Spent last weekend in Brussels and fell madly in love with it. In part this is because I finally had some decent weather there — at least for the first day and a half, and then it started pouring rain, weather that I'm sure was sent south by the Dutch :) — and in part because I could speak the language. (To my surprise, a couple I was chatting with one night at dinner asked me if I were from Brussels, leading me to wonder whether I speak French with a Belgian accent???) But mostly I adored the city because of its sublime art and architecture, its charming and welcoming residents, and finally — which those of you who have followed my blog posts in the past will recognize as the real clincher — because the cuisine is merveilleuse. Seafood and chocolate are the pièces de résistance but there are also other enticements like white asparagus, which was fortuitously in season, pastries, and beer, which is not really my thing, but I did try a couple of the >250 varieties they make there. Brussels is old, old — the earliest beginnings were markets in the 10th century — and one feels it everywhere, especially in the Grand Place, the main square of the old city, which may be the most impressive I've ever seen. The first permanent structures were indoor markets built in the early 1200s. Commerce flourished, and around 1400 construction was begun on the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), a church-like structure surmounted by a delicate spire topped by a gilt St. Michael so high up you can barely make him out. This bold assertion of secular power by the politicians of the day was countered in the early 1500s by a duke who built the trying-hard-but-not-nearly-as-splendid Palais du Roi across the way. Take that, you commoners, with your delusions of grandeur! Except the commoners had the last laugh. Flanking City Hall and the palace are the trade guild houses of the archers, boatmen, haberdashers, carpenters, coopers, tallow-makers and bakers, all trying to outdo each other in opulence. The all-important brewers guild still occupies its original digs today.
Photos: One of the many tempting shops lurking around every corner in Brussels; a Belgian meal that made me absurdly happy; the commanding Hôtel de Ville; a few of the guild houses in the Grand Place (the one with the gold statue on top is the brewers, which shows you how much they value their beer!)
I only had time for two museums in Brussels, the Palais des Beaux Arts and the Musée Magritte. The Beaux Arts houses all the important Flemish art from the 1400s to the present, plus other European works. There's a room with 20 Rubens, plus some terrific Van Dycks, Hals and Jordaans (a distant ancestor, perhaps?). All the reproductions you've seen of Jean-Louis David's Death of Marat can't possibly prepare you for the impact of the original in person. Another revelation for me was Bruegel II, the detail of whose work is absolutely mind-boggling. Who would have that much patience in this day and age? Certainly not me!
I particularly enjoyed the Musée Magritte. There, as with the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, you are immersed in one artist's life and work and brought to a gradual understanding of his creative trajectory. Interestingly, there isn't a single guy in a bowler hat with a green apple in this museum; Magritte's most commercially successful paintings are elsewhere—the Louvre, the Met. But here you get to see the whole arc of his work, so much of which was unfamiliar to me. He was also quite an abstract thinker and a bit of a poet, and his inspiring words are inscribed on the walls of every room. I tried to take a picture — sans flash — of one of Magritte's quotes, and a guard came over to me and insisted I erase it from my phone and watched while I did it!
That episode aside, it's stunning to me how vulnerable these irreplaceable works are here in the Netherlands and Belgium, compared to say, museums in NYC and Paris. The paintings are right there in front of you, no barrier, maybe they're under glass, maybe one guard for every three rooms. It's like looking at incredibly beautiful naked people. On the one hand it's thrilling, because you can get so close to that beauty, can put your eyeball right up to the brush strokes that give them life. But on the other hand it's terrifying, because you're so acutely aware of their vulnerability to some maniac like the guy who savaged Rembrandt's Night's Watch with a knife. (Which I saw, at the Rijksmuseum, and which they repaired for the most part, though there's one place where you can still see the slashes, like wounds.)
I'm writing this my last night in Holland. I'll be glad to go home tomorrow, despite the many beauties I've seen here. Between the solitude and the weather it has been a challenging couple of weeks. But I've met some truly lovely people, including my neighbors, who have invited me for drinks twice and are now insisting on taking me to the airport tomorrow, and a charming friend of my first love from my college days, who took me last night to his fabulous restaurant in the country...in his Maserati. Ha! In my next life, I would like this car. Maybe by the time I get around to my next life (because I feel sure I have a lot of work, maybe centuries of it, to do before I earn that privilege), artists will be driving the Maseratis and businessmen will be driving the Kias. You think? No, me either...but we all have to have dreams.
Photos: The WC at the Musée Magritte; my favorite Magritte at the musée; a view of the city from on high, near the royal palace; St. Catherine's church; my car in my next life.