Art, food for life

Aesthetically Rich

Art, food for life

It is a city where every third, if not second building is a work of art. Whether it is the stock exchange or the Grand Place, the Guild Houses or the Town Hall, each structure has been put together with aesthetics in mind. Not surprisingly, it was a haven for writers, actors and artists in the past century.

Persecuted by the intolerant rulers of neighbouring countries, they took refuge in this beautiful city, beautifying it further. The city has played host to the likes of Karl Marx and Victor Hugo, who, when chased out of their countries, sought refuge in Brussels. It has also served as transitory home to other famous French exiles like Jacques-Louis David, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire Auguste Rodin and Paul Verlaine.

Undoubtedly, the city of Brussels is high on all things arty. Like the narrow streets of Montmartre, St Catherine and St Géry, the watering hole of artistes. All people young and the hip, head for this area during evenings to drink and debate on issues like creativity. It is said that everyone who is anyone in Brussels gathers at the place du Chatelain on Wednesday nights for a drink.

In awe of the architecture

Well-Crafted The Karel buls Fountain in  Brussels. Photo Tanushree Podder Belgians have three passions — beer, French fries and comic strips. That’s my take on the city. Since I am a diehard fan of Tintin, I couldn’t resist a visit to the city on a cold, icy morning of February. When I heard about the Comic Strip Museum, which is one of the 80 museums in the city, I knew I had reached the right place.

Located in an art nouveau building designed by Horta, the Comic Strip Museum is an enlightening experience. Browsing through the exhibits I learned all about comic strips and emerged a much wiser and knowledgeable person after the visit.

The wind howled menacingly as I sauntered towards the Grote Markt (Grand Place), which has been described by Victor Hugo as the most beautiful square in Europe. It turned out to be that and much more. Flanked by the magnificent guild houses and a quaint belfry, the medieval square has been the heart of Brussels for centuries.

The Gothic Town Hall with numerous sculptures studded on its façade is definitely one of the finest buildings in the area. The spire topped by the archangel Saint Michael appears to plunge into the clouds hovering uncertainly above.

My numbing fingers thrust into the pocket of my coat, I walked into the Brussels City Museum that occupies a prime spot opposite the Town Hall. Although known as the King’s House, it hasn’t been occupied by the royals. The building is also called Broodhuis or Bread House as it was occupied by bakers at one time.

Through a collection of ancient maps, paintings and remnants that spoke of the city’s history, I walked towards the magnificence of Breugel the Elder’s 1567 creation — Cortège de Noces.

An amazingly rich array of tapestry covered the walls and I couldn’t help drawing my breath sharply. They were so beautiful! It is said that during the late 15th century stretching up to the 18th century, Brussels was the hub of tapestry weaving in Europe.

For these centuries, the art of tapestry weaving continued to be the biggest source of revenue for the country. They adorned the walls of European castles and courts. Belgians take pride in their tapestry and laces as much as they do in the art and architecture of their cities.

Some of the tapestries are based on famous paintings of Rubens. A striking series of four wall tapestries depicting ‘The legend of Our Lady of the Sablon’ caught my attention and I found that they were based on Van Orley’s paintings. The rich blue, red and brown colours of the weave are as brilliant as they were eons ago. Surprisingly, such work of art is exhibited in the same building as the extensive wardrobe of Mannekin Pis boy in a room on the third floor of the museum.

Back in the square, I stared at the incredible beauty around me. The striking Hotel de Ville with a statue of St Michael on top, the ornate Guild Houses, the towering spire of a church, the scene was right out of a postcard. These beautiful Guild Houses owned by rich and powerful merchants were the first stone houses to come up, before them, houses were constructed of wood.

Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, these houses did not have numbers, just names. There were few stone houses and most people could locate a house just by its name. On the Grand Place, the names of the houses are often indicated by a little statue or a part of the decoration. The richer the Guild became, larger and grander became their houses and the town square grew more flamboyant.

I wasn’t surprised when I learnt that each year a floral carpet of 8,00,000 flowers of begonia transformed the square of the Grand Place into a beautiful tapestry. The entire 3200 square feet of the cobbled stone was covered with brilliantly covered blooms. My experience of Belgian tapestry had made the information credible.

What surprised me though, was the fact that a visitor could walk into The Royal Palace and saunter through the throne room, appreciating the enormous bronze and crystal chandeliers and other priceless collections, for free. No admission fee here. But you have to be there a few days after the national holiday when the palace opens its doors to the general public.

Tale of the French fry

It would have been blasphemous to leave Brussels without enjoying the French fries for which it is famous. More surprise awaited me! French fries are not French in origin, the owner of a café informed me. They have been invented in Brussels. “The phenomenon of Fries began in the 1700s,” the round-faced waiter educated me.

“Most Belgians loved eating tiny fish, which they fried and ate whole.  The frozen rivers in the winters made it impossible to eat fried fish so they found an alternative. They ate fried potatoes instead,” he added But then, why are they known as French fries, I asked.

He appeared annoyed at the suggestion. “Though the French disagree about the origin of fries but our fry became the French fry only during World War I. It was the French speaking Walloons who did the harm. They introduced the US soldiers to the delicacy, and those fellows assumed the fries were French in origin. (The Walloons, who live in Belgium’s southern provinces, are the country’s French-speaking inhabitants.)”

“But, you cannot compare it with ours,” he added emphatically,  serving me a platter of fries. To his credit, they were the best I have ever tasted. Chastened but happy, I walked out, determined to make the best of the remaining hours of the evening.

Traipsing through medieval streets, lively squares, beautiful boulevards, stunning architecture and an idyllic setting. I understood why Victor Hugo had called it the most beautiful square in Europe.

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