02 October, 2011

Bruxelles: A Few Pictures

Click on the photos for larger versions.

Grand-Place is Brussels' most iconic sight; an ornate town hall at one end of a large square, whose area is demarcated on the other three sides by equally ornate buildings that were at one time guild houses. The guilds were extremely important in medieval and renaissance-era Brussels, and the guildmasters seem to have had almost as much prestige as the burgomeister...though it was the latter who had the final say in most political matters, and who usually had enough autonomy to stand up to the more powerful "rulers" of Belgium, be they the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Austrians.

 Part of the facade of the town hall. If you look closely, you'll notice that the wings on either side of the tower are not identical. That's because they were built at different times; the left one in the early 1400s, the right one about fifty years later. There's a silly legend that the architect who designed the tower, Jan van Ruysbroeck, threw himself off of it in despair when he discovered that the resulting building was assymetrical. Ridiculous, because the truth is simply that around 1400-50, people weren't obsessing about architectural symmetry like they did during the High Renaissance. The second wing was built later, its size constrained by the surrounding buildings, and that's that. Nothing to worry about, from the late Medieval perspective. I bet its one of those stories that British 18th-19th century tour books liked to make up to catch the attention of the jaded, xenophobic aristocrat-tourists of the time.

 Detail of a corner of the town hall. No, it's not a church, and those aren't saints. The statues are of "prominent citizens", I believe. These Belgian towns remind me of the mercantilely-oriented city states of Venice in the reverence that they seem to have held for good citizenship and good bargaining.

The tower of sensational "history" described above.

 Belgians are extremely proud of their comics, especially Tintin. And the excitement here about the upcoming movie adaption of that comic strip is astonishing to see. Probably because you don't get a Belgian cultural icon making it big in the movies all that often.

A fragment of the old city wall. The wealthier citizens of the time were paranoid about the possibility of civilian revolt, so they designed the wall to have towers that were open on the side facing the city center. Hence fractious citizens wouldn't be able to take the walls and besiege the insiders from that defensive point. 

French bombardment during the late 1600s under the Duke of Villeroi destroyed nearly everything in the city center except the town hall, which the duke had ordered his artillery not to hit, since its tower made such a good target.  It's when you start moving outside the boundaries of the old walls that you start finding older buildings like this.

Notre Dame au Sablon. Definitely my favorite church in the city, and the only one that still has decent stained glass (though I think it's a replacement, like the rest...it's just much better quality than the rest). It has a full Gregorian Chant Mass every Sunday at 12:00 which I'm looking forward to going to on those weekends when I'm not traveling to another city.

 Parc au Petit Sablon. I don't just love the church there, I love the whole Petit Sablon area; there's a beautiful little park, an excellent pastry shop, lots of art places, almost all the city's best chocolatiers, and some of its best restaurants.

A view of Notre Dame au Sablon from the Park.

The city as seen from Mont des Arts, a hill covered with Austrian buildings that were once palaces and are now mostly museums.

The Palace Royale. The flag means that the King is in the country.

 A picture taken in some rather dramatic lighting of a church near the hotel where I stayed for the first week.

Belgium has Very Good Food. This is one of my personal favorites (other than a lovely seafood stew of sorts involving herring, salmon, eel and shrimp) so far: penne avec foie de volailles et champignons (with chicken liver and mushrooms).

Ste. Catherine. Not a great place to go for Mass, sadly. On the crazy side of things.

Place Ste. Catherine. A long, rectangular plaza where the canal used to be before they filled it in. Now there are some large fountains and pools there instead. Plus lots of seafood restaurants.

They light up the Grand Place at night, and it's lovely.

Before electricity, the tower was still lit up on special occasions. Only back then someone had to climb to the spires and light the stacks of wood there on fire. Lord of the Rings, anyone?

Lunch. One of the nicest things about the country is that people are seen drinking beer at all times of day, and yet you never see drunk people unless they're part of one of the many British bachelor parties that come here late at night for the inexpensive beer and behave obnoxiously. There's absolutely no social stigma associated with drinking at midday, or even in the morning. People sit around at cafés, having a glass with a friend, having a glass with a meal, and just enjoying the fact that it tastes really good. I think the reason we have such a drinking problem in the USA is that we disapprove of it so highly; it's something that teenagers do when they want to rebel, something that people do secretly, almost shamefacedly, unless they're at a party in the evening--and then you hear lots of "I'll just have one" "I never really drink" "I guess I can allow myself to have some fun" "Well the kids aren't here, so..." Whereas if you grow up seeing people drinking it in moderate quantities as one of those great things that we can enjoy as long as we don't overdo it (which even goes for food in general), there's a much healthier attitude in the population as a whole.

View looking up towards the Mont des Arts. Just beyond that you'll find all the ambassadorial residences, the palace, the political buildings, and the EU.

Random statue of Samson in the park near the Merode stop.


Gentle Gardener said...

Awesome! Thanks for the trip!

Therese said...

You're welcome!