looking over liège

Liege hydrants
I took the train across the linguistic divide that cuts Belgium in two and landed in Liège, a city I had last visited in the final months of the twentieth century. I was going there for exactly 24 hours, to visit my long-time urban sketching friend and art hero, Gerard Michel, and also sketch with some other Belgian sketching friends. Liège is a fairly big city, larger than I remember, and the architecture is very Walloon, lots of brick houses and steep hills. Gerard and I went for a morning walk around his neighbourhood, up steep paths and down long stairs, overlooking rooftops and spires and trees and the great river Meuse. Liège is a lively city, with a lot of atmosphere, a university city, and a very sketchable one, but in a different way to Ghent. We met up with Fabien Denoel, who I’ve known and followed since Barcelona 2013, and Chris Damaskis, as well as Danni Hoedamkers whom I had sketched with in Ghent, and Martine Kervagoret, visiting from Paris on the way to the Symposium, whom I first met back in Lisbon 2011 I think. We sketched up at the Terrasses des Minimes, overlooking the city, and it was very peaceful. I have seen many of gerard’s skethces from up there, as well as Fabiens, but also Lapin’s Florian Afflerbach’s, Nina Johansson’s, all the great sketchers who have visited there before, so I knew this scene well already, and I’m glad to have sketched it myself.
Liege rooftops des Minimes
I liked this picture of an apple that I took too.

IMG_3733

We walked into town for lunch, going to an old Liègeois cafe called Chez Stockis / Cafe Lequet, near the banks of the Meuse. We sat and chatted in French (I am very rusty), looked through sketchbooks, had cold beer and ate very local food. Most people had these things called ‘boulots’, which are these large meatballs (I don’t eat the meat so I didn’t have those), but I had Tomates Crevettes, which were these little shrimp sat on a big tomato, with frites. The cafe is old and a local favourite, but I heard that it would be closing. In fact I think by now, M. Stockis has closed up for the last time, though the cafe may still be going on (there’s a FB page). The patron, Guillaume Stockis, is there in the background of the sketch below (which is of Fabien Denoel). On the ceiling is hanging the marionette of Tchantchès, a local Walloons character dating back to the 19th century, dressed in his traditional miners’ clothes. You can learn about him here, if you can speak Walloons. This here is the heart of Liège.

Liege Cafe Lequet sm

IMG_3751

After lunch we walked across the Meuse to the Outremeuse neighbourhood and sketched at the roundabout of the Rue Pont St Nicolas. It was getting hot, the heatwave was coming in, and regular cold drinks were necessary. I sat next to a Friterie – the Friterie Tchantches of course – and drew as best I could. I also wandered about a little, as I had learned (from one of Gerard’s sketches) that the best waffles in Liège were at a place just across the street. Sadly it was closed, so I had one from a chain nearby, which was not as good. The waffles of Liège are a bit different from the waffles of Brussels, usually smaller and rounder, and they remind me of that Belgian film Rosetta, which I saw back in 1999 when I was in Charleroi, a story about a young woman in Liège who at one point works in a waffle truck.

Liege Outremeuse

Going back a few hours, the sketch below was the view from the guest room at Gerard’s house, I had woken up early (jetlag), and needed to practice the sketching. The bells at the local church were playing Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, which always reminds me of when I lived in Belgium, when I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and that was the first song on the CD I had bought. I would listen to that when looking out over the rooftops from my 13th floor room, so perhaps this was the universe welcoming me back to Wallonia.
Liege view from window
And as you know, I like to draw fire hydrants, so I drew three of them in Liège. And here also is Gerard, on the steep Montagne de Beuren, showing me the spot where he had once drawn a spectacular 360 degree picture of the whole scene – he gave me a print of it a decade ago, I do love it. It was funny seeing the real place in real life.
Liege Hydrant OutremeuseIMG_3719

Here is Gerard’s sketchbook, and as you can see I show up in it twice! A huge honour. I’m wearing my 1984 classic Belgium shirt, crouching over my book as always.

IMG_3770(Edited)
After sketching the roundabout, I walked down to the shade beneath the bridges crossing the Meuse. There was a smell of wee. The footbridge is the Passarelle Saucy, and I think I remember this bridge from that one time I came here twenty years ago, but I don’t remember it being called Saucy. What a brilliant name for a bridge. And no, I won’t be doing any sauce or saucy based jokes here.
Liege Passarelle Saucy
We crossed back over the river, walked about the city-centre a bit, before stopping off at the Place St Denis to draw the side of the church there. The weather was really getting hot by now. Gerard’s son Antoine joined us, I’ve met him a number of times. It was nice having dinner with Gerard’s family at his home the evening before, he made a really delicious chicken meal. I was delighted to take a look at his sketchbook room, his inventions, and we looked through a large map book of 17th or 18th century Belgium with Fabien, scouring it for every village; a small country with a big and detailed history. Belgium has only been the country of Belgium since 1830, but every area has a long hisroty, often of being ruled by some foreign power like the Habsburgs, or the French, or the Dutch, or the Spanish; Liège for many years was ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Liège, the princes-évêques, and the next time I am here I will draw the magnificent palace that still dominates the skyline. This is also, possibly, the city of Charlemagne’s birth, though nobody knows for sure. It might be Aachen, which isn’t far away, and was his capital. The city I was in the day before, Ghent, was the birthplace of another great Holy Roman Emperor called Charles, whose name lives on in one of my favourite beers, Charles Quint (Kaizer Karel).
Liege Sketchers
The Church of St.Denis dates back to the late 900s AD, founded by someone called Notker of Liège. I added the colour later on the train out of town. I spent exactly 24 hours in Liège. We all went for a cold beer in the city square, before Gerard took me to the station, the phenonemally futuristic cathedral of Guillemins, and I just made it onto a train to go back in time to Charleroi. A la prochaine fois, Liège!
Liege St Denis

gandering around ghent

Ghent Train Station
Despite living in Belgium for a year twenty years ago, I had never been to Ghent before. Well, I did go there once, on the morning train from Charleroi, but I had not really slept the night before and was so ridiculously tired that I decided to call it quits and head back home to bed, so I don’t remember a great deal. I think part of that is that Ghent is quite big, and the city centre is a good long walk from the train station, and in the year 2000 I may not have been as good at reading maps as I always believed (“flight of the navigator” my friends used to call me). I’m a lot better at that now. I have an Apple Watch that tells me where to go, making little vibrations to tell me to turn left. This time however I did one better, and met up with a local (well, local to Flanders), fellow urban sketcher and USk-symposium-goer Danni, who showed me around, and we met with another local Ghent sketcher. I took the train from Brussels Central up to Ghent (known as Gent in the Flemish), locked my stuff away in the luggage lockers, and sketched the station Gent Sint Pieters, which is a pretty nice building. The weather was nice, it was warm but not yet hot – it was going to get ridiculous in the next couple of days. It was also, I learned, the Belgian National Day, which seemed like a big surprise to most Belgians I met. I was wearing my Belgian national team football shirt, but I was the only one wearing it. I learned a bit more about Flanders from Danni, and listened out for the Flemish language – it’s Dutch, of course, but it definitely has a softer sound to it than Dutch. I can only speak a very little and I can read more than I can listen to, but I like the accent. When I was in Belgium I only really encountered Flemish when visiting Brussels, or on the labels of drink cans, so my attempts to learn it fell a bit flat. Everyone I met who spoke Flemish spoke English, unlike in solidly Francophone Wallonia. I had been to Bruges, Antwerp, Ostend, Leuven, but Ghent eluded me, and after visiting it I realized what I had been missing. Ghent is amazing, and so sketchable. Now as I say, it was the Belgian National Day, because the calendar said it was, but Ghent was bustling for another reason – it was the week of the annual Gentse Feesten, a huge city-wide festival with music and food and drink, and of course loads of people. I was sketching in the earlier part of the day so was likely to miss the big crowds, but as it turned out it was not so bad, and pretty fun. I knew where I wanted to sketch first – the view from the St.Michielsbrug, which probably needed to be a two-page panorama, but I would perhaps have needed a seat for that, and a couple more hours.
Ghent St Michielsbrug

I mean, have a look at that, what a spectacular view to draw. You should see left and right of this view, it continues to be dramatic. Another one to eventually go back and draw even more of when I have, you know, all the time in the world, and the money to pay for that time. I’m happy for what I have. To be right there, in my favourite little country, in a part of it I had never explored (except when sleepwalking twenty years ago), with a sketchbook in my hand, pretty much the meaning of life. Knowing that good food and drink is nearby, and people to meet, stories to learn, it’s a good feeling. I think people – British people certainly – have always shrugged at Belgium as some boring country of bureaucrats with nothing there but grey skies and trenches, and that’s fine, keep thinking that, I know there’s a country of endless character and history, always something to explore, in a very small area. If I had the time I would just go town to town with a sketchbook and document the whole country. If I did I would be so full of frites and chocolate and beer that I’d need to spend a month in the gym afterwards. Alternatively, I could cycle – that is Belgium’s national sport after all. Oh they love the sport of cycling here. Then again, I remember what the drivers were like in Charleroi, so I would need quite a lot of health insurance.
Ghent Building

Ghent Sketchers Ghent Sketchers

Here are my fellow sketchers, sketching away outside the Gravensteen castle, a little further down the riverbank. That’s the castle below. Very much a castle. the ‘Castle of the Counts’. As per usual with sketching days, I didn’t go inside the historic building, but sketched the exterior from across the street. Count Philip of Alsace built it back in the twelfth century. According to the Ghent tourist website he ‘wanted everyone to know that he was the boss’. Ok Count. More and more people were coming into Ghent at that point for the Gentse Feesten. I was going to catch a train to Liege that evening, so I could not stick around to party like it was 2019 with the locals.
Ghent Gravensteen

I did go and try the local specialty though – Waterzooi. Again, something I had never eaten in the whole year in Belgium. Look when I lived in Charleroi I had no money so I ate cheaply, which meant frites in sauce and brochettes de dinde. Lots of them. I didn’t do anything fancy, I only had mussels a couple of times. So I was looking forward to proper Gentse Waterzooi. It’s a kind of stew, and I had it with chicken. It was very nice, but it was nothing fancy, and that’s how I like it. Belgium is all about nothing fancy. Belgium can do ‘fancy’ – look at the chocolate! – but really they are quite a down to earth bunch, and Waterzooi felt like that, a big stew to warm you up when it gets cold.

waterzooi

It wasn’t cold though, and there was one more old place I wanted to visit before hopping back on the train. The Cafe den Turk is Ghent’s oldest brown cafe, dating back to 1228 (AD not PM), so we popped in here and did a quick sketch over a nice cold Gruut Blond, a local beer. ‘Brown Cafe’, that is what they call these old pubs in the Dutch-speaking world. If I had a couple of hours, I’d have probably made a much browner and more detailed drawing, but I settled for this, and the experience. I listened out to the Flemish, tried to pick up a few words, but I have since forgotten them. And that was Ghent, a pretty nice city. Next stop, across the country to the east of Belgium, and the big French-speaking city of Liège…

Ghent Cafe Den Turk

breezing through brussels

Brussels Grand Place
It has been a dream of mine to sit and sketch the whole Grand Place in long panoramic form, to spend about three hours sat drawing all the details, but I think it may be a detailed panorama too far. It is so ornate, so mind-bogglingly overwhelming, I may need to carve out time on another trip. the main reason though is that I keep just wanting to wander off and eat frites, drink beer, explore. This is Brussels, where exactly twenty years ago I would come and walk about exploring on the weekends when I wasn’t in Charleroi. This wasn’t my first trip back since then – maybe my third? – but certainly my first time back in Brussels in over a decade. Brussels is still Brussels, maybe a few more beer-crawl weekenders dressed in matching silly costumes, but the busy wide Boulevard Anspach that cuts through the heart of the city is now pedestrianized, which was a big shock to the system. It took me a few minutes to remember where all the winding roads lead, it’s easy to get lost in Brussels, but finding my way to the tall spires of the Grand Place is easy, and from there, Brussels is my oyster, or perhaps my mussel.

La Grand Place, Brussels
It was evening by the time my Thalys rolled into town, and rather than jump on the metro I foolishly decided to walk from Midi to downtown, a walk I used to know well. This time there was a huge funfair in the way, and I was thrown off by how the exits look different now; I have never really liked Bruxelles Midi station much (known in Flemish as Brussel Zuid), and I’d get to spend even more time there later in the trip, but I was so excited to be back in Brussels I didn’t care. My hotel was not far from Grand Place, and I had enough evening light left to do the sketch at the start of this post, which despite all the details was done really quickly. I then popped into the old fast-fooderie Quick, which wasn’t as good as I remember, and sauntered up the Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres to one of my favourite cafes in the world – A La Mort Subite.
Brussels A La Mort Subite

“Sudden Death”, that’s what it means. You may have heard of the beer, especially their slightly sweet gueuze or their very cherry kriek.I was so excited to find my old favourite seat, right by the door and the window, was open for me to sit and sketch when I got there. I used to sit in that seat when I would come here 20 years ago, Saturday afternoon, frosty or wet outside. I remember coming here to meet another English teacher in Belgium, Barry, and playing chess on a little wooden set I bought at Grasshopper, a toy shop nearby, which I still have. I remember coming here in 2008 with my mate Roshan and sitting in the same spot, remembering times when I had come back before and remembered other times. Some people drink to forget, I drink to remember. I had the gueuze of course, followed by a Ciney, and sketched the old interior. When I first came here, people still smoked inside bars and so there was a foggy air which yellowed the walls. These days the air is so much nicer. The cafe was opened in 1928  by Theophile Vossen, and 91 years later the Vossen family still run this cafe. I remember when it was only 71 years old. I am so happy to finally come back and sketch this old place again.
A La Mort Subite, Brussels
A La Mort Subite, BrusselsBrussels

I walked about the streets on the way back to the hotel, tracking the changes that two decades had brought. I came across another place which was significantly less old than A La Mort Subite but where I used to go quite a lot back in 1999, the Irish bar Celtica. I popped in to see if that had changed over the years, and passing the security staff throwing out an extremely drunken sod on the way in, indeed it had not. Live music was being played by Father Jack from Father Ted, and it was full of people young and old, locals and others, it really wasn’t any different. It brought back more memories – this place, as with many others, tended to never close during the night, so you could go there on a Saturday night and leave in the early daylight hours, it would still be packed. Celtica was a useful place to hang out and wait for the first Sunday morning train back to Charleroi on a night out in the capital. I remember arriving in Brussels once or twice by Eurolines coach, at the Nord station, and getting in too late for the train home, so I would come here, sometimes with all my bags (one time I was bringing my guitar), chat to people (I remember meeting staff from NATO once, I asked them if they could let me know where was being bombed the summer after because I was making travel plans; it was 1999), drink very slowly, listen to an old soak bellowing out Whiskey In The Jar on the little stage. I didn’t stay long this time, I was getting jet-lagged (I had arrived on a first-class flight from LA that morning in Paris; 1999 me would probably not believe that, 2019 me barely does), so I walked back to my comfy hotel bed, and I was up early and refreshed for a nice morning run around empty streets the next day before leaving to go to Ghent and then Liege, a whistle-stop tour of my favourite small country.

summertime in the low countries

Sketchbook first page
Well it’s time to tell you about my summer. Now that it’s cold and probably wet, and we’ve all aged a bit more than six months in the past six months, let’s take a look back at my summer holiday in the Low Countries. They are called that after one of David Bowie’s albums (though I took so many trains that it should be called Station to Station). Following the tradition of the last three summers, I took a Stillman and Birn Alpha with me and filled in the front page with a hand-drawn map and drawings of various things I ate and drank along the way. This was a longer trip – three weeks, two on the continent and another staying with the family in London, taken in the midst of a whopping heatwave. It’s not the longest or anywhere close to the most journeyed trip around Europe I have ever taken – look back to 1998 for that, the pre-sketching days – but now I’m older it takes longer to recover; I’m not sure I have, even looking at the map makes me tired. It was a fun trip though, full of memories, meeting up with good friends, seeing old places from the past, and finally showing my son that mad country of Belgium I keep talking about. He was just as impressed, it was his favourite place. In the image above you can see some of the food and drink I liked – poffertjes (little Dutch pancakes) in Amsterdam, from a jolly guy called Tony; classic simple waffle from a waffle truck in Brussels, the most delicious waffle I’ve ever eaten; Charles Quint, perhaps my favourite beer, from my favourite bar in Charleroi, still open despite much faded glory; proper Waterzooi from Gent, which I had never tasted before; a bright pink juice called ‘Stress Down’ from Joe the Juice in Amsterdam, which honestly revived my brain after it melted in the heatwave, and got my sketching working again; Belgian frites covered in Sauce Andalouse from Robert La Frite in Charleroi, naturally eaten after midnight, the very best frites in the world; and of course, a 99 from an ice-cream van in England, that’s a soft-serve in a cornet with a chocolate flake, everything seems like it will be ok when you have a 99. Lovely foodly memories. Not to mention the delicious Belgian chocolate.

Suitcase

I got a new small suitcase for the trip, smaller even than my other small case, and I had to pack light. I knew I’d be wheeling it around cities, cramming it into luggage lockers, not unpacking much on my one night here, two nights there hotel stays. Fortunately football shirts don’t take up much room and I wear a lot of those. So, this trip took me to France – Paris and Disneyland; to Belgium – Brussels, Ghent, Liege, Charleroi and Bruges; to the Netherlands – Amsterdam, for the Urban Sketching Symposium; and to England – London, plus a day in Watford and St.Albans. Oh, but I did get to start in an exciting way – I flew first class from LA to Paris. I had never flown first class before, and wow this was an experience. Completely lie-flat seats, amazing food with real metal cutlery, a huge TV screen (I watched Bumblebee, of all movies), and flight attendants calling me by my name ‘Mr Scully’. Oh and a door, and actual door, so I could be in my own little cubicle, instead of my usual squashed-against-elbows flights over the Atlantic. And it didn’t cost us anything, as we got it on points. Very much a one-off experience for me! I was unashamedly excited about the whole thing. People from Burnt Oak don’t often get to do this sort of thing. The only thing I was disappointed in was that the toilet was just like any other airplane loo, I was expecting some huge fancy bathroom or something, golden seat maybe. Also, the old man who went in there before me kind of left it a bit messy. I was a bit worried they might think it was me so I actually tidied it up. Still the champagne was nice, and by the time I landed in Paris I had that unusual sensation of having actually slept well on a plane, so I had plenty of energy to get sketching around Montmartre before speeding off to Brussels – more on that later. But you’ll notice IO flew from LA – I first had to fly from Sacramento down to LAX, which if you’ve ever been there is quite a headache of an airport. Looking forward to the first-class flight made up for that. So, here is what I sketched on the flights, drawn in the small in-transit-sketches Miquelrius ‘Lapin’ book, on the very last pages in fact, a book I had started on a trip to Paris back in 2012.
SMF-LAX
LAX-CDG

I really love travelling, and I really love sketching. I’m not a super fan of hot weather, and there was a fair bit of that, and it made the travelling and sketching much harder at points, but I am always so excited about being on the move in a new place that really, I didn’t care. It wasn’t yet so hot when I landed in Paris though. Join me next time for a description of my day in Montmartre, where I had not been in about twenty years.

 

hoe does your gaarden grow

hoegaarden

Beer. A great thing to drink on yet another very very hot day, when work has kept you busy (also a very good thing to drink while the season opener of Gray’s Anatomy is on in the same room). I used to like drinking Hoegaarden when I was in Belgium, and in fact was given a set of Hoegaarden glasses and beers, from the various types they make, as a parting gift by some Belgian friends. Wow, that was more than eleven years ago. This is one of those very glasses (though the beer is newer). Drinking it does remind me of Belgium, of Blokker and Inno and Champion (they’re shops, not greyhounds), of squared paper notebooks and crazy drivers, of warm cosy pubs and freezing cold rainy walks home, of phonecards and mitraillettes de dinde, of sitting on trains and trams just for the pleasure of reading a book. You can imagine me at a beer tasting festival. “Ah yes, this one has a fruity aroma, with a hint of waiting half an hour to use a cashpoint and then stepping in dogpoo.” Funny thing is, I didn’t drink Hoegaarden that often, I usually drank Fruit Defendu (made by them, though) or Leffe, perhaps a nice cold a Maes or occasionally my favourite, Charles Quint. I love a Kwak too. Mmm, that one has a nutty palatte, an aroma of that time when my mate Tel came over and downed one too quickly, and the room started to spin and he spent the next hour and a half in the toilet before wandering home in the snow. Happy times!

Sketched in my ‘bottle and glass brown paper sketchbook’. That name has nothing to do with cockney rhyming slang, by the way.

look at the size of that thing

When does a high-rise become a skyscraper? Perhaps it’s just a matter of perception. Highrises make you think of those glum 1960s housing estates, Le Corbusier nightmares in concrete, gangs of feral kids and graffiti, whereas skyscrapers make you think of shining cityscapes, New York, the pre-Depression thirties, old money.

cobalt charleroi

This is La Vigie, Charleroi’s skyscraper/high-rise (filled with UT students, not feral but music is sometimes played loud). I lived on floor 13 years ago. Apparently there is an official definition given by the Emporis Standards Committee that a high-rise must be over twelve storeys high (La Vigie checks in at fifteen). The same Wikipedia article that gave me that useless tidbit of information tells me that skyscrapers carry a connotation of pride, of achievement. Les Vigistes would often go on about being proud (oh, anyone can be proud, it’s easy), and I daresay they sometimes acheive things (making it through nine months without a hot shower is an amazing achievement). So what if it’s not a skyscraper? It’s still the tallest building in the city, and has stunning views over the old slag-heaps and factories, when the cokey fog clears. A skyscraper is just a big substitute phallus anyway.

Drew this in cobalt blue copic, with a grey wash. The blue looks bluer than it does on the page, and it makes the grey look silver. That’s the scanner for you.