June 26, 2018

Brussels: Hungry?

by Steve W

A short post about one of the aspects of Brussels.

After two weeks in Paris, with some great food, we found Brussels to have a few local specialties worth mentioning.

Chocolate: some of the world's finest chocolate comes from Belgium. Everywhere we went, we saw numerous chocolate shops of various brands, some of which are international and some of which are local. The first Godiva store opened in 1937 in the Grand Place, the main plaza in the center of town. Other chains, such as Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolino and Leonidas, also circle the Grand Place as well as the galleries (malls) and streets surrounding the Grand Place, sometimes with multiple stores of the same brand within a block of each other. There are also many stores of local chocolatiers, who offer high quality chocolate made in smaller batches.

There is even a chocolate factory with a chocolate covered elephant out front.

Belgian Frites: do NOT call them French fries! Almost every dish we ordered for lunch or dinner came with frites. What makes them unique is that they are fried twice and traditionally served with a mayonnaise based sauce instead of ketchup. To be honest, I didn't see them as all that special, although that didn't stop me from eating them.

Belgian beer: there are allegedly over 300 beers manufactured in Belgium. So many, in fact, that they have their own museum. And the name of one version caught my eye.

The name of this place says it all.

Lastly, Belgian waffles: I'll confess to not being a waffle enthusiast previously, but these are amazing. Light, fluffy, and covered with your choice of different toppings; fruits, chocolate sauce, Nutella, and whipped cream. There seem to be as many waffle shops as chocolate shops. You would see people walking the streets, eating them out of a small, handheld paper container, using a very small fork to try to cut off pieces with gooey toppings, as pictured below. More napkins, please!

Waffle with banana and chocolate sauce.
A replica of the Mannequin Pis outside The Waffle Factory
Picture of a man who has obviously had a waffle or two (or five)
Next up: Bruges.

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June 23, 2018

A Short Stay In Brussels.

by Steve W

Leaving Paris behind, we took a short train ride to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. We could always tell when the train was passing a small village, as every one of them had a church steeple that could be seen from the train.

Sharing borders with France, Germany and The Netherlands, Belgium uniquely combines aspects of all of these cultures, especially in the languages spoken by its people. Signs are usually in more than one language, making it confusing for someone who doesn't speak or read any of the languages of these countries. Add Flemish, the native language of Belgium, to this mix and it's a wonder anyone understands anyone else.

Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from the Grand Place, the largest market square in the city (and one of the most beautiful in Europe). The site of buildings that go back to the late 17th century, including City Hall and the King's House, as well the headquarters of a number of guilds, the Grand Place is always crowed with tourists. It is lined with shops (many of them selling Belgian chocolate), restaurants and museums. These buildings are Gothic in style, with ornate columns, statues and gold-leaf covered decor, highlighting the splendor of days gone by.

Around the corner from the Grand Palce was the Place d'Espagne, featuring a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

For some reason unknown to me, there is also a statue of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok in the same square.
What's he doing here?
A few blocks from the Grand Place is the Manneken-Pis, a statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain. First created in 1619, it is a symbol of the Belgian sense of humor. The statue is nude, but is often dressed in costume to celebrate a particular event. One source said that during European Prostate Cancer Awareness Day, the the flow of water slows down to a trickle.

Belgium has a long history of children's stories and cartoons, of which the most well known are Tintin and The Smurfs.

Outside the entrance to the Belgian Comic Strip Center
All Tintin, all the time.

Mural on a building.
As in all European cities, there are many old churches. St. Michael's Cathedral was built between 1200 and 1500. St. Nicolas' Church has been rebuilt several times due to battles fought in the area. And the gothic Notre-Dame du Sablon Church (below) retains some of its original stained glass windows.

The Museum District is home to many types of art collections. At the top of the hill overlooking the city is the Place Royale, with a statue of Godfrey de Bouillon, who led the first Crusade.

In this area are the Musical Instrument Museum, the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts of Belgium and a museum dedicated to the art of Rene Magritte and his followers.

The exterior of the Musical Instrument Museum
"The Natural Graces" by Magritte
"The Bad Doctors" by James Ensor
Near the museums is the Place de Petit Sablon, a small park that features a sculpture of two friends, one Catholic and one Protestant, who were beheaded for preaching tolerance during the inquisition.

As mentioned, this part of town overlooks the city below and offers some great views.

Although only in Brussels for a couple of days, we managed to squeeze in a lot of the key sights in the city and had a great time (for proof, see the upcoming post on food in Brussels).

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June 19, 2018

Paris: City of Art

by Rosemary

The Louvre is the world's largest art museum. It wouldn't be possible to see it all in a day, or even a week. Most people coming here have a few things in mind, and the one thing nearly everyone is looking for is Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." Paper signs throughout the museum help them find the way.

It isn't possible to get close to poor Mona. She's behind a big sheet of bulletproof glass, and a railing keeps visitors several feet away. If you can work your way to the front of the crowd to get a look and snap a picture, Mona is obscured by the reflections of all the tourists ogling her and aiming their cellphones.

In the meantime, the museum has other paintings by da Vinci, hanging in the hallway where you can walk right up to them. This painting of John the Baptist has a familiar look.

Another crowd-pleaser is "Venus de Milo." Somehow we managed to snap a photo that looks as though no one else was there, but there were actually hundreds of people crowding around.

The Louvre was once a royal palace, and it still has those impressive ceilings.

The Louvre was renovated in the 1980s, and a new entrance, the "Louvre Pyramid" designed by I.M. Pei, was added.

The many hours we spent at the Louvre were just the beginning of our art tour. Our next museum was the Orsay, a former train station that now holds one of the world's largest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, as well as many other works by (mostly) French artists.

Vincent Van Gogh and a starry night.

For something completely different, there is the Pompidou Centre, a repository of modern and contemporary art. We liked this one:

"Chopin's Waterloo" by Arman

Unfortunately, the Pompidou is mostly about the kind of thing that convinces people modern art isn't really art. It seems that museums never get tired of insulting our intelligence with things like this:

It doesn't matter who painted it or what it's called.

The Metro station near the Rodin Museum contains a preview, reproductions of two of Rodin's most famous sculptures, "The Thinker" and "Monument to Balzac".

The Rodin Museum is housed in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin had his workshop for several years. There is a large sculpture garden, and the rooms contain most of Rodin's works, along with his collection of impressionist paintings and other items. Rodin often made many copies of the same sculpture, sometimes in different sizes or groupings. A small version of "The Thinker" appears near the top of "The Gates of Hell," as do many others of his notable works.

The Petit Palais may not be as well-known as some of the other art museums, but it houses an excellent collection of paintings, sculptures, furnishings, and art objects.

After more than 250 years, this ornate clock still keeps accurate time.

We took some time to relax, sitting in front of this Claude Monet painting of sunset on the Seine.

We took a day trip to the Palace of Versailles, once the principal residence of French kings (a long line of guys named Louis). After the French Revolution of 1789, most of the artwork was moved to the Louvre, and the furnishings were auctioned off. Restoration of the palace started in 1892, and is ongoing. The museum has spent a tremendous amount of money to repurchase as much of the original furnishings as possible. Versailles is a hugely popular tourist destination, so crowded that at times it is difficult to move through the rooms.

Hundreds of tourists line up, eager to get inside.

The apartments are lavishly decorated.

The crowd slowly makes its way into the Hall of Mirrors.

This is how the French royals liked to see themselves.

The gardens of Versailles cover nearly 2000 acres and include formal gardens, groves, lawns, fountains, and sculptures.

Back in town, art was on display seemingly around every corner.

"Triumph of Silenus" by Aime Jules Dalou in the Luxembourg Gardens.

The gate to the Palace of Justice.

Charles de Gaulle, strolling along the Champs Élysées.

The Arc de Triomphe (under renovation, like so many structures we saw).

"La Marseillaise" by François Rude, a sculpture on one of the Arc's pillars.

Nymphs on the Pont Alexandre III.

The goddess Victory atop a pillar at Place du Châtelet.

Fontaine Saint-Michel.

Stained glass dome in the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann department store.

Capital of a pillar in the church of Saint Germain des Prés.

Statue of Voltaire, somewhere near the Left Bank.

Sainte-Chapelle, completed in 1248, still has about two thirds of its original stained glass.

Carvings inside Notre Dame cathedral depict scenes from the life of Jesus.

We were surprised to see that the stained glass windows inside Notre Dame can be opened for ventilation.

We spent two busy weeks in Paris. Perhaps we'll have the chance to come back someday soon to enjoy even more of this great city.

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