Brussels – 2

Brus Esp

After exit, I return to the lower city by way of the sloping plaza, past an exhibition on Breughel  through the ages to a busy cafe where I claim the one unoccupied seat on the terrace. I must eat, though I am still a bit hungover from Bruges and don’t feel particularly hungry. I order a small falafel as a concession to healthy eating and shrinking wallet. My waiter is both friendly and forgetful, bringing me the large falafel and, perhaps noticing my consternation at the size of it, immediately offering it at the lower price. There’s something of a Mr Bean moment here, as I scan furtively for places to hide parts of the feast, which, in truth, is rather stodgy. But the terrace is full, and empty of seagulls and other scavangers, just when you need them, so I must soldier on.

Well stuffed, I roll down the hill and enter the picturesque and winding Lower Town. An irregular square below the station, Place de l’Albertine, is thronged with people, entertained or ensnared by street performers, hawkers and other importuners. To one side, a more elegant and ordered avenue of pleasure and commerce gives shelter.

Brus Arc

Galleries St Hubert opened in 1847 and was the first shopping arcade in Europe. Victor Hugo attended lectures here. Creator of Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre dam, he was a Brussels resident, exiled from Louis Napoleon’s France. Another contemporary exile was Alexander Dumas who was also an habituee of the Gallerie. Designed by Jean Pierre Cleysenaar in Neo-Renaissance style, the complex comprises three galleries, soaring impressively to a high, vaulted glass roof. It remains a popular venue after a hundred and seventy years, with luxury shops, a cinema, theatre, cafes and restaurants.

My bag is a cross to bear in the heat and the crowds. This boy is cracking up, this boy needs to sit down. I hobble through thronged ancient streets to the Grand Place where the buildings are spiked like stone meringues and tinted gold to boot. The Grand Place is well named. As the civic centre of Brussels, the square dates back eight hundred years or more. Around it have grown this selection of ornate Flemish buildings, civic, commercial and private. Most date back to the 17th century. Grandest of all amongst this jewelled crown of architecture is the Hotel de Ville with its teetering spire rising to almost a hundred metres.

Brus HdV

There are numerous bars and cafes but even more numerous people sadly, or happily for them. The secret of bars: drink early, drink often is being well observed. However, an articulated vehicle like me needs room to park. I walk on by lively hostelries with no room to spare. I find the Church of St Nicolas which honours the patron saint of merchants. I’ll bet. Shops and houses cling to its outer walls, these, more than its modern gothic facade, manage to hint at the church’s ancient origins in the twelfth century.

Brus St Nic

At the edge of this medieval labyrinth, the modern, neo-classical city emerges. The Belgian Stock Exchange, La Bourse, is an impressive Palladian palace from the 1860s. Designed by Leon Suys, the facade features an extensive frieze extolling the virtues of international trade. The French artist, Albert Carrier-Belleuse was responsible. His Brussels studio was a refuge for Auguste Rodin following the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, and many credit him with the section on the south wall representing Asia and Africa. However, local artist Antoine Van Rasbourgh is officially credited. Today, the building stands amidst a chaos of construction, which somewhat mute the joys of pedestrianisation.

Brus Lr Tn1

I turn south on to Boulevard Anspach where I find O’Reilly’s Irish Bar with room to sit over a pint. Much put upon barman is commandeered by a pillock ordering eight Irish Coffees in a heatwave. More absurd still, there is only one barman. The street itself is edgy and crowded, though with that life and lust in its inhabitants to suggest the defining purpose of Brussels over centuries. There is all the mixture one would expect in the melting pot of Europe, a vibrant, if not always elegant, reflection of the sculptures on the Bourse.

Lone barman, dopey clients or no, I find my seat in the sunshine, and I force in two pints before five thirty when I must make my way back to Central Station to make my connection for the airport, and home to Dublin.

 

Lynott

Phil Lynott awaits me in Dublin, outside Bruxelles.

Brussels – 1

Brus Bldng

Took the train to Brussels in the morning, a one way ticket costing 14 euro. Bruges station is neat and modern, but again I’m flummoxed by Belgian Rail time and platform postings. A certain amount of questioning and haggling is required before I get the intended train. I nick into the first class carriage and the ticket men don’t seem to mind. Still, arrive in Brussels hot and bothered.

A bag is always heavier on the journey home. And the sun hotter. Sweating out of Brussels Central, I put into the first bar for a healing Stella. Reassuringly expensive. The bar is a rudimentary affair, at the apex of a triangular city block and of a steep climb from the station. I hadn’t thought of there being hills in Belgium, but nonetheless they are there. The capital is riven by a pronounced escarpment. The old town lies on the low level, the new town, in all its quasi imperial grandeur, occupies the higher ground. Literally, at least. Figuratively, the infrastructure of the European capital must always imagine itself on higher ground than its chaotic and oft implacable citizenry. Twas ever thus throughout empire and federation.

With a day to kill, I’ve opted to explore the Musee des Beaux Arts, and that precinct of museums and galleries known as the Hill of Arts. There’s a whole forest of museums and galleries lodged in Neo-Classical palaces up there. To see them all would demand a longer trip.

Brus Sax

A pleasant sloping esplanade leads uphill. At the top, a busker has nabbed a small amphitheatre provided by the topmost flight of steps. To a jazz backing track, he’s blowing out some wonderful saxophone. No better place. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax, who invented an instrument which allows musicians to leak their soul directly into the air. Sax was born in 1814 to parents who were themselves instrument designers. His innovations were greatly praised by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz composed Symphonie Fantastique under the influence of opium, later claimed to be the first essay in psychedelia, so there is something prescient here considering the future influence of Sax’s instruments. His crowning achievement, the saxophone, was developed in the 1840s. Never popular with orchestras, its use for long was confined to brass bands. The jazz era brought its heydey as a sublime instrument for the soloist. It’s hard to imagine music of the jazz/blues/rock genre without it. He died in 1894, in Paris and in poverty.

Learn to work the saxophone

I play just what I feel

Drink Scotch whisky all night long

And die behind the wheel.

Brus Ol Eng

Nearby, as Rue Ravenstein curves into Place Royale, an Art Nouveau masterpiece houses the Museum of Musical Instruments. Old England, was designed by Paul Saintenoy in 1899 to house the eponymous department store. It is a gorgeous confection of swirling metal and glass, but structurally and functionally pragmatic. The use of steel frame allowed curtain walls of glass, flooding the interior with light, indeed dissolving the divide between exterior and interior. Old England exemplifies an architecture that conjures the sinuous art and music, and sociological revolution of its era. Appropriate therefore that it provides a new home for the Museum and its extensive collection of instruments, wind, string and keyboard, from medieval times to the present. There are, of course, several prototypes of the work of Adolphe Sax.

They got a name for the winners in the world

I want a name when I lose

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide

Call me Deacon Blues

(Deacon Blues, Steely Dan)

The Musee des Beaux Arts is divided into three parts, with inclusive entrance at 15 euro. Occupying the main Grand Palace are the Old Masters while below stairs you’ll find art from the Fin de Siecle. In a building all to itself, linked by an underground passage, is the life and work of Rene Magritte. I purchase an audio guide for a fiver, but it wasn’t really worth it. Artspeak linked with stating the bleeding obvious, as: here we see a man looking out a window. Well, yes.But the exhibitions are well worth it, and informatively captioned. It’s stocked to the eyeballs with Brueghels, Reubens to the rafters, and every Van the Man you might desire. 

Brus Bru2Brus Bru1

Particularly fascinating are the cover versions of Peter Brueghel the father by his son. Winter Landscape with Bird Trap is lovingly rendered by the son. The Census at Bethlehem is another example of the Younger’s faithful reproduction of the Elder. I play spot the difference to little avail. The palette is slightly different, but they may as well be photographic reproductions. Perhaps, with a few more hours to spare … Hieronymous Bosch is another favourite featured here, and oportunity too, to swim in the paint of titanic Peter Paul Rubens. In the Assumption of the Virgin from 1610, Our Lady in blue sails majestically heavenwards. It’s a fine example of the Baroque, Rubens grafting his Flemish precision with Mediterranean passion.

Brus Rub

Below stairs, the Fin de Siecle collection is housed in pleasantly weird serenity. Ever descending spirals of cool and dark and increasing loneliness. There’s a Sisley amongst several shimmering landscapes and cityscapes as the years fal like leaves towards modernity. I rest for a bit in this ambience, before confronting the eye bombs of Magritte to come. 

There’s a lot of Rene, with a concise chronology of his life and work. A strong focus on his graphic work, which is not surprising for an ex dadaist. A communist too, with many other Surrealists, though I recall he took exception to the public disparagement of his wife Georgette’s Catholicism, which distanced him from the movement.

Brus Mag Emp

I finish with the Empire of Light. This series of large paintings features a nighttime suburban street beneath a daytime sky. There are a dozen or so versions, each subtly different. The design of the house, the street furniture, the surrounding trees; but the composition is always a flat representation, with one streetlight, a window or two dimly let, all wonderfully serene and deserted. Standing amongst several versions here, gives the feeling of actually inhabiting Magritte’s street, his very imagination. You can relax with a Magritte, though perhaps as one might lie with a sleeping tiger, but soon both will awake. Reluctantly I leave behind a weird and terrible beauty. Interestingly, the Empire of Light was cribbed for a scene and the poster for the sensational 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.

Just walk away Rene

you won’t see me follow you back home

the empty sidewalks on my block are not the same

you’re not to blame.

(A first hit for baroque pop group, Left Banke, and a cover version by the Four Tops.)