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)

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.

la vie est belge

eurostarA few days after Christmas, a friend and I went over to Belgium, where I used to live what feels like a lifetime (but was less than ten years) ago. I spent a year in Charleroi between 1999 and 2000, my time there culminating with the now infamous visit of the chair-throwing England fans. It was a year that has shaped a lot of my imagination, though I did little but eat frites drowned in sauce, drink and learn about beer at la cuve à bière, and play the guitar (writing songs about this, about that). That is, however, the life. We took the early Eurostar to Brussels, and walked around the busy post-noel streets, surprised to find that there was no rain whatsoever – I nearly didn’t recognise it in the sunshine. I like Brussels. I drew at the Grand Place, crowded, touristy, disgustingly ornate, but necessary for a budding urban sketcher to draw. I wasn’t going to seek out the urban grit – we were going to Charleroi later that evening, and there would be plenty of that.

it's a lovely place

le luxembourg, charleroiI stopped in a shop I loved when I was living there: Grasshopper, an amazing store that sells all sorts of toys and books. I wanted to buy some French board books for my baby son (decided not to go with teaching him Flemish just yet). However, while I was sketching, I must have put them down and forgotten about them (very unlike me*). I went back to the store and bought some more, and asked if anybody had returned them. Non, they told me, ils sont bye-byes. Yeah, cheers.  So, we took a very modern double-decker train south to the city of Charleroi, and while Roshan napped in the hotel, I ventured out into the freezing dark evening to do some night-time pre-pub sketching, and drew Le Luxembourg, a place which although very pretty, I have never actually entered. While drawing, I kept my eyes on the shadows for, er, shadowy people,  happy to be back in my old town.

*I do tend to lose things in Brussels, though. I lost my favourite top here once, in 1999. I wrote a song about that too. It was white with thin black hoops. If you find it, let me know; it might still fit.