Back in Belgium (Brussels and Bruges)

Belgium Train to Bruges sm
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.

Bruges Grote Markt sm
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.

Bruges Belfort sm

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.

Bruges Lion Statue sm

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. IMG_4597

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.

Brussels A La Becasse sm

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.

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Brussels Metro Sketch sm

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.

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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.

Brussels Marcolini Chocolates sm
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

Brussels Midi People 2 sm

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.
Brussels Midi People 1 sm
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.
Brussels Midi Platform sm
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…
Thalys to Amsterdam sm

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).

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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)

il fait chaud à charleroi

Charleroi Eglise St Christophe
After my late night frites from Robert La Frite, Charleroi’s finest friterie, I had a much needed lie-in. I spent much of the morning in the large new comic shop near the hotel; Belgian (and French) BD stores are really incredible. They love their hardback comic books, and I get very inspired by the artwork. It made want to get drawing. I have daydreamed about returning to Charleroi and drawing as much as possible. I spent a year there with hardly any drawings, so I always felt I needed to return to catch up. I did want to walk through the fancy new Rive Gauche mall though. Now I know where all the shopping has gone since the stores all closed down in Rue de la Montagne. Despite the novelty, it didn’t feel like I was in Charleroi at all, so I left and headed out with the sketchbook. I went straight up to Place Charles II, and drew the Église St. Christophe, the large rusting-green domed church dominating the round plaza. But wow, it was already really hot.
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Any football fans among you may remember the Euro 2000 tournament. Incredibly that was twenty years ago now. In that tournament, which was held in Belgium and Holland, there was a famous game in which England played Germany right here in Charleroi. This plaza saw the English hooligans running wild before the game, throwing chairs and giving all that old little-Englander nonsense about St George and yelling obscenities at anyone foreign, and in one case I witnessed a drunk Englishman hilariously kicked one of those concrete balls (which had been dressed up to look like footballs at the time) hurting his foot in the process and spilling his beer, but Charleroi is a place that did not care for that sort of thing at all, and they just pulled out the water cannons and sprayed them all over the place. I’ll never forget, some of the local bars decided not to open up that day, but they still sold beer from lemonade stands outside, because Belgians don’t give up on beer. Once all of the losers had been washed away, the evening following England’s victory was one of the best nights in town, and I met some great English lads staying up all night to catch the morning train and ferry, and showed them to all the places the locals love. I though back to all of that while drawing the church, glad that it was two decades in the past.

Charleroi Town Hall
Charleroi is not a place awash with tourists (even though the town was literally awash with cannon-sprayed football hooligans once), but there is a tourist office right here on the Place. I went in to look around, picking up some badges and a few postcards. I was suffering from the heat and so came in to cool off. I got talking to the guy working in there, talking about all the changes in Charleroi, he told me about all the new cool stuff in town, new breweries, while we also reflected sadly on the state of some of the old shopping streets. I said that I was intending on sketching the city and that I had always wanted to promote its image, being that big overlooked city in Belgium, and we talked about how the city always was and still is a place of art; Magritte of course lived round here, and then there are the comics, the famous Marcinelle School. I also said that I have been following a photographer online whose work actually inspired me to come back here, ‘Charleroi Zoom‘, they really show the best of the city. The guy was a bit shocked – it turns out that Charleroi Zoom is him! He shook my hand and couldn’t believe I had been inspired by his photos to come from California back to Charleroi, but it’s true. I was just as gobsmacked. Always nice to meet someone who loves the place. I went back out into the Place Charles II and drew, in what shade I could still stand in, the Hotel de Ville (above).

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The heat was unbearable, and moving about the city was slow and ponderous. I wandered down to Parc Reine Astrid, looking a little shabbier than twenty years ago but this was where I used to come to relax and read books. On the edge of the park is a statue of the cowboy Lucky Luke, another BD hero who originated here. I thought I’d draw in pencil for a bit, it was a bit quicker in this heat. The more animated style of sketching it gave is probably appropriate for the Marcinelle School (also called the Charleroi School), which was the house style of Spirou back in the 1940s or so. This style, also called ‘comic-dynamic’ was said to be in opposition to the very precise ‘ligne claire’ style of other Belgian books books like Tintin.
Charleroi Lucky Luke
I was saddened to see that Lucky Luke has really weathered a lot over the years. He used to be so shiny, but hasn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Here he is below, in 2019 (left) and 2000 (right).

Further up the road near the stadium is Boule et Bill. I didn’t sketch Spirou, also nearby, but I had to draw these two. Boule is wearing the black and white stripes of Sporting Charleroi, the local team. Of course, I ahd to visit the stadium. The last time I went there was for a game at the end of the 1999-2000 season when Charleroi drew with Anderlecht to just about stay in D1. They were never a very good team, although this season 2019-20 they have been playing brilliantly. I bought the new season’s shirt, I love my football shirts, and then walked back up to Square Hiernaux.
Charleroi Boule et Bill

Square Jules Hiernaux is where I lived twenty years ago; I could see into the Charleroi stadium from my window. It’s not a square but a large roundabout – the ‘vicious circle’ I used to call it, when I would watch the Belgian drivers aggressively battle their way around it – but in the middle is yet another local BD hero, the long-tailed leopard-like creature Marsupilami. My little neighbour friend was looking good.
Charleroi Marsupilami
And here is La Vigie, the student living quarters for the Université de Travail (UT), the tower that was my home from 1999-2000. I worked as a teacher at the UT, in the attached building, during my year abroad from my French degree. It was an interesting experience living there; I remember that for months the showers were freezing cold, and we had no hot water even in the sinks. There was nowhere for me to refrigerate food or drinks so I didn’t eat a lot of dairy that year (outside of chocolate or the mayo on my frites), but I would cook pasta and noodles in the small kitchen in the basement. My neighbours were mostly from central Africa, friendly guys who would often cook spicy-smelling dinners on a little electric stove-top in the corridor, while playing Congolais music. The neighbour right next door to me however was more into Celine Dion, and would play “My Heart Will Go On” at full blast on repeat EVERY SINGLE MORNING. For MONTHS. I remember how glad I was to bring my guitar over to Charleroi to counter this musical monstrosity. I wrote a lot of songs there that year, that’s what I used to do instead of drawing. That’s what you do when you’re 23 and don’t know many people. It was an entire lifetime ago, but it looks like the building has not changed a bit, except for the new white neon sign on the roof.

Charleroi La Vigie

I took the photo below the evening before, looking up to my old bedroom on the thirteenth floor. I really wanted to go inside, and go up to the rooftop to look out across the Caroloregion, with the giant ‘terrils’ (old slap-heaps now turned into grassy hills) dotting the landscape. I perhaps should call ahead some day and arrange this. This time though I thought I would just pop in and ask the custodian if it was ok. The door opened as someone was leaving, so I went in to ask.

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But nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the custodians were working that day. It was the summertime, so they probably have a limited schedule there, while most of the students are gone. Ok, well maybe next time. I went to leave, but the door would not open. I remembered that to get in years ago you needed a little electronic badge, but you also needed it to leave the building, inexplicably. They have not changed their system in two decades, so for now I was stuck in there. The doors would not budge; I knew that from experience. Twenty years before I was stuck outside in the snow one night after returning from a work visit to Brussels, when the doors were locked while the custodians went wherever they would go. I tried everything to prise the doors open with my frozen hands, to no avail, and got into an argument with the custodians when they finally returned an hour and a half later. I wasn’t going through that again, so I just waited. Nobody was coming, it was the middle of summer. What was I going to do, stay there in the lobby all night? I couldn’t get further into the building without an electronic key so I was stuck in this small lobby. There wasn’t even anything to draw. After half an hour or so I thought I would try the door to the canteen, which I was certain would be locked like all the other doors, as it led into the main university building. To my surprise it was unlocked! I wandered into the canteen area, where years ago they would give me free dinners (of grated carrots or weak soup; I could not eat anything meaty as I was ‘le vegeterien!’). Amazingly the door from the canteen into the main university was also unlocked. I was wandering through an empty building I had not stepped foot into since my early twenties. You know when places from your past like this show up in the dream space when you sleep, morphing into those buildings you have to try and somehow get out of, well this was where I was in real life. It was surreal. I remembered my way to the main entrance, which of course was locked. I found another entrance, and that too was locked. I was still stuck, and really wanted to get on with the rest of my day. And then I remembered that years ago there was this one door in a stairwell that led outside which for some reason was often left unlocked, if I could just find it. Since nothing else here had changed over the years, maybe I had a chance? And I found it, and of course it was unlocked, and I was finally outside. Typical Charleroi, still messing me about years later. I had one more sketch to make, the Waterloo Metro entrance right outside the front door. I think I was just about done with La Vigie.
Charleroi Waterloo Metro Station

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I headed back to the hotel (picking up a delicious “mitraillete de dinde” on the way from Robert La Frite) before coming back up this way to sketch La Cuve. However, La Cuve was closing early due to nobody being there, so I wandered the town a bit more, taking some pictures of the dramatic summertime sky.

There was one place I used to go that I wanted to check in on – the Irish Times Pub. I remember when this place opened in early 2000, a new pub in town that the locals made sure kept very busy. Again, it has not changed in the slightest. I had many late nights here back in 2000, so it was fun to spend time working on a bar interior after all that time sketching out in the heat. Naturally I had to give in a drink a Westmalle Triple, the beer I first tried in this very bar which I always knew was trouble, one that you definitely can’t have many of.

Charleroi Irish Times
Westmalle Triple

And that was my brief visit back to Charleroi. Definitely some mixed feelings about the old place, but it was nice to finally be back. The next morning I was to be up and away to catch the train to Amsterdam; little did I know that the intense heatwave was going to make that journey very difficult…

“you’ve come from california…to charleroi?”

Charleroi Librairie Moliere
Checking into the Ibis hotel in Charleroi, the desk clerk looked at my California ID and widened his eyes. “You’ve come from California…to Charleroi?” he asked in French. He was genuinely surprised. Charleroi is not exactly a tourist destination. People come to Belgium to visit Bruges, or Antwerp, they don’t come to visit Charleroi. People from Belgium don’t even come to visit Charleroi. In fact most of the day before catching my train to Charleroi had been spent in Liege, where my companions would say to each other, “Hey do you know where he is going later? Charleroi!” “Vraiment? Ho ho ho!” they chuckled. My French-speaking Belgian friends told me they even had difficulty understanding anything in the Charleroi accent, which probably explains why my own French is hard to understand, because I learned it there (also I’m not very good at it. That said, people in Charleroi did complement me on my good French this time, so they understood me fine). Someone else told me, “Charleroi is the worst city in Belgium,” with a finality that said these truths were self-evident. I had spent a year there between 1999 and 2000 and I knew this was how Charleroi was often seen by some other Belgians, but I think I had forgotten, or assumed that was a thing of the past; maybe not. I was coming to spend a couple of nights here, to explore and draw, to see what has changed in two decades.

The shiny statue of Spirou outside the station was new. Oh, I should point out that Charleroi, as the ‘BD’ capital of Belgium (BD = ‘bande dessinee’, comic books), has many statues of its great characters all over town, like real-life local heroes. Charleroi is all about the comics. Worst city in Belgium? More like best city in Belgium. After checking in, there was still a bit of time before the sun went down to explore. The city has really changed – the whole are around the ville-basse has been completely renovated. Whole buildings pulled down, shiny new ones gone up. The small cinema on the Place Emile Buisset, ‘Cinema Paradiso’, where I remember watching the Blair Witch Project on a quiet Sunday night back in 1999, is gone, replaced with newer buildings, including a large BD comics shop. I walked past the old seedy part of town, still a little seedy but the ‘madames dans les vitrines’ are gone. Ladies in windows were quite common twenty years ago, but I didn’t see any this time. The big old casino was there but closed, and there used to be a shabby looking building on a corner that I recall was a very scary looking nightclub, I never went into – now gone. There’s still an air of seediness here, and while much has been scrubbed up, many places are just boarded up and empty. There are a few of the old cafes, with the same aging people just sat around, the places that never seemed to close. Just not as many as before.

And then there is the new mall, and the massively upgraded plaza at Boulevard Tirou. I did sketch the shiny new open space looking out towards the beautiful tower of the Librairie Moliere (though I sketched it on the next day), which is at the top of this post. When I lived here there was another building in front of this, which had a few shops in it, and was a kind of market place. The rest of the square was a car park. It really is much nicer now. I knew it would be different – last year I was looking at Charleroi on Google Maps, thinking ahead to my visit, but some of the pictures were showing the new look, while a few others had not yet been updated. So here are a couple of screenshots I took:

Charleroi downtown snip NEW 1Charleroi downtown snip OLD 1

Well done Charleroi, well done. The massive shiny new mall, which I didn’t go into on that first evening (it closes promptly at 7pm), has really helped make this formerly tired part of town into somewhere far more attractive. But this isn’t the part of town I used to live, I lived way uphill in the ville-haute. I wanted to go there, I wanted to go home. The walk up there depressed me. Rue de la Montagne, which was full of shops twenty years ago, is now full of empty closed down shops. Obviously the mall has moved the shopping away from here, but it was saddening – I liked walking down this street years ago, going into Blokker, and the little music shop, and the sports shop where of course I met the one and only Kevin Keegan, who was England manager at the time. I’ll never forget, I just walked in to take a look at the football shirts, and there was King Kev, doing keepy-uppies while a camera crew looked on. “Wow you’re Kevin Keegan!” I said, and we had a little chat. This was in the run up to Euro 2000. He was nice, and signed my diary. He asked me about Charleroi, I might have given an honest assessment, but told him that the people are warm, coal miners who like their football team in black and white stripes. A month or so later in England my neighbours told me they had seen me on TV talking to Keegan, which was a surprise. I thought of that, as I walked up this sad street. My old bank was closed, the old laundromat too,  the place where I would get my tuna paninis was gone, the night-shop where I would get my 1am fix of Fanta Citron was also gone. I went all the way up to La Vigie, the enormous tower I lived in, at Square Hiernaux. Little had changed up there, but the area felt more worn down than even when I was there. It might have been the time of evening, but the Place Charles II, which felt very much like the beating heart of town in 1999, was looking rough, with grass starting to poke through some of the tiles where the fountains used to spray. A drunk woman approached me, telling me that the grass was good Walloon grass that must be protected. I wasn’t going to pull any up. I wandered into the neon mess of Place du Manege, which was slightly less neon but still a bit of a mess. And I have no idea what this three-legged frite lady was supposed to be, but Dopey the Dwarf was well impressed. Something about this just says ‘Charleroi’ to me.

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Chez Raoul, the old friterie and kebab shop I used to eat at so often that the Turkish staff there took a photo with me when I left, is now no longer a friterie but a shisha cafe. Some old places were still there, such as El Gringo, as uninviting as ever, but I was looking for my favourite bar in the whole world, La Cuve A Biere. Apart from the fact there was hardly anyone there, I am pleased to report that it hasn’t changed one bit in twenty years. Years ago I would go there when it was cold outside, as it was my local, and my glasses would steam up. I would take them off to wipe them clean, and by the time I got to the bar and put them back on, my beer was already waiting for me. I loved that place. I would go there most nights, to sit and write, or read, or chat with locals, or watch football. I wasn’t sketching bars back then, and I have always wanted to come back to draw here. Unfortunately, that will need to wait for another trip, because they closed early. I was the only one in there. However I did order my favourite Belgian beer, the epic Charles Quint, served in a special ceramic mug and introduced to me in that very bar by a huge sailor from Antwerp twenty years before, and they still serve it with a little bowl of cheese. The best.
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While I didn’t get to draw the interior this time (perhaps I should come back on a cold Saturday evening in winter time), I did come back next day to draw the outside from the corner opposite:

Charleroi La Cuve a Biere
I left, and walked through this less salubrious part of town in the same shoulders-up suspicious-of-every-shadow way I did way back when. It felt more dangerous now, with people lurking in doorways and outside seedy looking tavernes, but that might be the doubling of my age, and my Californian years making me feel less invincible than when I had arrived from Burnt Oak at the end of the 90s. I walked past the corner where the phone-box used to be, which was once my only way to call England, the spot where I learned the news my nephew Leo was born; he is now taller than me. I walked past a square which I remember as a car park but is now some sort of city-centre beach. I walked down a street where I remember tripping over a huge rat one night; it was dark, the streetlights weren’t working, but the rat didn’t care about me and just plodded slowly off. Beyond where the bare outlines of factories that circle Charleroi, and I remembered the smell of sulphur as they would pump fumes into the night sky, but I guess they have closed down now. There was one place left on this evening of rediscovery. I was hungry, and there is only one place to go when it is midnight when you are hungry (or at 3am, as was the case when I was 23), and that is Robert La Frite. Robert is a little hut a little away from most of the action (action?!) but it’s worth it, these are the best frites around. There is always a line, and even on a Monday night after 12am the place was very busy, and not with the usual late night drinker types, people were out with their kids, pickin’ up their frites. Even writing about this I get hungry for them. I did not eat healthily when I was in Belgium, living off frites, battered turkey kebabs, beer and chocolate, but as I said when I was 23 I was invincible. You don’t go to Belgium for healthy food, you go there for great food. And like most Belgians, I like my frites drowned in sauce. My personal favourite is Sauce Andalouse, a little spicy, utterly delicious.

robert la frite

And then back to the hotel. I was looking forward to my big day of sketching and exploration, little did I know the heatwave was about to hit big time. I had come from California to Charleroi to escape the heat, but ended up in one of the hottest weeks Europe had seen in many years…

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.

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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

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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.

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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.