Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Sides of Brussels: Rubens and Magritte

We ended our Belgium adventure in Brussels, which we entered first on a subway instead of a bike. I’m not sure what I expected of Brussels. We knew about the waffles and chocolate, or thought we did. It is hard describe just how dominating waffles, chocolate, and other sweet delicacies are in the area around the city’s central square, the Grande Place. The sugary smell, the colors, the salivating mouths (ours). 

The sweet side of Brussels
But sugar wasn’t the first impression I had of Brussels, and it’s not my lasting memory. What really overwhelmed me was the Grande Place. We had seen miniatures in Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, and even Antwerp—a large town hall accompanied by a dozen or so smaller, charming guild halls. This town hall was huge and gave off a golden glow in the afternoon sunlight. I tried to take a picture but soon gave up. I couldn’t get the whole building in a shot and still capture its grandeur. This was something to really impress visitors and intimidate enemies. I kept coming back to it in the two days we spent in the city.

We walked away from the square and into the surrounding streets, which were lined with tee-shirt and souvenir shops; jewelry stores; restaurants and cafes; and, of course, waffle and chocolate emporiums. Rolf, who was guiding us on foot instead of bike this time, was leading us toward the “Manneken-Pis,” a statue/fountain of a small boy peeing. The fountain is said to be 800 years old and has a long and glorious history, which seems pretty ironic considering what he is doing. One story is that the statue/fountain commemorates a young soldier who wouldn’t stop fighting against the enemy oppressors (Dutch, Spaniard, German, French?) even to take a leak. He simply peed on the battlefield without putting down his arms (well, probably one arm). Copies of the statue are everywhere in Brussels, some even molded in chocolate.

We returned to the barge for our last night aboard in our “stateroom,” with plans to come back to Brussels the next morning to complete our vacation there. Most of our group departed for the US or other places in Europe. The four of us (Phyllis, Harvey, Audrey, and I) moved into a small hotel near the Grande Place.

The hotel in Brussels is a step up from our barge accommodations

We toured for two days on buses and on foot, and even contemplated (not too seriously) renting bikes near our hotel. There is much to see in Brussels, and the city has a certain schizophrenia about it—it can’t decide if it is historic or ultramodern. For me, that bipolar personality came through best in a pair of museums connected to each other not far from our hotel. One is devoted to Belgium’s most famous modern artist, surrealist Rene Magritte. The other houses many of the Flemish masters of the 15th–18th centuries, including Brueghel, Rubens, Bosch, Dirk Bouts, and more. Ironically (or perhaps fittingly for Brussels), even the Magritte Museum is housed in a building several centuries old.

Our small group had all intentions of seeing the Magritte Museum, which was fascinating and easy to cover in a few hours. But I was the only one pushing for the Old Masters. One of our barging companions had recommended skipping the Beaux Arts museum entirely “because you have probably already seen enough crucifixion paintings.” (I know that sounds politically incorrect, but I’m just quoting.)

As it turns out, I cannot get enough of Rubens’ religious art. The sheer size of the paintings is amazing. And so is the fervor with which he obviously painted. Was it religious fervor he was feeling or just power—the knowledge that he could capture something on canvas that was so colorful, dramatic, emotional…and big!  He also obviously made a good living at his trade, as we had learned from touring his impressive house in Antwerp. 

This triptych is in the cathedral in Antwerp. Photography was not permitted in the Brussels galleries.

Here's a professional shot of the painting for full effect

So I dragged Audrey to the Beaux Arts side of the building (I think she agreed in part because we could get 2-for-1 tickets at a special price for senior citizens—those over 60—another reason to like Belgium). Harvey and Phyllis left to explore the modern side of Brussels, especially the futuristic Atomium, which was unveiled at a world’s fair in 1958, while I remained comfortably ensconced in the 1500s. 


The museum itself is a wonderful place to see art. The floor is carpeted in such a way that there is a bounce to it. You can stand and view for hours (and I’m sure Audrey was afraid I would test that idea). But I moved through quickly, for me, feeling just a little rushed but also exhilarated. 

The rest of Brussels is kind of a blur. We managed to find the Victor Horta house, not an easy thing to do, as it turned out. Horta was the founder of the art nouveau movement, and his house offers a range of offbeat treasures, many of which he created and others of which he bought or received as gifts from colleagues and followers. We saw another impressive cathedral, of course, and walked through a serene park, which was the site of a 12th century abbey.

We also had a memorable dinner at the Saint-Hubert Galleries shopping mall, the oldest in Europe. It was memorable not so much because of the food (I had mussels and frites again!) What was memorable was when Harvey asked our waiter how you say “split the check” in French or Flemish, he replied, “50-50.” We laughed so hard that when he suggested that we add an extra tip for him when we paid, we agreed. Who says Americans are tough to win over!

A day later we were on a plane back to New Jersey, wondering where to bike to next year. It may not be an easy decision. We have to figure out what other flat areas with level bike paths there are to explore. Or we have to bite the bullet and agree to be moderate bikers who can climb an occasional steep hill. I used to amuse my children with stories of my youth in Savannah where I walked to school, uphill both ways and occasionally traipsing through snow. Now I’m looking for bicycle paths that go slightly downhill both ways. After all, I qualify as a senior citizen (at least in Belgium), even if I don’t plan to act like it.


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