Before getting my late-evening Eurostar, I had plenty of time to do another drawing in Brussels and wander about a bit more. Because I’d originally planned to come back to London the next day I decided to keep my third night reservation at the hotel, an excellent choice as I was able to go back and rest, shower, relax before my train. I have to say, I was pretty much the most relaxed I have felt in a long long time after this little solo trip. I never rushed, I never fretted about being places. I turned off my work email so I wasn’t getting distracted, even though I did actually lead one staff meeting remotely from my hotel (they had little soundproofed pods for exactly this), and I was supposed to attend another meeting with our dean’s office right before I got on my Eurostar, but that was cancelled, so one less thing to think about on the way to Midi station. The wet weather had cleared up, and Brussels was bustling; there were a lot of football fans out, apparently there was an international match going on that evening. I walked down Rue des Bouchers (I started imagining a Francophone Frank Butcher, Franck Boucher, from made-up Belgian soap opera Ostenders… he would say things like “Tu me prends pour qui, un type de pilchard?“). (Sorry, getting side-tracked) This side-street near the Galeries Hubert is full of little restaurants and bars, often hawking tourists to come and eat their mussels, it’s quite colourful at night. I stood next to a pile of boxes and drew this for the best part of an hour, before going off for a final bag of frites and sauce. Until the next time, Belgium!
gimme some Leuven
I woke up and it was raining hard. There was no way I was going to Charleroi to draw old factories if I was sitting on top of a hill getting drenched. I spent enough time getting drenched in Charleroi between 1999 and 2000 for a lifetime. So I had a little lie-in, and then hopped on a train to the nearby university city of Leuven (Louvain in French, but this is in the Flemish region). I have only been to Leuven once before, and that was an even rainier day, meeting up with one of my fellow year-abroad teachers. Always thought it would be a good place to go back to a less rainy day, but since it was raining anyway I thought, what the hell. This was my last day in Belgium, I was going to be catching a Eurostar that evening back to London. Originally I’d planned to stay another day, but as much as I like Belgium, an extra day in London is something I knew I’d love more (and I did). I dashed from shop doorway to shop doorway to stay relatively dry, until I reached the centre of town. I spent a bit of time in an interesting bookshop looking at Flemish books, including one very big volume all about the various dialects of Flanders, complete with detailed maps. If I could read Dutch better that would be a fascinating book. It’s hard for foreigners to sometimes pick up the subtleties of accent and dialect in a language where they struggle just to understand the words (I said that very thing to someone when I first came here in 1999, they asked if I was having difficulties with the accent, I said no it’s the vocabulary). I didn’t for example realize that the French of Charleroi was a particularly peculiar version compared to many other places in Belgium, such as my friends in Liege who told me they couldn’t always understand Les Carolos. Meanwhile they are struggling to understand my French, and then when I went to Charleroi, people told me “oh you have such good French!” so I understood, right, I learned it here, that’s why nobody else comprehends me. That’s my story anyway. So, I got to Leuven and had a waffle, and tried to figure out what sort of drawings I would do. I was faced with this big church – I’d go inside later – and the extremely ornate Stadhuis (Town Hall) building, which I knew I’d need to draw, but wasn’t sure where to start. I walked about, and found a covered passage by the Grote Markt where I wouldn’t get splashed on too much. I drew the panorama above. This took under a couple of hours, though I added most of the paint later. Click on the image, you will see it in more detail (on Flickr). It was a reasonably busy Wednesday lunchtime. As I drew, a girl crashed her bike not far from me, sliding on the watery street, and she seemed pretty hurt. I went over with some other bystanders and she was helped up into the dry, and her bike put to the side. I got back to my drawing, I couldn’t really help much more with my limited Dutch, but someone else was able to help her get her phone to call her mother who came to collect her. I felt really bad for her, I don’t think she’d broken anything but she was pretty upset. As much as I enjoyed this drawing I do think of that poor girl falling from her bike now when I look at it.
Leuven is an important old town, the historic capital of the Duchy of Brabant. Its university goes back to the 1425 (as the old University of Leuven, though that was abolished in 1797, and its successor KU Leuven was founded in 1834). The university’s library was atrociously burned to the ground by the invading Germans in World War I. The enormous St. Peter’s Church (Sint-Pieterskerk) is opposite the Stadhuis and dates from the 1500s, though it too was seriously damaged in both world wars. I stood at the rear of the church sheltered from the storm, and drew the sketch above. I liked the shape of those rooftops. The flags were above a bar called Leuven Centraal, where I would stop in for some food before heading back. there was a young couple seated nearby who were if not on a date, seemed like it was a kind of date, they were having that “I like this music, do you like that music” sort of conversation (from what I could gather of their Flemish; I may have misunderstood, they could have been talking about horse racing for all I know). So I went into the church, walked about, was a bit overwhelmed to do a proper big sketch int here, and drew this big wooden pulpit thing that looked like a magic tree. I bet the priest loves going in there, it’s like walking into a fantastical sculpture, like you become some sort of wizard on the other side.
A couple of different things. The first was outside a friterie, and is an anthropomorphized bag of frites eating a frite. He only has one arm so maybe another bag of frites ate his arm. Maybe cannibalism is a thing in the live-action-frites community. Either way this was CREEPY as hell, but not the creepiest frites related image I’ve seen in Belgium (that would be the odd three-legged feminine-frite, a ‘frite-fatale’ if you will, seen in Charleroi next to an image of, for some reason, Dopey the Dwarf). Still it is a bizarre figure. Yet it still made me hungry for more salty frites. The next statue is a more well-known Leuven fixture, ‘Fonske‘, or ‘Fons Sapientiae’. I would presume this is Leuven’s version of the Fonz, is telling kids “eeeh, be smart, be cool, read books, stay in school” and then for some reason pouring a drink on his head, which Fonzie would never do, unless the drink was hair gel. I don’t know, I’ve not seen Happy Days for a long time. Fonske was created in 1975 to commemorate the university’s 550th anniversary, and the name means “the fountain of wisdom” in Latin. Just like Mannekin Pis in Brussels, the statue is sometimes dressed up in costume. I really hope that one of those costumes is of the Fonz. (Side note, when I first met my wife in France, I would sometimes make her laugh by singing the theme tune to Happy Days in French, “Dimanche Lundi, Heureux Jours…” etc).
Well there was no goodbye grey skies, hello blue just yet, so I popped into the cafe Leuven Central (my guidebook recommended this place) for a late lunch. I got a veggie curry and drank a Kasteel Rouge, which to my surprise was a kriek (or cherry beer). Krieks are popular over here, I’ve never been a big fan of them but this was quite nice. And that was my day out in Leuven. I had to get back to Brussels and back to London, and this little sojourn in Belgium would be over.
A L’Imaige Nostre Dame
After the rainclouds of Antwerp drifted away to wherever they go, I was back in Brussels for the evening. I ate a ‘Quick’ (a fast food they have in Belgium and France that I used to quite like, but tastes awful now) at the hotel, and then headed back over to the Grand Place before it got too dark. there wasn’t time to draw the whole thing yet again, but I wanted to capture that evening sky above the rooftops. Also that big crane. It was nice. I stood on some steps outside the massive Maison des Ducs de Brabant, others were taking selfies. There was a young tourist sat on the cobbles below me, I could see he was trying to open a bottle of Belgian beer he’d just bought, trying in vain. I went and asked a nearby cafe for a bottle opener, they kindly lent me one and I helped the tourist get his bottle open, he looked happy; good dead of the day done. We’ve all been there, when travelling! I remember trying to open a bottle of Fanta on a really hot day in a small town in Denmark with no bottle opener, I was trying to pry it open on metal street signs to no avail. After another long day of sketching I also needed to relax with a nice beer in another centuries-old tavern, so I went back down the little alley where I’d found Au Bon Vieux Temps the night before, but this time went into the lively A L’Imaige Nostre Dame.
This old tavern is one of the oldest in Brussels, dating back several centuries, and pretty colourful. There was no way I wasn’t sketching this. I had to find a place to sit with a decent sketchable view, and my table was a little small, but I got a ‘Malheur’ beer (which was alright) and tried to catch the spirit of the place. There was word on the mirror behind the bar that read ‘RastaTrolls’, whatever that means, it reminded me of the kids show ‘RastaMouse’, which was very funny. I could hear there were Americans at the bar who clearly loved this place, from what they were telling the bar staff. Who wouldn’t? It was a friendly place to hang out. I’ve been to some older pubs in Brussels and sometimes they can feel a little sleepy (thinking of A La Becasse), when there are pretty popular places elsewhere (thinking of Celtica, opposite end of the spectrum). I would recommend it here. I drew really fast, and then walked back to the hotel, my last night in Brussels. Next day I was planning to go to Charleroi to draw factories, but it rained a lot, so instead I slept in a bit and went in the opposite direction to Leuven.
I went looking for a legendary Antwerp bar called ‘Kulminator‘. I thought I had been there before; back in 2000, I remember reading about this place in Antwerp with a ridiculous selection of beers, with enormous character that was worth looking for. I remember it took me a while walking around the evening streets in the days before smartphones with GPS showing us the way (that was only about three or four years ago for me, but now seems like medieval times), and when I got there, I was presented with what looked like a textbook but was actually the beer menu. I found a beer called ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (called ‘Verboden Vrucht’ here, or ‘Fruit Défendu’ as I know it) which I’d never seen before and sounded mysterious; it felt like I had completed a quest. It’s been my favourite Belgian beer since, although when I got back to Charleroi I told the barman at my local and he said, “oh no we have that beer too, here you go.” So I think that place was Kulminator, but I honestly cannot remember now, it was 22 years ago. I only had that one beer there that night, and then left to go explore night-time Antwerp a bit more, ending up skewering Pulp songs on karaoke; see a previous post.
This time I looked for Kulminator in the daytime. I had been doing some reading about old Antwerp taverns to check out and sketch, and this leapt out at me as possibly being that place from 2000. Even with my smartphone sending me upstreet and down, I still managed to get lost trying to find it. When I got there, the door was locked. It was open, but you couldn’t just walk in. There were signs all over the door. This place was serious about its beer, but you needed CASH, no cards. While I was in Lille I only ever used cash once, when buying a book off my friend Vincent Desplanche, but otherwise it was tap-tap-tap with the cards. In Belgium I found a few places which were cash only, but Kulminator evidently wouldn’t even let you inside. The door opened narrowly, and the face of an old lady peered through. “Cash?” she asked. “Ja,” I replied nervously, feeling like I was still probably not going to be let in. The clouds were starting to get greyer. Nevertheless she welcomed me inside, and it was like entering an old curiosity shop. You couldn’t see the bar itself – it was hidden behind boxes and bottles and glasses and all kinds of Belgian-beer-related knick-knacks, so it became more of a retreat den for the lady who ran the place. There were books piled high, shelves with board games, even a Brazil football shirt hanging from the rafter. The only people in there were an old man hidden away in a corner with his head in a book, and another older couple seated at a table, talking in Flemish. At the rear there was some kind of covered semi-outside area I didn’t go into, but I could hear a couple of American voices talking about beer, but otherwise the only sound was classical music, and Flemish chatter. I could see bottles of every kind of beer in the gaps through to the bar, and the old bar-lady brought to me not a massive menu , but a large chalk board, upon which were written the names of various beers. I think these were the ones on tap (“van’ vat”), and I felt that I should probably order one of these, and I should probably order the one she recommended. So she recommended a Gouden Carolus, and I took a seta by the window. The rain hard started and now it was chucking it down, so I was going to be hear for a while. It was very much the sort of place that you dream of finding as an urban bar sketcher. As I sat and drew, another older chap came in and was talking with the other patrons and the bar-lady. I can’t speak Dutch but I could understand a decent bit of what they were saying. I think he was called Vladislav and may have been an afficionado of classical music, it sounded like he was talking about it with a passion. I loved listening to the rhythms and patterns of their Flemish conversation with the backdrop of gentle music and pounding rain, and the occasional laugh as they made each other smile. I just sat in the corner with my beer and my sketchbook. I picked out some phrases; one of them said “geld is macht en macht is geld”, “money is power and power is money”. When the Americans passed through, looking nervously at the rain, they did speak with them briefly about a couple of beers they were on the lookout for, one of which was Krusovice Dark (a Czech beer). I joined in with a nod of approval and a thumbs up for that, I used to like drinking that here in Davis at the old Little Prague, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. I had one more Gouden Carolus, and by the time I was done with my sketch the rain magically stopped, and I walked to the train station. I enjoyed this place and I’m glad I found it (and glad I had some cash).
I drew the outside of it (above) from a photo I took quickly across the street before I went in, before the rain started. If you are in Antwerp, look for Kulminator. I needed to get back to Brussels though (well, I didn’t need to, I had no plans, but I thought I should get some rest). The next day I was planning to catch a train back down to the old haunt of Charleroi, where I would be climbing slag-heaps and drawing old rusty factories – at least, that was the plan.
“thou Scheldt not pass”
I weaved through the streets of Antwerp heading for the river Scheldt, to use that brilliant “thou Scheldt not pass” line I had thought of in my previous post. I might use that as a title for this blog post. I headed for Het Steen, the little castle on the banks of the wide river that is the oldest building in Antwerp. It dates from the early 1200s, and means “The Rock” (though “Steen” is a pretty common word for a stone castle in Dutch). There was a castle on this spot right back in the 9th century Carolingian period. It has a decent tourist information office in there now, where I bought some chocolates for my son (little chocolate hands from Antwerp). I had a good spot to sketch from across the busy street, up some stairs, but it was starting to spit so I sketched quickly. You know I love a street sign, so I made sure to include the blue crosswalk sign in the bottom right corner. Some people might think no, you leave those out, takes away from the historic castle, but I say thee nay, give me modern metal street signs and old medieval buildings any day. Back on my 1998 train tour of Europe I became a little bit obsessed with crosswalk signs, because they were a little different in every country. I liked the German ones in particular, wearing the little hat, as do the ones in the Czech Republic which look a bit like spies. I would always get obsessed with things like that.
I tell you what, they can’t get enough of those Flemish giants here in Antwerp. This is a statue of a big lad called Lange Wapper. It’s right outside Het Steen, and shows Lange Wapper doing that Tory-party conference stance and looking down on two smaller people, crotch out, threatening them with his Lange Wapper (I’m so glad he is clothed, unlike Silvius Brabo). Lange Wapper is a Flemish folk tale, about a boy who started out as a bit of parsley and cabbage and then became a bit of a trickster. He apparently saved an old woman who had been thrown into the river Scheldt by a gang, and the old woman gave him the ability to shape-shift, for example turning into a massive giant who could leap between towns. He got into all sorts of antics; he would probably be cancelled now. He is kind of like a bogeyman figure of Antwerp. This statue was put there in the early 1960s.
Not far from here I found another hydrant I needed to draw. This one had a peculiar sticker that said “Love the game, hate the business” and “Against modern football!” on it, which must really make the firemen think. Haha, a fire hydrant talking about sportswashing, the irony. Anyway I drew this down a fairly quiet street. Those few drops of rain I felt over at Het Steen were coming back, we were definitely going to get wet today. It’s good to keep adding new city fire hydrants to my big collection.
This is the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal, in the heart of Antwerp. As well as fire hydrants, and crosswalk signs, I am obsessed with drawing cathedrals, though one subject generally takes a lot longer than the other. I drew this one looking upwards from a standing spot, all the benches in that particular square having been taken, and those clouds were pretty ominous. I did about 75% of it and finished the rest later when I was sitting down not craning my neck. The hours of the day were moving along quicker than those clouds, and I wanted to go and sit inside somewhere before getting the train back to Brussels, and have another hearty Belgian beer. I had a place in mind, but it would be a walk to get there. It took a while, but I beat the incoming rainstorm by bare minutes.
and on to Antwerp
After my morning pain-au-chocolat I took a train from Brussels Centrale to Antwerp. It’s been 22 years since I set foot in Antwerp, and even then it was at night, and the one time before that it was a rainy dark grey autumn day. So I’ve never seen Antwerp in actual daylight. It wasn’t very sunny today though, but it was dry and good weather for sketching and exploring. It was a city that always interested me though, full of places to discover, and lots of shops as well. I don’t actually remember the train station being all that interesting, but my Belgium guide book put Antwerp’s Centraal Station as one of the big architectural highlights, and they weren’t wrong. After eating a quick waffle, I sat down on a bench and started drawing the scene below, but decided after about ten minutes that this would be just too much to attempt, I should do this later. In the main interior ticket hall there was a big basketball court set up with TV cameras, filming some famous Belgian basketball players bouncing balls about. Basketball is popular in Belgium; my local Charleroi team Spirou were quite good (and named after one of the local comic book characters). I went outside in the fresh North Sea air and drew the exterior (above). It’s pretty magnificent. Inside the mainline platforms are all on several levels, it feels a bit like a huge deep shopping mall underneath a Victorian exhibition hall. The building was finished in 1905, designed by architect Louis Delacenserie, and is sometimes nicknamed the “spoorwegkathedraal” (“railway cathedral”). I left the outside sketch unfinished as I wanted to move along and get some frites (it was nearly lunchtime already!), and as for the drawing below, I kept the outline I’d already started but ended up doing the rest later on from photos. So many details.
And so, into Antwerp. It was a fairly long old walk from the station to the main city centre where all the shops are. The first time I came here, on a gloomy day at the end of 1999, I was pretty excited by all the big shops, because it was better than what Charleroi had at the time. This time I was most excited to find a really cool art supplies shop, and spent longer in there than I meant to, buying quite a few little things. The woman behind the counter spoke to me only in Dutch, and I did manage a few words myself (I tried to learn Dutch twenty years ago but found it hard to speak because every Dutch speaker would only ever reply to me in English). I didn’t completely understand her, but I did my best. I really should get learning that language again, and it’s not hard to read. The Dutch of Belgium (which is usually called Flemish, or ‘Vlaams’) does sound a bit softer to my ears than the Nederlands of the Netherlands, and I really enjoyed listening to it while I was out and about. I discovered that even the garbage bins speak Dutch. As I put something into a bin, it made a funny sound, like I was feeding it. When I threw something else in, it made another sound, saying something in Dutch. The bins are very peculiar.
On Meir though, it was too noisy to listen to anything. Meir is one of the big shopping streets of Belgium, like the Oxford Street of Antwerp. I did pop down the adjoining street called ‘Wapper’ (they really need to put a Burger King on that street) to have a look at the Rubenshuis museum, where Antwerp’s greatest painter son Rubens used to live. I didn’t go in though, just mooched about the gift shop. I mean I like Rubens I guess, but I also really like drawing fire hydrants and there was one I saw on Meir that I really had to sketch. Meir was just so noisy though. There was some construction going on in a building nearby, the echo of the pneumatic drill bouncing off the buildings. There was a fire alarm in a nearby Primark, and the shop staff all stood outside. People passed by on their phones, dogs barked, and it was one of those moments when I have a bit of audio-sensory overload and can’t fully concentrate. I got through the hydrant quickly (there was a sticker on the hydrant that said ironically “Take Sides – Silence”) and went looking for somewhere a bit calmer.
I headed over to the Grote Markt. That’s where you’ll find the statue of Antwerp’s most famous hero – no not Rubens, no not Romelu Lukaku, no not Toby Alderweireld. This is the statue of Silvius Brabo. Now we enter the realm of mythology and city origin stories that we all love, like Romulus and Remus (Rome), King Lud (London), and He-Man (Manchester). Brabo was a Roman soldier, who cut off the hand of a giant and threw it in the river. The giant in question was a big lad called Druon Antigoon, and he would demand money from people who needed to cross the river Scheldt. (I really hope he would say “Thou Scheldt Not Pass!”) If they didn’t pay up, their hand was chopped off and thrown into the water. I would have thought that made it more difficult to put their hand in their pocket after that but giants might be big but they are not clever. He tried it on with Silvius Brabo. Brabo, who as we can see was stark naked, clearly had, um, balls. He told Druon Antigoon to go and do one, and while he was scratching his head to see if there was a pun on his name, Brabo beat him up. It’s not clear whether he had clothes on before the fight or if they came off during the fight, but in the end Brabo sliced off Antigoon’s hand and slung it into the water. Everyone thought that was hilarious, except Antigoon, who left the story at this point. So the people decided to honour Brabo by calling the region ‘Brabant’ (dubious mythology klaxon #1), and calling the town ‘Antwerpen’ (dubious mythology klaxon #2). Antwerpen means, so the tale goes, ‘hand throw’, from ‘hand-werpen’ in Flemish. Ok, let’s be fair, Antwerp is almost certainly not named after this event (poo-poo on your parade klaxon #1) but it’s a much more fun story than the likely real etymology (something about wharves or mounds on riverbanks, nobody knows for sure) but it’s a fun story and even if it’s not true, we can say it is because who cares.
“Hand-throw”, yeah alright. Imagine you are one of all those people Antigoon dismembered, and then they go and name the town “hand-throw”, well it’d be a bit of a slap in the face. More likely it was already called “hand-throw” before Brabo showed up, maybe Antigoon himself named it so people knew what they were getting themselves into. The Grote Markt is a pretty nice square. The statue of Silvius Brabo (after whom the Duchy of Brabant is definitely NOT named; if anything his name comes from that) is in front of the town hall. Around the square are the old guildhall buildings. Antwerp is a historic Flemish merchant port with a rich history. I sat at a little tavern (‘Den Engel’) on the square with a delicious Maredsous beer, wrote some postcards, and drew this. I remember coming here on that damp and gloomy day in 1999; I also remember coming here in early 2000 after a day out in Ostend, and spent much of the evening at a nearby pub where people were singing karaoke. Chatting with locals, I was encouraged to sing too, and I did a version of the Pulp song ‘Help the Aged’, a version in which the words had been replaced with football-themed lyrics, called ‘Help the English’. That version was written by me and my friend Roshan, along with many other popular songs that we had re-clothed in football colours. ‘Help the English’ was probably our favourite, all about how England might need help because they can’t win trophies (no change there then, though the caveat now of course would be that it just means the men’s team). “When did you first realise / You’re never gonna win another World Cup? / Sixty-six, don’t it make you sick / Funny how you’ve won nothing since.” Anyway the Antwerp crowd in the room, well some of them liked it, others were either England fans convinced that Euro 2000 would be their year (spoiler alert, it wasn’t), or people who disliked football and assumed it was just some English hooligan chant, or massive Pulp fans who really wanted to hear the right lyrics. Still, it got a cheer (just one cheer) (and I probably misheard it). There were these two women who walked out, and then came back inside right after I was finished. They actually told me (in that straight-talking Flemish way) that it wasn’t only because I changed the lyrics, or that it was about football, but because I just couldn’t sing at all. I mean, yes, this is true, but ouch. I’m surprised they didn’t throw my hand in the river. Instead, they brought me some sandwiches, for some reason, and I chatted with them all about music until it was time for my train back to Charleroi. The year 2000 was a long long time ago.
from sudden death to the good old times
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.
Three Hours in the Grand Place
I left Lille before lunchtime, flying through Flemish fields on a busy train bound for Brussels. I have this life-long affinity with Belgium. Well I say life-long, I had zero affinity with Belgium until about 1999, when I was sent on a year abroad there by my university. Even then, I wasn’t sure I had much affinity with it, but I lived there and befriended the country and developed a deep appreciation for the place, which is so often overlooked and even mocked by people who have never been there. Belgium is Belgium with all its fun foibles, nobody knows that more than the locals, but it always feels a little bit like home to me, and coming back I never feel out of place. I last visited here in 2019, when I saw a fair bit of the country (Brussels, Ghent, Liege, Bruges, and the long-awaited return to Charleroi, the city where I spent that year abroad). I was coming here for just a few days, staying in Brussels the whole time but with malleable plans to see other places, and unlike in 2019 I’d not made any plans to meet up with Belgian sketchers that I knew, this was just going to be a few well-needed days to myself. After the pandemic cuffed my wanderlust, and after the past couple of years of what felt like endless soccer coaching obligations, a few days to unwind in one of my favourite countries where I don’t have to rush about worrying about seeing certain things or missing important sights, that’s what I needed. After finding my hotel (Hubert, a short walking distance from the Grand Place and the Centrale station and right by one of my favourite cafes, A La Mort Subite) I strolled familiar streets, gobbled down some frites drowned in sauce andalouse, and went to the Grand Place to stand for a couple of hours. I have wanted for years to come back to the Grand Place with my sketchbook and just spend ages drawing. I drew here back in 2019, but I was always on my way somewhere and didn’t really give myself the time. Now, I had the entire afternoon and evening if I wanted, I didn’t have to be anywhere. So I stood and drew. The results are above; click on the image to get a closer look. This is drawn on a double-page spread of a landscape Moleskine sketchbook (as are most of my panoramas) and I initially thought about colouring it in – you can see that there are very small spots of green which I added very early on in the drawing – but after two hours of drawing windows it was obvious that wasn’t happening. In fact after two hours, I had to go and rest for a little bit. So I came back a little later in the early evening, after eating at A La Mort Subite, stood in the same spot and continued for another hour until it was done. A very nice time was had by all (me).
I did quite a lot of sketching in Belgium (of course!) over the next few days, so I will post those all soon, but wanted to put this Grand Place drawing here on its own. Next time I go back, I’ll draw the other side.
Back in Belgium (Brussels and Bruges)
We leave these depressing times and return to the European travels of last summer, before social distancing was even imagined. In the last chapter we were all done with Amsterdam, that was all finished, now it was time to return to my favourite country: Belgium. Land of very slow queues but very quick access to beer and frites. This time I was returning with my family for some more touristy travels – no Charleroi, more Bruges. In fact we were staying in central Brussels, although due to the heatwave-related Thalys delay we got in later than expected, but still early enough for an evening stroll around the Grand Place, Mannakin Pis, the chocolate shops, the waffle stands and of course the friteries. Belgian frites are just the best. The next day though we took the train to Bruges (or Brugge as it’s properly called in Flemish). We walked up the steep hill to centraal station, stopping for a pain-au-chocolat (or “couques” as they call them here) on the way. The ticket machines in Belgian stations are not very good for foreign visitors with US credit cards, as they didn’t seem to take them, so we had to line up in the slow Belgian train station ticket office line. By the time we figured out a way to but tickets online instead we had reached the window. I love the train system in Belgium, it goes absolutely everywhere and runs a good service, but I forget that when I last used it I lived there and had one of those Belgo-passes I think they were called, where you just paid an amount and got ten train journeys. Ah well, tant-pis, we got where we needed to go in the end. I sketched on the train as the language switched from French to Flemish. The heatwave was over, now we had an overcast muggy sky. We arrived in Bruges ready to tourist.
I last went to Bruges in, whew, either 1999 or 2000 and was pleased to see that it is still a medieval city. Above is a sketch of the Grote Markt. Bruges was busy as usual, as always expected, and we even took a horse-drawn carriage around the city. I love all the old architecture and lanes and canals. The first time I was here all those years ago it was Christmas-time and there was a lovely Christmas market in this square. I decided not to colour in (since I was touristing with family) but I packed a lot in while my wife and son explored. Below is the incredibly large Belfort on the other side of the Grote Markt. It reminded me a bit of Orthanc, the large tower of Isengard where Saruman lived, with Gandalf on the roof ready to jump onto the back of a massive eagle.
Below is a stone lion which is at the entrance to the twelfth-century Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) in De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The shield is the Bruges city coat of arms. Inside this basilica they have an old holy relic brought back from Jerusalem during the Second crusade, a phial containing a cloth which has some of the blood of Jesus on it. Glad they never called this place Christ De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The building was amazing, dating back to the time of Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. That would be some time between 1134 and 1157.
We had lunch before all of our touristing in a nice little restaurant called De Zevende Hemel. There I ate my moules. I’m a big fan of moules. These ones were nice, but just nice. The trappis beer I had with it was delicious, La Trappe.
We got the train back to Brussels, and while the family got an early night, I went out for one last sketch of the day. I was looking for a historic cafe called A La Becasse. I had never been there before, and it was hidden away down an alley near the Grand Place. There I had a table to myself in the corner, a Hoegaarden Grand Cru, and just enough time before closing to get a lot drawn. I actually sketched this paint first for the most part, adding in the ink afterwards. There were a few American tourists in here talking, but it wasn’t particularly busy. They have a lot of beers on the menu, as a good Belgian ‘estaminet’ should (that is another word for tavern), and dates back to 1877. Here’s their website: https://alabecasse.be/en. Every time I saw the name, I kept thinking “…the lady loves Milk Tray”. But then that made me think of The Lady In Red again, get that song out of my head.
If that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t help getting one last portion of late night frites from Fritland, near the Bourse, whose frites I absolutely love. Filthy delicious. Even seeing this picture makes me so hungry, and just want to get back to Belgium.
The next day we touristed some more (I did a quick sketch on the metro, above), going up to the Atomium (I don’t know if you are allowed to show that online, it was always banned, but it’s a massive great big sodding metal building you can see for miles). I don’t really love the Atomium, because it reminds me of being bored, when I lived in Belgium and I would sometimes come here, not all that interesting, and go back, or maybe I would get the tram that goes all around the city to reach here, so I would have somewhere to read a book and watch the city go by, and I never liked reaching the destination. Still, we all had fun walking in the parks around it, and (food photo alert) we got waffles from a waffle truck, simple no-nonsense waffles with a little bit of sugar on them, none of that fancy chocolate and kiwi fruit stuff for the tourists, and we all agreed it was the best waffle we had ever tasted. Cheap and cheerful, no pretensions, the most Belgian thing ever.
That isn’t of course to say Belgian doesn’t do fancy. When it does fancy it can outdo all of you. I’m talking about chocolate. There are some crazy super fine chocolatiers in Brussels, but maybe the nicest ones we had were at Pierre Marcolini (at least as recommended to me by my Belgian friends, and they would know). This is the real fancy stuff. Not cheap either, but worth it. I got some for my wife as a souvenir. We got some others from places such as Mary and Neuhaus, but we ended up leaving them for family in London. I tell you what, all this talk of Belgium makes me very hungry.
And then we left Belgium on yet another train, this time headed to France and our first ever trip to Disneyland Paris…
a day hanging around brussels midi
I got to Brussels Midi station early, I wanted to make sure I got my Thalys (the high speed train that runs between France, Belgium and the Netherlands) in good time, with a bit of extra time to wait in line at the infamously slow ‘Quick’ restaurant. It was still so hot, and as I sketched I heard of trains getting delayed. I had been telling people that I am ‘travel lucky’ – it always seems to work out for me, somehow. Well today my travel luck might be running out. The heatwave cancelled trains all over this part of Europe, especially in northern France, from where my Thalys was arriving. The Eurostar too was being cancelled, as well as many flights – several people I know coming from the UK were not able to make it to the Urban Sketching Symposium.
It was travel chaos, and there were many hundreds of confused or angry people lining the platforms, but not at the time when I made this sketch. In fact the sole woman on the platform at this time, she spoke to me a little while later and she too was going to the Symposium from France, in fact she ended up being in my first workshop. But this was before all the delays had really kicked in. After many hours being stuck in the station not sure of what to do, the train was officially cancelled, as were many others, so I tried to find a route to Amsterdam by slower means. I have never enjoyed being stuck at Brussels Midi (or ‘Zuid’ as the Flemish call it) but well, what can you do.
Eventually I was in line to get a ticket for a slow train, and right at the moment my number was called I noticed on the screen that my Thalys, by some miracle, was not cancelled but on the platform. I dashed upstairs and got on board, not believing my luck, and while the journey was slow, I sketched and had some free beer provided by the train staff. So in the end I was travel lucky. Off to the Symposium! Where the weather would get even hotter and more unbearable…
It was so hot that my Big Nuts melted. Big Nuts is one of my favourite Belgian chocolate bars and when I bought one, I did know it would probably melt but I bought it for the silly punchline. I still ate it though (well, drank it).
Here was the weather at the time. (By comparison Davis was up in the 108s, but we don’t notice it as much in Davis because we have good air conditioning and dry heat, in the low countries of Europe these temperatures are totally unbearable)