Friday, July 15, 2011

Brugges and Brussels in Belgium

They have a thing for B’s in this country. We spent a couple of days in two of the big cities here. Brugges was definitely the more lovely city but Brussels was more interesting. People in Brussels don’t take life very seriously and it slips out in the oddest ways.

Brussels was the first Belgian city we visited so we immediately headed out for waffles. We have a waffle maker at home but it has been about a year since we last had a waffle and that is a very long time. The waffles were everything we could have hoped for. Some of us went pure and had it with only powdered sugar. Some of us added strawberries and some just went a little crazy and added whipped cream and chocolate to the mix. The Belgians prepare the latter for tourists only.

Across the street from the waffle shop was the French Fry shop. Fries are big business in Belgium. In fact, the Belgians claim they are the inventers, not the French and they don’t actually call fries here, “French”. Another difference here is they eat them with mayonnaise. I’m not sure how we managed to choke down fries with mayonnaise after a waffle but we did. Our cholesterol levels were not thanking us. The mayonnaise is definitely not too bad and could grow on you if you lived long enough to eat that regularly.

I think it goes a long way towards the attitude of Belgians and Brusselites in particular that their main tourist attraction is called “Manneken Pis”. I don’t presume to pronounce that for you but you should know that this is a statue of a naked little boy peeing. He’s much smaller than we imagined from the numerous copies in chocolate displayed in windows around the city. He also isn’t their only peeing statue. I guess he went over so well, they created a second one of a little girl peeing. This has spawned a third statue of a dog peeing. I’m not sure where you go from here.

The city is also in love with comic strip artists. They have a whole museum devoted to the topic and there are a LOT of Belgians involved in this activity! I recognized the name, Herge (pronounced Air-zhay). He wrote the Tintin series. We bought a couple of his books. The dog in the books is Snowy and he looks a lot like Sparky. Mind you, at this point anything small and white is reminding us of Sparky: seal pups, lambs, donuts. We miss our dog. At any rate, his name is a pseudonym and came from his initials: RJ. Comic art is everywhere. It is a Manga lover’s dream. I couldn’t help but think of Shirley’s daughter, Alex. She would love the city! There are huge comic murals adorning many of the buildings and it was fun spotting them.

Brugges was a more serious city, focused more on chocolate and lace. We toured a chocolate factory but it had nothing on the Swiss. They only offered a stingy one chocolate at the end! Hmph. We did find a bag of chocolate treats for the dog, however. We left the factory for a little local chocolate shop doing a booming business. I had to line up to get in! We bought some Belgian chocolate there so we could compare flavours when we get home.
We strolled the streets of Brugges, enjoying the very Dutch architecture and the windmills along the canals. Brugges was a cosmopolitan city back in the 1400’s or so. They were huge cloth manufacturers and a gateway into Europe. When their port silted up so did their business and they missed the Renaissance completely, only getting back on the tourist map in the late 1800’s. It felt kind of like a French Amsterdam. The Belgians seem to have two main languages: French and Dutch. Depending on which side of the country you are on, the signs may be in Dutch or French. Everyone speaks English as well, though. We noticed in Amsterdam that their English sounded quite North American. Interesting.


We’ve spent the past few days in the city of love and laughter. It is a beautiful city, regardless of (or in addition to?) the somewhat titillating extras. Everywhere we walk the buildings have the typical Dutch facades on the front, all painted and decorated with various flowers. Each one is unique and together they are just charming. The canals add flavour as well but even though there are apparently more canals here than in Venice, it can’t compete with the beauty of the Venetian city.

The weather here has a lot to do with it, I think. In Venice, the water is a gorgeous green/blue colour and many buildings are a faded white reflecting the colour beautifully. Here, the sky is more gray, the buildings a dark, purpley, brick colour and the water winds up looking quite dark. Our first two days were rain free but then a Vancouver drizzle set in and the wind picked up. The temperature dropped to somewhere in the teens and it felt like November in Berlin.

We took a trip out to see Haarlem, a cute little town a few minutes away by train. It is on the coast, although I should mention that with a country dredged from the marsh, “coast” does not have the same ring to it. We visited a great museum there. It is the oldest museum in Holland, called “Teyler’s Museum”. It was started back in the 1700’s and was a delight! It is still in the same building and some of the rooms look the same. They have big old glass cabinets crammed full of old technology to measure the distance to the sun or to experiment with sound or whatever. There was an audio guide and you could punch in a number for each of the pieces of equipment to hear what it was and how it was used.

The first couple of rooms contained the most interesting fossils I have ever seen. There was a huge pleisiosaur (?) fossil almost intact, an archaeopteryx (?) and many fish. They also had the skull of a mammoth and the skeleton of a cave bear. It was all displayed in an old way and it made one feel one had stepped back in time into some sort old curio shop. The last section had recent technology and followed the development of things like the typewriter, photocopy machine and sound systems. It was fun to see the “old” stuff and much of it was hands on. The kids spent time typing on an old typewriter and playing “Pong” on a very old computer.

Amsterdam itself was fun to explore. We saw lots of tulip bulbs for sale in weird colours like black and blue. Right next to those was the cannabis. Along the main shopping street, they had the “Smart Shop” selling a variety of drugs. There were Magic Mushrooms, Ecstasy and many I had never heard of, all displayed in the front window with easy to read explanations. Apparently, the employees are almost like pharmacists in their knowledge of the drugs.

We toured a couple of excellent art galleries. One is the Rijksmuseum and the other the Van Gogh museum. It really drove home the difference between the Renaissance art of the north and the south. Here everyone is fully clothed, sitting quietly for a portrait. The landscapes show typical activities the people engaged in with lots of small figures in every manner of movement. Contrast that with the fleshy nudes of the Italian Renaissance, draped suggestively across divans, twisting together in scenes of rape or violence with classical background scenery. Boudoir Passion vs. Family Values. Interesting the Red Light District wound up here.

Our walk through the Red Light District was less than thrilling. It was too early, I think so most of the displays were sleeping. The girls sit in windows dressed provocatively to attract customer attention. Apparently, a popular display can earn 500 euros/day before taxes. The ladies have to pay taxes because it is a legal profession here. There were some actual red lights on. I still don’t know where the “red light” comes from. In our wander we saw few ladies. I swear the ones we did see were men dressed as ladies. We did see many, many sex shops and fetish stores, a real eye-opener for the children. Initially we weren’t going to take them with us but we couldn’t figure out where to stash them while we wandered so we just let them come with. I think the leather studded dog mask was the item of most interest to the kids. We tried not to go too far with why THAT was there but instead focused on the hilarity of the whole thing. And no, we did NOT pick one up for Sparky.

Our first day on the streets, we were witness to a plague of insects. They looked like flying ants and were so thick in some areas that you didn’t want to open your mouth. People were screaming and batting at them. There must have been millions. The air was thick with the creatures and they clung everywhere. It was very unpleasant and everyone had to keep moving to avoid being completely covered. I’m pretty sure there’s something in the bible about that, isn’t there? Sodom and Gomorrah and all that? Pestilence and plagues on the sinners? At any rate, it only lasted for the day and even then, only in that one area (curiously close to the Red Light District).

Our last evening was spent at the Anne Frank House. This museum was very well done. We saw the bookcase that hid the entrance. We climbed the ladder-like staircases and trailed through the rooms where they lived for two years. We pondered who could have betrayed them; a question still unanswered. At the end, there was a room with video questions about ethical and moral issues surrounding racism today. The editor showed a film clip then posed a question and the audience had buttons to choose “agree” or “disagree”. The screens showed how the room had voted and then compared that to the statistics gathered over time. Our room would skew one way or the other and then the general statistics would bring it the answers to almost 50/50. It was fascinating to see how given these difficult moral issues our general population is divided. The questions were things like: Should “holocaust denial” groups be allowed to create pages on Facebook? and Should right-wing extremist groups be allowed to demonstrate? I asked if they had a copy of the DVD in the bookstore but they didn’t. The fellow there told me they had actually had some people very upset with the nature of the questions and answers and they were quite controversial. It was all very interesting.