Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quartier Européen

THE AREA at the top of the Rue de la Loi and around the Schuman roundabout is where the main buildings of the European Union’s administration are found.

The most recognizable of all the EU seats is the star-shaped Berlaymont building, now nearing completion following the removal of large quantities of asbestos discovered in its structure. The Berlaymont, formerly the headquarters of the European Commission, will continue to be refurbished until further notice. The commission workers (the civil servants of the EU) are at present dotted around the area. The Council of Ministers, which comprises representatives of member-states’ governments, now meets in the sprawling pink granite block across the road from the Berlaymont, known as Justus Lipsius, after a Flemish philosopher. Further down the road from the Justus Lipsius building is the Résidence Palace, a luxury 1920s housing complex that boasts a theatre, a pool and a roof garden as well as several floors of private flats. It now houses the International Press Centre. Only the theatre is open to the public, but EU officials are allowed into the Art Deco swimming pool.

This area is naturally full of life and bustle during the day, but much quieter in the evenings and can feel almost deserted at weekends. What is pleasant at any time, though, is the proximity of the city’s green spaces including Parc du Cinquantenaire, Parc Léopold and the verdant Square Ambiorix.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Square Ambiorix

Square AmbiorixCLOSE TO THE EU district, but totally different in style and spirit, lies the beautiful Square Ambiorix. Together with the Avenue Palmerston and the Square Marie-Louise below that, this marshland was transformed in the 1870s into one of the loveliest residential parts of Brussels, with a large central area of gardens, ponds and fountains.

The elegant houses, some Art Nouveau, some older, have made this one of the truly sought-after suburbs in the city. The most spectacular Art Nouveau example is at No. 11. Known as the Maison St Cyr after the painter whose home it once was, this wonderfully ornate house, with its curved wrought-iron balustrades and balconies, is a fine architectural feat considering that the man who designed it, Gustave Strauven, was only 22 years old when it was built at the turn of the 20th century.

THE ORANGE ROUTE

ANYONE WITH an interest in sculpture should follow this route down to the lower ground level in the Musée d’art ancien. Here, 18th- and 19thcentury stone, marble and bronze Belgian sculpture is displayed alongside an exhibition explaining various methods behind many of the works on show, from carving to casting and burnishing in the materials of past centuries. There is also access to a sculpture terrace from outside the entrance of the Musée d’art ancien.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chapelle de la Madeleine

Chapelle de la Madeleine
THIS LITTLE church once stood on the site now occupied by the Gare Centrale, but it was moved, stone by stone, further down the hill to make way for the construction of the Art Deco-style station and its car park during the early 1950s. The 17th-century façade of the church has been restored. The original 15th-century interior has been replaced by a plain, modest decor, with simple stone pillars and modern stained-glass windows. Off the regular tourist track, the chapel is used by people as a quiet place for worship. The Baroque chapel which was once attached has now gone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Galerie Bortier

Galerie Bortier
GALERIE BORTIER is the only shopping arcade in the city dedicated solely to book and map shops, and it has become the haunt of students, enthusiasts and researchers looking for secondhand French books and antiquarian finds.

The land on which the gallery stands was originally owned by a Monsieur Bortier, whose idea it was to have a covered arcade lined with shops on either side. He put 160,000 francs of his own money into the project, quite a considerable sum in the 1840s. The 65-m (210-ft) long Galérie Bortier was built in 1848 and was designed by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar, the architect of the Galéries St-Hubert nearby. The Galérie Bortier opened along with the then-adjacent Marché de la Madeleine, but the latter was unfortunately destroyed by developers in 1958.

A complete restoration of Galérie Bortier was ordered by the Ville de Bruxelles in 1974. The new architects kept strictly to Cluysenaar’s plans and installed a replacement glass and wrought-iron roof made to the original 19th-century Parisian style. The Rue de la Madeleine itself also offers plenty of browsing material for bibliophiles and art lovers.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Palais de Justice

THE PALAIS DE JUSTICE rules the Brussels skyline and can be seen from almost any vantage point in the city. Of all the ambitious projects of King Léopold II, this was perhaps the grandest. It occupies an area larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was one of the world’s most impressive 19th-century buildings. It was built between 1866 and 1883 by architect Joseph Poelaert who looked for inspiration in classical temples, but sadly died mid-construction in 1879. The Palais de Justice is still home to the city’s law courts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Palais d’Egmont

THE PALAIS d’Egmont (also known as the Palais d’Arenberg) was originally built in the mid-16th century for Françoise of Luxembourg, mother of the 16th-century leader of the city’s rebels, Count Egmont. This palace has twice been rebuilt, in 1750 and again in 1891, following a fire. Today it belongs to the Belgian Foreign Ministry. It was here that Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland signed as members of the EEC in 1972. Though the palace itself is closed to the public, the gardens, whose entrances are on the Rue du Grand Cerf and the Boulevard de Waterloo, are open. There is a statue of Peter Pan, a copy of one found in Kensington Gardens, in London. Many of the gardens’ buildings are now run down, and plans have started to restore the ancient orangery and the disused ice house.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Place du Petit Sablon

THESE PRETTY, formal gardens were laid out in 1890 and are a charming spot to stop for a rest. On top of the railings that enclose the gardens are 48 bronze statuettes by Art Nouveau artist Paul Hankar, each one representing a differincident ent medieval guild of the city. At the back of the gardens is a fountain built to commemorate Counts Egmont and Hornes, the martyrs who led a Dutch uprising against the tyrannical rule of the Spanish under Philip II, and were beheaded in the Grand Place in 1568. On either side of the fountain are 12 further statues of 15th- and 16th-century figures, including Bernard van Orley, whose stained-glass windows grace the city’s cathedral, and the Flemish mapmaker Gerhard Mercator, whose 16th-century projection of the world forms the basis of most modern maps.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notre-Dame au Sablon

ALONG WITH THE Cathédrale Sts Michel et Gudule, this lovely church is one of the finest remaining examples of Brabant Gothic architecture in Belgium.

A church was first erected here when the guild of crossbowmen was granted permission to build a chapel to Our Lady on this sandy hill. Legend has it that a young girl in Antwerp had a vision of the Virgin Mary who instructed her to take her statue to Brussels. The girl carried the statue of the Virgin to Brussels down the Senne river by boat and gave it to the crossbowmen’s chapel, which rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. Work to enlarge the church began around 1400 but, due to lack of funds, was not completed until 1550. All that remains today of the differincident are two carvings depicting the young girl in a boat, since the statue was destroyed in 1565.

The interior of the church is simple but beautifully proportioned, with inter-connecting side chapels and an impressive pulpit dating from 1697. Of particular interest, however, are the 11 magnificent stainedglass windows, 14 m (45 ft) high, which dominate the inside of the church. As the church is lit from the inside, they shine out at night like welcoming beacons. Also worth a visit is the chapel of the Tour et Taxis family, whose mansion once stood near the Place du Petit Sablon. In 1517 the family had tapestries commissioned to commemorate the legend that led to the chapel becoming a place of pilgrimage. Some now hang in the Musées Royaux d’art et d’histoire in Parc du Cinquantenaire, but others were stolen by the French Revolutionary army in the 1790s.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Place du Grand Sablon

SITUATED ON the slope of the escarpment that divides Brussels in two, the Place du Grand Sablon is like a stepping stone between the upper and lower halves of the city. The name “sablon” derives from the French “sable” (sand) and the square is socalled because this old route down to the city centre once passed through an area of sandy marshes.

Today the picture is very different. The square, more of a triangle in shape, stretches from a 1751 fountain by Jacques Berge at its base uphill to the Gothic church of Notre-Dame du Sablon. The fountain was a gift of the Englishman Lord Bruce, out of gratitude for the hospitality shown to him in Brussels. The square is surrounded by elegant town houses, some with Art Nouveau façades. This is a chic, wealthy and busy part of Brussels, an area of up-market antiques dealers, fashionable restaurants and trendy bars, which really come into their own in warm weather when people stay drinking outside until the early hours of the morning: a good place in which to soak up the atmosphere. Wittamer, at No. 12, is a justifiably well-known patisserie and chocolate shop, which also has its own tea room on the first floor.

Every weekend the area near the church plays host to a lively and thriving, if rather expensive, antiques market.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

THE YELLOW ROUTE

THIS SECTION covers the 19th century and is closer to the contemporary collection both in position and period. It is an informed introduction to the cutting-edge displays nearby. The works along the yellow route vary greatly in style and subject matter, from Romanticism, exemplified by David, and Neo-Classicism, to Realism and Symbolism. There are, as in the other sections, examples of work by artists from outside Belgium, including Pierre Bonnard’s Nude against the Light (1907), Edouard Vuillard’s Two Schoolchildren (1894) and Monet’s Sunset at Etretat (1885), but once again most emphasis is on Belgian artists.

Social realist artist Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) is represented by many of his sculptures, including Firedamp (1888). Much of the work of James Ensor (1890–1949) remains in his native city Ostend, but many of his macabre works are displayed here, such as Scandalized Masks (1883) and Two Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891). This section also offers the chance to see pictures by artists who are less well known outside Belgium, such as Henri Evenepoel (1872–99) whose lively Arab scene Orange Market at Blidah (1898) provides a contrast to the stark works of painters such as Ensor. The work of Impressionist Emile Claus is of value to followers of the movement. Of local interest is the landscape of Brussels by van Moer, painted in 1868, which clearly shows the River Senne before it was covered over for hygiene reasons. Moving from the passion of Romanticism to grim industrial realism and gentle Impressionism, this survey is definitive.

Oudenaarde

STRATEGICALLY situated beside the River Scheldt, the little town of Oudenaarde has suffered at the hands of many invaders, and little remains of the old town. The 16th-century Stadhuis has survived, and is adorned with beautiful stonework. The interior is open to visitors and is famous for an exquisitely carved oak doorway and its outstanding collection of tapestries – one of the finest in the country. Oudenaarde was once a centre of tapestry manufacture and its products were bought by monarchs across Europe. Today, visitors can see tapestries being made at the Huis de Lalaing, a workshop near the Grote Markt.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ronse

SET AMONG the pretty hills of the Flemish Ardennes, Ronse is famous for its Zotte Maandag, or Crazy Monday festivities. Every year, on the second weekend in January, a boisterous procession of masked medieval characters parades through the town.

In medieval times, Ronse was where thousands of the mentally ill were taken to seek a cure. The object of the pilgrimage was a visit to the chapel of Hermes, a Roman saint thought to be an expert in exorcism. Today, the chapel retains three rusty iron rings that recall the days when the insane were chained up awaiting a miracle. A painting here depicts St Hermes on a horse, dragging a devil behind him.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ieper

IEPER IS THE Flemish name of the town familiar to hundreds of thousands of British soldiers as Ypres – its French appellation. During World War I, this ancient town, which was once a centre of the medieval wool trade, was used as a supply depot for the British army fighting in the trenches just to the east.

The Germans shelled Ieper to pieces, but after the war the town was rebuilt to its earlier design, complete with an exact replica of its imposing, 13th-century Lakenhalle (cloth hall). The original building was located by the River Ieperlee (which now runs underground), and boats could unload their wares on site. Today, part of the interior has been turned into the excellent “In Flander’s Fields” Museum, a thoughtfully laid-out series of displays that attempt to conjure the full horrors of World War I. There is a simulated gas attack, personal artifacts and an array of photographs.

Another reminder of war is the huge Menin Gate memorial (just east of the Grote Markt) inscribed with the names of over 50,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died in and around Ieper but have no known resting place. The last post is sounded here every evening at 8pm.