In the Low Countries: Belgium
The main aim and greatest satisfaction — besides beer and chocolates — of our recent visit to Belgium and The Netherlands was place sensing, which is much more than “site seeing.” Place sensing means taking in the smells, from rancid frites to flowers, fish and sea brine; the sounds of gutturals and oddly twisting vowels and unexpected outbursts in people’s conversation; the startle of bicycles whizzing past when you are about to step in their path; the feel of the cobblestones, bricks, or gravel, beneath your feet; the humidity, temperature, force and fragrance of the breezes against your face; the clomping of klompen on the square in front of a klompen-maker’s stand.
Absorbing all these sensations made all the other things, the monuments, mansions, museums, the paintings by the Bruegels (father and sons), Bosch, Rubens, Rembrandt, Mondriaan, Magritte and many others, and all the extraordinary history of these two small countries, once world-powers and still potent globally, vibrate as they may have for the people who made them. And it makes much more understandable the novels of Simenon or Herman Koch or the lyrics of Jacques Brel.
Among my other aims was better to understand that history. Today Brugge (an old Flemish plural of brug, bridge) or Bruges (in French) is a quaint medieval theme park, whereas in the 13th and 14th centuries it was one of the most powerful and prosperous cities of Europe. It takes some effort of the imagination, but not a lot, to see those traders busy in the square before the imposing and ornate palaces of those times, or bargemen transporting woolens and other goods along the canals and passing under the many bruggen.
In Brussels I discovered (thanks to my architect traveling companion) Victor Horta, one of the principal inventors of art nouveau at the end of the 19th century, a radical break with bourgeois design traditions. His house is now a museum, displaying the intelligent and exquisite design of the building and its furnishings, but most impressive to me was learning of his design of the Maison du Peuple, headquarters and education and recreation center of the Parti Ouvrier Belge (POB), forerunner of the Belgian Socialist Party. The radical bakers and other workers’ associations invited Horta to design their new center, built between 1896 and 1899, because his work was so “non-bourgeois” and also because he was known to be a socialist sympathizer. This magnificent, enormous and innovative structure, with theaters and meeting rooms, offices and shops and sports centers, foreshadowed the ambitious workers’ centers later constructed in the heady, innovative days of the Soviet Union. Alas, because of international turmoil (including two world wars) and internal tensions and changes in the workers’ associations and needs, upkeep was abandoned after its first decades and, instead of being restored, it was finally demolished in 1962. It should be studied by anyone interested in creating public spaces of multiple uses.
Discovery of that history led us to take the metro to Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, today famous as the breeding place of jihadist terrorists but in our experience, a bustling but quite tranquil community where people in North African or hipster European garb intermingle with no visible tension. And where, on 78 quai des Charbonnages along the kanaal, the first cooperative bakery was established in 1891, becoming the original center of the Parti Ouvrier Belge: the place the party outgrew when it moved across the canal to build the Maison du Peuple. By the way, we found a very good and cheap little café there, Le Phare du Kanaal, the mix of French and Flemish in its name continuing in its menu offerings.
We also enjoyed a meal on Brussels’ Grand-Place, in the tavern that was once known as Le Cygne (the swan), where in 1847 young (29 at the time) Karl Marx reworked a thesis by his still younger (27) comrade Friedrich Engels to produce the Communist Manifesto, and in 1885, representatives of a hundred or more workers’ organizations founded the Parti Ouvrier Belge that would later commission Victor Horta to build their maison.
Much else occurred on the Grand-Place, once the center of guild activity, site of the Hôtel-de-Ville and of decapitations of leaders of the Belgians’ 80-years war (1568-1648) against Spanish rule. Today, though, it’s filled with tourists using the magnificent façades as backdrop for selfies; real power has moved to another distant neighborhood, where the European Parliament sits. Important and imposing buildings, but not nearly as interesting in design as Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple.
From there, we traveled northward only a short distance to The Netherlands. More on that in a coming note.