Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blazing through Bruges and Brussels

A photo album with a lot of images of Epcot-like Bruges and a few of the more of business-like Brussels.

Our day began in a queue at the base of the city bell tower, staring down a surly ticket-taker who took great pleasure in telling us we had to wait then took his break from annoyed staring into the ether to yell at a tourist for standing in front of the postcards. I think he took even greater pleasure in that.

The stairs were a typical winding exercise in delicate, winded passing as perky school children trooped down the stairs and out-of-shape Canadians went up. After three false summits we emerged at the roof of Belgium. This part of the world has little to no topography to speak of, so you can be pretty confident you’re as high as you can go on top of such a tower. Carved into the sills of the enclosed observation windows were the directions and distances to surrounding cities and towns. One arrow pointed towards Bern, Switzerland, showing how far we had come. Another pointed towards Assebroek, showing how much we have yet to mature.

We took in the view while families and exhausted tour groups appeared at the top of the spiral staircase, discussed if the climb was worth it, then disappeared back through the floor. Satisfied we had seen enough of the curvature of the Earth we dropped a floor to examine the intricate mechanism that plays Danny Boy and Beethoven’s 9th on the tower’s bells.

Massive turning cogs and player-piano spools the size of oil drums reminded us there was a time when technology was muscular and intuitive instead of bogged down in half-way decipherable code.

After waiting in the courtyard of the bell tower to hear an out-of-tune rendition of the European Hymn from Beethoven’s 9th, we moved on to the Chapel of the Holy Blood. A Crusader from Bruges came back from the Holy Land with a vial containing a few precious drops of Christ’s blood. The authenticity of the relic may be debatable, but the devotion to the relic is genuine. Every day the blood is taken from its shrine for a short devotional prayer service. The faithful are then invited (in about 9 languages) to approach the alter and place their hands on a glass cover and look closely at the relic.

We attended the service and prayed over it. As soon as my fingertips left the glass shield the deacon wiped the smudges away for the next pilgrim. As we sat back down I noticed a series of stained glass windows that depicted the crusader excavating near the site of the crucifixion where he found the delicate relic. The other windows showed him presenting it to his lord in Bruges and the city getting out its Sunday best to parade it through the streets, still an annual tradition.

From the Holy Blood to Michelangelo. At the Church of Our Lady sits a small statue carved by Michelangelo. It was intended for the city of Sienna, but a Belgian merchant bought the piece out from under the combative Italian city in 1506 and gave it to his Bruges parish. The plaque near the alcove with the gentle Mary and naked two-year-old Christ declares, “The expressive work never fails to move and impress the beholder.” It was impressive, but I wish we could have gotten a little closer to really stare into Mary’s face. Regardless of how impressed we were, it was exciting to see one of the few Michelangelo’s that the Italians ever let leave their peninsula.

The rest of the church was crammed with art and sculpture, including another Madonna and Child that reminded us why Mich was just so damn good.

After a pretty holy morning, it was time to give in to more Earthly pleasures and learn about the real reason Belgium is on every college student’s itinerary through Europe: Beer.

After grabbing a snack of Pommes Frites (French Fries) with mayo – an authentic Belgian experience – we headed towards Bruges Zot Brewery. Our tour went through every step of the process. We admired massive fermentation tanks and wondered at the huge cooling trays. It was difficult to tell how much our guide enjoyed her job. She seemed like a stern woman, but she would crack a well-rehearsed joke every now and then and wait in reflective pride for us to get it. She was also master of the pregnant pause. “As we enter the next room you must be careful of…” Of what? A secret, trap door? The village ogre? Someone with too much enthusiasm? “the ceiling.” Got it.

In a room that probably displayed every Belgian beer glass (each brew has a unique receptacle) and hundreds of world beers (I looked for Hudepohl, Cincinnati’s old favorite) she explained the Belgian penchant for foam. In Germany, beer is served with minimal head, but in Belgium it’s not a good pour unless you need to plane the top with a knife.

She explained the foam is an opportunity. “As you wait, you look at your beer. He looks at you, or she looks at you. You will anticipate your first taste. You will think about how this will be. You will form a relationship. When it is ready for you and you are ready for it, then you may drink.” Leave it to the Belgians to seduce their beer. Suddenly all the Barry White in the bars made a lot more sense.

We got to hike up to the roof and take a look over the city from a lower angle than before. It was an opportunity to say goodbye to the “dead city.” We had to catch a train bound for Brussels (after enjoying our free glass of Bruges Zot with foam as served by our tour guide, of course).

If you had asked me to name the most bewildering, bustling cities on this planet before this trip, I might have ticked off Tokyo, New York, and Sao Paulo. The capital of Belgium wouldn’t have entered my mind, let alone come out of my mouth. But that’s because I didn’t think about where I would be coming from before being bewildered and bustled in this hypothetical interview.

For the record, Brussels is a massive, angry termite mound compared to the retiring Bruges. We stepped off the train at the Central Train Station (there are four major train stations in Brussels, making your entry point to the city a gamble unless you studied your map dutifully before arrival. I napped.) and I started us in the wrong direction. Eventually Tim got us oriented and we wound our way through the streets of Brussels in search of our hostel.

Brussels is not an easy city to navigate. Like most cities in Europe, it has a tangled web of an old town, but the aversion to right angles and street names that last more than a block continue well beyond the medieval center. Couple the rat maze gone urban with steep topography and you have a recipe for frustrated, inefficient wandering with heavy luggage before you finally arrive at your destination. Our wandering involved a detour through St. Michael’s Cathedral. St. Mike is the patron saint of the city and appears on manhole covers and lampposts all over town, so Michael got to feel especially honored. I have yet to find a city that plasters St. Matthew on their garbage cans. Maybe I can figure out a way to be sanctified and get a small Midwestern town to help me out here.

Eventually we found our beds. Of course our dorm room was occupied by three snoozing travelers. We were all getting a little tired of always whispering when we got near our bunks and I was half-tempted to throw the other dudes into the street with a mandate to root up a memorable Brussels experience that didn’t involve a 20 Euro hostel.

Since I had visited Brussels back in February with Erin, I was able to suggest a wander through the more important sites. Any visitor needs to see the Baroque Grand Place with its gilt facades and Gothic city hall. We also swung by the Mannequin Pis, the Cabbage Patch Doll-sized statue of a little kid doing exactly what his name suggests. I don’t know when this fountain became the symbol of the city, but it will always quirk-up my impression of Brussels.

With a tip from our hip student traveler map, we discovered a small restaurant that served Trappist beer and affordable gourmet takes on Belgian staples. The place was clearly a local haunt and we tried to keep our voices at a chilled, urban level, and tried to keep our guidebooks, maps, and cameras hidden. It was hard for me maintain my composure after discovering they had a Bosch print in the bathroom, but we managed to order a few rounds of the Trappists best brews without getting kicked into the street like the lowly tourists we were.

Since we had arrived in the evening, we couldn’t visit any museums (including the new Magritte Museum. You know how I love a good bowler.) but there was plenty to see on the street. Setting out across the royal gardens, past the massive royal palace, we eventually overcame monarchical tyranny and arrived at the EU’s expansive glass and concrete campus.

We occupied ourselves by trying to name all the member countries of the European Union based on their flags. I have a lot of work to do with the former Soviet states. The actual parliament building looked more like an airplane hanger than a place of governance. You look at the British Houses of Parliament or the U.S. Capital and you know big things happen in those walls. Hell, the Hungarian Houses of Parliament reek of big ideas and empire. But the EU is more utilitarian. It reminds me of a bank’s national headquarters. This is a place where the lives of 400 million people can be directly impacted. Shouldn’t the building aspire to embody some of that noble spirit? I know the designers were probably going for “openness” and avoiding “imperial” imagery, but did Europe need more characterless glass?

But I digress. Our walk took us even further, to the heart of Belgian Imperial glory at the Triumphal Arch. It was built with money from the Belgian Congo which is not the most honestly made cash the world has produced, but the monument is pretty. People frolicked in the garden in front of the arch and the flanking military and automobile museums. I considered frolicking along, but decided my ankle wasn’t up for hopping around quite yet.

After reaching the arch we rested our weary soles and decided on the bar that needed our patronage. A La Mort Subite won out. The place has been around since 1928 and is still decorated with all the class of the roaring ‘20s. Their house Gueuze makes them particularly noteworthy (Gueuze, the internet tells me, is a blending of 1 year old lambic, or top fermented beer, with 2-3 year old lambic. This combination is then fermented a second time.). It was bitter stuff. Fortunately Mike and Tim are also firm believers in ordering different food/drink than your neighbor so we could sample as many of Belgium’s wonderful alcoholic treasures as possible before calling it a night.

As the gruff waiters stacked chairs on tables, a pair of American joined our conversation. The architecture grad students hailed from Penn state and we got a tentative O-H out of them. The Buckeyes continue to bring people together, even in Brussels. We said goodbye to our inebriated new acquaintances and got some tips on making the most of a quick trip to our final destination in Mike and Tim’s Europe 2009 experience. We needed all the advice we could get. We were about to ride to London, and let me tell you, there’s no place like London!

The photos again. You know you want to linger over the shot of Bruges at night just a little longer.

P.S. If you haven't had enough of Bruges, this trailer for the movie In Bruges has some shots of the city along with a few shots at the city.

As a side comment, it's actually an excellent film. The trailer makes it look like a Guy Richie knock-off, but it's written and directed by Martin McDonagh who's actually a playwright with Tony nominated, Olivier winning stuff like The Pillowman and Lieutenant of Inishmore to his name. It's funny, but also has a dark, tragic edge...good stuff.


Michael said...

You saw In Bruges then? I still have parts of the trailer suck in my head, haha. Perhaps I should look for the vcd/dvd on the streets of Bangkok...

Tim said...

I still need to track it down! I'm hoping Blockbuster will carry it...