BELGIUM – A visual and gastronomic feast!

 Elizabeth Handley visited this country filled with treasures.


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Basilica of the Holy Blood  Detail – Mary: Sir Anthony van Dyck Church of St. Nicholas

My Belgian adventure began with my flight from Heathrow to Brussels, during which I caught brief glimpses through the clouds of red-brick settlements scattered amongst bright, spring-green pastures and narrow canals. The cherry trees were ablaze with abundant pink blossom, and I met the rest of the group at Zuidstation (Gare du Midi Zuid) in Brussels, and from there our cheerful coach driver, Guy, took us to the first stop on our itinerary, Louvain (Leuven).

This little town began as an encampment established by Julius Caesar in around 57 BC, and during medieval times it became a significant centre for the cloth trade. In 1425 Pope Martin V and Count John of Brabant established a university here, and during the 16th century such illustrious figures as Erasmus (a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher and theologian) and Mercator (of map fame) studied here.

The weather was most unfortunate during our entire five-day tour, with rain, drizzle and wind bedeviling our peregrinations through these quaint medieval towns. We strolled through the precincts of the Groot Begijnhof or Béginage – the homes and domestic quarters of the Béguines on the banks of the River Dilje: charming, red-brick cottages, dating mostly from the 17th century, set around grassy squares and cobbled streets. I was struck by the simplicity of the area, and its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere. In 1961 it was taken over by Louvain University, and provides an academic sanctuary for the students of theology, in particular.

Leuven_BeguinageIn Louvain we passed St. John’s Church, within the Béguinage complex, and then entered the massive St. Pieterskerk, which was begun during the 1420’s, and has an impressive Baroque wooden pulpit depicting the conversion of St. Norbert. The church also houses the Religious Art Museum, which contains three exquisite paintings by Dirk Bouts (1415-75), including his magnificent 5-part altarpiece, The Institution of the Holy Sacrament (1464-8).

I had not realised that Belgium is a predominantly Catholic country, unlike its Protestant northern neighbour, Holland, and in each church and cathedral that we visited, numerous fabulous works of art – particularly from the Renaissance and Baroque Eras – are to be seen.

Our walk around the old town centre, which includes the splendid gothic Stadhuis (town hall), was our introduction to what was to be a series of marvelous civic buildings, representative of a proud and impressive civic culture: magnificently ornate town halls, guild halls, and government buildings.

Bruges_-_Beguinehof_garden          Bruges_-_Groeningemuseum

Bruges – Beguinehof Garden and Groeningemuseum

The ladies who lived here, known also as Beguards, belonged to lay Christian religious groups which were active from the 12th century, and who lived in secluded, semi-monastic communities, but without formal vows. This was often the only refuge for widows and their children during the Crusades, and subsequent wars, plagues and tribulations which characterise European history. They also performed good works in the community, such as nursing, taking care of the destitute, and teaching.

Most Béguine convents in Europe disappeared during the 16th century Reformation, but Begijnhofs continued to thrive in Flanders, especially in Bruges and Ghent. (The name is thought to derive from Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liège who in around 1170 preached the establishment of an association of women devoting themselves to a life of religion without taking monastic vows. Opponents of Bègue’s idea called these women Beguines. Other derivations may arise from Saint Begga, or from a supposed Old Saxon word beggen, “to beg” or “to pray”.)

If an extremely intense dose of art history, laced with wide observation and profound analysis, is your scene, then this is the sort of tour for you. I had never been to Belgium before, and such was my introduction to this country, so rich in musical and cultural history.

Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1565) Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder


Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1565) Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder

I returned from another marvelous cultural feast, this time focusing on the Flemish School of Painting. We were accompanied by a most efficient young tour manager, Sarah, and Emma Rose Barber – an art historian and lecturer who specialises in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. She is a lecturer at SOAS, The Open University and the University of Kent, and the continuing education department for the University of Oxford. She was hitherto head of History of Art for the British Institute of Florence. She obtained her MA in Renaissance Studies from Birkbeck College, and is currently researching for a PhD on the Mediaeval Wayfarer. The latter refers to the tiny cartouches and insets surrounding medieval Psalters, which feature travelers or “wayfarers” in medieval Europe. I established that these largely forgotten characters also include the troubadours, trouvères and minstrels who disseminated news and stories in the form of song, long before the days of printing, newspapers and television.

Here, during the 15th century early Renaissance, the immensely wealthy Burgundian Dukes rose to prominence. They were avid collectors of beautiful things and generous patrons of the arts, and became so powerful that they threatened the very legitimacy of the Kings of France. Based in what is today Belgium and Northern France, they ruled over vast territories and owned many magnificent chateaux, and sponsored fabulous works of art in every known field of their day: music, painting, architecture, lace-making, tapestries, religious paraphernalia, and exquisitely illuminated manuscripts – musical, sacred, and secular, and fine cloth made from English wool – the primary source of their enormous wealth.

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Duke Philip the Bold and John the Fearless



From Duke Philip the Bold (d.1404), to his son John the Fearless (murdered in 1419), his grandson Philip the Good (d.1467), and great-grandson Charles the Bold (killed in 1477), these immensely rich men fostered the arts in a manner comparable to the Medici in Florence and the other wealthy merchant-princes governing the city states of Renaissance Italy. Charles’s only child, Mary of Burgundy, who married Maximilian – Regent of The Netherlands, and their son, Philip the Handsome (d.1506), were also tremendously rich and powerful characters. They married into the illustrious royal families of Europe, and sponsored such brilliant artists as the van Eycks and the Brueghels, and Rubens and van Dyck.

Self Portrait of Sir Anthony van Dyck

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The Adoration of the Magi and The Peasant Wedding: Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder

The 15th century also saw the flowering of the Burgundian School of composers, featuring particularly Gilles Binchois (c.1400 – 1460), Guillaume Dufay (c.1397 – 1474), Antoine Busnois (c.1430 – 1492) and John Dunstable (c.1390 – 1453). Other significant Franco-Flemish composers – not household names to be sure, but also brilliant in their field – were Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac and Johannes Ockeghem.

These musicians established a school of composition and musical performance of such superior quality that theirs was regarded as the style to emulate throughout the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. They consequently occupied all the most important musical posts in Europe – a situation that endured well into the 16th century. They were succeeded by the Italians, who set the example for the next two centuries, until they in turn were eclipsed by the German school, who predominated during the Classical and Romantic Eras.

The Italian Renaissance was of course also well under way at this time, centering around such courts as the merchant families of the Medici in Florence, the Sforzas in Milan, the Gonzagas in Mantua and the d’Estes in Ferrara, who were governing the various city-states in the Italian peninsular.

Belgium, too, was not the united country it is today, but a patchwork of self-governed provinces, such as Vlaams-Brabant, Brabant-Wallon (from whence my father’s family originated), Hainault and Antwerpen. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels became great centres of trade and merchant banking, and among the most prosperous and progressive cities in Europe. They were ruled successively by two of the most illustrious European dynasties – that of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the house of Habsburg – in both its Austrian and Spanish branches. Like their Italian counterparts, these cities were virtually independent. Their flourishing cultural life, financed with the profits of the cloth trade, sustained one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of art.

The Golden Age of Flemish painting took place in roughly three phases, beginning in the early 15th century with the works of the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Known as the “Flemish Primitives”, their consummate skill with the new art of oil painting resulted in pictures which have never been surpassed for their rich, luminous colours and, for those days, incredible naturalism. They were the envy of the Italians, who flocked to the region to study their style and techniques. The tradition of exquisite workmanship was continued by such masters as Hans Memling in Bruges, and with greater emotional content by Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, and Hugo van der Goes in Ghent.

Hieronymus Bosch was an individualist who specialised in the depiction of the diabolically grotesque, and from whom the Surrealists took their inspiration during the last century.

During the sixteenth century, the second phase was marked by the emergence of Mannerism, with its sophisticated elegance and displays of virtuoso skill. Spiritual tensions, reflecting the rising tide of Protestantism, are also reflected in the art of the age, as well as bold representations of the human form. Significant at this stage was the prolific Breughel family, who exerted the most influence during the16th and 17th centuries.

Perseus-and-Andromeda-detail-of-Pegasus          King-Solomon-and-the-Queen-of-Sheba-1620

Perseus and Andromeda, detail of Pegasus: Peter Paul Rubens

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba 1620: Peter Paul Rubens

A magnificent culmination was reached during the seventeenth century with Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest painter of the Baroque age – equivalent to the musical virtuosity of the new school of violin playing, which was promoted by the famous lutiers – Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri, and the great virtuoso performers of the day, such as Vivaldi and Corelli.

Rubens’s works are of an unsurpassed vitality, painted with a breadth and bravura which exploited to the utmost the potential of the technique of oil painting. His magnificent, enormous canvasses reminded me of the extravagance of the new Baroque form of opera, and the florid masterworks of George Frederick Handel. (Bach and Rembrandt, the conservative Protestant Northerners, are usually coupled together, in this context – and Bach composed no opera).

Our_hotel_-_Gent_BelfortExhausted by our journeys from various far-flung destinations (mine was Cape Town), to congregate together in Belgium, Guy then drove us to our hotel in Ghent, the NH Hotel Gent Belfort (, where we spent all four nights of this tour.

Each of the evenings was spent enjoying a splendid three-course dinner – although I could have done without so much food, or the inordinately long delays between courses which resulted in an unnecessary late night every night.

We set out on foot for Restaurant Blauwe Zalm (Blue Salmon) where we were presented with a set menu beginning with a delightful little plate each of amuse-bouches: white asparagus, a herring-and-beetroot toothpick snack, and samphire and tapioca cream with shrimps. This was followed by a seafood waterzooi (Belgian stew with mussels), and a light nouvelle cuisine round sponge cake topped with a scoop of orange sorbet. This pleasant and light but filling meal was accompanied by white wine and mineral water, and concluded with coffee or tisane (herbal tea).

The second day of the tour began with an excellent breakfast in our Ghent hotel. Guy told us that a typical Belgian breakfast consists of freshly baked bread with ham or cheese, or croissants with honey or jam, reflecting the French influence. This is accompanied by hot chocolate, or “lots of strong coffee”. I was more than happy with our hotel’s buffet breakfast, offering all manner of cereals with fruits and yoghurt, breads and bakes with preserves, cold cuts, and the usual hot cooked items. Novel for me was bowl of “flat cheese” – rather like plain yoghurt, the waffle iron, with accompanying batter-dispenser, and the do-it-yourself egg-boiler, with eight attached timers, and eight small wire plungers. Bowls of fresh fruit made it easy for guests to pop a piece into their bags, for a much-needed snack later in the day.

GhentBreakfast was followed by a short lecture, in the hotel, delivered by Emma Rose. Her subject was the themes relating to Flemish painting: the techniques used, realism, how their work was received elsewhere, and the role of the artists with respect to their membership of guilds. Their subjects were principally birth and death, water and fire, baptism and torture – the subject matter mainly religious. They reflected the luxury, wealth and consumerism of their rich patrons in their marvelous rendition of rich clothes, fabrics, objects and textures.

Bruges and Ghent had at that time just the right “ingredients” and atmosphere for fostering the arts:

extremely wealthy patrons – both noble and bourgeois and the spirit of competition and connoisseurship among them to amass the best collections of beautiful things.

(There is no documentary evidence that Duke Philip the Good actually commissioned van Eyck’s works, but we do know that he was responsible for the Duke’s lavish wardrobe, and went upon a proxy pilgrimage to the Holy land for him – an interesting relationship indeed.)

Significant too is the Flemish painters’ portrayal of “gormlessness” – the seemingly uninvolved, bland countenances of the observers and participants in each painted scenario. We could not help but notice the apparent indifference of bystanders at crucifixions, torture sessions and other ghastly medieval activities.

The secrets to the gorgeous luminescence and the variety of textures in their work lay in their use of oil, especially linseed (flax seed) oil, (though safflower oil, or the more traditional walnut or poppy seed oil, were sometimes used in formulating lighter colors such as white). They also used organic colour pigments, obtained from natural materials (plants and fruits), and a final coating of varnish finished off their work to perfection. The result were works comprised of many layers upon an oak base: ground white chalk, animal skin and glue, plus the pigments themselves. This meticulous mode of construction is reminiscent of the Cremona violin makers, and their “secret” varnish ingredient, which is said to produce the unique and incomparable tone of their stringed instruments.

imagesMost Renaissance sources, in particular Giorgio Vasari – an Italian painter, writer, historian, and architect – credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck (c.1395 – 41) in particular, with the “invention” of painting with oil media upon wooden panels. But Theophilus (possibly Roger of Helmarshausen) clearly gives instructions for oil-based painting in his treatise, On Various Arts, which was written in 1125.

Van Eyck’s religious art skillfully renders, through bodily forms and symbols, great devotion and piety.

I particularly enjoyed the tiny vignettes inserted into many Flemish paintings, to which Emma Rose drew our attention – a technique derived from manuscript illumination wherein it was traditional to incorporate additional infinitesimal scenes into the bigger picture, within tiny architectural spaces – such as gothic windows, or archways – decorating and sometimes commenting on the bigger picture.

This was their economical and skillful way of organising the pictorial space. It also gives their pictures depth, the viewer’s eye travels far into imaginary landscapes of fantastic cities, winding rivers, and mountains. The optical perspective employed therein, as in the main subject itself, was achieved without the geometrical rationalisation perfected at the same time by the Italians, and this in part explains the appellation of this very sophisticated Flemish painting as “Primitive”.


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Broederlam HausBroederlam Gesicht

series5Melchior Broederlam (c.1350 – after 1409), one of the earliest Netherlandish painters, and also an illuminator under the patronage of Philip the Bold, arranged his paintings into compartments in which his figures are set, and also used egg tempura. And so I became obsessed with finding and scrutinising miniscule horsemen, saints and martyrs, landscapes and buildings, within these minute peripheral vignettes.

This school of painting became known as Ars Nova, or the “New Art” Form, and the contemporary equivalent in music, which was given the same name, referred to music of a more complex polyphonic texture – and consequently, of a richer sonority. As Gothic cathedrals reached higher and higher towards the heavens, so light and colour entered the music and the art of the age, bringing joy and comfort to the viewers of long ago before an age of film and “home theatre” (TV and DVD’s.)

The en grisaille technique was also much used by the 15th-century Flemish painters. Literally, “in grey-ings,” it is the technique of painting with a palette limited almost exclusively to shades of grey. The absence of colour draws increased attention to form, and results in a kind of painted sculpture. Examples of its use date back to the 14th century.

There were basically three “outlets” by means of which these painters could market their works. The first was through the guilds to which they belonged, and under the protection of which they went through the passage from apprentice to journeyman to Master, receiving in its course a thorough training. But this was somewhat restrictive, as the guilds did not encourage self-promotion. One could be a court painter, which offered a secure, life-long commitment to a wealthy but dictatorial patron, and later there were the open markets – literally open air markets – in which sales could be brisk, but they were at risk of fraudulent copies and uncertain payment.

I could not help comparing this predicament to that of composers and musicians under the same patronage system for centuries, living vicariously at the beck and call of eccentric and unpredictable patrons. It was the ideals of the French Revolution, and their realisation in practice by innovators such as Beethoven, that swept away the system of aristocratic patronage – though what replaced it – the patronage of bureaucrats and billionaires – has not always been more conducive to artistic freedom.

Thus girded with the appropriate art-historical knowledge, we visited what became for me the highlight of the tour: the famous altarpiece in the side chapel of the Ghent Cathedral, St Baafskathedral, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (completed 1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck – one of the greatest cultural treasures of Northern Europe, and as such, safely ensconced behind bullet-proof glass.

Consisting of 12 panels altogether, this work is an expression of one of the deepest beliefs of the Christian faith – that human salvation lies in the sacrifice of Christ, the “Lamb of God”. I was already familiar with three parts of this masterwork: the full-bellied Eve in her own panel on the right – representative of the Northern European Renaissance ideal of beauty – and the two musical panels, one featuring angels singing the polyphonic music which flourished at the Burgundian courts of the day (some clearly straining to reach the high notes), the other a group of angels playing various musical instruments: a portative organ (played possibly by St. Cecilia – the patron saint of music), a viol, and a harp, respectively. These images can be found in most picture books about early musical instruments.

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Het Gravensteen Castle

The rest of the morning was spent walking through the picturesque historic centre of Ghent, over bridges spanning the river Scheldt and canals, and passing the guild halls Graslei and Kornlei, and the Groot Fleeshuis (Great Meat Hall), the Belfort (Belfry) and Het Gravensteen (the castle) – a formidable grey stone fortress evoking medieval tales of knightly chivalry, and grisly Germanic legends. The Belfry has a carillon of 54 bells, and throughout our visit to all these picturesque old Belgian towns, bells rang out with mellifluous regularity, to mark each quarter hour of the day.

St. Niklaaskerk, a fine example of “Scheldt Gothic”, was built by the merchants of the town during the 13th and 15th centuries, and was dedicated to their patron saint, St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (also known as Santa Claus). It has a large square tower-steeple with four fairytale turrets at each top corner, and the interior is a magnificent ornate space, with soaring columns brightly lit by high stained-glass windows. The extravagantly Baroque altar screen harmonises surprisingly well with the rest of the interior, the whole impressing the viewer with the exhilarating sensuousness of Counter Reformation piety.

Lunch was spent at a brasserie with my new companion, Joan – an outspoken, silver-plaited, emergency-room nurse and avid art-lover – enjoying Ghentse waterzooi – a delicious local dish made from chicken, leeks, celery and carrots in a thin creamy- yellow sauce (gravy), garnished with parsley, and served in large flat porridge bowls, with slices of fresh crusty bread, and butter.

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However, it took so long for our meal to arrive, taking up a considerable portion of our “free” lunch time, that the next day I bought a ham and cheese baguette, which I ate while wandering through the fascinating little side streets and alleys of the towns, marveling at the mouthwatering window displays of gorgeous Belgian chocolates and confectionery (a few of which I had bagged for “dessert”), and fabulous hand-made lace.


On every corner there were waffle stalls, offering these freshly made griddle-cakes, with ice-cream, whipped cream, fruits and chocolate sauce.

Our next town was Bruges (Brugge – “bridges”), a beautiful old town which grew around a 9th century fortress, built to defend the coast against the Viking invaders. Picturesque medieval buildings line the narrow cobbled lanes and meandering canals in the historic centre. The tourist coaches must stay in perimeter parking lots, and the town centre reached on foot, to preserve its ancient buildings and tranquility.

This town became one of Northern Europe’s most sophisticated towns, and enjoyed a golden age from the 13th to the 15th centuries, as merchants – enriched by the cloth trade – lavished their fortunes on fine mansions and magnificent churches and civic buildings.

There we saw the magnificent Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), which houses tombs of the Valois dukes, and Michelangelo’s lovely serene marble Madonna and Child (1504 – 5), and the Groeninge Museum, which has a wonderful collection of paintings by Van Eyck and other Bruges painters.

I had not expected to see a similar degree of gruesome religious imagery in Belgium as had challenged me in Milan last year, but rather the gentle Madonna-and-Child Flemish works, and calm Northern landscapes of my art books. Instead I was confronted with the same horrifying panoply of flagellations, flayings and slayings, all featuring the indifferent gormlessness of the onlookers about whom Emma Rose had spoken.

Gerard David’s diptych, The Judgment and Flaying of Cambyses (1498), was one such example, in which the deadpan, disengaged, inattentive faces of the participants contrasted sharply with the agonized expression on the corrupt, tortured judge’s face, and the naturalistic representations of the dogs in the paintings, one of which is depicted licking its rear-end, another scratching its ear with its back paw.

Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with the Canon van der Paele (the commissionaire of the work) (1436) is remarkable for his rich rendition of cloth and textures: voluminous, plush flowing robes of silks, brocade and velvet, edged with splendid gems, St. George’s chain mail and shining metal armour, and the exotic oriental rug – all the stuff of wealthy merchant life, and indeed showing to great effect the rich fabrics of the current predominant trade.

Hans Memling’s (c.1433 – 94) Triptych of the Family Moreel (1484) is significant for being the first group portrait in Flemish art history. It features about a dozen daughters with their mother, and St. Barbara with her tower on the right, and six sons with their father and St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and of herbs, on the left. Not all these offspring would of course have survived until adulthood, but a record of them was thus kept, nonetheless.

Gerard David’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450/60) features Christ knee-deep in water, and a fantastical inventionist background landscape rich in foliage, trees, fairy-tale castles, and rocks – no such rocky outcrops exist in Belgium. But the effect is quite theatrical, the dramatic landscape foreshadowing some Baroque opera sets.

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Archangel Michael: Hans Memling ca. 1433 – 1494                         Young Man at Prayer c. 1475Hans Memling

Bruges, with its extensive and picturesque red brick streetscapes, bridges, canals and River Dijver, is the loveliest of Netherlandish cities. It was through these little streets that we walked to the mediaeval Sint-Jans Hospitaal (Hospital of St John), now a museum devoted to Hans Memling, also called Musea Brugge, and containing many of his best paintings and objets d’art. The latter includes a beautiful oak reliquary dedicated to St.Ursula, which is constructed to look like a Gothic chapel. A mixed-media objet d’art, i oil-on-wood panels thereon feature the martyrdom of the English saint, Ursula. The reliquary was commissioned for the St. John’s Hospital by two nuns, Jacosa van Dudzeele and Anna van den Moortele, who are portrayed at one end of the reliquary, kneeling before the Virgin Mary. X-rays apparently revealed under-drawings, rendered in black chalk.

Many of these religious works of art served as a stimulation to prayer. I enjoyed Emma Rose’s approach during this tour; she avoided the kind of pictorial bombardment that results in mental indigestion; instead she would choose from five to a dozen paintings and focus on them in depth and detail.

I was thus able to enjoy, and learn much from, two other Memling works in that museum: a diptych of Our Lady and Maarten van Niewenhove (1487), featuring the patron, and the triptych The St. Johns’ Altarpiece, featuring the St.s John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. This picture is iconographically very rich, packed full of Christian symbolism, such as St. Catherine with her wheel, and St. Barbara with her tower – their respective instruments of martyrdom. I also enjoyed the way in which so many of these Flemish painters included musical instruments in their paintings, indicative of the active musical life in that region at the time. This particular painting (like the Ghent altarpiece) included an angel playing a portative organ.

Lunch at a brasserie on the town square with my companions offered typical Belgian fare: shrimp croquettes, fish soup, large black enamel pots of mussels marinière (in a cream and garlic sauce), or poached in beer, served with French fries or rice, or rabbit with kriek. Desserts offered in these set menus were “carpaccio of pineapple” with kirsch and vanilla ice-cream or a waffle dusted with sugar. Eager to spend little time eating, and more time exploring, I had a quick monkfish and tomato soup with shrimps and croutons, served with little bowls of finely grated cheese and mayonnaise flavoured with paprika, and a freshly squeezed orange juice.

All around me were the sounds of merry carillons of bells, the cooing of doves, and the general hubbub of tourist throngs, jostling and scurrying through the narrow cobbled streets. Tourists have been visiting this town for centuries, as a 14th century phrase book attests. Good walking shoes, for the uneven surface, are vital, as are sufficient Euros in what is one of the most expensive destinations in Europe.


Other wonderful sights in Bruges included the Markt (market place), which is surrounded by attractive, gaily painted medieval gabled houses, and which still holds weekly markets, and the soaring 13th century Belfort (belfry). The beautiful Gothic Stadhus (town hall), completed in 1375, has an intricately carved façade, and houses the famous Gothic Hall. This fabulous large space has lavishly ornate walls and ceilings which include 16 corbels bearing representations of the seasons and the elements. 19th century murals portray significant events in the city’s history.

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Brussels Town Hall                                                        Museum of Musical Instruments

Another very special visit was to the Heilig Bloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood), which holds one of the most sacred reliquaries in Europe: a phial supposed to contain a few drops of the blood and water washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea, and brought here from Jerusalem in 1150. I joined a long line of pilgrims to see and offer a quick prayer before the glass casket containing this precious Christian object, carefully overseen by a woman in religious garb, whom I would have taken for a priest had this not been a Roman Catholic house of worship.

The Bruges Begijnhof is also interesting – a walled complex of quiet, tree-lined canals faced by white-gabled houses and lovely gardens full of spring flowers and new-green leafy trees. The lay sisters who founded this community in 1245 lived and dressed like nuns, but did not take vows. They were thus able to return to the secular world at will.

The continuing dreary weather, with rain and wind, was relieved by pleasant vistas of cherry blossom, and beds of brightly-coloured tulips. Such were the sights that enlivened the cold grey environment as we made our way to our last stop for the day – the St Salvaters-Kathedral, in which minor restoration work was taking place. The cavernous interior is quite plain, except for a handsome set of Brussels tapestries hanging in the choir, and an organ built in 1682 and adorned with angels. An organ lesson taking place that afternoon, and it was interesting for me to watch the teacher beating time, while his young charge ploughed his way through Bach and Buxtehude.

headerAfbeeldingDinner that night was at the Restaurant ‘T Klaverblad (The Four-leafed Clover), and began with a delightful platter each of appetizers: a tiny shooter of vegetable soup, a cup of lobster cream, a spicy chicken satay soaked in sweet chili sauce and rolled in sesame seeds, and a salmon roll containing shrimps. The official entrée was smoked salmon and shrimp cannelloni, followed by a pork fillet with pepper sauce, new potatoes and vegetables. Last but not least was a delicious dessert of zabaglione with fresh berries and vanilla ice-cream. Tantalizing for the tastebuds, but ruinous to the waistline.

Martin Randall Travel aims to provide an unrivalled level of quality and service for our clients at every stage of a tour or festival, from the initial enquiry to after the event”. Such is the Credo of MRT, and with which I wholeheartedly agree.

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– Read Part Two –

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