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.

IMG_4716

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.

IMG_4739

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…

How Topical

Topic bar
I was in England, and I remember saying to someone, “Topics. You never get those any more.” I went into how I used to love Topics, a chocolate bar full of hazelnuts, and how you never see them, and then into how most regular american chocolate just isn’t as tasty as British chocolate bars (seriously taste the difference between a British and American KitKat), and how much I miss the sheer variety of British sweets, and Topics are one of those things I used to love as a kid but cannot find in England now (like Pacers, remember those?). I realized I was sounding like a one-man Facebook group, “remember this thing from the 70s, don’t get those no more, remember this other thing from the 80s, don’t get those no more, the kids all eat iPhones and talk in txtspk, everyone’s obese now, not like in my day when we ate Lion bars all day and nobody went on about health and safety” and so on. And then they said, “no, you can still get Topics, they sell them in the Pound Shop.” My face was like, WHAAAAA? It was like a cartoon when the eyes poop out and the tongue rolls out and around the corner. But I think I saved myself by going, oh yeah, I know, I was being, er, ironic. I totally wasn’t. I had no idea Topics still existed. I went straight to the Pound Shop, and found a four-pack of Topics. I handed over my quid, and was the proud owner of what I had thought was an extinct species, namely Topic bars. I was not alone in this assumption. Just a few days later I was listening to a football podcast and one person said to another person, “Topic bars, do they still make those?” And the other person said, “no, I don’t think so.” WELL THEY BLOODY WELL DO! I wanted to tell the world. “TOPICS – ALIVE AND WELL IN THE POUND SHOP IN BARNSTAPLE.” But would the world believe me? Would it be like those people who reckon Elvis Presley is alive and works in their local chip shop? Would I be considered as a Topic Bar Conspiracy Nut? “The government man is coming to take away your Topic bars! They may take away our lives, but they’ll never take our Topics!” This Topic was a bit small though, a bit on the scrawny side. Which I was ok with, because it’s smaller I can eat four times as many.

chock-lit

ciocolat, davis

Such a popular Davis place, Ciocolat on the corner of B and 3rd. And yet, I have never actually been there, never so much as walked through the door. One day I will. I do like chocolate after all. I’m juts not much of a cafe person. I was walking back to work one lunchtime last week when I decided I needed to do a very quick sketch.

I do love chocolate though. Give me some Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, or big bar of Milka, I’m well happy mate. Chocolate over here isn’t as good as back home, the commercial stuff anyway (I’m looking at Hershey’s here), but there are some amazing chocolatiers such as See’s Candy and Scharffenbergen, as well as lots of small local ones I don’t even know. But I’ll have a Milky Way too, dunk it in my cuppa tea, I love a bit of chocolate. Funny enough, I don’t drink hot chocolate. I can’t stand the stuff. Nor dark chocolate. Give me a nice big chocolate covered pastry though, pain-au-chocolat, oh yes.

choc and awe

milky way
A quick one; a cup of tea and a chocolate bar. My illustration friday entry for the theme of “sugary“.

The chocolate bar is a Milky Way, but don’t let that deceive you, British friends – American Milky Ways are nothing like our Milky Ways. They are in fact almost exactly like our Mars Bars. They also go very well with tea. The Milky Way/Mars Bar thing is one of many instances where our two cultures look different and call itself different things but are in fact the same. I can’t be bothered to name any others.

I got that mug at the Getty in LA. And you know what? I didn’t actually drink this cup of tea from that mug, I drank it from a different one, with my name on it. I just thought the colours and pattern would be better next to the milky way. I used to have a funny way of eating Mars Bars: I’d eat the sides first, then I would nibble off the top, and then the rest. A friend at college once gave me a king-size Mars Bar for ny birthday with a big note on it saying “eat it properly”.

buttons

nice with tea

nice with tea

Last week I was lucky enough to receive a package in the mail containing Cadbury’s chocolate buttons, sent from England by the fenland artist Anita Davies (check out her artblog). I had commented on one of her drawings (of a cake covered in chocolate buttons, it looked perfect to have with tea) that I had been moaning to myself that I can’t get Cadbury’s Buttons here in the US, and so she offered to send me some in exchange for a drawn postcard.

Cadbury’s Buttons for a drawing, well how could I refuse, and so I draw the picture below and popped it in the mail. It’s a picture of the Silo, which I’ve drawn on many a lunchtime (but a place which completely fails to sell Cadbury’s Buttons). It went from one flat land (Davis) to another (the Fens). I soon received my choccies (various different size Buttons, plus two ‘Freddo’s which were dunked in tea and eaten almost as soon as I saw them). Cheers Anita! Much appreciated.

So, folks, I draw for buttons.

but not for zips

but not for zips

Tell you what, I do love Cadbury’s Tiffin too…