Waffles, chocolate, cobblestone streets, grand plazas. Brussels is my kind of town. The city was my final stop on a recent, whirlwind tour of Belgium. The train to Brussels from Ghent was a quick 40-minutes and before I knew it I was checked into my hotel, The Dominican. Originally built as a Dominican Abby in the 1500s, the building was also once home to the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David from 1816-1825. As I rode the elevator to my room, a soundtrack of chanting monks filled the air. A peacefulness prevailed in the property of 150 guest rooms and suites, and the main floor was dedicated to an airy restaurant and bar where remnants of the Abby’s cloistered halls remain.
It was Sunday and I was determined to see as many galleries as possible since they were all closed the next day. After purchasing my Brussels City Card, I made my way to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium.
The Old Masters Department was breath taking. I started off in the Bruegel Box, a room where the 16th century artist’s paintings were projected, one at a time, on three walls. Standing in the centre of the room, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the villagers of his painting Proverbs then surrounded by demons from The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Wandering through the galleries I saw many of Bruegel’s works, as well as those of Jacque-Louis David, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. It was rather overwhelming and once I had completed the round I headed next door to the Magritte Museum to take in a totally different creative talent.
René Magritte was a surrealist well known for his paintings of pipes and men in bowler hats and much of his work was done between 1940-1965.
Brussels is very walkable, much of the historic downtown is pedestrian only and everywhere there is something to look at, from the statue of the little boy peeing, to The Grand Place, or central square with the commanding Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels and the opulent guild halls, sparkling with touches of gold paint.
After living and breathing Brussels for a day, I needed sustenance and headed to Bonsoir Clara for a little refreshment. A popular spot with locals, the menu featured Belgian/French cuisine with dishes such as terrine of duck foie gras, shrimp croquettes, salmon tartare, panfried baby sole, and rack of lamb. I wanted to go light that night and opted for the avocado, smoked salmon and goat cheese salad which was divine.
The next day I engaged a walking tour guide named Paquita who met me in the hotel lobby. She informed me that the city historically had been know for its woollen goods, especially tapestries. Our first stop was the Cathedral (officially known as St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), a mammoth structure with an interior of white stone that was filled with light.
Most impressive were the stained glass windows, some done by Bernard van Orley in 1537. “He was the master of the master Bruegel,” Paquita explained. The Brabant Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1226 with the choir and various part came later including the stained glassed windows from the 16th century, the pulpit (carved from one giant piece of oak) in the 17th century, and the carillon in 1975. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte are just two of the world renowned figures to have passed through its doors. “To prove they were humble before God, they both used a small side door,” said Paquita on our way out, pointing to a shabby brown wooden entrance now permanently locked.
The next church on our tour was Notre Dame de Chappell, where Bruegel the Elder is buried. Getting in the spirit of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program, the church has hidden small figures, recognizable from Bruegel’s paintings throughout the church. It was so funny to see the sombre Catholic statures of saints bedecked with these funny characters, including a blowfish, a male figure relieving himself on the moon, and a little round frog-ish imp scampering up a ladder. We also saw some of the same figures at the train station!
Needing a little warm up, Paquita took me to one of her favourite coffee and chocolate shops, Laurent Gerbaud, where you get your pick of a handcrafted chocolate to go with your beverage. Fantastic!
My final dinner in Brussels was at Henri’s, a tiny chef-owned operation where I was able to sit by the kitchen window and watch the action. I opted for steak frites and it melted in my mouth.
Belgium far exceeded my expectations. There is a lot more happening in the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program with new visitors’ centres and exhibits popping up until well into 2020. If you get a chance, go! Check out the Visit Flanders website for more information. Visitflanders.com