The DougBlog
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

High Times in the Low Countries, Part 1: Brussels

I know, I know, I’m behind. So here’s the first installment of my lovely trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with Janét!

Our first stop was Brussels. Many people, when I told them I was going to Brussels, said greeted that news with a resounding “eh”. And while it might not be Europe’s greatest city, I have to say that I actually liked it a lot. It was very charming and manageable.

Flying there meant flying—dare I say?—coach!! After being spoiled in business class on business trips I was dreading it. But truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. The one thing I expected to miss was the free booze, which helps both my nervousness and my ability to sleep. So in order to maintain this feature and not run afoul of the “3 ounce” rule, I brought some shampoo bottles filled with booze! And I kept them in the seat pocket, calling it “the bar”. It don’t get classier than that:


Also, was it just coincidence that on the flight to Brussels they served us…Brussels?:


Once we were safely in Brussels, we took a nap and then headed out to the city’s most famous place (literally): La Grand-Place (Grote Markt in Dutch in this officially bilingual city—although generally French does prevail, and that’s why the Flemish are always on the brink of seceding…but I digress). It is a wide-open area surrounded by many beautiful and varied façades, mainly built in the 17th Century. It’s even a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is dominated by the City Hall, built in the 1400s, which is on the left in the first photo (as always, you can click any photo to enlarge and/or enhance the colors):






Our next stop was Brussels’ other most famous attraction, the Manneken Pis. Yes, this is a classy statue of a little boy peeing. Despite this dubious subject matter, he is so well-respected that he gets little costumes on holidays and it is tradition that all world leaders, when visiting Belgium, bring as a gift an example of their national dress in the Manneken Pis’ size—and 600 of these costumes are now on display in the City Hall:


Here’s Janét—you can see how surprisingly tiny it is for such a famous symbol (the statue, not Janét):


Janét made me do this:


We continued out walking tour of Brussels with the ornate Bourse (stock exchange):



And while there was nothing to see at this time, I had to check out the opera house, called The Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie because it was built on the site where the mint once stood:


In time for dinner we headed over to the Rue des Bouchers, an ancient maze of narrow cobblestone streets that mainly contains seafood restaurants. Each restaurant sets up an elaborate display and waiters stand outside to lure customers. It’s all very touristy but fun (even for those of us who don’t love seafood):





We did stop at one restaurant for “moules frites”—mussels and French fries—despite unfortunate electrical outages that put “ASS” in their name. Well, Janét had moules frites. I probably had a hot dog:


And then, of course, some Belgian dessert—chocolate and/or waffles:


The next day we started out visiting the royal palace:


It’s lovely but seemed a little bit like it had seen better days (apologies to King Albert II). This perception was not helped by the fact that the guards looked like they had spent a little too much time guarding the royal donuts:


Or the fact that there was an old hubcap out front:


The Church of St Jacques-sur-Coudenberg:


Our next stop was the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. We only went to the Museum of Ancient Art, which contains many masterpieces up through the 19th century. It’s a lovely building surrounding an atrium:



Janét admiring a grand canvas:


“The Flood” by Kessels (you know I love to take me some B&W statue photography):


Another statue by this same Kessels character, “The Discuss Thrower”. I actually prefer this is color because it was set nicely in front of Jacques-Louis David’s final masterpiece, “Mars Disarmed by the Three Graces”:


Finally, although this statue was backlit by a window, I decided to embrace the overexposure and came out with this interesting effect:


Janét admiring another famous work by David (my favorite artist, incidentally—who actually died in Brussels), “The Death of Marat”:


I enjoyed the unfortunate juxtaposition of this sign and this work of art. I mean it’s not the greatest painting I’ve ever seen, but is it really that disturbing? (click to enlarge if you can’t read it):


Then again, these next few works really were somewhat disturbing:




Let me go no further without mentioning the “Top 10”. The only travel books Janét brought were “Top 10 Brussels” and “Top Ten Amsterdam”. These books tell you the top 10 things to see, with a complicated system of sub-top-10s and topical top 10s and the such. Janét was often obsessed with checking off all 10 items on a given list. At the museum that meant searching high and low for the #10 painting on the list. And after all that…it was gone!:


Next we visited Brussels’ main church, the Cathedrale Saints Michel et Gudule:


The edifice was very ornate with many strong characters:



This guy looks like the Moses in our old Haggadah:


Of course the interior was striking as well:







Our last stop of the day was La Place des Martyrs. It’s an old city square where more than 400 Belgians were killed during the Belgian Revolution of 1830 (when Belgium won its independence from the Netherlands). They didn’t know what to do with all the bodies so they buried them on the spot, eventually erecting this underground crypt and soaring monument:




More B&W statue photography!:


Then we rested up for the day with a few beers overlooking the square. Belgium is famous for beer, and I have to say that trying to complete Janét’s “Top 10 Belgian Beers” list was one of the more enjoyable challenges her book had to offer!:


Our last night in Brussels we enjoyed a last waffle and beer (is that like ”a smoke and a pancake”?) on the Grand Place:







We also completed another “Top 10” by finding Le Renard, a famous golden fox on one of the buildings on the Grand Place. It had eluded us until now—perhaps because it turned out to be a tiny sculpture over a 24-hour ATM:



In the next post, we’ll discover the medieval Belgian city of Bruges.
BUT FIRST…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!


Janét gets brainy in Brussels:


Nice coconuts:


Our hotel room had this terrific view of what I liked to call “The World’s Largest Traffic Cone”. Perhaps it was a monument to all of the fallen traffic cones that have been lost before their time to bad drivers or deep potholes:


See you “In Bruges”….

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