Sunday, September 24, 2017

Ghent: so old and so hip

"Ghent is a city which enjoys itself." — Éireann Lorsung, author and editor

PAUL AND I have fallen hard for Ghent. We took so many pictures that instead of making two posts about this magical city, I'm making four. We like it better than Brussels and about 50 times more than Bruges. I'll explain why in a subsequent post. 

Here's a little background about this old, old, but very hip city: 

Ghent (Gent in Flemish and Dutch; Gand in French) is a port city at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. It’s the largest city in East Flanders and the third-largest in Belgium. Archaeological evidence reveals a human presence as far back as the Stone and Iron Ages. In the Middle Ages Ghent became one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe. Today it’s a university town and cultural hub.

The entire heart of Ghent has been a car-free zone since 1997, the second-largest such area in Belgium, behind Brussels which has the second-largest in Europe. In 2009 in an effort to fight the climate crisis (the UN says meat production is responsible for nearly one fifth of greenhouse gasses), Ghent designated every Thursday as a suggested vegetarian day and to encourage residents to participate, the city provided recipes, a list of vegetarian restaurants and cooking demonstrations.

Take a walk with Paul and me.

Above and below: Saint Nicholas' Church


On our walk, we came upon this outdoor amphitheater where there was a circle of pianos, and various people from the spontaneous crowd that had gathered sat down and played. The person performing when we first walked up was rendering such an expert version of a classical piece, that I thought it was an organized event, but when he left someone else sat down and started pounding out Layla.

The Ghent post office

Friday, September 22, 2017

Ghent – Saint 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. 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. 

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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 called 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 at the expense, of the poor.

The nave of Saint 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.