This was our first visit to Brussels and we did enjoy it. Our apartment was centrally located, about a block away from the Grand Place. We had an impressive apartment and worried about the next place. Will it be as good? No problems here as our apartment was a large open penthouse apartment, centrally located. Living in the apartment for a week was a warm experience. No barren "corporate" space here. If felt we were invited to be in a home with personal touches. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was the wall of photos.The owner picked up the photos from a local photographer. The photos were images of various locations in Brussels. Thee inspired me to search out various locations in Brussels and to consider how the photographer had approach the captured the scene. Bravo Bruno!
King Leopold III commissioned the building as part of the hosting of the 1880 National Exhibition. It was not fully finished in time, and later, the city was less enthusiastic to finish it due to the costs. Thankfully, the King kept pushing on and it is a stunning structure. I was lucky in that some clouds were moving into the area and that would increase my long exposure options. Getting there was easy, I took the Metro to the Merode station and then walk up from behind to approach the Arch. What I found is that the scene was far too cluttered, and when I returned on another evening, getting off at the Schuman stop and photographing from the front is the better choice. As it was early June, sunset was close to 10 pm. It made for late nights! On my first visit I was able to get a couple of long exposure shots in, but a light rain moved in ending the long exposure work.
Galeries Saint Hubert
The galleries were built in 1847 and are located not far from out apartment and the Grand Place. Being there early in the morning, or late in the evening is very pleasant. During the day, however, expect large crowds. But, that is true about all great locations! I have a very enjoyable breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien in the gallery. You can sit at a large wood table, international news papers are laid out, and they bring your coffee, juice, croissant etc over to you. Let's loose this line-up and carry away approach to food.
Catheral of St. Michael and St., Gudula
Brussels has two distinct areas. The lower, older section, where the Grand Place is located; and a higher and newer (18th C) section where the royals and nobles lived. The Cathedral is in the lower historic center of Brussels. Its massive, but very peaceful early in the morning. It was built at the beginning of the 13th Century, and it took about 300 years to complete. During 1983 and 1989 it was completely restored. Even though the church was built over 300 years ago, it only was provided cathedral status in 1962.
A great way to see Brussels is to ride a tram. It is a bit more controlled as you know you are going to follow the tracks, and rather than an underground metro, you get to see lots. I rode Tram 82 which covered a fair amount of territory. I came across the Petit Sablon Square. It is a small garden with trees, hedges, flowers and statues. This was the former site of the Saint John Hospital Cemetery until it was moved. The garden opened in 1890 and unfortunately was locked the morning I was there. But, despite that I was able to walk around the square, a city block, and experience what it is famous for, the statues. The wrought iron fence is beautiful, no ugly chain link fence here. It is similar to the fencing at Coudenberg Palace. Of not is that along the fence are stone pillars, each different, and each a different statue on top. In all there are 48 statues that stand along the pillars. Each statue reflects a historical profession, such as Tiler, Clockmaker or Tinsmith-Plumber.
Grand Place at Night
Grand Place is the the town square, and it is ranked as one of the most beautiful squares in the world. I support that claim. It is impressive. Once you get over the crowds (unless you arrive very late at night or early in the morning) you can admire the guildhalls, the City Hall with its soaring tower, the King's House, built so as to not be undone by some city hall, and the Maison due Roi which was an early condo - seven homes look like a single structure.
Old England Building
Brussels is known for Art Nouveau architecture - a style of architecture that was popular between 1890 and around 1910. Think of curving lines, use of industrial materials such as steel (industrialists like this style), large windows and the use of floral and nature decorations.
Since one of the leader of Art Nouveau is from Brussels, I took a walking tour to see some of the work of Victor Horta. This one a "free" walking tour. But as they said at the beginning, it is not really free. You are expected to pay at the end of tour. I was glad to do so. It was an informative tour. One of the buildings of note is the Old England Building - a former department store (1899) and now a music museum, that is classic art nouveau architecture style. The wrought iron, large arched windows, and flora decorative touches were impressive. The tour primarily primarily focused on the upper part of the town, in a residential area with a number of hotels, homes of nobles, that were designed by Victor Horta or other leading art nouveau architects.
We had planned day trips from Brussels. There are three train stations, we were closest to the Central Station. Most trains pass through all three stations (North, Central, Midi), however, the majority of the high-speed international trains leave from the Midi Station.
There is a good rail network from Brussels and in very little time you can be just about anywhere. This really struck home when we left Brussels and arrived in Paris in 1 hour and 22 minutes. Hell, we would still be going through airport security!
Now the trains to cities around Brussels do not move quite that fast, they are frequent and in under an hour there are plenty of options.
Antwerp Rail Station
One of my photography themes for this trip was to capture images from great railway stations. Antwerp is know for it Central Station, considered to be one of the most beautiful stations in Europe.
Antwerp is about 150 km from Brussels. There are trains almost every 30 minutes and trip takes about 40 minutes. I found a pleasant surprise. If you travel on the weekends, the tickets are almost half-price. Consider that for some of they day trips from Brussels.
The Antwerp Central Train Station, known as the ‘iron cathedral’ is considered as one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world. From the range of stations I have seen, I endorse that statement! The station was awarded a Grand Prix at the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards in 2011. I felt like I walked off the train into a cathedral. Not only is the facade facing the tracks (pictured above) enough to blow your sock off, when you enter the main hall, it is likewise impressive. Probably the only thing that is less desirable is the set of stairs to lug up your luggage!
The station was built in 1895. There are three levels of tracks. The building was designed by architect L. Delascenserie from the city of Bruges. The interior has more than twenty different kinds of marble and stone. I will be posting a gallery of images on my photography travel site - My Travelling Lens, within the next month or so.
I was in Antwerp on a Sunday, so all the stores were closed, but the city had a great feel and it was good to be in a location where I did not feel the tourists were taking over. I also visited Rubens’ House one of the masters of Flemish art. His 17th Century Italian house and gardens are right in the center of town.
Another structure I wanted to photography is the Port House. This is a building on top of a building. Architect Zaha Hadid designed the new building to sit on top of the historic Port Fire hall. The building houses some 500 employees. The challenge presented in the competition for the new building is that the historic Fire hall had to be preserved and integrated into the design. Here was a case where a new tower did not emerge from the facade of a historic building, but rather, it sits on top.
The building appears to float above the Fire hall. The triangular glass panels are to remind the viewer of diamonds, an important part of the history and commerce of Antwerp. The exterior changes as the light changes.
I started walking out to the port. My Google Maps told me it would be a 45 minute walk. I thought that was doable. Along the way I saw the tracks for a tram. I got on the No 7, luckily you can buy a ticket from the driver, and with another tram change, got fairly close to the Port House. It was about a 20 minute walk. Once I was there I realized that the best view would be from the other wise of the channel, but getting back and around would be a challenge. So, as all photographers have to accept, you work with the view you got.
The Dock Yard House was a tram and walk, but again, here was a unique structure where the original fire hall building is a heritage site, A new office structure was built on topm perches ona pedastal. The structure of glimmering glass to given recognition to the diamon industry the city if know for.
Monday was a holiday, and we were concerned about the number of tourists that could be visiting Bruges, so we decided to travel to another planned destination, Ghent. We took a train from the Central train station. There were trains almost every thirty minutes and it took about 30 minutes. Do check the schedules as the "milk run" trains will stop at every town and the trip can take considerably longer.
Ghent is the largest city, and capital of the East Flanders province. In the Middle Ages, Ghent was one of the richest cities in Northern Europe. Today there are about 270,000 people leaving in the overall city, but the historic centre is compact and easy to walk about. The town started with the founding of two abbeys in 650. By the 13th Century, Ghent was the second largest city in Northern Europe, ranking next to Paris. I think it was the textile industry that drove the growth of the city in the 19th century. Although it was occupied during World War II, luckily, it escaped destruction with most of the medieval architecture remaining intact. Famous moments? Well in 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war between Britain and the United States.
We arrived at the Saint Peters train station. I did not find it remarkable so it will not make my rail stations of Europe photo collection. We caught a bus and travelled to the historic centre. You could walk from the station to the center, but it is not that itneresting and would take about 20 minutes or so.
We had a good lunch, although be careful when you order "the local gin" rather than say, Gordon's. There is typically quite a price jump. $20 for a gin and tonic before lunch! What? No beer? Well I had a beer with our morning stop.
We opted to just walk around the town and enjoy the views, but there are churches and museums to visit as well.
As we told people of our trip to Belgium, the common message way, of course you are going to visit Bruges. Well of course we would, but we were worried about the impact of tourism and we did not want to be shuffling along in a mass of tourists. We avoided the weekend, the holiday Monday, and on the Tuesday was took a train from Brussels Central to Bruges. There are so many trains you can just show up at the station, check the schedule of trains to to various places and find a train that includes Bruges. About every 30 minutes you have an option.
Bruges, located about 100 km from Brussels, is called the "Venice of the North". Bruges has maintained its medieval appearance and the historic center holds UNESCO status. In the 12th to 15th Centuries this was a major port, but gradual silting started to close access to the sea. A major store in 1134 blew things open and that helped to maintain its port. But by the 15th Century silting had its impact and Antwerp became the major port. During World War II the city was occupied, luckily with no destruction, and it was liberated in 1944 by Canadian troops. Starting around 1965 major restoration work took place, and now, the city provides a great experience to walk about such an historic center - it is considered one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe.
We walked about the town, took shelter during an afternoon rain, and had a very good lunch at the Brasserie Souffleur, Vlamingstraat, 58. It is located right across from the City Theatre.
Not only were we impressed with the architecture and the feel of Bruges, but the worries of being overtaken by tourism were not needed. Yes it was busy but it was an easy town to walk about and enjoy.