run-down streets of Brussels took on an amiable air. At one point, we sat at Place Stephanie, watching the traffic go by. It was little more than a traffic circle but sitting there was one of the loveliest moments of our trip. We returned to Les Bluets for a good night’s sleep.
Today, we deliberately left the hotel early so as to get to the museums when they opened. We walked about twenty minutes to them, once again passing through Sablon. An antiques market was being set up as we passed by, so we stopped by for a look. I bought a set of cards featuring elegantly dressed and hatted women from the late Victorian period. They are apparently used as button cards but I am thinking of using them as my name cards (or neo-Victorian ‘calling cards‘, perhaps?). Here they are:
We intended to visit both the Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts and the Magritte Museum. Because we had an assigned time to go to the latter (this policy was introduced because there were too many visitors), we went to the Magritte Museum first. Magritte is one of my favourite painters so I was very excited to see the works. After spending nearly three hours in the museum, we stopped for coffee and cake and reflected on the experience. To be honest, having previously seen so many reproductions of Magritte’s works and also read so much analysis of them, seeing the real artworks was not really that striking. Perhaps because his images are so original that seeing them in any context is enough to capture his intention. He claimed that there is no meaning or symbolism in his work. Instead he said that he did not have grand ideas, but saw only the images themselves. Still, it was good to be able to get very close to the real paintings and admire his brushstrokes. The fact that we stayed in the museum for about three hours indicated that there was a lot to take in; apart from the posters, paintings and sculptures, the museum is incredibly detailed about his life and his relationships, in particular that with his wife and faithful model, Georgette, whom he photographed and painted again and again. I felt that this was very romantic. However, Jeff pointed out that repetition was a significant trope of his career (for example, there are numerous versions of ‘The Empire of Light’ (see below)) and as such, the repeated portrayal of his wife may only be another manifestation of this particular technique. (Of course, Jeff may just be saying this to avoid taking pictures of me.)
Perhaps the coffee shop in the Fine Arts Museum is worth further mention. It may be the most attractive museum restaurant I have seen. It has captivating views from the balcony over some bronze statues and local rooftop.
After coffee and cake, we decided to focus on the modern section of the Fine Arts Museum as we did not have much day left. This section was far less busy than the Magritte Museum and featured primarily works by Belgium painters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were many well-conceived and thought-provoking pieces but the ones that stood out were those by Marcel Broodthaers. His works tend to be somewhat cynical. For example, we saw several in which he had used old mussel shells to make ironic comments on Belgian consumerist society.
However, the most unexpected piece of artwork in the Fine Arts Museum was its elevator. It was maybe the loveliest elevator I had ever seen, featuring as it does two sets of seats on either side of its large interior. As the elevator stopped on one of the floors, we saw some people looking at us (and another older couple) as if the lift and its passengers were an exhibition. Here are some people on display:
We walked down towards the Vismet (Fish Market) after visitng the museums. On the way, we stopped by a special cafe called Le Greenwich. Its appeal to us not only had to do with the fact that it shares the name of our current London abode, but also because Magritte used to play chess and drink here. It has also been visited by chess legends such as Gary Kasparov. This large old cafe has a great deal of old world charm. I was especially taken by the aging bathrooms in which women have to walk by a set of large open urinals. I had to sneak by a man peeing to get to my cubicle. Very interesting indeed. Here is a picture of some people playing chess in Le Greenwich:
We decided to retire early tonight as we are heading back to London early tomorrow.
“Locate a locale apple tree. Visit it daily through the summer months. Note how the bud slowly puffs itself up into apple-shape. See how it slowly takes a breath. The weeks roll by until its own increasing weight finally forces the fruit to fall. You will find it on the ground, all ready to eat. This whole process is utterly dependable; has a beginning, a middle and an end. But I am not satisfied. Far from it. Plain baffled is what I am. All sorts of questions remain unanswered. Such as … who taught the tree its apple-conjuring? And … where does the fruit’s flavour come from? […] O, how wonderful to be an apple tree — to know one’s place in the world. To be both fixed and fruitful. To know what one is about.” —Mick Jackson‘s The Underground Man (pp. 1-2)