When you hear the word “Belgium,” what comes to mind? Waffles? Chocolate? Maybe a good beer?
My first visit to Belgium was on that long-ago European trip with my family, when I first got hooked on travelling. I remember liking this wee country a lot. Yes, the waffles were pretty awesome, but so was the architecture. And the artwork. Everything I saw and tasted in Belgium instilled in me my lifelong interest in architecture, art, and regional cuisine.
But I haven’t been back to Belgium since. Because, truth be told, Belgium is one of those countries you fly over or travel through on your way to some more exciting place, like, um, Paris. (Guilty.)
Which is why, after spending two months in Amsterdam, I decided to finish my European summer with a return visit to Belgium.
But here was my dilemma when I started planning my trip to Belgium: I wanted to visit three different cities, but had only five days in which to do it.
Three cities in five days? Was I crazy? We North Americans are fond — at our peril — of overestimating how small European countries are, and even though Belgium is one of the smallest of Europe’s many small countries, it seemed a bit of a foolish plan to me.
What’s the point of travelling if you don’t challenge yourself? I decided to give it a go, and resolved to hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in the country.
Which I did. I skipped the overpriced hotel breakfasts and began each morning in a café. Over my latte and croissant each morning, I planned my attack. This was my only time to dawdle and got me up and out the door early since I can only wait so long for coffee. Which meant I was able to cram a lot into each day.
Brugge was my first stop. This small, medieval city of almost 120,000 people is located just a few miles from the North Sea. And before I go any further, let’s get something out of the way. Brugge (pronounced BRU-huh) is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. It’s become popular with English-speakers to call the city by its French name (Bruges), which makes no sense to either me or the Belgians — I can only assume it’s because of a certain Hollywood movie.
Brugge means “bridge,” of which there are lots in this medieval town. Canals, too.
Despite my strong memories of Brugge from my first visit, what surprised me this time was how medieval the place is. No idea why I was surprised by that, but it was delightful. And so this photographer spent a happy two days here, clicking away to her heart’s content.
I started off here, at the Markt, or market square, the centre of Brugge’s medieval centre.
The Markt is dominated by the Belfort. There are a lot of belfries in Belgium and northern France. (In fact, the Belfries of Belgium and France, more than 50 towers in total, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Originally built as watch towers, they all house bells. This one was built in the thirteenth century and has a 47-bell carillon.
Then I was off to the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love. Yeah, it’s romantic, but really, just so peaceful and beautiful. And you actually can’t avoid it as it’s right on the way from the train station to the centre of the Old Town. I could have easily spent an entire afternoon here, but I had to move on.
I had more canals to photograph.
Turn around from the above spot, and you see this, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady).
And this church was the main event for me during my visit to Brugge, because of this.
That would be Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. My lifelong love affair with Michelangelo’s work began when I first saw this piece, oh so many years ago. My second viewing was no less mesmerizing. It is the only artwork by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime.
Brugge is full of tiny alleys and medieval buildings. On the other side of the above alley is the Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry, below, at left). To its right is the Stadhuis or Town Hall. Built in the fourteenth century, it’s one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries. Both of these buildings are located in the Burg, another square in the Old Town that is just around the corner from the Markt. And with that, I had come full circle and it was time to move on.
My next stop was Gent. I’m still in Flanders, but I’ve travelled east and am now about midway between Brugge and Brussels. Gent is about double the size of Brugge and proof that there are other lovely medieval cities in Belgium besides Brugge. It too has a belfry.
Also many lovely canals.
And … a castle!
I didn’t have enough time to check out the Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) on the inside, because this is what I came to Gent to see.
It’s another stunning piece of art. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is located in the Sint-Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral), which is behind the Belfort in the photo up above.
Of all my stops in Europe last summer, Gent was where I spent the least amount of time, but did the most walking in one day. (Now that’s hitting the ground running.)
My last stop was Brussels. I had one goal here: to do some night photography in the Grand Place, one of the most impressive squares in all Europe. Sadly, my plans were thwarted by some miserable weather and dozens of market stalls in the centre of the square, which were empty, so I have no idea why they were there, but they certainly ruined any chance of a decent photo.
Brussels is an interesting mix of old and new. It’s the capital of the European Union and has shopping streets that wouldn’t be out of place in Canada. But then you turn a corner and see a street scene that reminds you of Paris. Also like Paris, security was noticeable but not obtrusive, and completely expected given recent events in both those cities.
Brussels also has a couple of iconic characters. First, there’s this guy.
That would be Mannekin Pis. He’s not very tall. A bronze statue and fountain have stood on this street corner for some 400 years, and there are all sorts of urban legends as to who he is and why he has been memorialized in this way.
And then there’s this fellow.
The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé first appeared in 1929 and has been translated into 100 languages. Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world? And Brussels has an entire trail of comic strip murals, which I did not get to see, thanks to the heavy rain that kept up for the entire day. As it was, I had to scurry from coffee shop to church to restaurant in an effort to keep somewhat dry, which only worked so well.
Eventually, though, it was time for me to head to the airport to fly back to Canada. If I could have, I would have added at least one more night to my stay in each city, but, even so, my whistle-stop tour through Belgium was so worth the effort.
Because, as far as I’m concerned, Belgium is highly overlooked and underrated.
And has far more to offer the world than just waffles and chocolate.
After our lunch stop in Aachen, my German friends and I continued our journey to the south of Germany.
Here’s a question: What happens when you put a Canadian in the passenger seat of a German-made car driven by a car-mad German down the German Autobahn?
And here’s the answer: She giggles hysterically when it hits her how impossibly fast 214 km/h is after sneaking a glance at the speedometer.
Happily, the hysteria lasted only for a moment. And even at those speeds, it still took us much longer than I expected to reach our destination just outside of Heidelberg. (Remember, I’m the Canadian who thinks all European countries are tiny.)
Which meant we arrived after dark. But that made the end of the journey the most magical part of the day. After turning off the Autobahn, we drove through the countryside on what in Canada we call secondary roads. Suddenly, we were driving through the centre of Heidelberg. I’d been to Heidelberg before and knew, even in the darkness, roughly where we were. I looked up.
Yup, there it was. High above us, illuminated with floodlights, was the Heidelberg Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle.
It was quite the view on my first night in Germany.
Heidelberg straddles the Neckar River. From the hillsides on either side of the river valley, you have a pretty awesome view of the city. This is the view of the Old Town from the Philosophenweg, or Philosopher’s Walk. That’s the Castle behind the Old Town, up the hill a ways.
Here is the view of the Old Town from the Castle.
And here’s a better look at the Castle from the Castle Terrace.
The Castle is built out of Neckar Valley sandstone. The first structure on the site went up around 1300, and the prince-electors began to use it as a palace about a hundred years later. They added more buildings, all facing an inner courtyard and all representing different time periods and different styles of architecture from Renaissance to Rococo.
This wall is all that remains of the Renaissance Palace.
The castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), and then completely destroyed by lightning in 1764, after which it lay in ruins for many years. People began hauling away its stone to build their houses, a custom that was stopped in 1800 by a Frenchman named Count Charles de Graimberg, who began restoring and preserving the castle.
Here’s a closer look at the bridge that crosses the Neckar.
It’s known simply as the Alte Brücke or Old Bridge, but its official name is Karl-Theodor Brücke after the fellow who arranged to have it built (this version, that is, which went up in 1788). Karl Theodor was a prince-elector. (Fun fact: The Holy Roman Emperor was not a hereditary title, but an elected one, and he was elected to that office by the prince-electors. The things I learn doing research for this blog.)
It seemed like every time I turned around in Heidelberg, I bumped into Karl Theodor. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as his likeness is everywhere. Here he is on the bridge he had built.
This is the view of the Bridge Gate from the bridge. The gate dates back to the Middle Ages, making it much older than the bridge itself, except for its Baroque spires, which were added in 1788.
The Old Town of Heidelberg is a lovely place to wander through. Its buildings are mostly in the Baroque style.
This house was built in 1592 in the Late Renaissance style, and is now a hotel.
Heidelberg is very much a college town. Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest (founded in 1386) and most prestigious. A quarter of the city’s population are students. A fun place to visit is the Studentenkarzer or Student Prison, which was in use until 1914. Students were detained for unseemly conduct like public drunkenness (or what we call a typical Saturday night on campus), but were allowed out to go to class. While locked up, they took out their pens. Here’s some of their graffiti.
Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most visited cities and I’m not surprised. This was my third visit and I keep going back as it’s quite lovely.
On the flip side, Germany is the top source of tourists to BC from continental Europe by quite a margin. This too does not surprise me — I keep bumping into them in our parks. I think they like our mountains.
But what surprised me as my friends and I flew down the Autobahn is how much forest cover there is in the country. The Autobahn is bordered on either side by woodland. Heidelberg is surrounded by timbered hilltops. My friend’s house backs onto a forest.
And here’s another fun fact I learned while doing research for this post: the Brothers Grimm lived not far from Heidelberg.
Romantic castles and enchanted forests indeed.
And then there are the canal houses.
Google “unique European architecture” and Amsterdam is sure to be on the list. That’s because of its unique canal houses.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are narrow, they are tall, and they are deep. Although the place where I stayed in Amsterdam is a modern house by Dutch standards (a mere 125 years old) and doesn’t face a canal, it too was built in the Dutch canal house style. And let me tell you: you don’t appreciate how narrow, tall, and deep these houses are until you’ve climbed a narrow, vertigo-inducing staircase all the way up to the fifth floor.
A typical canal house is only six metres wide. The reason why they are so narrow? It’s because canal houses were taxed on their width. The city governors needed money to pay for the massive canal expansion of the seventeenth century (when most of the canal houses were built), and knew they could raise the money by taxing the most desirable properties, which the canal houses were.
The Dutch are notoriously thrifty, shall we say, and anything they can do to save a cent, they will do. So they built narrow houses.
Many canal houses were multi-functional: they served as both family home and warehouse for the merchants who lived in them. The first storey was where the company’s office was located (at front) and where the family lived (at back). The upper storeys were the warehouse. At the top of each house was a beam with a hook. When the merchant needed to haul his trade goods into the warehouse, he attached a pulley and rope to the hook. Those same hooks are still used today when moving furniture or during renovations when building materials need to be brought into a house.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are still in use as family homes, but also as restaurants, hotels, museums, and offices. I lost count of how many times I walked past a canal house, its doors open wide to the street so I could look right in on an open-concept office, with rows of white computer-laden tables or groups of people gathered around a long meeting table. The offices all looked like remarkably relaxed work environments.
Although the canal houses follow a pretty similar cookie-cutter style from one to the next, where they do differ is in the style of their gables.
There’s the step gable.
And there is the spout gable. It looks like an inverted funnel, and indicated that the canal house was a warehouse rather than a residence.
The neck gables allowed for the most individualization. The corners created by the 90-degree angle of the facade were filled in with ornate decoration that reflected the Baroque style of the time.
Sometimes the neck gables were built in identical pairs.
But often you see a row of canal houses with each gable different from the next. In this photo, from left to right, is a neck gable, a spout gable, and a bell gable. The bell gables are called that because the shape of the top of the gable resembles a church bell.
Here is a row of mostly bell gables. Note how the houses are tilted. Amsterdam’s canal houses are built on top of wooden piles that were pounded into the swampy peat bog until solid sand was reached. But as the land shifts through the centuries, so too do the houses. This particular row is known as the Dancing Houses.
Here’s another thing I learned last summer. Marvelling at the Amsterdam canal houses is a whole lot more fun when you have a house builder along with you. My brother would shake his head, chuckle, and say, “There are no straight lines.” I don’t know if he was unsettled by the lack of straight lines, or merely fascinated, but after he left, for the rest of the summer, I walked around the city looking for straight lines.
I didn’t find many.
The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.
That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.
Or New York.
A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.
A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.
And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.
The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.
The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.
I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.
If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.
Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.
The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?
The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.
The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.
Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.
I first read about The Getty in a magazine article, well before it opened, and knew I had to see the place if I ever made it to Los Angeles. And so, during my first-ever visit to Los Angeles some years ago, I made a beeline for The Getty. I was so enamoured with the architecture that I barely made it inside to look at the art.
Last month, on my second-ever visit to Los Angeles, I made a beeline for The Getty. This time I did make it inside, where I enjoyed some fine art, but, once again, I was awe-struck by the architecture of this world-class art museum.
The Getty sits atop a hillside in the midst of the Santa Monica Mountains (well, Angelenos refer to these hills as the Santa Monica Mountains, but, you know….). It overlooks the San Diego Freeway and offers a spectacular view of downtown Los Angeles. Look west, and you see the Pacific Ocean. Look east, and you see the San Gabriel Mountains.
Richard Meier was the architect and it was The Getty that catapulted him into the starchitect stratosphere. It was built from 1.2 million square feet (that’s 16,000 tons, folks!) of Italian Travertine stone. There are five pavilions of galleries, linked together with exterior courtyards and terraces.
I expect on my next visit to Los Angeles to yet again be making a beeline to The Getty.
When I first visited Prague, I thought to myself, “This city is like a mini-Vienna!”
I don’t think I’m too far off. After all, the two cities are only a few hours apart. They also share a long history.
Well, for starters, both cities were part of the Holy Roman Empire and both were later ruled by the Hapsburgs. That went on for a century or three. When the Austrian Empire was created in 1804, it absorbed the Kingdom of Bohemia ― that’s the half of the Czech Republic where Prague sits today. And then in 1867, when the Austrians and the Hungarians decided to get together and form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemia was made one of its provinces and remained so until 1918.
That’s an awful lot of Austrians hovering in and around Prague for an awful lot of years.
I first visited Prague in the summer of 1998. I quickly realized it was a city of deep contrasts that was working hard to recover from all those centuries of domination by each of its neighbours in turn: the Hapsburgs and the Austrians I’ve already mentioned, and the Nazis, and, oh yeah, those Russians.
That same summer, I heard an American-Jew who had lived in both Prague and Vienna say that the Czech nation has always been western, and it was dragged kicking and screaming into the East in both 1948 (when the Communists took power) and 1968 (when the Russian tanks rolled into town).
From what I saw, Prague ― a definitively western city that bears a striking resemblance to Vienna ― had bounced back into the West with lightning speed. Less than a decade after the fall of communism, designer shops and McDonalds dominated the streets and a flurry of tourists from all over Europe filled the Old Town Square daily.
Prague has a long and storied history simply because of geography: it sits at the crossroads of Europe. I find that fascinating.
But even more fascinating is a city full of life and colour and music that is (at long last) relishing its independence.
I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.
It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.
And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.
This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.
Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.
(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)
In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.
And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.
All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.
But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.
Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walkabout by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.
But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).
At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.
And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.
I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.
I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.
All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.
This is a favourite photo of mine, and today is a good day to post it to the blog. That’s because this afternoon my dad and I took a drive to Bentley to deliver his sister (my aunt) safely home after a family get-together. Bentley, Alberta, is a small town due west of Lacombe where I spent a good chunk of my childhood summers.
Yup, I’m back in Wild Rose Country.
I took this photo almost five years ago. Alberta’s grain elevators are quickly disappearing ― in 1934, there were over 1700 of these iconic structures, but today there are maybe 120. Happily for me, this one is still standing.
When I was blogging about spectacular European opera houses last spring, it occurred to me that spectacular Canadian opera houses are few and far between.
No matter. We do have some spectacular concert halls.
This is a photo of the Chan Centre. Located on the Point Grey campus of the University of British Columbia, it was designed by the Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom. Its main concert hall is shaped like a cello and the acoustics are state of the art.
This time of year, the Chan looks particularly spectacular.