Category Archives: Belgium

Pitoresque Bruges

Travel to Bruges and discover the most delightful little city of canals and bridges, medieval Flemish architecture and higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets. Often compared to Venice for its canals, Bruges also has a Florentine touch, evident in its Renaissance flamboyance thanks to a prosperous period in the 16th century. The Count of Flanders, one of the richest noblemen in the West, was based in Bruges, and the town was a hub of commerce, with merchants from 34 different countries regularly trading here.

The history of Bruges begins in Roman times, when a settlement grew up on the site of the present-day city. The town was fortified by the Romans and began to prosper through its trade with England and Scandinavia. The Roman fortifications were strengthened in the 9th century amid fears of Viking invasions.

In the 11th century the channel linking Bruges to the sea silted up, hampering trade. However, fortunes were restored by a violent storm in 1134, which resulted in the formation of a deep channel known as the Zwin. This channel re-opened Bruges to the sea and trade boomed once more.

Over the following centuries Bruges became a key trading centre in north-west Europe, exporting Flemish cloth all over the continent. The city expanded rapidly, which necessitated the construction of a new circuit of walls in the early 14th century. The city had grown so big that the new walls were 7km in length.

In 1300 Bruges had been annexed by France and when the inhabitants rebelled against French rule they were put down with force and the newly built city walls were partially demolished. It was probably in the mid 16th century that the first artillery defences were constructed at Bruges.

During the 80 Years War the city rebelled against Spain along with much of the rest of the Netherlands, but it was retaken in 1584. In 1640 Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, attempted to lay siege to the town but the Spanish reinforced it and he decided to abandon the venture. Bruges remained in Spanish hands.

The channel to the sea silted up again in the 16th century and Bruges lost its importance as a trading centre to the city of Antwerp. The lace industry revived in the 17th century and new canals were dug to link the city with the port of Sluis to the north, but Bruges never regained its medieval status.

In 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession Bruges was captured by the French in a surprise attack. A number of French troops pretending to be deserters succeeded in capturing one of the gates and they let in the rest of the French forces.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the city became poorer and was largely forgotten by the world. In 1810 Napoleon made another attempt to reconnect it with the sea by building a new canal through Damme and Sluis to the river Scheldt in the north, but the project was never completed.

Bruges’ earthwork bastions were allowed to decay as the city lost its importance and all that remains of them today are the earthen banks between the flooded ditches that still extend around three-quarters of the city. At one time Bruges was surrounded by a city wall with nine of these city gates, built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The city wall has been replaced with a band of grassy area that runs right inside the canal that surrounds almost the entire city. Out of the nine gates, there are four remaining: Ezelpoort (Donkey’s Gaye), Smedenpoort (Blacksmith’s Gate), Gentpoort (Ghent gate) and Kruispoort. The Ezelpoort was built during the construction of the second ring of ramparts in 1297. It was rebuilt in 1369 to a new design by Jan Slabbaerd and Mathias Saghen, who were also responsible for the construction of the Smedenpoort. The Gentpoort along with the Kruispoort were rebuilt by Jan van Oudenaarde and Maarten van Leuven in the beginning of the 15th century. The Gentpoort houses a small museum.

Kruispoort - Cross Gate
Kruispoort

The first Kruispoort gate was built simultaneously with the second rampart (1297-1304) and already rebuilt in 1366. Philip van Artevelde destroyed the gate when he captured the city with the Ghent militia in 1382. In the beginning of the 15th century the third gate was constructed. Only the two heavy towers with their narrow passage and two octagonal turrets were preserved. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Napoleon and Puffles and Honey all entered Bruges through this gate.

Kruispoort
Kruispoort

Near Kruispoort, four ancient windmills can be found along the canal path Kruisvest. Originally there were 25 windmills all around the edge of Bruges. The four windmills stand on the remains of the earthwork bastions of the inner fortification line. The northern most windmill, built around 1765, is Koeleweimolen Mill, but was rebuilt here in 1996 and is open to the public. Next is the Nieuwe Papegaai Mill, a rebuilt oil mill placed here in 1970. The St. Janshuismolen windmill is the only one still in it’s original position and still grinding grain, just like Koeleweimolen. The southern most windmill is Bonne Chiere Mill, built in 1888 in Olsene and moved here in 1911. The mills that are open to the public occasionally sell their own flour.

St. Janshuismolen Windmill
St. Janshuismolen Windmill
Bonne-Chiere Windmill
Bonne-Chiere Windmill

Back in the middle ages, Bruges ranked high as a city of great artists, princely palaces and economic affluence. It traced its connection with the world by the lines of canals which linked it to the sea. Today, the nearby port of Zeebrugge is one of Europe’s popular port visits for major cruise liners whose passengers help to swell the number of visitors constantly to be found thronging its streets throughout the year.

One of the most beautiful cities in Belgium, if not all of Europe, Bruges really is a must-see. The Venice of the North, as it is known, is a well-preserved centre whose entire historic area has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Rozenhoedkaai
Rozenhoedkaai

Bruges

Its attractions include a wide range of museums, churches, historical buildings and canals ans streets that can be explored by boat, foot or clip-clopping horse-drawn carriage. And cherry beer!

Prioritising any specific area becomes a difficult task. Around virtually every corner more magic, more surprises present themselves to the visitor. That said, summer or winter, morning or evening, sun or rain, the canals and their (usually packed) visitor vesels crowd the main canal – Rozenhoedkaai – which is constantly admired and undoubtedly the most photographed part of the city.

Another totally surprising ‘around the corner’ experience is the Princely Begiunage Ten Wijngaarde, a collection of small houses built for the Begiunes, a lay sisterhood of the Roman Catholic Church.

Princely Begiunage Ten Wijngaarde
Princely Begiunage Ten Wijngaarde

Its whitewashed houses front a hauntingly tranquil convent garden and a small museum. Founded in 1245, it is today still home to members of the Order of St Benedict. In addition, many small and spotless almshouses can be seen in the townscape of Bruges, mostly established in the 14th century by wealthy townspeople or guilds to accommodate poor elderly people or struggling widows.

The opposite of these poor people’s dwellings, the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges dominates the Burg Square from which the surrounding countryside was governed from the late middle ages until 1795. They were then occupied by law courts for nearly 200 years while to the left of the 14th century city hall, the old Court of Justice presents a rare example of Renaissance architecture in Bruges.

Burg Square
Burg Square with City Hall

A short walk over the cobblestoned square, the Belfry dominated Markt Square is overseen by statues of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two of the city’s military leaders against French oppression in 1302.

Markt Square and Belfry
Markt Square with the Belfry

UNESCO has placed 55 belfries in Belgium and northern France on its World Heritage list, recognising their unique contribution to civic and public architecture. The Belfry of Bruges is one of the oldest and most beautiful of all.

Belfries are bell towers. Many people associate them with churches, but originally they were municipal structures. Their primary purpose was as a watchtower, where bells could be used to sound the alarm, but, over the years, they began to serve a wider range of civic purposes. Belfries could contain storage rooms for important charters and documents – the literal meaning of the word is “place of safety or protection” – as well as a conference room, a treasury, or an armory. The Belfry at Bruges formerly housed the city treasury and municipal archives. Similarly, the bells were not used solely in times of danger. They could be rung to inform citizens of the time, notify them of civic activities and help regulate the working day. As a result, most belfries acquired a set of bells – a carillon – that could chime out different melodies. The carillon at Bruges is particularly elaborate, consisting of no fewer than 47 bells.

The 88m high Belfry in Bruges is situated on top of the Hallen (the old Cloth Hall), which dates back to around 1240. The original wooden tower burned down in 1280, after being struck by lightning, and it was rebuilt in brick. An elegant, octagonal lantern tower was added in the 1480s. This was once crowned by a wooden spire but it, too, fell victim to a fire and the burghers of Bruges decided to settle for a stone parapet instead. This affords a breathtaking view over the city and its surroundings for any tourists who feel energetic enough to climb the 366 steps, past the clock mechanism, to the summit. We felt plenty energetic for the stair climb, having recovered from the one in Delft, but unfortunately we run out of time as the Belfry does come with opening hours.

More breathtaking views can be experienced from a hot air balloon flight over Bruges, an experience we also missed out on. I can see an ad for a new royal secretary coming out any moment now!

Hot air balloons over Bruges
Hot air balloons over Bruges
Aerial view of Bruges from hot air balloon
Aerial view of Bruges from hot air balloon

Equally breathtaking is the unexpected marble Madonna with Child by Michelangelo in the chapel of the Church of Our Lady, the 122m high tower of which is the highest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The sculpture was twice recovered after being looted by foreign occupiers — French revolutionaries in 1794 and Nazi Germans in 1944. This we did see!

Madonna with Child by Michelangelo in Our Lady's Church
Madonna with Child by Michelangelo in the Church of Our Lady
Michelangelo, Madonna with Child
Michelangelo, Madonna with Child

The Church of Our Lady dates mainly from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. In the choir space behind the high altar are the tombs of Charles the Bold, last Valois Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter, the duchess Mary. The gilded bronze effigies of both father and daughter repose at full length on polished slabs of black stone. Both are crowned, and Charles is represented in full armor and wearing the decoration of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Church of Our Lady
Church of Our Lady
Church of Our Lady
Church of Our Lady

Located next to the Church of Our Lady, there is one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings, St. John’s Hospital. The first ward of the hospital was built in the 12th century and the hospital continued to be expanded until the 14th century. It was a place where sick pilgrims and travellers were cared for. The site was later expanded with the building of a monastery and convent. In the 19th century, further construction led to a hospital with eight wards around a central building.

St. John's Hospital
St. John’s Hospital
St. John's Hospital
St. John’s Hospital

St. John’s Hospital is the odd combination of a museum, a 13th century hospital and Baroque church. It is the oldest preserved hospital building in all of Europe and the museum inside gives the visitor a look at this medieval hospital ward in the time it functioned, through the collection of records, original medical instruments and art that depicts the hospital at that time. As the museum display makes clear, medicine of the day was well-intentioned, but very crude. In many ways, this was less a hospital and more a hospice, helping the down-and-out make the transition from this world to the next. The hospital chapel is dedicated to the work of 15th century artist and master of the Flemish primitives, Hans Memling. He created works specifically for the St. John’s Hospital including the famous St. Ursula Shrine.

St John's Hospital, St Ursula Shrine
St John’s Hospital, St Ursula Shrine

The Shrine of St. Ursula is a carved and gilded wooden reliquary, looking like a miniature Gothic church, containing oil on panel inserts by Hans Memling made around 1489.

The work was commissioned by the Hospital of St. John. Differently from other works by Memling, such as the Triptych of the Two Saints John or the Florens Triptych, it is neither signed nor dated. It was a container for Saint Ursula’s relics which was shown publicly only in her feast day. The relics were solemnly put in the shrine on 21 November 1489.

St. John's Hospital, Medieval Ambulance
St. John’s Hospital, Medieval Ambulance
St. John's Altarpiece, The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine, Hans Memling
St. John’s Altarpiece, Hans Memling, 1479

The St John Altarpiece (sometimes the Triptych of the two Saints John or the Triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist) is a large oil-on-oak hinged-triptych altarpiece completed around 1479 by Hans Memling. It was commissioned in the mid-1470s in Bruges for the Old St. John’s Hospital during the building of a new apse. It is signed and dated 1479 on the original frame – the date of installation – and remains at the hospital today in the Memling museum.

St. John Altarpiece, Hans Memling, 1479
St. John Altarpiece, Hans Memling, 1479

The altarpiece consists of five individual panel paintings: a central inner panel and two double-sided wings. The paintings on the outside of the shutters are visible when the triptych is closed, and show the hospital donors flanked by their patron saints. The interior has three inner panels. The focus of the central panel is the enthroned Virgin and Child flanked by saints and it is sometimes called the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine; the left-wing features episodes from the life of John the Baptist with emphasis on that of his beheading; the right-wing shows the apocalypse, as recorded by John the Evangelist who is pictured writing on the island of Patmos.

St John Altarpiece is one of Memling’s more ambitious works, and unusual in that it shares near-identical scenes with two other works: the Donne Triptych, held at London’s National Gallery, and the Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

St. John's Hospital, Diptych of Marin van Nieuwenhove, 1489
St. John’s Hospital, Diptych of Marin van Nieuwenhove, Hans Memling, 1489

The Virgin and Child with Maarten van Nieuwenhove diptych by Memling is a rare and beautiful example of an intact 15th-century diptych, known to retain its original frames and hinges. It is also notable that it reveals a new concept in the devotional portrait diptych: Hans Memling depicts the figures in a spatially coherent room, instead of showing them against the dark, featureless background favored by Rogier van der Weyden, who invented the prototype, as can be seen in the Virgin and Child with Philippe de Croÿ.

Diptychs that paired the Virgin and Child with the portrait of a donor have survived in relatively large numbers. The Virgin Mary was immensely popular in the Renaissance as a heavenly intercessor with God the Father, and the Christian faithful directed their prayers to her. The diptych format was ideal for enhancing the relationship between the secular realm of the donor and the sacred personage who was the object of his devotion.

The donor on the right panel, Maarten van Nieuwenhove of Bruges, was born November 11, 1463. He belonged to a patrician family whose members held prominent positions both in the government of Bruges and in the Burgundian court. About five years after this portrait was painted, Maarten became a councilor, then later the captain of the civic guard, and finally the mayor of Bruges (in 1498). He died on August 16, 1500, at the age of 36.

Painted not just an object of private religious devotion but also to advance Van Nieuwenhove’s career, the diptych includes numerous references to the donor’s eminent family and shows the figures richly attired and situated in an elegant interior.

Enough history and art, time for some Belgian favourites…

Cherry beer
Cherry beer
Mussels at Poules Moules, Simon Stevinplein 9, Bruges
Best mussels in Bruges at Poules Moules, Simon Stevinplein 9
A little cherry desert
And a little cherry desert to finish off a perfect day

Miss Honey Goes Shopping for Diamonds

Hello Antwerp, we’ve come to visit! And find diamonds!

Antwerp City Hall and Statue of Brabo and the giant's hand at the Grote Markt (Main Square)
Antwerp City Hall and Statue of Brabo and the giant’s hand at the Grote Markt (Main Square)

According to folklore, notably celebrated by the Statue of Brabo in front of the City Hall, the city got its name from a legend involving a mythical giant called Antigoon who lived near the Scheldt river. He exacted a toll from those crossing the river, and for those who refused, he severed one of their hands and threw it into the river. Eventually, the giant was slain by a young hero named Brabo, who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river. Hence the name Antwerpen, from Dutch hand werpen, akin to Old English hand and wearpan (to throw), which has evolved to today’s warp.

The prevalent theory is that the name originated in the Gallo-Roman period and comes from the Latin antverpia. Antverpia would come from Ante (before) Verpia (deposition, sedimentation), indicating land that forms by deposition in the inside curve of a river.

Antwerpen (in Flemish) lacks the canals and the instant picturesque charm of Ghent or Bruges, but Anvers (in French) has a richer and more dramatic history than any other Belgian city.

Its seaport lies 50km inland from the North Sea on the bank of the river Schelde. Antwerp profited from early colonial trade and by the end of the 15th century was a mercantile metroplis. In 1531, its stock exchange was inaugurated, well before the cocky Dutch East India company started to issue shares.

Culturally, Antwerp was particularly influential with a flourishing school of painting led by the Brueghel family, innovative cartographers like Mercator and the unrivalled printing house of the humanist Christophe Plantin (which today is incorporated in the Plantin-Moretus museum). City Hall with its rich ornamentation is an imposing example of Flemish renaissance incorporating and virtually crushing its Italian inspiration.

Antwerp City Hall and Statue of Brabo and the giant's hand at the Grote Markt (Main Square)
Antwerp City Hall and Statue of Brabo and the giant’s hand at the Grote Markt (Main Square)
City Hall
City Hall

Bankrupcy, the Reformation and the invading Spanish forces brought about a steady decline and massive brain drain in the 16th century, but it can’t have been too damaging when you consider that in the Baroque era many splendid churches were built, Moretus kept the print press going and painters like Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens began to establish themselves.

There is a bit of a lull between the 17th century and the late 19th century when many of the narrow, winding streets were broken up and the broad and elegant boulevards which now dominate the cityscape, were created. In 1920, Antwerp organised the Olympics and 24 years later the Nazis tried to obliterate the port. Today Antwerp is one of the world’s major seaports.

Although Antwerp was formerly a fortified city, nothing remains of the former enceinte or of the old citadel defended by General Chassé in 1832, except for the Steen, which has been restored. Modern Antwerp’s broad avenues mark the position of the original fortifications.

Het Steen
Het Steen
Het Steen
Het Steen

The best way to arrive in Antwerp is by train, and not the way we arrived. You are transported by escalator from the modern underground platform two levels down, only to slowly emerge into the cathedral-like hall of the Centraal Station (1905).

Centraal Station
Centraal Station

Louis Delacenserie succeeded in creating an ecclectic pantheon with gothic flair, which became one of the most memorable railway stations on the planet. This splendid edifice is only a couple of streets away from the world’s most important diamond district where Indian and Jewish (mainly Hasidic) diamantaires are based. You wouldn’t notice anything exceptional other than that there are more diamond shops than usual around the Hoveniersstraat.

Antwerp's main diamond trading street, Hoveniersstraat
Antwerp’s main diamond trading street, Hoveniersstraat
Antwerp diamond district street view
Antwerp diamond district street view

Antwerp’s diamond district is known as the Diamond Quarter and it consists of several square blocks covering an area of about one square mile. While, as of 2012, much of the gem cutting and polishing work historically done in the district had moved to low wage centers elsewhere, about 84% of the world’s rough diamonds passed through the district, making it the largest diamond center in the world with a turnover of 54 billion dollars.

Over $16 billion in polished diamonds pass through the district’s exchanges each year. There are 380 workshops that serve 1,500 companies. There are also 3,500 brokers, merchants & diamond cutting.

Within the district is the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, and four trading exchanges including the Diamond Club of Antwerp and the Beurs voor Diamanthandel, both of which were founded by Hasidic diamantaires. There are also four banks specializing in the financing of the diamond trade. More than 80% of Antwerp’s Jewish population work in the diamond trade; Yiddish was, historically, a main language of the diamond exchange. No business is conducted on Saturdays.

No matter where you stand in the city, the 500 year old Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal still dominates the skyline. This is where Gothic glory meets the sublime with stone lacework providing the icing on the spire.

Cathedral of our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal)
Cathedral of our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal)
Cathedral of our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal)
Cathedral of our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal)

The interior is an opulent mixture of styles but nothing can prepare you for the awe you will experience when faced with the two altarpieces by Peter Paul Rubens that define the Baroque: The Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross
Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross

Rubens painted The Raising of the Cross after returning to Flanders from Italy. The work shows the clear influence of Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo. The central panel illustrates a tension between the multitude of finely muscled men attempting to lift the cross and the seemingly unbearable weight of Christ on the cross.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross
Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross

In 1794, Napoleon removed this painting and The Raising of the Cross and sent them to the Louvre. After his defeat, they were returned to the cathedral in 1815.

If there is one museum not to be missed it is the Rubens House (Rubenshuis), also for its evocation of a luxurious 17th century household.

The Rubenshuis, The Art Room
The Rubenshuis, The Art Room
The Rubenshuis, Studio
The Rubenshuis, The Art Room

The Rubenshuis (“Rubens House”) is the former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. It is now a museum. A year after marrying Isabella Brant in 1609, Rubens began construction on an Italian-style villa on the then-Vaartstraat (now the Wapper, 9-11), at the time located on the banks of the canal Herentalse Vaart. Rubens designed the building himself, based on studies of Italian Renaissance palace architecture that also formed the basis of his Palazzi di Genova. The layout included his home, studio, a monumental portico and an interior courtyard. The courtyard opens into a Baroque garden that he also planned.

The Rubenshuis, Interior Courtyard
The Rubenshuis, Interior Courtyard, View of the Screen
The Rubenshuis, Interior Courtyard
The Rubenshuis, Interior Courtyard
The Rubenshuis, Garden
The Rubenshuis, Garden

Ruben’s return to Antwerp, in 1608, after eight productive and successful years in Italy, represented a turning point in the artistic life of the city. Thanks to Rubens and his circle, Antwerp again became a cultural metropolis of consequence. As emerges from a letter he wrote to his friend Johan Faber in Rome, Rubens was in doubt about whether to return to Rome or to settle for good in Antwerp. He had a bright future in Rome, but Antwerp offered him even better opportunities. Having decided to stay, he married Isabella Brant in 1609, and in 1610 he bought a house and grounds on the Wapper, the most attractive part of Antwerp.

In the following few years, Rubens had the house renovated and extended according to his own design, adding a domed, semi-circular sculpture gallery, a screen in the style of a triumphal arch, a painter’s studio and a garden pavillion. The screen connected the existing 16th century with the newly built studio, closing off the interior courtyard.

For the design of the house, Rubens sought inspiration from ancient Rome architecture and from famous painter-architects of the Renaissance. By renovating and extending his house, he created an Italian palazzetto patterned after the small mansions depicted by Raphael. These palazzi, based on antique models and richly decorated in the style of Roman triumphal arches, had an interior courtyard and a garden at the back.

In the dining-room, you come face to face with the master himself.

The Rubenshuis, Dining Room
The Rubenshuis, Dining Room
The Rubenshuis
The Rubenshuis

In comparison with his North-Netherlands contemporary, Rembrandt, Rubens painted remarkably few self-portraits. Rembrandt painted around forty; Rubens just four. Another difference with Rembrandt is that Rubens always presented himself in his self-portraits as a confident and distinguished gentleman, never as a painter.

The other three self-portraits were painted by Rubens as commissions or were intended as gifts. The painting in the Rubens House was probably intended for use in the studio, as a model which his assistants could copy. This painting is traditionally dated around 1630. Rubens was then fifty-three.

Rubens was the most famous painter of his time and he was swamped with commissions. In order to meet the considerable demand for his work, he was forced to operate a well-organised studio. Pupils, assistants and fellow artists helped him to produce more than 2,500 ‘Rubens paintings’. This was not an unusual situation during the 17th century. It wasn’t the final execution of the artwork that was important, but the design. The artist was able to leave the practical execution of it to his studio.

Most of Rubens’s works were created in this studio. On the work floor, he demonstrated his talent as artist and organiser. Pupils, assistants and colleagues assisted him in the production of more than 2,500 ‘Rubens paintings’, including large commissions from England, France, Spain and Bavaria and other locations.

Rubens would draft the painting in oil on a small canvas. He generally left the transfer to the large canvas to his assistants, and would have certain sections executed by colleagues who were specialised in flowers, animals, landscapes or other subjects. Rubens’s share in the painting was generally restricted to the figures, the finishing and, particularly, the supervision over the work of the studio.

A not unimportant – and lucrative – part of the studio production were the copies of originals painted by Rubens himself. Yet everything that was created here was under the quality seal of ‘Rubens’ – with the associated price tag. Anybody who wanted a painting that was exclusively the work of the master would have this laid down in a contract and would pay a fee many times higher than the normal rate.

In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de’ Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de’ Medici cycle (now in the Louvre) was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.

Galerie Medicis
Galerie Medicis, Louvre Museum
Galerie Medicis
Galerie Medicis, Louvre Museum

The art of furniture-making blossomed to the same extent as the other arts in the 17th century. An indispensable item in any collector’s house was the curio cabinet, a cleverly designed piece of furniture, containing many drawers and hidden compartments, and often made of precious woods. The curio cabinet was used for storing smaller objets d’arts or curiosa, such as antique coins, cameos, shells and other precious objects. In the 17th century, Antwerp grew into the most important international centre for the production of such cabinets. Antwerp cabinets were often decorated with painted scenes. The curio cabinet in the Rubenshuis displays mythological scenes after compositions by Rubens, painted on copper and affixed to the inside of the doors and the lid, and to the front of the drawers and other compartments.

The Rubenshuis, Curio cabinet
The Rubenshuis, Curio cabinet

Rubens spent most of his lifetime in this palace, and it was only sold after his death. The city bought it in 1937, and after an extensive restoration, the Rubenshuis was opened to the public in 1946. Dozens of paintings and artworks by Rubens and his contemporaries were installed in the rooms, as well as period furniture.

Lots of interesting things, but no diamonds here. We must keep looking, but first it must be time for some elevenses!

The Rubenshuis
The Rubenshuis

Let’s try this place, Désiré De Lille.

Desire de Lille
Desire de Lille

Désiré De Lille is a tearoom in the heart of Antwerp where you can enjoy fresh waffles, pancakes, Dutch doughnuts and the famous Lacquemants all year round. It supposedly makes the best waffles in Antwerp.

Decisions, decisions!

Desire de Lille
Desire de Lille

The desert menu is very extensive!

Desire de Lille
Desire de Lille

Mmmm, cherry ice-cream…

Desire de Lille
Desire de Lille

Still haven’t found those diamonds, do you think they are hiding underwater?

Desire de Lille
Desire de Lille

Maybe here? It’s a golden cabinet, gold and diamonds go together…

The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House

During the later part of the 16th century and the early part of the 17th, Antwerp enjoyed an especially favourable artistic and economic climate that made it the prime production and trading centre for luxury articles. It was a time when many patricians and merchants built up rich collections of contemporary and ancient art, though the majority of those collections have come to be dispersed in the course of time. The residence of burgomaster and patron Nicolaas Rockox (1560–1640) has been temporarily transformed into a luxurious art cabinet with top items from Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts (closed for renovation) and the most important works from the Rockox House itself. On display are a range of fine paintings by such masters as Van der Weyden, Memling, Van Eyck, Rubens and Van Dyck, and visitors to the Rockox House are able to see how an Antwerp art collection must have appeared in the Golden Century.

A chance, then, to immerse yourself in the world of the rich citizen of the 17th century.

The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House

Another curio cabinet…

The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House, Art Cabinet with scenes from the Metamorphosis of Ovid, attributed to Michiel Coignet
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
Master of Frankfurt, The Painter and His Wife - eating cherries!
Master of Frankfurt, The Painter and His Wife – eating cherries!

Yup, definitely eating cherries…

The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House

The Master of Frankfurt was the first major painter active in Antwerp. His real name remains unknown. The invented name given him concerns two paintings from his hand (from 1503 and 1506 respectively) which are found in Frankfurt, Germany. The small painting is said to be a self-portrait of the artist in the company of his wife. On the original frame can be seen the date 1496 and the ages of the two persons, thirty-six and twenty-seven. Depicted above is the coat of arms of Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke. This artist’s portrait is one of the earliest of its kind in The Netherlands and was mentioned in an inventory of the possessions of Margaret of Austria from 1516.

Somebody has lost his foot!

The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House
The Golden Cabinet, Royal Museum at the Rockox House

Plaster replica, on a smaller scale, of a foot of Colossus of Constantine, a statue made for the Basilica Nova on the Forum Romanum in Rome. Collecting plaster copies of sculptures from Classical Antiquity was customary among the humanists. Rockox himself kept a catalogue of his collection of antuquarian items, which included nineteen marble busts of Roman heads of state, orators and mythological figures, as well as plaster casts.

You can immerse yourself in the world of the rich citizen of the 17th century online at the exhibition website: http://www.hetguldencabinet.be/en

Finally, diamonds!

Chocolatier Burie
Chocolatier Burie

Can we have some diamonds, please?

Chocolatier Burie
Chocolatier Burie

Cherry beer goes a lot better with these diamonds…

Belgian Beers and Brews
Belgian Beers and Brews
Belgian Beers and Brews
Belgian Beers and Brews

Chocolate, anyone? It’s diamond-shaped!

Chocolate diamonds from Burie
Chocolate diamonds from Burie

A Rainy Day in the Meuse Valley

We’ve had incredible weather on this holiday, in four weeks we’ve had only one rainy day, with light drizzle, the day we went out to Meuse Valley.

The Meuse is a major European river, rising in in the French plateau of Langres in Champagne and flowing through Belgium and the Netherlands before draining into the North Sea. It has a total length of 925km. The Meuse is one of the five oldest rivers in the world. Between Givet (northern France close to the Belgian border) and Namur (Belgium), the Meuse has cut a deep valley in the Ardennes plateau and flows northwards, sometimes between fine wooded slopes and sometimes between bare slopes. The Western end of the Meuse Valley is one of the prettiest stretches of landscape in Belgium, with its meandering river, fields, forests of the Ardennes fringe, and medieval castles and abbeys. It is also home to some of Belgium’s best preserved early history, with pre-Roman mehirs and Dolmens, Roman towns and medieval buildings. The region, however, has also been some of the most fiercely fought over in Europe – between French, Dutch and German kingdoms and principalities, and between France and Germany in the twentieth century.

Starting in the 4th century BCE, the Nivelles region was gradually turned into agricultural land by the Danubian settlers. Most of their ancestral Rubanean civilization was destroyed by the Roman invaders during the first century CE. In turn, most of the Roman constructions, including villas, were destroyed during the Germanic invasions of the 3rd century.

In the 7th century, the territory was part of the Austrasian Frankish kingdom, and the Mayor of the Palace, Pepin of Landen, rebuilt a villa there. Through the marriage of his daughter Begga to Ansegisel, a son of Arnulf of Metz, the clans of the Pepinids and the Arnulfings were united, giving rise to a family which would eventually rule the Franks as the Carolingians. Pepin of Landen was thus an ancestor of Charlemagne. One of his sons is Bavo, who became a monk after a wild and selfish youth and who was later canonised. Bavo became the patron saint of Ghent and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent is dedicated to him. After Pepin’s death in 640, the bishop of Maastricht, the future Saint Amand (who also founded the two abbeys in Ghent), urged Pepin’s widow, Itta, to found an abbey in their villa. Itta’s and Pepin’s second daughter, Gertrude, became the monastery’s first abbess and was venerated as a saint upon her death. The convent became the burial site of Pepin. The dedication of the church took place in 1046 in the presence of Wazo, Prince-Bishop of Liège, and Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. This was the golden age of the Nivelles monastery, which now owned territories as far as Friesland, the Moselle and the Rhine. The convent was rebuilt in the 10th century and has subsequently been destroyed (and rebuilt) 19 times, mainly as a result of war. The current building follows the 12th century form of the church, which is an excellent example of Rhenish Romanesque architecture.

Meuse Valley Nivelles

Meuse Valley - Nivelles

The Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude is an abbey (the 13th century cloister remains), a collegiate church (seat of a chapter of canons and canonesses from the 19th century on) and a pilgrim church. 1350 years of architecture can be seen here, from the first Merovingian church (646) to today. The church is built in the Ottonian style of the great imperial monuments (Holy Roman Empire): Earlt Romanesque for the 11th century construction and Late Romanesque for the Westwork of the late 12th century. The ground plan with a choir at each end is in the Carolingian tradition. The Westwork features 8 cupolas which is unique in Belgium and emphasises the imperial nature of the foundation. 20 years after the death of St Francis of Assisi (1226) the Franciscans came to Nivelles. Sacked in 1580 by the protestants, the church was reconstructed on the orders of Margaret of Austria in the late Gothic style, and has a Brabantine chevet and windows with tracery in the flamboyant style.

Meuse Valley - Nivelles

The sculptures by Laurent Delvaux are the choicest pieces remaining of the decorative art dating from the 18th century in the Collegiale. Born in Ghent in 1696, Laurent Delvaux was one of the foremost sculptors of his time and was famous for his subtle way of synthesising the various prevalent artistic trends. After a successful international career that brought him to London and Rome, he returned to the Austrian Netherlands in 1733 as a sculptor to the court of Charles of Lorraine, based in Nivelles. Delvaux was a transitional figure between the Baroque and Neo-classicism.

Meuse Valley - Nivelles

Meuse Valley - Nivelles

Laurent Delvaux began this pulpit at the age of 74, assisted in the wood carving by Lelievre and in the joinery by Bonnet. Delvaux himself sculpted the group representing Jesus and the Samaritan woman, as well as the medallions that represent the Parables of the Sower, the Prodigal Son and the Good Father. The pulpit epitomises the art of Delvaux who, contrasting white marble and varnished wood, harmoniously combines the different movements: Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classicism.

Meuse Valley - Nivelles

The smallest town on earth, Durbuy is just 2 hours from Brussels. With a population of 500, Durbuy has maintained its charming medieval setting, another Belgian village to relax and enjoy the beauty of history. It was originally a Roman settlement, the city’s first castle was built around 889, and it gained the title and privileges of a city in 1331 by John I, Count of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia, because it was a centre for trade and justice. Today its pedestrian streets are narrow, flowered and cobbled, winding between the old bluestone homes and buildings. In December, the streets are alive with Christmas markets.

Meuse Valley - Durbuy

A district of the province of Luxemburg, Durbuy had a very important role to play in the defence of the area up until the 14th Century, due to its strategic location on the border between two provinces. The town had huge walls and a castle built on a rocky promontory encircled by the Ourthe River. The first stone of the castle was laid down in the 9th century and until the 19th century the castle was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Hendrik, Count of Durbuy erected in the 11th century a new feudal castle on the ruins of the old medieval stronghold. Only the north west wall, the keep and a small tower remain of that castle. The castle was severely damaged in 1237 and 1317 when it was besieged by the army of Liege. In 1480 and 1483 it was again under siege this time by the armies of Maximiliaan. In 1675 the army of Lodewijk XIV arrived and again the castle was under heavy siege. The biggest parts of the current castle date from the 17th century but it was also remodeled between 1880 and 1882. The family d’Ursel own the castle since 1756. Although only small parts of the original medieval stronghold are left and incorporated in the current castle it still looks impressive. The castle itself is private property and can not be visited.

Meuse Valley - Durbuy

Meuse Valley - Durbuy

It might be the smallest town on earth, but like all self-respecting Belgians, people living in Durbuy prefer hand made chocolates…

Meuse Valley - Durbuy

… and have a quirky sense of humour.

Meuse Valley - Durbuy

The castle of Freÿr with its gardens in the style of Le Nôtre is located on the left bank of the Meuse, between Waulsort and Dinant. They form one of the most magnificent natural sites in Belgium. It has been classified as one of Wallonia’s major heritage sites.

Meuse Valley - Freÿr Castle

The right bank of the Meuse is dominated by cliffs (more than 100m high, 340 million years old), from which one has an exceptional view of the estate.

Meuse Valley - Freÿr Castle

Dating back to the Middle Ages, Freÿr was a keep given in fief by the Count of Namur to Jean de Rochefort Orjol in 1378. His granddaughter Marie married Jacques de Beaufort in 1410. Their descendants have kept the estate until the present. The keep was destroyed in 1554 by the French during the wars against Emperor Charles V. The oldest part of the current castle, the east wing, was built in 1571 and is one of the first examples of the “Renaissance Mosane” style. During the 17th century the house was enlarged by the addition of three wings, forming a square with the original wing. Around 1760 the south wing was pulled down and replaced by a wrought iron gate reminiscent of Jean Lamour’s masterpiece in Nancy, closing the inner yard to give the castle its current appearance.

The castle is representative of the interior of a nobleman’s summer residence of the 18th century. It features many original elements such as the impressive main hall with wall paintings by Frans Snyders and a ceiling covered by Louis XV frescoes, or the chapel with its Regency wooden panelling and its Baroque altar. The rooms contain the ancient furniture of the Dukes of Beaufort-Spontin as well as traces of history left by royal guests (Louis XIV of France, Archduchess Maria-Christina, eldest child of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, King Stanislas I), and the living memory of 20 generations, among which is a delightful children’s coach (18th century) that won the first prize at Paris World Exhibition (1889).

Meuse Valley - Freÿr Castle

A Day in the Rainy Countryside

Meuse Valley - Freyr Castle

Meuse Valley - Freyr Castle

At Freÿr, the Coffee Treaty or Treaty of Freÿr (1675) between France and Spain was signed, and the Treaty of the Borders between France and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège (1772) was negotiated. At this time Louis XIV stayed here as the guest of Jeanne d’Harscamp, Dowager Duchess of Beaufort-Spontin.

Designed in the style of André Le Nôtre in 1760 by Canon Guillaume de Beaufort-Spontin and enlarged by his brother Philippe in 1770, the gardens are set on walled terraces on the left bank of the Meuse. They offer views towards the woods to the north and towards the Meuse to the east, and their peace and serenity contrast with the naked rockface on the far bank.

Meuse Valley - Freyr Castle

Ponds and fountains babble on the lower level where orange trees spread their delicate perfume. Most of them are 350 years old. The trees came to Freÿr in the first part of the 18th century from Lunéville, the residence of the Duke of Lorraine. They are the oldest trees in cases in Europe. The wooden cases are still built according to the original design. The oldest orangery of the Low Countries (early 18th century) combines elegance and simplicity.

Meuse Valley - Freyr Castle

The upper level is covered by hedge mazes (6km) that unveil their mysteries one by one: a set of patterns inspired by card game figures, a theme also present in the terra cotta statues made by Cyfflé.

At the very top of the gardens, the Rococo pavilion commands the view on the Meuse and seduces by its delicate stucco decoration, based on the theme of fertility with cornucopia and Tritons.

Meuse Valley - Freyr Castle

Our last stop in the Meuse Valley was Dinant, the second largest town in the Belgian region of Condroz and one of the most important tourist centers in the Ardennes. Thanks to its delightful position in the Upper Meuse valley below precipitous limestone rocks, crowned by a mighty citadel, Dinant has become a very lively tourist resort, especially at weekends when the Meuse is dotted with pleasure boats and canoeists.

Meuse Valley - Dinant

Dinant was a Roman settlement named after Diana and established as part of a system of settlements to make trade in the region easier and to increase access to the regions farmland and natural resources. In the Middle Ages the town grew as an important commercial hub for the trade along the river and became well known for a highly specialised, ornate metalwork called dinanderie. The Church of Notre Dame survives from this period (although it has been destroyed and rebuilt in its 13th century form several times). The earliest known fortress above the town was from the late 4th century, but it was destroyed by Vikings in the 9th century. It was fortress in 1050 by the Prince-Bishop of Liege, who sought to increase his control over this region (although the current fortress is mainly the one built by the Dutch in the 19th century). The town has had a tumultuous history: it rebelled against the Burgundians in 1466 – Charles the Bold retaliated by tying 800 people up in pairs and throwing them into the river; it was sacked by the French in 1554, and again in 1675. In 1914, French troops defended it for 8 days – the Germans, when they conquered the town executed 674 citizens, deported 400 more to work camps, and then set fire to the town. In 1944 what was left of the town was shelled for three days by the US army, which was trying to dislodge a German detachment from the citadel.

The town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax (1814), inventor of the saxophone.

Meuse Valley - Dinant

Meuse Valley - Dinant

In the Place Reine Astrid at the foot of the citadel hill the collegiate church of Notre-Dame stands at the end of the Meuse bridge. It is a beautiful early Gothic building from the 13th century standing on the site of a Romanesque basilica which was destroyed by falling rocks in 1227.

Meuse Valley - Dinant

Meuse Valley - Dinant

Following the devastation of 1466 the arches had to be reconstructed. The central tower with a pear-shaped dome (1566) provides a harmonious contrast to the dominating citadel high above the town. The only remains of the Romanesque church is the sandstone doorway on the north side. Inside the church examples of dinanderies can be seen in the form of the font, the Easter candles and the lectern. In the left transept is the tomb of Gérard de Blanmostier dated 1356.

Meuse Valley The_Collegiate_Church_of_Notre-Dame_Dinant

A Sunny Day in Ghent

A Sunny Day in Ghent

Ghent is a city and a municipality located in the Flemish region of Belgium. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province. Much of the city’s medieval architecture remains intact and is remarkably well preserved and restored. Its centre is the largest carfree area in Belgium. The city started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie in the 7th century, around the two abbeys of Saint Bavo and Saint Peter. However, archaeological evidence shows human presence in the region of the confluence of Scheldt and Leie going back as far as the Stone Age and the Iron Age. There are no written records of the Roman period but archaeological research confirms that the region of Ghent was further inhabited.

The two abbeys were founded by Saint Amand around 650. The city grew from several nuclei, the abbeys and a commercial centre. Around 800, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, appointed Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, as abbot of both abbeys. Around the 9th century the town was destroyed by the Normans and the counts of Flanders decided to build a fortified stronghold.

The city recovered and flourished from the 11th century on. By the 13th century, Ghent was the biggest city in Europe after Paris; it was bigger than Cologne, or Moscow. Within the city walls lived up to 65,000 people. The belfry and the towers of the Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church are just a few examples of the skyline of the period.

A suuny day in Ghent - Bellfry

A Sunny Day in Ghent

The belfry of Ghent was constructed between 1313 and 1380. The famous bell of the tower, named Roeland, was used to warn citizens of any approaching danger from outside the city walls. Attached to the belfry is the Cloth Hall, which was erected between 1425 and 1445. The Cloth Hall and the Belfry can be visited. A walk up the many stairs of the Belfry is a must to see the carillon and get a splendid view over the surrounding area.

St Nicholas Church seen from the Belfry
St Nicholas Church seen from the Belfry

A Sunny Day in Ghent

Saint Nicholas’ Church is built in the local gothic style from the beginning of th 13th century. The church has been extensively renovated over the last 30 years or so. One of the showpieces of the church is its organ dating from the middle of the 19th century. The are also two massive stained-glass windows by J.B. Capronnier, also dating from the middle of the 19th century, and now splendidly restored.

A sunny day in Ghent

St Bavo's Cathedral seen from the Belfry
St Bavo’s Cathedral seen from the Belfry

St Bavo’s Cathedral is preponderantly Gothic and was created in 3 phases, hence the variations in style: first the chancel with its chapels (1300 – 1450), then the tower (1462 – 1534) and finally the nave and transept (1533 – 1559). When Charles V was baptised there in 1500, the metamorphosis from a closed Romanesque church to a spacious Gothic one was fully underway. However, despite substantial financial support from the emperor, the cathedral still remained unfinished 58 years later. As a result, the funeral service for the deceased sovereign could not take place there.

Two main types of stones were used, in the chancel Tournai limestone and in the rest of the building ‘Ledesteen’, a calcareous limestone. In the 19th and 20th centuries, major alterations and restoration works were carried out inside and out. For example the marble floor of the nave was laid out in 1835.

A sunny day in Ghent

The contents of the cathedral date largely from the 17th and 18th centuries when Ghent was a bishop’s see. Between 1560 and 1570 two iconoclasms caused devastation and during the Counter-Reformation new features and furnishings and a new iconography emerged in ecclesiastical art. Bishop Antoon Triest was one of those responsible for the interior furnishings. He made provision for a part of his substantial fortune to be made available to embellish the church after his death. For instance, it partly paid for the pulpit. This is why his coat of arms is in the cathedral and why the chancel forms a harmonious whole.

A Sunny Day in Ghent

The high altar is a baroque marble symphony from the late 18th century.

A Sunny Day in Ghent

The florid, highly ornamented rococo choir stalls made of Cuban mahogany by Ghent craftsmen date from the same period, late 18th century.

A suuny day in Ghent

One work stands out head and shoulders above the rest of the art treasures in the cathedral: the world-famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck around 1432.

A sunny day in Ghent

A Sunny Day in Ghent

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is a milestone in art history and the most famous work painted in the Low Countries at the time of the Flemish Primitives. It attests to extraordinary technical skill and the achievement is all the greater considering that the use of oil paints was still in its infancy and that they were tried out here for the first time in this format.

It is almost a divine wonder that the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb can still be admired almost intact in its original location, a rarity in the case of Flemish primitives.

King Philip II was absolutely determined to purchase the polyptych. He didn’t succeed, so instead he had a copy made by the 16th century court painter Michiel Coxcie (and paid a high price for it). The copy was kept in Madrid but later divided up and its parts acquired by museums all over Europe.

During the iconoclasm of 1566, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was kept safe in the tower of the cathedral, and it was also spared the destruction of 1578. The Calvinist city council considered giving the work to Queen Elizabeth of England, but the heirs of donor Joost Vijdt objected. The work was houusoed in the town hall for a while and returned to the cathedral in 1584.

In 1662 – 1663 the painting was incorporated into a baroque portico altar and at the end of the 18th century the panels were removed and put into storage. It was a period when the art of the Flemish Primitives was not held in high regard. That remained the case for much of the 19th century.

The French period was another turbulent period for the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In 1794, the central four panels were taken to Paris. The French also tried to lay their hands on the side panels, but to no avail. After the fall of Napoleon, the four panels headed home.

In 1817 six side panels (not Adam and Eve) were purchased by a Brussels art dealer, sold on to a collector and eventually acquired by the King of Prussia for the museum in Berlin. The side panels were sawn apart to separate back and front so that the backs of the panels could also be shown. In 1822, the central panel was damaged in a fire in Ghent and required total restoration. In 1861 the Royal Museum of Brussels purchased the Adam and Eve panels.

Those who admired the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo’s Cathedral at the end of the 19th century saw a strange composition: the four central panels were the originals, the side panels were the old copies by Michiel Coxcie and Adam and Eve were ‘dressed’ 19th century versions which are still in the cathedral. Upon the sale of the original Adam and Eve panels to the Royal Museum of Brussels, the two panels were replaced by Adam and Eve panels painted by the Belgian painter Victor Lagye. Until 1920, the ‘clothed’ panels were simply part of the real Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The story goes that the Austrian Emperor Joseph II was overcome by an ‘attack of modesty’ when he visited the cathedral on June 17 1781 and saw the naked Adam and Eve.

In 1914 – 1918 the central panels were hidden in various locations in Ghent and after the First World War the original panels were returned to Ghent from Berlin, as stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles, and the Royal Museums of Brussels gave Adam and Eve to the cathedral as a long term loan. By 1920, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was once again complete.

In the night of April 10 1934, two panels were stolen: The Righteous Judges and John the Baptist. The second was soon retrieved but there had been no trace of the first one, despite numerous hypotheses and search operations. The Righteous Judges panel was replaced by a copy by the illustrious restorer J. Van Der Veken. One of the judges was given the face of King Leopold III.

In 1940, during the Second World War, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was taken to the castle in Pau in France for safekeeping, but the Germans seized it in 1942. At the end of the war, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was found in an Austrian salt mine along with many other art works.

The statue of the Van Eyck brothers has the two painters of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb with their backs turned to the Cathedral’s Vijd chapel, where the painting was originally displayed. This grand monument was placed here for the 1913 World Expo, which was held in Ghent, as an ode to the painters. Men, women and children bring flowers, wreaths and garlands. Hubert, the oldest of the two brothers, looks through the pages of the bible while his palette and brushes lie at his feet. His brother Jan, meanwhile, looks straight ahead while holding his palette.

A Sunny Day in Ghent

A Sunny Day in Ghent

This 13th century fortress is called the Castle of Gerard the Devil, named after its builder Knight Gerard Vilain, nicknamed the Devil on account that he liked to torture people. It’s a building with a rich past but, unfortunately, only accessible to researchers. They can consult the National Archives. For everyone else it’s a monument to view and admire from the outside. This is one of the oldest buildings in Ghent. Through the centuries, it has been used as a knights’ residence, an arsenal, a monastery, a school and a bishop’s seminary. In 1623, it became a house for the mentally ill and a home for male orphans. Another part of the building was used as a prison or detention centre. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, it has been home to the State Archives.

During the Middle Ages Ghent was the leading city for cloth. The wool industry, originally established at Bruges, created the first European industrialized zone in Ghent in the High Middle Ages. The mercantile zone was so highly developed that wool had to be imported from Scotland and England. This was one of the reasons for Flanders’ good relationship with Scotland and England. Ghent was the birthplace of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster. Trade with England (but not Scotland) suffered significantly during the Hundred Years’ War.

The city recovered in the 14th century, when Flanders was united with neighbouring provinces under the Dukes of Burgundy. High taxes led to a rebellion and eventually the Battle of Gavere in 1453, in which Ghent suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Philip the Good. Around this time the centre of political and social importance in the Low Countries started to shift from Flanders (Bruges–Ghent) to Brabant (Antwerp–Brussels), although Ghent continued to play an important role. With Bruges, the city led two revolts against Maximilian of Austria, the first monarch of the House of Habsburg to rule Flanders. Mary of Burgundy, only child of Charles the Bold and Isabella of Burgundy and as such the heiress to the vast, and vastly wealthy, Burgundian domains in France and the Low Countries, decided to marry Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The marriage took place at Ghent on the evening of 16 August 1477. The event initiated two centuries of contention between France and the Habsburgs (later of Spain, then of Austria) for their possession, which climaxed in the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701–1714.

The late 16th and the 17th centuries brought devastation because of the Eighty Years’ War (Dutch War of Independence, 1568 – 1648). The war ended the role of Ghent as a centre of international importance. In 1745, the city was captured by French forces during the War of the Austrian Succession before being returned to the Empire of Austria of the House of Habsburg following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, when this part of Flanders became known as the Austrian Netherlands until 1815, the exile of the French Emperor Napoleon I, the end of the French Revolutionary and later Napoleonic Wars and the peace treaties arrived at by the Congress of Vienna.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the textile industry flourished again in Ghent. Lieven Bauwens, having smuggled the industrial and factory machine plans out of England, introduced the first mechanical weaving machine on the European continent in 1800. After the Belgian chocolate, Belgian Lace is a very well known product from Belgium. While chocolate can be found at almost every street corner, Belgian lace is much harder to find and Miss Honey found it in Ghent at Duchesse, Sint-Baafsplein 22.

A Sunny Day in Ghent

Check out her new lace shoes and lace hat!

A sunny day in Ghent

Very pretty! It makes up for the shoe that went bye-bye…

A sunny day in Ghent

And better still, Puffles and Honey made a new pawsome friend in Ghent!

A Sunny Day in Ghent

Hello pawsome friend!

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

Done with the chocolates for the time being, we moved on to experience another national specialty: art.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts, at Place Royale, offer a trove of works from Belgian and Flemish. The sublimely surreal flying fish, skeletal corpses and falling angels of Delvaux and Rubens and the Brueghels seemed an appropriate counterpoint to the indulgence in chocolate.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The Royal Museum was founded in 1801 by Napoleon Bonaparte, but it was in 1830, with Belgian independence, that it really became a major institution. In 1913, de Grez donation enriched the collection with more than 4,000 works on paper dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Today the museum contains over 20,000 drawings, sculptures, and paintings, which date from the early 15th century to the present. The remarkable collection of Old Masters, witness to a rich and creative past, covers a period running from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The bulk of this collection consists of the painting of the former Southern Netherlands, with masterpieces by Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Dirk Bouts, Hans Memling, Hieronymus Bosch, Lucas Cranach and Gerard David.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

In the 15th century, the artists depicted their patrons and were very fond of religion-inspired themes, as evidenced by works such as Portrait of Anthony of Burgundy by Rogier van der Weyden.

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_-_Portrait_of_Antony_of_Burgundy_-_WGA25710

For the sixteenth century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is magnificently represented with major works like The Fall of the Rebel Angels or The Census at Bethlehem.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Fall_of_the_Rebel_Angels_-_Google_Art_Project-x0-y0

census-at-bethlehem-pieter-the-elder-bruegel

The 16th century was a century of exploration, of the earth’s surface, of the heavens, of the human body and the cataloguing of the animal and plant worlds. The first circumnavigation of the world, undertaken by Magellan, had proved in 1521 that the Earth was round. In 1548, Pierre Coudenburg had laid out a botanical garden in Brussels for the purpose of studying exotic plants, one of many such gardens in this century. In 1560, the Church lifted its ban on the dissection of corpses, releasing the human body for examination and in 1570, Abraham Ortelius published the first atlas of the world. The Antwerp geographer Ortelius was a friend of Bruegel. Thanks to this man, and others, Bruegel was familiar with the exploratory enthusiasm of his century.

Collecting proverbs was one of the many encyclopaedic undertakings in the 16th century. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist, began by publishing proverbs and famous formulations of Latin authors in 1500. Flemish and German collections followed, while Rabelais’ novel Pantagruel, with its description of an island of proverbs, appeared in 1564. By 1558, Bruegel had already painted his series of Twelve Proverbs, consisting of small, individuals panels. His village of proverbs was something apparently never attempted before, not a set of proverbs somehow strung together, but a painting completely worked out in every detail.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified, many no longer in current usage and many reflecting the considerably more direct language customary of that day and age. The majority describe stupid, immoral, crazy ways of behaviour. A devil is hearing confession in the pavilion that forms the focal point of the work; further to the right, a monk is mocking Christ and masking him with a beard; to his left, a woman is hanging a blue cloak over her husband’s shoulders, signifying that he is deceiving him; a globe is hanging in front of the wall of the house, its cross pointed downwards to indicate the “topsy-turvy world” with which the painter was concerned. He was motivated here not only by a passion for collecting, but also by a particular, sceptical view of his contemporaries.

The painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, long-attributed to Bruegel, is located here and forms the subject of W. H. Auden’s famous poem Musée des Beaux Arts, named after the museum.

Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res

Finally, for the 17th and 18th centuries the Flemish School is represented by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacques Jordaens, the French and Italian schools by Simon Vouet, Philippe de Champaigne, Le Lorrain, Jusepe de Ribera, Giovani Battista Tiepolo and others. The museum also carries some of Pieter Bruegel son’s achievements, best known for the remarkable copies he made of his father’s works. Tintoretto and Lucas Cranach the elder are two of many examples that illustrate the Italian and German schools, respectively. The 17th century was marked by the baroque, led by Antwerp-born Peter Paulus Rubens. The museum is very proud of its “Rubens Room”.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The Dutch Golden Age, with Rembrandt and Frans Hals, was characterised by shunning religious themes under the influence of Calvinism. The Italian and French schools mark the end of this overview of ancient art. The sculptural art of the 18th century up to the early 20th century has been integrated in the museum’s various itineraries.

The main building which now houses the Royal Museums of Fine Arts was built as the Palais des Beaux-Arts, designed by Belgian architect Alphonse Balat and funded by King Leopold II. Balat was the king’s principal architect, and this was one part of the king’s vast building program for Belgium. The building was completed in 1887, and stands as an example of the Beaux-Arts architecture use of themed statuary to assert the identity and meaning of the building. Balat also made a number of designs for the sumptuous reception rooms of the Royal Palace such as the ‘Throne Room’, ‘The Grand Staircase’, and the ‘Grande Galerie’.

On the museum trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The facade we see today was only built after 1900 on the initiative of King Leopold II. The first nucleus of the present-day building dates from the end of the 18th century. However, the grounds on which the palace stands were once part of the Coudenberg Palace a very old palatial complex that dated back to the Middle Ages.

The first building on the Coudenberg hill was constructed between the second half of the 11th and first half of the 12th century. At that time it probably looked like a fortified castle forming a part of the fortifications of the city of Brussels. It was the home of the Dukes of Brabant. In the following centuries it was rebuilt, extended and improved in line with the increased prestige of the Dukes of Brabant and their successors; the Dukes of Burgundy, the Emperor Charles V, the Archduke Albert of Austria and Infanta Isabel of Spain and successive Governors of the Habsburg Netherlands.

The ‘Aula Magna’, or Throne Room, was built for Philip the Good in the 15th century. It was in this room that the Emperor Charles V abdicated in 1555 in favour of his son Philip II of Spain. This prestigious complex was unfortunately destroyed by a fire on February 3, 1731. The ruins only disappeared when the district was redeveloped after 1775. At that time the urban axes of the present-day Brussels Park were laid out. The Place Royale was built on top of the ruined palace. Excavations of the site by different archeological organisations have unearthed various remains of different parts of the Palace as well as the surrounding town. The monumental vaults remaining under the square and its surrounding buildings can be visited.

A little walk in Brussels Park…

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

…then it’s time for a little sustenance before going to the next museum. Some Belgian waffles we think. Apparently the best waffles in Brussels are to be had at Maison Dandoy Tea Rooms. In 1829, Jean-Baptiste Dandoy, a young baker craftsman whose brother was the mayor of Uccle, set up the biscuit firm which still carries his name today. By the way, the buiscuits are to die for! And Charles Baudelaire agreed. He was very fond of gingerbreads and paid regular visits to Dandoy when he was staying in Brussels in the 1860s. You can find out more about the history of Dandoy on their website.

http://www.maisondandoy.com/en/home/

We have to go all the way to the pointy tower!

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

We went to the tea rooms in Rue Charles Buls 14, off Grand Place. The Grand Place or Grote Markt is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall, and the Breadhouse. The square is the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark in Brussels. Charles Buls was a mayor who had the Grand Place returned to its former splendour, with buildings being reconstructed or restored, in the late 19th century.

Grand_Place_Brussels

The pointed tower is not on the side of a church as expected, it is the tower of the Town Hall, a Gothic building from the middle ages.

Brussels_Town_Hall

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The Town Hall was built on the south side of the square in stages between 1401 and 1455, and made the Grand Place the seat of municipal power. To counter this symbol of municipal power, from 1504 to 1536 the Duke of Brabant built a large building across from the city hall as symbol of ducal power. It was built on the site of the first cloth and bread markets, which were no longer in use, and it became known as the King’s House, although no king has ever lived there. It is currently known as the King’s House in French, though in Dutch it continues to be called the Breadhouse, after the market whose place it took. Wealthy merchants and the increasingly powerful guilds of Brussels built houses around the edge of the square. Evidently it’s a tilting Breadhouse 🙂

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

Back to Maison Dandoy… We have discovered that they also have stores in other European countries, so there is hope we will see their biscuits again. They really are that good! They have a charming little tea room upstairs in rue Charles Buls.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

We were here for the waffles 🙂

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

And bonus, they had waffles with cherries! Yummy!

Suitably fortified, it was time to tackle the next musuem, Victor Horta Museum, rue Ameriaine 25, Saint-Gilles, Brussels.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

If you are thinking who the heck is Victor Horta, not to worry, so did we! However, the museum and the story changed our mind. Victor Horta (1861 – 1947) was a Belgian architect and designer. John Julius Norwich described him as “undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect.” Horta is one of the most important names in Art Nouveau architecture; the construction of his Hôtel Tassel in Brussels in 1892-3 means that he is sometimes credited as the first to introduce the style to architecture from the decorative arts. The French architect Hector Guimard was deeply influenced by Horta and further spread the “whiplash” style in France and abroad.

In 1932 King Albert I of Belgium conferred on Horta the title of Baron for his services to architecture. Four of the buildings he designed have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of his buildings have been demolished on account that Art Nouveau was outdated and associated with bourgeois society!

Horta had had a great interest in music since childhood and, in 1873, went to study musical theory at the Ghent Conservatory. After being expelled for bad behaviour, he joined the Department of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent instead. In 1878 Horta left for Paris, finding work with architect and designer Jules Debuysson in Montmartre. There he was inspired by the emerging impressionist and pointillist artists, and also by the possibilities of working in iron and glass.

When Horta’s father died in 1880, he returned to Belgium and moved to Brussels, married his first wife, with whom he later fathered two daughters, and went to study architecture at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In Brussels Horta built a friendship with Paul Hankar, who would later also embrace Art Nouveau. Horta did well in his studies and was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, architect to Leopold II of Belgium. Together they designed the royal Greenhouses of Laeken, Horta’s first work to utilise glass and iron.

In 1884 Horta won the first Prix Godecharle to be awarded for Architecture (for his unbuilt design for Parliament), as well as the Grand Prix in architecture on leaving the Royal Academy.

After introducing Art Nouveau in an exhibition held in 1892, Horta was inspired. Commissioned to design a home for professor Emile Tassel, he transfused the recent influences into Hôtel Tassel, completed in 1893.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The design had a groundbreaking semi open-plan floor layout for a house of the time, and incorporated interior iron structure with curvilinear botanical forms, later described as “biomorphic whiplash”. Ornate and elaborate designs and natural lighting were concealed behind a stone façade to harmonize the building with the more rigid houses next door. The building has since been recognized as the first appearance of Art Nouveau in architecture.

With the Hotel Tassel, Horta gained almost immediate recognition from both architects and the general public for his innovative boldness. After receiving great acclaim for his designs, Horta was commissioned to complete many other important buildings throughout Brussels. Enhancing this new architectural style, Horta designed the Hôtel Solvay (1895–1900) and his own residence (1898) employing iron and stone façade with elaborate iron interiors.

Avenue_Louise_81_Louizalaan_Brussels_2012-08

The house was commissioned by Armand Solvay, the son of the wealthy Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay. For this wealthy patron Horta could spend a fortune on precious materials and expensive details. Horta designed every single detail; furniture, carpets, light fittings, tableware and even the door bell. He used expensive materials such as marble, onyx, bronze, tropic woods etc. For the decoration of the staircase Horta cooperated with the Belgian pointillist painter Théo van Rysselberghe. Solvay drew the line at the scope creep of the project 🙂 when Horta started designing the clothes for the family so that they could better complement the house! The Hôtel Solvay and most of its splendid content remained intact thanks to the Wittamer family. They acquired the house in the 1950s and did the utmost to preserve and restore this magnificent dwelling. The house is still private property and can only be visited by appointment and under very strict conditions. The edifice is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Yet it was not until the Libre Esthetique exhibition in Brussels in 1897 that a wider public discovered his qualities as an interior designer and decorative artist. At the exhibition, he showed a wool carpet for Anna Boch, stained-glass windows and a sideboard for the Hotel Van Eetvelde, and a dining-room table and chairs for the Hotel Solvay.

The increased number of commissions between 1893 and 1898 allowed Horta to buy in 1898 two plots of land, 23 and 25 rue Americaine, Saint-Gilles, where he built his house and studio, which are now a museum owned by the community of Saint-Gilles. Built between 1898 and 1901, the two buildings are typical of Art Nouveau at its height. The interior decoration has largely been retained, the mosaics, stained glass, and wall decorations forming a harmonious and elegant whole, down to the last detail. In the splendid Art Nouveau interiors there is a permanent display of furniture, utensils and art objects designed by Horta and his contemporaries as well as documents related to his life and time.

On the museum trail in Brussels

On the museum trail in Brussels

On the museum trail in Brussels

Back to Place Royale at the top of the hill again and time for a little lunch before the next museum 🙂

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

The next visit is to the Magritte Museum, which is next to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts.

René Magritte (1898-1967) is considered as the most important Belgian painter of the 20th century and is among the eminent artists of the surrealist movement. He was a painter, draftsman, engraver, sculptor, photographer and film-maker.

Magritte’s work is known for challenging observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality. His work frequently displays a collection of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, ‘The Treachery of Images’ (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement.

MagrittePipe

Magritte painted below the pipe “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. When Magritte was once asked about this image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.

This masterpiece of Surrealism creates a three-way paradox out of the conventional notion that objects correspond to words and images.
The Treachery of Images belongs to a series of word-image paintings by Magritte from the late 1920s. He combined images and text in a style suggested both by children’s books, and by Magritte’s early career in advertising.

Like the other artists and poets associated with the Surrealist movement, Magritte sought to overthrow what he saw as the oppressive rationalism of bourgeois society. His art during these essential years is at times violent, frequently disturbing, and filled with discontinuities. He consistently interrogated conventions of language and visual representation, using methods that included the misnaming of objects, doubling and repetition, mirroring and concealment, and the depiction of visions seen in half-waking states-all of them devices that cast doubt on the nature of appearances, both in the paintings and in reality itself. The persistent tension Magritte maintained during these years between nature and artifice, truth and fiction, reality and surreality is one of the profound achievements of his art.

He even painted Mona Lisa!

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

Mona Lisa is one of the most important images in René Magritte’s œuvre. It resumes three at once recognizable elements of his universe: the little bell, the sky and the curtain that are parts of his work since the middle of the 1920s. At that time, facing a reality which seems for him more and more abstract, Magritte turns to surrealism. From then on the curtain appears as a new perspective of reality, a permanent spectacle that the painter tries to decrypt. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Magritte resumes his great themes in multiple variations, he allows himself to associate them with new searches in order to find a more powerful visual and poetic shock, like here with a curtain showing a sky. Does the curtain hide or reveal the light? The title has been found by Suzi Gablik, a young American art historian living with the Magrittes during the time of her research about the artist. He painted several versions of Mona Lisa, that he sometimes named differently: The Image in itself (1961), Waste of effort (1962), High society (1962) or The Ovation (1962) about which he will say: “The interest of this image, I think, is – in particular – that it shows the same curtain as the one in ‘Mona Lisa’, and again demands some felicitous intellectual effort of us, that is to say it demands that, in addition to other thoughts, we name this image differently from ‘Mona Lisa’.” Magritte often used to repeat his own images, sometimes with minor variations but occasionally he made identical copies.

A photo with some Magritte apples…

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

And one with Magritte bears 🙂

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

Then a very light dinner of pumpkin soup (seriously, that’s what was served in those tiny glasses)…

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

… before a visit to the last museum, for a musical interlude.

Following the First World War, the Belgian Parliament initially denied funding for the plans by Victor Horta for a Palais des Beaux-Arts. With the founding of the Société du Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1922, the project was revived with several restrictions: the city supplied a very irregular area on the slope between the higher and the lower part of the city; the main facade had to house shopping facilities; and the height of the building was restricted so as not to compromise the King’s view of Brussels’ skyline from the Royal Palace.

It took more than a decade to complete the complex, which contains a large concert hall, a recital room, a chamber music room, lecture rooms, and a vast gallery for temporary exhibitions. Horta created a stunning Art Deco masterpiece. He managed to put together this array of different functions on a rather small building plot with restricted conditions using more than 8 building levels with a large part situated underground.

Since 2002, the Belgian federal institution has chosen the brand name BOZAR (a homophone of “Beaux-arts”), which has seven artistic departments: Bozar Expo, Bozar Music, Bozar Cinema, Bozar Dance, Bozar Theatre, Bozar Literature, Bozar Studios and Bozar Architecture. The Bozar is home to the National Orchestra of Belgium, the Société Philharmonique/Philharmonische Vereniging which invites the world’s major orchestras and performers to appear at the Le Boeuf Hall.

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

On the Museum Trail in Brussels

We saw deFilharmonie conducted by Edo de Waart with Leonidas Kavakos as the violin for Bartok’s concerto for violin and orchestra no 2, some symphonic movements by Joseph Jongen and a spectacular finale with Respighi’s Pines of Rome. This is the second orchestral work in his “Roman trilogy”, preceded by Fountains of Rome and followed by Roman Festivals. Each of the four movements depicts pine trees in different locations in Rome at different times of the day. Evidently, Roman pines are very loud!

On the museum trail in Brussels

The Cherry Beer Adventure

We discovered Belgian cherry beer some time ago and we have been looking forward to drinking it in the country of origin! We had the first cherry beer in Delft and were introduced to Mort Subite kriek (kriek is the Flemish word for the type of Morello cherry used to make the beer).

Market Day in Delft

The beer arrived in very civilized 250ml bottles (most beers are served in bottles rather than cans) with their own uniquely shaped glasses meant to enahnce the flavour of the beer! The first impression was that it was not as sweet as our preferred Lindemans Kriek, but since the first taste, this kriek has been steadily growing on us. It’s very morish!

Mort Subite is the brand name for a number of lambic beers brewed by the Belgian brewery Keersmaeker. The beers take their name from a café in Brussels, À La Mort Subite, at rue Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7. Having arrived in Brussels, we had to visit!

Cherry beer adventure

Around 1910 Theophile Vossen ran an establishment called La Cour Royale. Amongst his many customers were a lot of employees working at the National Bank of Belgium. Those employees passed their time in the pub playing a dice game called “421”. Before returning to the office, the employees played a quick last game and the one who lost was called the Mort Subite or the sudden death, referring to the speed with which someone could lose their money.

Very soon this name became well known and when Theophile Vossen moved to the current address in 1928 he decided to call his pub À La Mort Subite. His sons and grandsons René and Jean-Pierre Vossen continued the tradition for more than 36 years. Today, the pub is being run by the fourth generation of the Vossen family and the pub retains the original 1928 decor.

Cherry beer adventure

Having walked 40 minutes from the hotel to get to the pub, we decided to have the large beers.

Cherry beer adventure

The reaction when we saw the size of the glasses was priceless and not captured on film! That we know of 🙂 The experience provided for a most entertaining and memorable evening. Each glass probably held almost a litre of beer!

Beer in Belgium dates back to the age of the first crusades in the 1100s, long before Belgium became an independent country. Under Catholic church permission, local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed beer as a fund raising method. The relatively low-alcohol beer of that time was preferred as a sanitary option to available drinking water. What are now traditional, artisanal brewing methods evolved, under abbey supervision, during the next seven centuries.

In the 16th and 17th century, a beer termed crabbelaer was the most popular beer in Ghent; at the peak of its popularity, more than 50 different breweries produced more than 6 milion liters a year. Other kinds of beer brewed in Ghent were klein bier, dubbel bier, clauwaert, dubbele clauwaert and dusselaer. We’re going to Ghent tomorrow, we’ll be sure to try some!

Lambic is a wheat beer brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium (southwest of Brussels) by spontaneous fermentation. Most modern beers are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer’s yeasts; Lambic’s fermentation, however, is produced by exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies. The beer then undergoes a long aging period ranging from three to six months (considered “young”) to two or three years for mature. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavour: dry, vinous, and cidery, with a slightly sour aftertaste.

Fruit lambic is one of the three classes of lambic beer. Fruit beers are made by adding fruit or fruit concentrate to Lambic beer. The most common type is Kriek, made with sour cherries, traditionally “Schaarbeekse krieken” (a rare Belgian Morello variety) from the area around Brussels. As the Schaarbeek type cherries have become more difficult to find, some brewers have replaced these (partly or completely) with other varieties of sour cherries, sometimes imported.

A traditional kriek made from a lambic base beer is sour and dry as well. And not to our liking! The cherries are left in for a period of several months, causing a refermentation of the additional sugar. Typically no sugar will be left so there will be a fruit flavour without sweetness. There will be a further maturation process after the cherries are removed.

More recently, some lambic brewers have added sugar to the final product of their fruit beers, in order to make them less intense and more approachable to a wider audience. And to us! They also use cherry juice rather than whole cherries and are matured for much shorter periods.

Check out the cherries we saw on the way back to the hotel.

Cherry beer adventure

Cherry beer adventure

They are still in the shop on account that the shop has been closed since we saw them! On the positive side, nobody else has bought them either.

On the Chocolate Trail in Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the Brussels chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people. The average Belgian consumes over 7 kilograms of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world.

There is chocolate for tourists, and there is chocolate for Belgians. Chocolate produced by manufacturers like Côte d’Or and Guylian are devoured in vast quantities, but mostly by the city’s six million annual visitors. Bruxellois prefer the artisanal makers. Seeing and tasting real handmade chocolate, while buying it from the person who made the chocolate, is something special.

Chocolate plays an important part in the Belgian economy, and there are over 2,000 chocolatiers in the country, both small and large. Chocolate is very popular, with 172,000 tonnes produced each year, and widely exported. Côte d’Or is probably the largest commercial brand, with their products available in virtually every grocery store in the country. The largest manufacturers of fine chocolates are Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas, and Guylian. Both the chocolate bar and praline are inventions of the Belgian chocolate industry.

Belgian chocolate refers to chocolate produced in Belgium. While cacao beans and other ingredients such as sugar can originate from outside of Belgium, the actual production of the chocolate must take place in the country.

Europe was introduced to cocoa beans when Spanish explorers brought them back from what is now Mexico in the late 16th century. They reached Belgium about 100 years later. By the mid 18th century, chocolate was extremely popular in upper and middle class circles, particularly in the form of hot chocolate. Among them was Charles-Alexander of Lorraine, the Austrian governor of the territory. When King Leopold II colonized the African Congo from 1885 to 1908, partly for the cocoa crops, the resulting genocide was a dark moment in the country’s history. It is also when Belgian chocolate started earning its formidable reputation.

But these days, the industry is changing. With countries like Germany and the Netherlands becoming larger European exporters, in Belgium, a new class of chocolatiers is finding innovative ways to hold on to the country’s chocolate crown. They are breaking away from traditional pralines — which Belgians classify as any chocolate shell filled with a soft fondant center — and infusing ganaches with exotic flavors like wasabi or lemon verbena, and creating such imaginative pairings as blackcurrant and cardamom and raspberry and clove.

A little breakfast to get little bears going…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

… to the first chocolate shop – Laurent Gerbaud, rue Ravenstein 2D, many people’s favourite chocolate shop.

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

Here you can find satiny bonbons with figs from Izmir, ginger from Guilin and hazelnuts from Piedmont. Such reliance on global ingredients is what sets apart the new generation of chocolatiers. And as they continue to push the boundaries of creativity, they’re also rewriting the history of Belgian chocolate.

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

No cherry chocolates, but plenty of decadent chocolates. We’ll take some!

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

We then went to the Grand Sablon, which, with no fewer than eight chocolatiers, is the city’s epicenter of chocolate.

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

At Pierre Marcolini, smiling saleswomen stood over the glassed-in display of small, rectangular bonbons that looked as exquisite as jewels. Backlighted shelves on the opposite wall showcased what Marcolini is famous for: his single-origin Grand Cru chocolate bars.

In 2004, Marcolini raised the bar when he started scouting the globe for the best cocoa beans. He became the only chocolatier in Brussels to work directly with plantations in countries like Venezuela and Madagascar, bringing the beans back to his ateliers for roasting and grinding. Most people think it’s the percentage of cocoa that makes a difference, but apparently it’s the origin of the cocoa bean that does.

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

We’ll take this one…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

Plenty of cherry chocolates at Godiva…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

Godiva was founded in 1926 in Brussels, by Joseph Draps who opened his first boutique in the Grand Place in Brussels under its present name, in honour of the legend of Lady Godiva. Godiva specializes in truffles, a chocolate confection that was originally created with a chocolate ganache center coated in cocoa powder or chocolate. Godiva’s original dark truffle was created in 1946 and this legacy has continued until the present, bringing us new dazzling flavors like the Harvest Spice and Crème Brulee truffles.

Mmmm…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

This looks good…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

And here are the cherry chocolates. Paw of approval!

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

The next stop on the chocolate trail attracted us with the level of sophistication, and with the packaging and presentation as slick as a Place Vendôme showroom. Which made perfect sense when we realised Ladurée is a French luxury bakery and sweets maker house created in 1862. It is one of the top premier sellers of the double-decker macaron, fifteen thousand of which are sold every day. They are still one of the best known makers of macarons in the world and after tasting some of their wonder creations, we believe that!

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

The first Ladurée bakery opened on the Rue Royale, Paris in 1862. Ladurée’s rise to fame came in 1930 when his grandson, Pierre Desfontaines, had the original idea of the double-decker, sticking two macaron shells together with a creamy ganache as filling. Queen Catherine de’ Medici had brought the macaron to France from Italy in the 16th century, and the recipe for the biscuit had hardly varied over the years, but the amounts of the ingredients used and the appearance of the end product were up to the individual bakers.

Today there are Ladurée tea rooms on the Champs-Élysées and in Le Printemps Haussmann, so plenty for us to choose from when we get to Paris. They have also opened shops in a number of cities around the world, so you can try them locally 🙂

Couldn’t get anywhere near the macaron display for a photo, so we checked up close the chocolates, before we queued to get some macarons.

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

That was exhausting! A little Belgian hot chocolate would be good now…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels

… with a little something sweet. What to choose…

On the chocolate trail in Brussels