Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parliament Quarter

THE VAST, MODERN, steel-andglass complex, situated just behind Quartier Léopold train station, is one of three homes of the European Parliament, the elected body of the EU. Its permanent seat is in Strasbourg, France, where the plenary sessions are held once a month. The administrative centre is in Luxembourg and the committee meetings are held in Brussels. This gleaming state-of-the-art building has many admirers, not least the parliamentary workers and MEPs themselves. But it also has its critics: the huge domed structure housing the hemicycle that seats the 600-plus MEPs has been dubbed the “caprices des dieux” (“whims of the gods”), which refers both to the shape of the building which is similar to a French cheese of the same name, and to its lofty aspirations. Many people also regret that, to make room for the new complex, a large part of Quartier Léopold has been lost. Though there are still plenty of restaurants and bars, a lot of the charm has gone. When the MEPs are absent, the building is often used for meetings of European Union committees

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Musée Charlier

THIS QUIET MUSEUM was once the home of Henri van Cutsem, a wealthy collector and patron of the arts. In 1890 he asked the young architect Victor Horta to re-design his house as an exhibition space for his extensive collections. Van Cutsem died, and his friend, the sculptor Charlier, installed his own art collection in the house. Charlier commissioned Horta to build another museum, at Tournai in southern Belgium, to house van Cutsem’s collection. On Charlier’s death in 1925 the house and contents were left to the city as a museum.

The Musée Charlier opened in 1928. It contains paintings by a number of different artists, including portraits by Antoine Wiertz (see p72) and early landscapes by James Ensor. The collection also includes sculptures by Charlier, and the ground floor contains collections of glassware, porcelain, chinoiserie and silverware. Of special note are the tapestries, some from the Paris studios of Aubusson, on the staircases and the first floor, and the displays of Louis XV- and Louis XVI-style furniture on the first and second floors.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palais de Charles de Lorraine

HIDDEN BEHIND this Neo-Classical façade are the few rooms that remain of the palace of Charles de Lorraine, Governor of Brussels during the mid-18th century. He was a keen patron of the arts, and the young Mozart is believed to have performed here. Few original features remain, as the palace was ransacked by marauding French troops in 1794. Extensive renovations were recently completed. The bas-reliefs at the top of the stairway, representing air, earth, fire and water, reflect Charles de Lorraine’s keen interest in alchemy. Most spectacular of all the original features is the 28-point star set in the floor of the circular drawing room. Each of the points is made of a different Belgian marble, a much sought-after material which was used in the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hôtel Ravenstein

OVER THE centuries the Hôtel Ravenstein has been the home of patrician families, soldiers and court officials, and, for the past 100 years, the Royal Society of Engineers. The building was designed at the end of the 15th century for Adolphe and Philip Cleves-Ravenstein; in 1515 it became the birthplace of Anne of Cleves. Consisting of two parts, joined by gardens and stables, it is the last remaining example of a Burgundian-style manor house. The Hôtel Ravenstein was acquired by the town in 1896 and used to store artworks. Sadly, it fell into disrepair and renovation took place in 1934. One half is now a Belgian restaurant, the other the Royal Society of Engineers’ private HQ. However, the pretty, original inner courtyard can still be seen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palais des Beaux- Arts

THE PALAIS des Beaux-Arts owes its existence to Henri Le Boeuf, a music-loving financier who gave his name to the main auditorium. In 1922 he commissioned the architect Victor Horta to design a cultural centre which would house concert halls and exhibition areas open to all visitors and embracing the artistic fields of music, theatre, cinema and art. The construction took seven years as the building was on a slope but could not be so tall as to block the view of the town from the Palais Royal: Horta had to revise his plans six times. The centre was the first of its kind in Europe.

The complex has a fine reputation and has played a key role in the cultural life of Brussels for over 70 years. It is the focus for the city’s music and dance, and is home to the Belgian National Orchestra.

The complex also houses the Musée du Cinema, set up in 1962, with its fine archive and exhibition of old cameras and lenses. Its main activity is the daily screening of classic films.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eglise St-Jacquessur - Coudenberg

THE PRETTIEST building in the Place Royale, St-Jacquessur- Coudenberg is the latest in a series of churches to have occupied this site. There has been a chapel here since the 12th century, when one was built to serve the dukes of Brabant. On construction of the Coudenberg Palace in the 13th century, it became the ducal chapel. The chapel suffered over the years: it was ransacked in 1579 during conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and was so badly damaged in the fire of 1731 that destroyed the Coudenberg Palace that it was demolished soon after. The present church was built in the Neo-Classical style of the rest of the area and was consecrated in 1787, although it served several years as a Temple of Reason and Law during the French Revolution, returning to the Catholic Church in 1802. The cupola was completed in 1849. The interior is simple and elegant, with two large paintings by Jan Portaels on either side of the transept, and a royal pew.

Friday, November 6, 2009


THE COLLECTION of modern art is wide and varied and includes works by well-known 20th-century painters from Belgium and around the world. There is no clearly defined route to follow within this section, nor are the exhibits strictly grouped by period or movement, so it is best to wander through the collection, stopping at areas of interest.

There are a number of works by the leading Belgian artists of the 20th century, such as Fauvist painter Rik Wouters’ (1882–1916) The Flautist (1914). International artists include Matisse, Paul Klee and Chagall. But the real draw for most people is the collection of pictures by the Belgian Surrealists, in particular René Magritte (1898–1967). His best-known paintings, including The Domain of Arnheim (1962), are on display here. Another noted Surrealist, Paul Delvaux, is also well represented with works such as Evening Train (1957) and Pygmalion (1939).

Belgian art of the 20th century tends to be severe and stark, but the postwar Jeune Peinture Belge school reintroduced colour in an abstract way and is represented in works such as Marc Mendelson’s 1950s Toccata et fugue.

Sculpture highlights in this section include Ossip Zadkine’s totem pole-like Diana (1937) and Henry Moore’s Draped Woman on Steps (1957–8).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Musée de la Dynastie

THE MUSÉE de la Dynastie contains a broad collection of paintings, documents and other royal memorabilia charting the history of the Belgian monarchy from independence in 1830 to the present day. Since 1992 it has been housed in the former Hôtel Bellevue, an 18th-century Neo-Classical building lying adjacent to the Palais Royal, which was annexed to the palace in 1902. A permanent exhibition in honour of the late, immensely popular, King Baudouin (r.1951–1993) was added in 1998. As well as official portraits, informal photographs are on display which give a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Belgian royal family. The collection is displayed in chronological order in a series of rooms with a bust of the sovereign to which it is devoted at the entrance to each one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


The béguine lifestyle swept across Western Europe from the 12th century, and Brussels once had a community of over 1,200 béguine women. The religious order is believed to have begun among widows of the Crusaders, who resorted to a pious life of sisterhood on the death of their husbands. The women were lay nuns, who opted for a secluded existence devoted to charitable deeds, but not bound by strict religious vows. Most béguine convents disappeared during the Protestant Reformation in much of Europe during the 16th century, but begijnhofs (béguinages) continued to thrive in Flanders. The grounds generally consisted of a church, a courtyard, communal rooms, homes for the women and extra rooms for work. The movement dissolved as female emancipation spread during the early 1800s, although 20 convents remain, including those in Bruges (see p117) and Ghent

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


THIS QUIET TOWN grew up around the River Dendre. Ath is known for its festival – the Ducasse – which occurs every year on the fourth weekend in August. Held over two days, it features the “Parade of the Giants”, a procession of gaily decorated giant figures representing characters from local folklore and the Bible, such as the Aymon brothers and the Steed Bayard (see p99), as well as David, Goliath and Samson.

The surrounding country of gently rolling hills is dotted with hamlets and farms, as well as historical sights. A few kilometres northeast of Ath is one of the most popular attractions in the region, the Château d’Attre. This handsome 18th-century palace was built in 1752 by the Count of Gomegnies, chamberlain to the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, and was a favourite haunt of the Hapsburg aristocracy. Its interior is opulent, with ornate plasterwork, parquet floors and paintings. The River Dendre crosses the delightful grounds.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hans Memling Museum

This small museum (a former 13th-century hospital) contains the works of Hans Memling (1430–94), one of the most talented painters of his era. Among them, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (1479), the central panel of a triptych, is superb. The former wards also house a collection of paintings and furniture related to the hospital’s history.