Friday, September 22, 2017

Ghent – St Bavo's and where not to stay

“Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. And it seems the Belgians forgot to tell anyone.” — The Lonely Planet

GO TO Ghent. Don't stay where we stayed.

You've heard the saying, "It's not the elevation; it's the relief." Relief, as in the difference in elevation from one level to the next. 
It's an aphorism cited as a rational basis for fear of heights or flying. It's the drop, not the height, that will kill you. 

And that's what's wrong with the Charme Hotel Hancelot where we stayed in Ghent. It was the difference between what we were led to believe existed versus what it actually is. The photos on their website make it look amazing! And it could be, but it isn't. It's sad and shabby.

It was no doubt a once-grand residence. Our guess is that whoever bought the building ran out of money to properly restore and rehabilitate it and are trying to cash flow it. What work has been done is shoddy. I had a sinking feeling when we walked up to the front door with it's dings and scratches and chipped paint.

I'm reluctant to show you a picture of our room because you'll inevitably think, "C'mon!! It's gorgeous!" But let me just say this: if as much care had been put into the property as was given over to making the photographs, we wouldn't have been disappointed.

I know, I know. It looks fabulous. It wasn't.

The parquet floor in our room groaned and screamed wherever we walked. That's a problem if one person is trying to sleep and the other, say, has to use the bathroom or walk anywhere in the room. The fabric whatever-you-call-it on the wall behind the bed, fashioned out of some cheesy fabric, is ripped at the bottom. One of the window drapes made out of the same material has detached itself from the rod part way along and hangs forlornly. The mattress was awful; the bed pillows were so over-stuffed and hard that our necks are still strained days later. 

When we arrived, the room was cold, but there was a space heater for our use. Paul plugged it in, it ran for about 15 seconds, quit and wouldn't go again. When asked about the space heater, the owner pointed out the regular radiator which is actually quite new. "Our mistake. Sorry. We hadn't noticed it. Problem solved." Sort of. It made heat, but it 
was in such dire need of being bled that it popped and cracked loudly all night long.

We were looking forward to using the advertised and pictured-on-the-website sauna. Out of commission. But the worst thing of all was the utter and complete lack of soundproofing.

I'm guessing that the original walls are thick and solid, but there was evidently no sound mitigation whatsoever put into place where walls have been created that didn't exist before. 
Two stairways, a back and a front, led to our room, and the noise from people talking and going up and down the stairs was also sleep-interuptingly loud. Exponentially worse: we could hear the guy staying next door peeing and farting as if were in our bathroom. I am not exaggerating. 

The only thing they did well was provide a generous, high-quality buffet breakfast. I think they want to make this a wonderful place, but it isn't, and to advertise it as such is dishonest. It was the most expensive place we stayed on this trip, and not worth it.

It isn't that I can't deal with the eccentricities of old buildings! Living in Brussels Urban B and B looked to be about the same vintage, and we loved it there. The last night of our trip we stayed in a 600-year-old hotel, and it was marvelous, not faux ostentatiously regal. The difference is that at both of the other places we stayed, great care has been taken in restoring and maintaining their property, and careful attention is devoted to their guests' experience.

Sorry. I had to get that off my chest because it was such a disappointment. And so I repeat: definitely go to Ghent. Definitely do not stay at Charme Hotel Hancelot.

But on to the wonders of Ghent. It's a Medieval dream. Even though we were there three nights, we only had one day to explore Ghent itself because we had other day-trip destinations planned. It wasn't nearly enough time, but we still managed to take so many photographs that I'm going to split Ghent into multiple posts.

This first post is devoted solely to St Bavo's Cathedral . . . that and complaining about where we stayed.

This 292-feet-tall Gothic cathedral, seat of the Catholic diocese in Ghent, was built on the site of the former Chapel of St. John the Baptist consecrated in 942.  Some traces of the original structure remain. In 1038 it was expanded in the Romanesque style, and some vestiges of this phase also remain. From the 14th through the 16th centuries, nearly constant Gothic-style expansion occurred. "A new choir, radiating chapels, expansions of the transepts, a chapter house, nave aisles and a single tower western section were all added during this period. Construction was considered complete in 1569." (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

And here's another extra-interesting tidbit about St Bavo's. If you saw the 2014 movie The Monuments Men, you may remember that the semi-historical, highly-fictionalized plot centers around a group of World War II Allied soldiers who have been given the task of finding and saving pieces of art before the Nazis plundered them.

One of them was a large, 12-panel altarpiece named The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in 1432 by brothers Hubrecht (Hubert) and Jan van Eyck. Considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world's treasures, it was one of the first painted altar pieces in North and Western Europe. Until then, altar pieces were woodcuts.

The real history of the altar piece is more intrigue-rich than the fakey movie. The panels that make up what is popularly known as The Lamb of God were endangered during outbreaks of iconoclasm and some were damaged by fire. At times panels were sold; others were looted during war. A number of panels were taken by the German occupying forces during World War I, but were later returned to St Bavo's Cathedral.

In 1934 two panels were stolen. The Saint John the Baptist panel was returned soon after, but The Just Judges panel is still missing. In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending much of World War II hidden in a salt mine, which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of The Just Judges, as part of an overall restoration effort. (Thanks Wikipedia for background that I couldn't memorize from the audio tour we took.)

This revered altar piece resides in the Vyd Chapel in St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, and we got to see it in person.

Before I take you on a tour, I'd like to say that although St Bavo's is a breathtaking masterpiece, I never enter any edifice such as this one is without being cognizant of two things: first that so much bloodshed has occurred in the name of religion and secondly, that magnificent structures of this era, perhaps all eras, have inevitably been built on the backs and expense of the poor.

The nave of St Bavo's Cathedral 

This is another piece of Flemish art in the cathedral, not The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, or Lamb of God, altar piece of which photos were not allowed. 

This is actually a smallish carving, perhaps two feet in width.

This photo is looking up towards the lofty arches standing in the same place where I took the above photo.

A side aisle

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cinquantenaire Park and a little history

“Parks are works of art just as a painting or sculpture is.” — Thomas Pearsall Field Hoving, American museum executive and the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

ON OUR last day in Brussels we returned to a place 
we'd discovered the day before but hadn't had time to explore. Just a ten-minute walk from our loft at Living in Brussels, Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire, French for Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary — or Jubelpark, Dutch for Jubilee Park) is a gem.

Here's a little background from Wikipedia. "Most buildings of the U-shaped complex which dominate the park were commissioned by the Belgian government for the 1880 National Exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian independence. The centerpiece triumphal arch was erected in 1905 replacing a previous, temporary version. In 1930 the government decided to reserve Cinquantenaire for use as a leisure park."

There are three museums in the surrounding complex: The Royal Military Museum, Jubelpark Museum and AutoWorld Museum. We didn't have enough time to visit them, but we loved strolling through the park. 

The top three photos are from the east-side, car-accessible end of the park. I took this photo of the arches after walking through to the park-side.
People were strolling hand-in-hand as we were, playing with children, walking their dogs or just sitting on a bench or a blanket on the ground. Statues are throughout the park.

At the western edge of the park, there was a rally beginning on behalf of Kurdistan independence — a perfect example of the mind-broadening benefits of travel. I've heard of the Kurds, but I couldn't have told you where they predominate (I would have guessed near Afghanistan — which it sort of is, but not really) or what their struggle entails. Paul was aware of course because he's extra smart, but now I have some basic knowledge.

A little further towards the center of the city, we encountered a memorial to the victims of the 2016 bombing of Brussels, once again demonstrating the humanizing power of travel. Like anyone with a heart, I was aghast at the bombing at the time it took place, but Belgium was sort of a fuzzy somewhere-out-there concept to me instead of 'real' place, and the awareness of the bombing faded. I had to be reminded that it occurred by Nora, the bright and shiny college student coming home to Belgium who sat next to me on the plane and who graciously guided us through the Brussels airport.

When we were taking the metro to and from the city center the day before, we'd noticed that the metro system looked the same everywhere in Brussels except for a brand new, glisstening section at a stop called Maalbeek. When we came across the memorial, it all made sense.

Here's background on the bombing from Wikipedia: "On the morning of March 22, 2016 three coordinated suicide bombings occurred in Belgium — two at Brussels Airport in Zaventem and one at Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels. Thirty-two civilians and three perpetrators were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. The perpetrators belonged to a terrorist cell which had been involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks. The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium's history."

Now it's a real thing to me that I can feel because I've been here. Paul and I have walked on the very ground where it took place.

Memorial to the victims of the 2016 bombing in Brussels.

We continued on our way to the center of the city and the Royal Palace of Brussels. Again with help from Wikipedia, here's something about it: 

"The Royal Palace of Brussels is the official palace of the King and Queen of Belgium, but it’s not used as a royal residence. The king and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. The city center palace is where the king exercises his prerogatives as Head of State, grants audiences and deals with affairs of state. Although the facade was built after 1900, the first nucleus of the present-day building dates from the the late 1700's. The grounds on which the palace stands date back to the Middle Ages." 

Paul took this panoramic shot of the Palace. That's me marching along in my yellow coat.

I could have easily spent all of our time in Brussels — and for that matter, in Belgium — in art museums, so before we left I decided to limit myself to one. I chose The Magritte Museum. Part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium located in the Place Royale where the Royal Palace is, the Magritte Museum displays more than 200 original paintings, drawings and sculptures by René Magritte. It opened to the public in 2009 and is the biggest Magritte archive anywhere. Most of the work is from the collection of the artist's widow, Georgette Magritte, and from Irene Hamoir Scutenaire, who was his primary collector.

The Blank Page by René Magritte. 1967.

I was unaware that Paul took this photo of me while writing a Hey Look Something Shiny 
post from our aerie perch in Brussels.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Day two in Brussels

“A country like Belgium, or socialist countries in central Europe spend more money on art education than the United States, which is a really puzzling thought.” — Mikhail Baryshnikov , Soviet and American dancer, choreographer often cited alongside Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev and Vladimir Vasiliev as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. 

AFTER SLEEPING in . . . and boy howdy, did we need it, we took the metro to the central square in Brussels which, according to every area travel guide you lay your hands on, is the most memorable landmark in Brussels. Called Grand Place in French and English, and Grote Markt in Dutch, it's surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices: the city's Town Hall, and the Breadhouse building which houses the Museum of the City of Brussels

Belgium is 11,780 square miles, about the size of Maryland, and is unofficially divided into northern and southern halves. Dutch is spoken in the northern half that borders The Netherlands, French is spoken in the lower half that borders France, German is spoken more along the eastern edge of the country that borders Germany, and English is spoken nearly universally. That's why you'll find place names and instructions listed almost everywhere in at least two languages and sometimes three or four.

Here are some pictures from our day.

At the Grand Place. Below: three photos of buildings lining the square.
Above and below: Brussels Town Hall

The guildhalls

On the way, we discovered the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, in Dutch, Koninklijke Sent Hubertusgalerijen. Finished and dedicated in 1847, it's Europe's oldest shopping arcade. (Three photos below.)

A detail of the walls the Galleries underneath the huge, arched glass dome.

We ate lunch at Mokafe in the Galleries, and naturally we had to have a famous Belgian waffle for dessert. So good!! (Two pictures below.)

Along the way we also encountered a marching band.
And an entirely separate brass band and parade.
Trombone players of the world, unite!!

The above two pictures are of Sint Niklaaskerk. In English it would be Saint Nicholas Church.

And on the way back we saw Sint-Goedeleplein or Place Sainte-Gudule.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Taking a break in Brussels

 “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

I HAD to get out of the country for awhile. Self-care, I think it's called. It wasn't just that I needed a break from work and routine — although I do. I specifically needed to be away from the US.

I would love to know what the stats are: what the uptick has been in visits to mental health professionals and the percentage increase in number of anti-depression and anti-anxiety meds prescribed. In the same way that the toxic waste from family-of-origin disfunction and rigid roles can (literally) make you crazy and handicap you for life, so can the larger scale cultural, political, societal stew you marinate in.

After the disastrous election, Paul and I both instinctively had the same impulse — to pull ourselves all the way in, to shrink both in terms of how much outside our binary system we could tolerate taking in, and how much we were willing to extend ourselves to others. We had adopted a protective, grieving, defensive posture. But I was ready to emerge, to remember who we are. I craved a wider perspective, a broader view; to be reminded that the whole world is still out there, bigger and wiser than my home country is at present. 

As a nation, we are such a brash bunch, so full of ourselves — not unlike an adolescent puppy or teenage boy, all overabundant energy, clumsy awkwardness and raging hormones. We forget that civilization has been around a lot longer than we have, that we're really just so new at everything, and that we could stand to benefit from the wisdom and experience of others.

So, here we are in Brussels. We've just been here a day, but thus far we love Belgium. It feels surprisingly like a fit, like home minus the insanity. Except for the drivers! Yikes! Although they obediently yield to pedestrians, or so it seems, most of them drive like a bat out of hell.

Let me tell you how we got to where we are. It was a simple equation: I was looking for the cheapest flight to Europe I could find. And I did: round-trip airfare from Chicago to Brussels for $448 each. The downside was having to get ourselves to Chicago. Normally we wouldn't have minded much; we're good at driving trips and it doesn't take so very long anymore. The problem was that we were both running on little sleep.

We had emergency projects at work to finish, and we had to get our boat (we own a small sailboat) to a new winter storage facility (and by we, I mean Paul, since it was beyond my ability) which again, normally, wouldn't have been that big of a deal except the boat trailer had a flat tire and a rusted on wheel. All in all, lots of challenges to simply getting out of town.

I found our inexpensive flights on an airline called WOW. Yup, that's the name of the airline. It's just been in existence since 2012. They're a fun and witty bunch: a no-frills airline, based in Iceland that describes itself in this way, "Iceland's only high performance, low-cost airline. We promise you that WOW feeling!"

In Chicago waiting to board WOW airline to Reykjavik and on to Brussels. This picture was taken by an honest to goodness monk in robe and sandals. (More about him, his Brother and their order in a subsequent post.)

That meant that we changed planes in Reykjavik. The flight there was populated primarily by two classes: loads of outdoorsy, hiking people going to Iceland for adventure and college students from all over Europe returning from a summer in or shorter visit to the United States. Both of the young people we sat next to on our flights to Reykjavik and to Brussels were delights. (More about them in an upcoming post.)

It was a l-o-n-g journey! Paul said that it was the first time he'd seen the sun set and sun rise on the same trip on a plane. Me too.

For our stay, I chose a bed and breakfast called Living in Brussels Urban B and B. It's roughly three miles from the city center in a part of town called Etterbeek. It's in a quintessential, neoclassical neighborhood without the noise, congestion and pods of tourists there are in the center of the city. We couldn't be happier with our place of temporary residence. Our room is the fifth-floor, converted, renovated attic with large skylights and windows that offer an amazing view of the city in two directions. Quiet and private; exactly our kind of place.

The view from our window looking one direction. More pictures of the view at the bottom of the post.

Here's the review Paul wrote on TripAdvisor:

"My wife and I are so pleased that we booked Living in Brussels Urban B and B. Hosts Caroline and Pieter are kind, helpful, professional and altogether lovely people. We arrived hours earlier than check-in, but were greeted with nothing but welcoming smiles. Their recommendations on dining and transportation have proven spot on. Living in Brussels is in a perfect neighborhood for our style of travel. My wife and I both love to stay in areas less dominated by tourists, where you can get a sense of local day-to-day life. This inn is in just such a situation: close enough to restaurants and public transportation to be convenient, but tucked away enough to be quiet and romantic."

We were exhausted when we arrived, so we slept. When we woke, we went for a stroll in the neighborhood and chose an Italian restaurant a few blocks away called Il Sorriso that Pieter recommended. We adored it. It's a one-aisle restaurant with a genuine, wood-fired pizza oven where the dough is set to rise and both the atmosphere and the service are warm. The pizza was scrumptious, and we were the only patrons.

These pizzas were truly exceptional. I had the Pizza Nouveautés (top) with with mozzarella di bufala and tomates cerises. Paul had the Quattro Stagioni: mozzarella, jambon, olives, champignons, artichauts, anchoise and origan.
Our pizza makers were as warm as the restaurant and the pizza: an Italian-speaker on the left who helped me practice counting to ten in Italian, and a French-speaker on the right.
After dinner we walked to a nearby small square, the Place Jourdan, where sidewalk cafes were populated with people having dinner or sampling one of the 1,300+ different regional kinds of beer available or munching on a particular Belgian specialty, frites served with mayonnaise, being sold there by a street vendor. Yum! Paul chose the vendor's own special concoction, a spiced tartar sauce, which he liked very much — instead of mayonnaise. I ate mine plain.

We strolled the quiet, cobblestone neighborhood till late at night on the way back to our private aerie. C'était très romantique.

Absolutely everyone we've met and everyone who has served us has been good-spirited, helpful and friendly. PS: Although you can't tell from this picture, the frites-maker you see in profile looked exactly like Jean Reno who played Police Captain Bezu Fache in the movie, The Da Vinci Code.

A panoramic that Paul took at sunset looking out one direction.

And out the other.