Archive for December, 2012

Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 6.

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Brussels! One of the most important buildings in Brussels is the Saint Cyr house. It’s a odd, extremely narrow swirly art nouveau building that is simply great, and when The Moomins and I encountered it we discovered the best thing. It’s for sale. You can buy it.

WANT. I want this. I will happily sleep on a twin bed forever if I owned this. The house instantly makes you awesome. Coming out in a robe to pick up the paper in your present abode – Lame. Coming out in a robe to pick up the paper in the Saint Cyr house – Exciting! Theatrical! Mesmerizing!

So let’s move onto Ghent. Ghent is a big favorite of mine. What a great city.

Fun fact: in Belgium and possibly all over Europe, the streets tend to curve because if someone shoots at you, you can duck around a corner and not get hit with an arrow or a bullet or whatever they’re shooting. That’s the reason a lot of the streets curve. Good to know.

I saw the same thing in Antwerp. Curvy roads.

When we arrived in Ghent, The Moomins and I promptly headed off to the museum to look at more 15th-century Flemish art, specifically because the best painting EVER, EVER is being restored there. Van Eyck’s polyptych, the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s one of the first oil paintings, so it’s done with a thin layer of oil, and then a thin layer of paint-glaze, then oil, then glaze, so the whole thing has a luminescence that is breath-taking. The whole front part looks like this:

It may not look like much, but the level of detail will cross your eyes.

And it’s that complex and ornate all over. AND the back’s painted as well, same level of intricacy. Mind-blowing. Right outside the grotto-area that they’ve put the altarpiece in is the sweetest attempt at it painted by children (I hope, because if it’s painted by adults, oh dear).

The cathedral that the Van Eyck masterpiece is housed in is not to be ignored.

The stained glass windows were really interesting to me because I had never seen this style before. The bottom part is a tableau with biblical scenes, but the upper parts were little squares with a repeating pattern on it.

Once again, very big with guilds and tradespeople. Look at the strip at the bottom. People doing stuff, maybe sewing or cartography or milling wheat, stuff like that.

This dame. I loved her flouncy head-thing.

Not all the windows were old. I’m guessing these were damaged in the fire or in the war, so they have a modern pattern.

The cathedral had something else I really liked, which was a case of silver body parts. Apparently if, like, your leg was bothering you, you could purchase a silver leg ornament and pray and put it in the case and God would hear you and heal your leg.

After taking in the loveliness of the Ghent Cathedral we went to the museum because our hunger for Flemmy art had not been sated. The museum itself is really aesthetically pleasing even without any art in it.

Now, I know I should cut the 15th century artists some slack because they were just figuring the whole oil painting thing out, but you know there were people in the 15th century. Lots of ’em, just walking around. You could look right at them with your eyeballs. So my eternal question is why, why were those artists so frikkin’ amazing at painting cloth and jewels and so very bad at painting people? Why do all the people look… odd? And don’t get me started on the way they painted babies. Not good. The lion and tiger thing I get, they were going on descriptions that other people told them about fierce beasts from other lands, but people are right there. Here, look at some examples.

The detail work: UNREAL. The people: carved out of wax with lazy eyes and a touch of palsy.

While I was there I also gazed at some impressionist work. I call this one “The Smudgy Smootchers”.

You may be wondering, “Jessica, what trick have you come up with to distinguish between Monet and Manet?*” I’m glad you asked. Impressionism doesn’t really use black or white. It’s a lot of muted pastels, or vibrant tones like oranges and yellows and sky blues. Like this painting, for example.

Well, Manet used black in his work, so black has an “a”, and so does the word Manet. If it looks like the painting above, it’s Monet. Black, Manet. Enjoy this irrelevant tidbit.

Okay, back to Ghent the City. They have a castle! It looks very castle-y.

We went in the front bit where they were filming a movie. British cameramen were milling around, and there was a guy in a Puss-n-Boots outfit drinking Starbucks coffee. We couldn’t really go in further due to the shoot, but as I turned around, the doorway of the castle framed the street in a really photogenic way.

Nearby is the former fish market. They could have just built some kind of structure and tacked on a sign that says, “Fish Market” with an arrow pointing down, but no, it has Neptune carved on the front and all manner of other sea references. They went all out.

The local former meat market was more chill. There wasn’t hula-hooping pigs and cows on the roof or anything.

The inside part was the meat market. Those booths you see outside, they now are little craft stalls but back in the day that’s where they sold offal.

Inside, hams are hanging to cure from the ceiling.

I adore a cured meat product, so I decided that we had to have lunch there. I ordered the local sampler platter which came with a variety of meats, one kind of cheese and the local mustard which is considered by many to be the best in the world.

And that was my Thanksgiving meal. It was delicious. Hooray! Thanksgiving!

Across the street was the mustard shop. It was all olde-worlde-charmy.

The Moomins and I decided to buy a jar, so the lady pointed to the various jar sizes and we picked one. Then the mustard lady did something I did not expect: she walked over to a giant barrel with an empty jar, picked up a wooden ladle with a divot in one side, and poured fresh mustard into the jar. Then we were told that we had to keep it in the fridge and eat it within six months, otherwise it would get stale.

And right next to the meat market was where the gallows originally were. This house is called “The Hanging House.” I can only imagine back in the day. Buying mustard, watching a hanging, just a typical Tuesday in Ghent.

Finally in Ghent, The Moomins and I went to the Design Museum. Which I adored (no surprises there) and I took a gazillion photos that look like this:

But the one piece I would like to share with you is the beautiful wooden chandelier. I’ve never seen a beautiful wooden chandelier. They always looked clunky and solid. This one was really nice. The best part is, if you look carefully, you will notice a Lego pirate at the helm of the ship. I don’t know who put that there, but hats of to you, sir or lady, you are awesome.



*I am 100% fully aware no one is asking themselves that. Work with me on this.


Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 5.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Bruges! A cute little city of adorableness that I covered in the previous entry. The first thing The Moomins and I saw when we got off the train was a map of Bruges and the surrounding area. Here’s the name of one of the suburbs.

I immediately turned to The Moomins and said, “That’s where poor people live, because they asses be broke!” She did not find that funny. I stand by my joke.

As we sauntered through the streets of Bruges (which is pronounced “Brooj”, in case you were wondering) we saw signs for this all over.

And I think there’s a design school there, because groups of college-age kids were setting up interesting interpretations of Christmas trees in various buildings. Very creative, those kids.

In a different building they had some kind of contest involving making things shaped like cakes out of flowers. Any plant life, really. My favorite was the one where the crafter pinned individual raisins onto a base one by one.

Some people were setting up a Christmas market and I found it interesting that aside from the usual ornaments like shiny glass balls and pine cones and fluffy birds, they sold what looked like wool roving to wrap around the trees. Makes ’em look all felt-y.

The Moomins and I then headed over to the former hospital where they now have art. Really good art, if you like 15th-Century Flemish painters, like Peter Memling.

In the corner was a bishop who I can only assume was the bishop of pretzels (I’m going to hell, I know that).

They had a phenomenal collection of reliquaries. In case you’re not familiar, if you were a famous or important saint and you died, sometimes they put a small part of you in an ornate gold and silver and jeweled container, often with a small window so people could view the parts. In this photo, the reliquary in front appears to have a finger bone and a tooth.

I visited this museum as a child, and then I proceeded to make a horrible decision when I got home based on seeing these religious elements. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, so if you don’t know the tale and you meet me in person, I will be more than happy to tell you all about it face-to-face so I can appreciate your expressions. The Moomins is still upset about the experience, and it’s been twenty-something years.

After viewing the Memling triptych you see above (in a future blog entry I will delve into Early Flemish painting a bit more) I was amused to see this Mediterranean food joint in a nearby street.

After chortling about food slash old masters puns, we went to the Bruges Cathedral. It had some tombs of Dukes with a million crests on the side.

Underneath they had some really old tombs from, if I recall correctly, about 1000 A.D.

They also have the only Michelangelo piece of art taken out of Italy during his life. That man knew how to carve a piece of rock, I can tell you that. Look at the Madonna’s face. So evocative.

And there was a wall of marble plaques thanking the Madonna for various prayers that had been answered. I had never seen that before in a church.

One last pic of Bruges, as we were leaving (and the wind was blowing like crazy in an attempt to blow The Moomins and me into a canal) I saw a sweet old building called “God’s House”. I don’t know if it was a meeting house for the nuns (there was a big convent in the middle of town), but I thought it was charming.

Some more Brussels goodness: One day we went to the palace on the top of the hill. Because they totally have a king and a queen, still. Really.

Underneath the palace, though, is another palace. There was a palace from the 1100s that partially burned in 1731. Then, a bunch of years later, the remaining palace-bits were demolished to make room for the palace that’s there now. They’ve just started excavating the old palace under there and you can go down there and walk around in the what-used-to-be cellars and fireplaces and kitchens.

But the best thing was outside the entrance was a kitty! A friendly random kitty who meowed at us and wanted some pettings and snuggles. I wanted to take Kitty with me, but I couldn’t think of a way to smuggle it onto a plane. It was a talker. So sadly, I did not take it home with me.

Here is a picture taken at night near the palaces. Misty and spooky and beautiful.

Tomorrow we delve into Ghent.

Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 4.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Europe sure does love its dead things. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was in Montana, what with all the mounted heads and bearskin rugs and antlers all over. Everywhere, all over.

I kept begging The Moomins for things. The answer was always no.

“Can I have this wet bowl of tiny horns?”

“How about two hares playing cards?”

I liked this restaurant tableau. “Come, come read our menu and enjoy our two pheasants fighting and a moldy-looking squirrel with a nut in its mouth!”

One night I passed the store of my dreams. They had the best dead things I’ve seen in a while. It’s good that both times I walked past it the store was closed, otherwise I would be the proud owner of many a piece of corpse-art.

Something else I saw at night: the real name of The Smurfs. Belgium is all about comics. They love ’em. I saw this charmer on the side of a building.

Is the Manneken Pis peeing beer? Or is the man too drunk to know that he’s drinking pee? I thought about that for a while. I regret that decision.

I walked past a magazine and comic-book shop one night and that is where I saw this.

Les Schtroumpfs. That’s a mouthful.

The flower shops in Belgium are amazing. They don’t just show the flowers off, they do whole window design statements with them. We came across this one in Tongeren. It had fabric lilies draped over the doorway with tiny led lights in them that lit up.

They had cascades of rose petals sliding down the window and itty-bitty bouquets of stripey roses at the base.

And they had a Saluki guarding the door and being adorable and lanky. Not actually related to the flower shop’s awesome flowers per se, but delightful nonetheless.

I made friends with a dog on one of the trains. It’s owner was looking out the window and she was trying to explain to the dog to join her in looking out the window because trains were going by. I tried to help by pointing my finger (“Look, dog! Sights to see!”), but the dog licked my finger because maybe there was a delicious treat on the end (there was not). Eventually the dog figured it out, but it took a while. It was a very sweet dachshund.

Another thing Belgium is famous for is chocolate and desserts. Hoo boy, did I see some drool-worthy sweeties, especially in Bruges. The Moomins insisted that we go to Bruges because she said it’s her fairy land. Now that I’ve been there and looked around, I can’t really argue with that.

They also had a charming Grand Place. No sculpture with a dude flinging a hand and lungfish and skull-dragons, so this will not be my top Grand Place, but still good.

According to Cricket when we were in London, we saw a ton of brick buildings with stars on their exteriors. Cricket told me that these are not just decorative, they actually help hold up the building. In Bruges, I saw some buildings that had those but they also told the date the building was built.

Anyway, sweets. Holy moly, so delicious and magical. Look at those loaves of marzipan and nougat. And the chocolate displays. They put a fruit tart all alone in a window like it’s a diamond tennis bracelet. Mmmmmmm.

There is an ancient candy that you can buy there called a cuberdon. It looks like a little frosted cone. By the way, by “ancient” I don’t mean they bury them for sixty years, I mean the recipe is mad old. Just clarifying. The authentic color and flavor is purple/raspberry, but they come in other flavors too. And therefore I had to try them.

(In that last photo they call them “squirrel noses”.) Cuberdons are super-sweet syrup which have been poured in those pointy-shaped molds and left to dry for five to six days. That’s what forms the leathery “skin” on the outside. When you bite into them, the syrup glorps out a little bit, and it is delicious but exceptionally sweet, so one cuberdon is plenty. And because they’re time and temperature-sensitive they are not found outside of Belgium. I looked up buying them here and you can’t.

There was also a old-fashioned candy-maker’s shop, and I walked by they started making candy! Right in front of me! I was so happy. I took pictures of the shape-maker devises in the window.

First, the two men pour molten hot sugar/water/glucose/flavoring on a cool metal table with square bars to prevent it from rolling off the table. Because it was cherry-flavored, they added red coloring and a bit of white coloring in the corner. And then they mixed and mixed and mixed.

After waiting for the stuff to gel up a bit, one of them took out the biggest shears ever and cut the white part from the red part.

After the shears, they put on nuclear oven mitts and attempted to shape the candy while it was still hot and malleable. Until I watched these guys, I never realized how much upper body strength is required to make this. You’ve got to heave the enormous cauldron full of sugary lava over to a metal table and pour it all on there without getting it all over yourself because you know it ain’t coming off ever, kiss your forearms goodbye. Then after it sets a bit, you have to wrangle this and it’s sticky as hell and hot and twenty pounds and it keeps being affected by gravity so you have to stay on top of it. It should be part of the P90X regimen. Impressive.

So the guys made a couple of long shapes and took it over to some silicone mats to assemble the design.

Oh look, a heart! That one guy started pulling and pulling until it got about a finger’s width thick and then broke it off, and sho’ nuff there’s a little heart in there. Awww.

They turned on a machine of rollers that helped in the reducing-the-width-thing and banged off foot-long pieces of this candy, which they then broke into bite-size pieces. I bought some. I normally don’t care for cherry-flavored candy, but it’s not overpoweringly flavored so it wasn’t like cough drops.

Finally, when we were in Brussels we walked down the fanciest street they got, I guess Fifth Avenue would be a good analogy. We walked past a shop that had what appeared to be giant hippos made from clay or maybe metal. When we walked inside The Moomins and I realized that they were made of chocolate. OMG, that’s fantastic. There was a sign that said Please Do Not Touch, but I was like, do they have a policy on licking? I did not lick, but I definitely thought about it.

Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 3.

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Still Antwerpin’ it up! Until I went to Antwerp’s Grand Place, I did not know how the city got its name.

See that statue in the middle? That is my new favorite statue. One, it’s got a fantastic creepy skull-head dragon at the base.

At the top is a guy throwing a hand. Here’s the myth: There was a giant guarding the harbor of Antwerp, and if a ship couldn’t pay the entry tax, the giant would pick up the boat and put it on the land, thereby screwing up everything. One day, this young guy on the statue chopped the hand off the giant and flung it far away. “Ant Werp” means “Hand Throw” in the oldey-timey Germanic-based language. Go ahead and tell me that’s not awesome.

Also, at the bottom of the statue is the giant lying with his stump of a arm and there are tiny metal tubes coming out, which makes me think that in the summer water comes out his severed wrist. AND there are lungfish with gaping mouths on all four corners of the base. Therefore, this is now my favorite sculpture.

The fountain-makers were not afraid to make fountains come out of all kinds of places. There’s the famous Manneken Pis (who they dress up for various things). And I saw this one in a museum. I originally took the photo because I loved that the horse had fins on his hooves like a aquine-clidesdale*. Then I noticed that the woman at the bottom was presenting a boob like it was a tray full of pizza rolls and there was a spigot coming out of it.

• | • | • INTERMISSION  • | • | •

In Brussels I saw a lesbian couple taking their ferret out for a walk on a leash. I feel like that’s the beginning of a joke, “Two lesbians were walking a ferret…” I got a pic of the ferret as he scampered by.

• | • | • INTERMISSION OVER  • | • | •

After seeing the Grand Place, we went to the major cathedral in Antwerp which was ridiculously beautiful and had some neat features.

Have you ever been to Notre Dame in Paris? If you have you’ll notice that the walls are naked stone. That’s not how it was when it was made in 14-something-something. All the walls were polychrome, meaning they were painted with wallpaper patterns and crests and scenes from the bible, etc. These walls have their polychrome still on them which was lovely to see. In addition, my friend B. once told me that it is difficult to make purple glass, really purple-colored. He said it tends to be milky and dusty. I noticed that there was quite a lot of purple glass in the windows, which makes me think either they put two thin layers of transparent glass together, one pink and one blue, so your eye perceives it at purple, or they are painted with some kind of glaze. Considering how old these cathedrals are, either technique is pretty impressive.

On the floor near the pulpit there’s a brass line going down the floor. It seems to be arbitrary, but nope.

High above it is a stained glass window. If you look carefully all the way on the left edge about a fourth of the way down, you’ll see a hole. When the sun shines through the hole and lights up the metal strip on the floor, it’s noon. SCIENCE!

There are paintings hanging off all the columns. Each one was commissioned by a guild, so often their trade will be highlighted in the painting. This one was sponsored by the weapons guild, so tons of spears and swords and other pointy weapons.

And this one was sponsored by the baker’s guild, so… loaves.

And since I was over there during Thanksgiving break, when I saw this turkey carved in wood on the lectern, I had to take a picture of it.

Two more Antwerp things: We walked through the lower-class medieval area and it was TIGHT. Beautiful, but two people cannot walk abreast through these streets. I cannot imagine these were nice when people didn’t have hygiene and were heaving poop buckets out the windows and whatnot.

We came across the greatest building while trundling around. Why is it the greatest? Two words: boat balcony.

*See? See what I did there? A horse is equine, but I made it aquine because it’s a oceanic horse. I’m very clever.

Tomorrow, some Brussels and some Bruges. Get ready for chocolate and dead animals.

Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 2.

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

So, Belgium. It’s a weird little country. No one knows it’s there, but it’s actually a big deal. If I could live anywhere in Europe, I would live in Brussels. Why? For a few reasons. One, the food. Maybe the best food in Europe, for realzies. Bread, ham, cheese, pastries, chocolate, salad, seafood, wild game, soup – I ate everything and everything was exquisite. C’mon, they have a restaurant just for mushrooms called Les Spores, how awesome is that? One point five, the beer. I don’t drink beer, but they have really special water that makes really amazing beer. Beer is a food group there. Jem loves beer, and she asked me to take pictures for her while I was there, so Jem, these are for you.

The one being poured out of the little jug is a lambic which is only brewed in Belgium and only in a very specific area. And the one with the Brian Froud drawing on it, Troll Beer, I made The Moomins drink that just so I could get a pic of the bottle and glass (she didn’t mind, she said it was light and refreshing).

Two, the centrality and trains. Belgium was one of the first countries to have a train system going all over the place, and the rails are smooth as butter. It’s like there’s Metro-North all over the country. Some of the trains are double-deckers! Also, Brussels is the home of the European Union, so it is very worldly. And here’s the clincher: It’s got those crazy high-speed trains. A guy we met up with said, “Whenever I want to go clothes-shopping, I leave my house at 8:00 a.m., I’m on a train at 8:30 a.m., and I’m in Paris at 10:30 a.m. Then at night, I take a similar train home and I’m in my house at 9:00 p.m.” One way costs $30.00. So envious. It’s about one hour and forty minutes to London and about an hour and a half to Cologne. And it’s not like a flight, you can show up seven minutes before the train leaves.

Three, the architecture. Belgium is the home base for my favorite art movement, art nouveau. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of art nouveau:

Art Nouveau is an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that were most popular during 1890–1910. The name “Art Nouveau” is French for “new art”. A reaction to academic art of the 19th century, it was inspired by natural forms and structures, not only in flowers and plants but also in curved lines. Architects tried to harmonize with the natural environment. It is also considered a philosophy of design of furniture, which was designed according to the whole building and made part of ordinary life.

Translation: Lots of nature and swirly curved lines with tension. I love it. I kept walking all over almost getting hit by cars while gawking at amazing buildings that I wanted to hug. They really love that style. It’s on their buses:

And their bus stops.

But even when their architecture isn’t art nouveau, it’s still beautiful and visually delicious.

By the way, please note that it is overcast in all these photos because in Belgium it rains all the time, which I actually count as a plus. First of all, everyone’s skin is soft and beautiful from the mist. And guess who would never have to squint and wear sunglasses and sunblock ever again? This guy *points to self*. Their winters don’t get as cold as ours here, so there’s no biting wind that chisels your flesh offa your bones.

They also have a Grand Place (Center Square), which is ORNATE. Did I type that in big enough letters? Because it is. Guilds were/are an important thing there. Each one of these buildings is a guild house of some kind. Lonely Planet has a short list:

No 1: Maison des Boulangers (Bakers’ House)- Le Roy d’Espagne, one of the square’s most popular cafés, occupies this building, which belonged to the bakers’ guild. The gilded bronze bust above the door represents their patron, St Aubert.

No 2: La Brouette (The Wheelbarrow)- Faint gold wheelbarrows can still be seen above the door of this house, which was home to the grease-makers. The statue of St Gilles was added in 1912.

No 4: Le Sac (The Bag) This incredibly ornate building was the headquarters of the cabinet-makers.

No 5: La Louve (The She-Wolf)- The archers’ guild topped their building with a golden phoenix rising from the ashes to signify the rebirth of the Grand Place after the bombardment.

No 6: Le Cornet (The Horn)- The boatmen’s guild is easily identified by the stern-shaped gable.

No 7: Le Renard (The Fox) This house served the haberdashers.

No 8: L’Étoile (The Star)- Across Rue Charles Buls from the Hôtel de Ville, this is the smallest building on the square. Everard ‘t Serclaes, the city’s hero and modern-day good luck charm, died here.

No 9: Le Cygne (The Swan)- Adorned with a huge swan and built in classical style, this house originally served the butchers’ guild. Nowadays it’s home to the square’s finest restaurant.

No 10: L’Arbre d’Or (The Golden Tree)- Hops plants climbing columns hint at this building’s former and current role as the brewers’ headquarters.

Nos 26 & 27: Le Pigeon- This guildhall belonged to the city’s artists. Later, Victor Hugo lived here during his exile from France in 1852.

One of the things that we don’t get here in ‘Merka is old things. Really old things. They’re so used to it, they build around it. I came across this walking around. I would love to live in the building next door and give directions. “Yeah, so when you see the chunk of monastery parked in the middle of the road, turn left.”

Same thing in Ghent. Castle hangin’ out in the middle of traffic.

And Antwerp. Castles be everywhere.

So The Moomins and I used Brussels as a base and took day trips to three different neighboring cities: Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent. They are all less than an hour away, so it was no big deal with those fab trains they be rockin’. Antwerp was a must-see on my list because of the buildings there. They have a famous neighborhood that is now a city heritage site and cannot be torn down or modified in any way. See, Antwerp was and still is a major harbor city with goods going in and out all the time. At the turn of the century (and I mean 1899 to 1900, not the recent turnover) a great deal of wealthy German merchants were coming through, so someone had the idea to build an enticing and elegant neighborhood for them to live in. This is what it looks like. Every building is a jewel.

Well, all the buildings except one. When Antwerp got bombed in the Second World War, one of the buildings was destroyed, so this one was built in its place. People were MAD. I would be mad too. Those two houses are not working with the theme at all.

There’s a crossroad that is so sweet. They got the same architect to build all four buildings on all four corners, and each one is named after a season.

While it looks like each building is a mansion, it’s actually three or four houses inside. This cracked me up. Apparently the person on the right paid to have the exterior of their home cleaned and the person on the left did not. It’s like a before and after clip in an infomercial for tub cleaner.

As I said, Antwerp is a harbor city. Since the harbor isn’t in as much use as it used to be, they built the art museum on the banks of the river. While I don’t love the look of it, I like that they made the windows out of woogly glass so it resembled water.

We didn’t go to any of the exhibits, we only went to the roof to look at the view. And then the sun came out, which caused everyone to react like they were either seeing God manifested as man, or to sizzle and hiss.

We passed this cool samurai sculpture on our way up though to the roof.

Tomorrow: more Antwerp.