Monday, 19 November 2012


I've been a bit radio silent on the blog lately, haven't I?  First I was busy writing up my third thesis chapter and for the last weekish Tim and I were off in the Low Countries.  Expect trip posts, Chapter Three and thesis-writing posts, and a couple book reviews in the coming days.  I can think of many things to blog about but today I want to talk about the two days we spent in Brussels.

We took the train to London and the Eurostar to Brussels, which I think took just over two hours.  Not bad at all.  Just about that first thing we saw at Brussel's Midi/Zuid Station was this rendering of Tin-Tin.  Tin-Tin seems to be Belgium's favourite fictional son.  We saw those books everywhere, in many languages.  The next thing we did was get lost on the metro (my fault - I sent us in the wrong direction!)

We stayed just outside the main tourist zone on a residential street near the EU area.  Walking around Brussels felt a bit like being in Ottawa.  We constantly saw the offices of international organizations.  Plus, all the signs were bilingual, something we have a great familiarity with in Canada, where a lot of labelling and, in some places, signage appears in English and French.  Pictured below is Tim with some street signs in French and Flemish, languages which are so different from each other that street names often don't resemble themselves when translated from one language to the next.

Another couple notes on language.  I thought I might need to exercise my French a bit more on this trip and maybe learn some Dutch.  Nope.  Everyone had fantastic English, ranging from slightly strained and accented to near-perfect fluency.  (I include in that category the train manager on the way to Amsterdam who referred to his portable debit/credit machine as "invidious", a word that really deserves to be used more often).  Also, at most of the museums, explanations were given in four languages!  French, Dutch/Flemish, German, and English.

We discovered some interesting statues on our way through the parc which boasts the Palais de la Nation at one end and the Palais Royale at the other.  

 A mussel and a brussel sprout.  There were also frites, a chocolate bar, and a glass of beer.  You know you're in a great country when they flaunt their national symbols this proudly.

 Brussels has a ridge that runs through it, separating the lower city (the older, more medievalish bit with twisty lanes and tourists) and the upper city (more nineteenth-century and Parisian looking).  The Grand-Place (or, in Flemish, Grote Markt) is in the lower city, which you can reach in many cases by going down stairs.  We saw the spire on the building pictured above when we first looked out over the lower city and were convinced it must belong to a cathedral - nope, city hall.  All the cities we visited had fabulous historic markets with guild halls and city hall, all done up with great pomp and attesting to the very great commercial wealth of the 16th and 17th century Dutch golden age.

 More buildings in the Grote Markt.  I quite like the tastefully done guilded detail.

 Looking the Musee des Beaux Arts, which we couldn't go into since this was Remembrance Sunday and most of the museums were closed.  It was fine though - we ended up seeing a lot of art in Amsterdam and Bruges, but more on that later.  We did go to the BELvue museum, which is a wing of the royal palace and covers Belgian history from independence in 1830 to the present.  It was really fascinating to see how political (liberal, socialist, etc.), religious (Protestant/Catholic), and ethnic (French/Flemish/German) tensions have shaped modern-day Belgium.  Most interesting was the constant fight on the part of the Flemish to have their language used and recognized, which reminded me of the language laws in place in Quebec today to keep French from being pushed out by English.  Also, there was a set of letters written by King Albert I of Belgium, George V of England, Kaiser Wilhem of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia around the time of World War I.  All these men were related to each other (through Queen Victoria and her brood of ten children, who intermarried with most of the royal families in Europe) and wrote variously to each other in English, French, and German (I think).

On a Bronte-related note, apparently one of the buildings that houses the Musee des Beaux Arts is currently located on (maybe above?) the site where the Pensionnat Heger was located.  Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily came to Brussels in 1842 to improve their knowledge of French, with the ultimate goal of setting up their own school with Anne (still governessing in England).  Charlotte stayed for almost two years and probably fell madly in love with her French teacher, M. Constantin Heger.  It was nice to be able to walk about the lower city and the area about the royal palace, which is about all that's left of the Brussels Charlotte Bronte knew.  The area has sadly been modernised since, so that even street levels are often different than they were in the mid-nineteenth century.

We ended the day with a tour of some of the beautiful parks in the EU quarter with a friend of ours from home who is currently based in Brussels.  This is the triumphal arch of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium's independent existense.  Very grand, purposefully Parisian.  In fact, quite a bit of Brussels reminded of Paris, but in a more down-to-earth way.  A great city to visit for a few days.

And then it was off to Antwerp and a long-awaited concert...

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