Category Archives: Hey it's Saturday

48 hours in Brussels

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:

(via.)

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)

 

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How can you not be charmed by Maastricht?

 

Late this afternoon, we arrived in Maastricht, the city furthest south in the Netherlands, and is also one of its oldest. It is located near both the German and Belgian borders, which gives Maastricht a cosmopolitan feel. According to Lonely Planet, “No Netherlands itinerary is complete without visiting Maastricht.” For once, they were right. From the second you left the train station, you could feel a vibe in the city quite unlike in any other Dutch cities we had visited so far. A closer inspection of the city showed the place to be intriguing, beautiful and fashionable. Every street seems to offer a new atmosphere or interesting sight. It is perhaps due to its mixture of buildings from different periods and styles. As we walked through the city, we moved from shopping districts which had the energy of Causeway Bay to the quietest European alleys. The city in a way feels like a pastiche of all things and yet unlike postmodern pastiche which can feel artificial and forced, the streets of Maastricht flow into each other naturally.

We first dropped off our bags at our hotel, Matuchi. Then we started our early evening stroll in the city. Our hotel is on the Markt; from there we walked to the square of Vrijthof. Off the square are two impressive churches, Sint Servaasbasiliek and Sint Janskerk. Although smaller, Sint Janskerk is probably more memorable as its tower is made of bright red stone which really stands out in the Maastricht skyline. Below you will find a picture of Sint Janskerk:

After the square, we walked through some quieter parts of the city. Every corner seemed to have a new surprise. Eventually, we made it to Helpoort, the oldest surviving town gate in the country. We walked through the gate and then came upon a park which followed the old town walls. The park has a mini zoo which houses an eclectic collection of animals including ducks, geese, chickens, deer and goats. At the end of the park, however, we were greeted by a disturbing surprise. Inside a cage which formerly held live bears, we found a rather unnerving piece of public art. The work featured a number of extinct or close to extinct animals as well as a woman tending to a dying giraffe. The meaning of the artwork was obviously intended to raise awareness for endangered species. Its placement at the end of the zoo was probably also designed to admonish people for the causal attention they have paid to various animals in the earlier section of the park. The fact that all the animals in the bottom of the cage stare upwards with wounded gazes made one uncomfortable. Here are some of these animals:

Perhaps we too are guilty of apathy as on the way back to the hotel, we stopped for ice-cream at a beautiful Gelato shop called Luna Rossa. The ice-creams on display were works of art themselves and the cone we enjoyed was rich and creamy:

More about Maastricht tomorrow.


Day trips (A tale of clouds)

One day, we visited Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands. We took a double-decker train (all trains here are double-decker):

Rotterdam is one of the largest ports in Europe. Much of it was destroyed during WWII, so there is not many historical buildings left, at least in the centre where we were. Instead, it was rebuilt with a range of modern buildings. It has become well known for some interesting architecture, which we walked around to see. We got out at Blaak Train Station. Near the station is a famous set of apartments called “The Overblaak development”. It was built between 1978 and 1984 and designed by Piet Blom. The development features a pencil-shaped tower and some apartment buildings which look like balancing cubes. Below are two images of it:


After that, we crossed a long bridge called Willemsbrug, built in 1981. The bridge is coloured red and is quite striking. It leads from the main land to an island called Noorder Eiland:

While crossing the bridge, I was amazed by the layers of clouds seen in the sky. I have tried to capture the look below:

Jeff thinks that the sky here is so big because the country is so flat. He finds it reminiscent of the sky in the Canadian prairies. I think another reason for such a clear sky is that there is much less pollution here than either in Hong Kong or in London.

On Noorder Eiland, we looked at another bridge called Erasmusbrug, which the locals apparently call “The Swan”. I think you can see the resemblance below:

From the island, we also saw the KPN Telecom headquarters. The building is designed to look like it is leaning forward and resting on a giant white column. It was designed by Renzo Piano, whose work we also saw when we visited the Pompidou Centre in Paris:

After this, we returned to Middelburg via Rotterdam Centraal Station. Near the station is the Nationale Nederlanden skyscraper, the tallest building in the Netherlands, although in Hong Kong it would barely be noticed. There was a nice reflection of the sky on the twin buildings. From the below picture you can see how the buildings seem to blend into the background:

Despite its interesting buildings, Rotterdam did not prove to be instantly likeable to us. Perhaps it is the modernity of the city which makes it feel unwelcoming or more like a city anywhere in the world. I wonder if we would have liked it more had we stayed for the evening and enjoyed the city’s famous night life. Considering how much I like going to bars, I think not.

On Saturday, we left Middelburg for Maastricht. We were lucky enough to get a weekend deal, which meant that we could take first class for less than the cost of second class. When the ticket man explained the deal to us, he said, ‘The only thing is you have to take first class.’ as if it was a kind of compromise we had to make. We said, ‘Oh, even better’, which he echoed and then we all laughed.

On the way to Masstricht, we stopped at Breda for a few hours. The town was lovely and elegant. There was a beautiful park between the station and the main market. We walked through the park and had a coffee in the market. From the cafe, we could see this marvellous view of the local Grote Kerk:

More about Masstricht later.


From London to Amsterdam

It all began very early this morning. We only had about two hours sleep before getting up and going to London Bridge. The time at which we boarded the train for Gatwick was so ghastly that it does not even exist:

The flight itself could also be discribed as unusual. It was rushed and the air hostesses barely had time to serve coffee before they had to pick up the empty cups.

Once we arrived in Amsterdam, we had to wait a long time for our bags to appear. Not knowing Dutch and feeling a bit tired, the following message on the screen gave us a start. It read: “Alle baggage is gelost”:

It seemed to mean that all the baggage had been lost. But the translation revealed that it actually meant all the baggage had been unloaded. Still, it took another thirty-five minutes from the point at which that message appeared before our bags actually appeared.

We had little trouble getting through the city to our hotel, Hotel Prinsenhof, which was built in the seventeenth century. The hotel is situated in the southern canal belt of the city and is located next to a canal. When we arrived at the hotel, we seemed to be magically welcomed by a self-opening door. We later discovered that it was another set of guests leaving the hotel who had pulled on a rope which opens the top half of the door from the top of the stairs. The rope mechanism seems to have been put in place because the stairs to the lobby are incredibly steep and the staff undoubtedly grew tired of climbing up and down.

Our room (the famous “Room number 9”) is at the very top of the hotel. It has beautiful beams in the ceilings and a short ladder which leads to the window from which we have excellent canal views:

After settling in, we went for a walk. We headed north through Waterlooplein, and then into the red light district. The district is famous for its coffee houses selling soft drugs and its brothels featuring women on display in windows. We did not stay there for long.

After the madness of the red light district, we walked to the more elegant area of Jordaan where we had coffee on the street from a little restaurant. The location of the restaurant proved good for people-watching and we saw a number of flamboyant cars and some people moving to the top floor of a nearby house. The style of moving was very interesting. Here is a picture:

 

Again, we see people using ropes to avoid the stairs.

After coffee, we walked through Jordaan back to our hotel. In the more fashionable districts we passed, it was often hard to tell if a ground level flat was a home or a gallery. Not only were they fashionably designed, but people seem to leave their curtains open as if they wished to display their homes.

(There are some more pictures of Amsterdam on my Flickr page. This photography blog will be updated with new images frequently.)