I’ve always enjoyed the cafe A La Mort Subite in Brussels. ‘To Sudden Death’. You may have heard of the beer. I’ve sketched here before, and years ago when I had my rainy year in Belgium, this is where I would come sometimes on a weekend to dry off in the early evening, usually after a day of wandering about Brussels, to sit and read a book with a glass of their lovely Gueuze. It hasn’t changed much over the years (except for one important thing – it doesn’t reek of smoke like it did back in 1999). It opened in 1928, and is a proper heritage site. I always liked sitting at the little wobbly table inside by the door, and remember playing chess there years ago. I always make a point of stopping here whenever I visit Belgium, and this time I made sure my hotel was right around the corner. After taking a quick rest in my room, I came out and drew the outside (I was very happy with how this turned out), before coming in for some beer and food. I got myself a lambic blanche (a wheat beer made from ‘lambic’, which I think is something to do with sheep) (took an effort not to order a ‘lambic baaa-r’) and found a spot with a good view to sketch from. My food came quickly, a very eggy omelette full of mushrooms, and the longest slice of bread you ever saw. Seriously it was about three or four regular slices in length. You could have used it as a yoga mat. I took my time, that’s the way at a Belgian cafe, and listened to the French conversations around me. I didn’t hear much Flemish (Dutch); although Brussels as the capital is officially bilingual, with everything in French and Flemish (not to mention every other language you will hear spoken here in this capital of Europe), and despite being landlocked in a sea of Flemish language areas, French is still very much the main language of Brussels. I remember when I was in Belgium it was explained to be roughly 70-80% French speaking, with the remainder being Flemish-speaking (not including the not-insignificant number of languages spoken by the many, many other nationalities living in Brussels of course). Actually, I say I listened, I didn’t really listen very much, I was inside the page of my sketchbook. I had another beer, a peche (a peach beer), and went back out to finish off my big Grand Place drawing.
My legs were tired after the big Grand Place sketch. The weather was nice, the big rainstorms from the day before in Lille had not followed me to Belgium, though they were probably not far behind. I imagined myself as being on the run from a big storm, like the little fellows in Time Bandits. I strolled past chocolate shops and friteries, wandered about looking for Mannekin Pis, a famous little statue of a small boy doing a wee, which despite never changing location in all these years I always seem to have trouble finding. I needed a rest now, and after that long session stood drawing in the Grand Place I needed a Belgian beer a little stronger than a lambic blanche. I’d never been into the little tavern Au Bon Vieux Temps before, though I had passed by the narrow alleyway that leads to its door many times. “At the Good Old Times“. It’s opposite another very old bar, A l’Imaige Nostre Dame, which I’d also never once visited. Why I’d never been in those places I don’t know, but I think I was perhaps a bit nervous of them. Something a bit scary about going down those medieval nooks, perhaps I had read too many fantasy adventure stories when I was a kid, and expected to be jumped by vagabonds or goblins. There were no orcs or padfoots in here though. It wasn’t busy – it was a Monday evening – but there were a few people seated at the bar chatting (in French and American). I could have spent hours sketching here; if I ever come back, I may well do. I found a table with a view of the bar and the big colourful stained glass window, and got myself a dark Orval trappist beer. The bartender was friendly, the atmosphere was warm. I drew fast; this felt more like a cool-down exercise after the big Grand Place panorama, but in truth I’d been sketching non-stop for three days straight and had no intention of slowing down now.
It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. The next day I was going to be back riding on the train tracks again, to explore the port city of Antwerp. Good old times.