Category Archives: Belgium

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s down the coast we go…

HOPPING ALONG

Monday-Friday. May 13-17, 2019

Favorable winds from the north encouraged us to leave our adopted Dutch country and head down the southern part of the North Sea. As opposed to doing one long overnight passage we decided to do daily hops of 40 to 60 miles, landing us in a new port each night.

Covering miles only during daylight made it a heck of lot easier for coastal sailing. If sailing at night, I’d rather be out in the middle of the ocean:  when you see a light, there’s no question it’s attached to a ship, oil platform, or UFO. When you’re near the coast it could be an onshore beacon, street light, reef, or even a low-flying airplane (which occurred in 2004 sailing by Boston’s Logan Airport…).

As our AIS shows, we were amidst a lot of ships,

some requiring a close watch, the ship named CAUSEWAY being one of them. According to the CPA (‘Closest Point of Approach’) of 0.0 miles, if neither of our courses changed in the next 3.7 miles, we’d see a bold ‘Collision warning!’ flashing on the screen.

By the second day we’d established a routine of rising, checking the wind forecast, reviewing the currents and tides as well as shipping lanes* then heading out of the harbor to follow the coastline south and west.

* To facilitate  commercial traffic while lessening the chances of collision with pleasure boats the authorities have established shipping channels, typically a lane in each direction with a TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) in between. To accomplish the fastest crossing of these lanes, we need to do so at a ninety-degree angle. And, trust me, when crossing the lanes extending out of Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, we wanted to be on the other side of them as quickly as possible. You can see the solid line of ships heading south in one of the AIS photos above.

With only a few, all-weather ports (many man-made) along this stretch of the coast we based our selection of marinas on their ability to accommodate our 2-meter (6’ 6″) draft and the ease of entering and exiting the harbor (strong currents can play havoc when docking and undocking). For three mornings we exchanged one port for another:  Scheveningen (Netherlands) for Zeebrugge (Belgium) – the teal blue dot is where we docked;

Zeebrugge for Dunkirk (France)–the green is where JUANONA was,

and Dunkirk for Boulogne Sur Mer (France), not to be confused with Bologna, Italy…

It got to the point where I’d wake up and try to remember the previous port’s layout by visualizing the dock, and the toilet-shower facilities.

A ritual we carry out at sea is exchanging one country’s courtesy flag (flown on one of our spreaders) for another’s. In this case it was our Dutch flag

for France’s.

Having covered a fair bit of miles in three days and seeing the favorable forecast of northerly winds continuing for a few more days we decided to stop for 36 hours in Boulonge, a port other cruisers had recommended.

Being one of the few American boats around we managed to attract the attention of the French law enforcement. Four officials boarded the boat upon our arrival in Boulogne, and for an hour they perused our paperwork trying to decide if we needed to pay V.A.T. on JUANONA.*

* Just to give you a quick synopsis of issues facing foreign boaters in European waters, we would have to pay a 20% Value Added Tax (basically a sales tax) on Juanona if she had been in the European Union for more than 18 months. The only way to avoid this tax is by taking her to a non-EU port (which is why we always touched the coast of Norway prior to returning to an EU country).
On top of this is a restriction on foreigners themselves in Schengen countries (currently, all EU and Scandinavian countries except for the UK). If you’re not a Schengen resident, then you’re only allowed three months within those countries; and, once you’re reached that limit, you have to leave and not return for three months.
These regulations mean your boat is allowed for 18 months and yourself, three. You can see how tricky of a dance this is if you plan to cruise these European waters.
By obtaining temporary Dutch residency in the Netherlands, Max and I are considered Schengen residents. And, thanks to the advice of fellow cruisers, Gus and Helen Wilson, we were able to temporarily import JUANONA into the EU. Due to those two actions we’ve protected ourselves and JUANONA from the EU and Schengen restrictions.
However, the French customs officers weren’t familiar with the Dutch paperwork stating we had temporarily imported JUANONA into the EU, thus the hour sitting in our cockpit trying to decipher another country’s government form.

It all ended well with their providing us a French document approving our temporary import. Since 2014 we’ve been boarded five times by custom officials:  twice by the Brits, once by Germans, once by the Dutch, and now by the French. And, we were hailed over VHF by the Norwegians.

As the French Customs officials were leaving I realized I had actually seen them as we made our way south. Fortunately they didn’t board us then as it would not have been fun maneuvering, especially for an hour…

Like most European cities and towns we visit, Boulogne’s history includes centuries of different occupants who desired this strategic port. Situated at the mouth of the Liane River, the Romans called it Gesoiacum. Later it became known as Bonoia and switched hands often:  Normans destroyed it in 882; it was rebuilt in 912 and became a desirable harbor for the Burgundian Dukes, then French kings beginnng with Louis XI in 1477; England got hold of it in 1544 after a two-month siege and ruled for a short while before it reverted back to France in 1550 via the Treaty of Boulogne. Napoleon used this as his headquarters when planning to invade England (but didn’t); and, the British used it in WWI; the Germans overtook this port in the 1940 Battle of Boulogne just a few weeks before Operation Dynamo (evacuation of Dunkirk); finally, the city was liberated in 1944.

We explored the upper city or ‘old city’, which features preserved buildings from earlier times including the fortified gate.

Max, in search of an MDT (Max Disaster Tour), read two reviews saying there’s ‘a must-see’ crypt under the Basilica of Notre Dame de Boulogne.

I joined him for the above ground walk-around but, having read in a guidebook that the crypt was ‘imminently skippable’, I opted out of paying the 5 euro fee to visit below ground.

Considering Max found me down the street within 15 minutes of his MDT, I think the LONELY PLANET guide book provided a more accurate description of that site…

But, the real highlight of Boulogne was a modern building perched above the beach:  a fabulous aquarium.

With a 2018 expansion the Nausicaá became the largest aquarium in Europe. Its mission not only focuses on raising awareness of the marine environment but also encourages action to improve global management of this vital resource. This French National Sea Centre is now a UNESCO site due to its promoting of healthy oceans and seas.

The design of the new Nausicaá replicates a manta ray, although my photo of it as we’re leaving the harbor doesn’t provide the aerial view to show it as such…

The admittance fee of 25 euros each gave us pause, but a second look at recent reviews convinced us to take the plunge. And, we are very glad we did.

We weren’t the only ones anticipating a fun day of exploring the mysteries our oceans.

In spite of kid mobs, who always seem to carry their own peculiar smells and exuberant noise levels,

 

the displays handled crowds well with easy-to-follow signage creating a smooth flow of people throughout the exhibits.

Imagine oceanography, marine biology, and environmental studies combined into one semester of school. That’s what it felt like when peering in the tanks and reading the signage.

The mission of Nausicaá focuses primarily on the relationship between mankind and the sea; and, in each area the aquarium presented the effects of climate change and its disastrous consequences,

while acknowledging those without a political voice or monetary resources are the ones paying the price caused by those with that power.

Yet, as opposed to being totally depressed by the way we’re destroying our world, Nausicaá offers hope in the forms of activism, both on the parts of individuals as well as organizations. For example, a partnership between The Environmental Advisory Company and the Four Seasons Hotels has funded the Reefscapes Programme (at the end of 2011 160,000 cuttings were transplanted onto 200 coral structures).

To encourage visitors’ participation in these efforts, the aquarium provided websites as well as coin drops so visitors could donate to various causes, which we did for one (Andrea, this was for you :).

 

It was difficult to avoid being caught in a hypnoptic trance gazing at tanks populated by ballooning jellyfish…

 

 

and swirling highways of fish,

 

with the pièce de résistance being the soaring ray.

 

All with New Age music (which you can’t hear in my clips) enhancing the otherworldliness in front of us.

We had seen a similar exhibit but on a much smaller scale at the Ozeaneum in Straslund, Germany  last year. There, the focus was on a specific body of water, the Baltic Sea, versus Nausicaá’s global coverage. Both are stellar examples of using entertaining displays to teach those of all ages about our watery world.

From simple explanations of tides…

and displays on oil rigs…

to communing with marine life,

we found ourselves stopping at almost every display, only skipping those geared towards young children, with one exception as seen in the top photo of this post…

The exhibits did include flora and fauna associated with the water but not necessarily in it. One being the stick insect hiding in this photo.

This aquarium would be worth seeing just to surround yourself with fantastical marine life. In one of the largest tanks in Europe we became encased in blue,

with smaller tanks showcasing otherworldly critters, both bizarre

and lovely.

After three house of meandering through exhiibits of above and below the oceans, we reluctantly left.

I find it easy to be overwhelmed by the richness of information available in sites such as these. If we were going to be here for any length of time, I would get a season pass and peruse one small section at a time. Or, simply sit and watch a world swim by.

When leaving the next day it seemed so appropriate that Nausicaá was one of the last landmarks we saw exiting the harbor. A reminder of the precious resource on which we sail as we continue cruising…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One’s downfall is Another’s windfall…

ANVERS in French, ANTWERPEN in Flemish

Monday-Wednesday, April 15-17, 2019

Having left Bruges we headed east to Antwerp. We had come close to touring this city when visiting our Belgium family while checking out Bastogne and  Waterloo in the fall of 2016. But, we didn’t make it as we needed to return to JUANONA to get ready to return to Maine.

This time, Antwerp was our original destination in between boat errands, yet we had added in Bruges because it was close to where we had to be Sunday. The only drawback concerned the lengths of our visits. Both seemed way too brief. We definitely could have enjoyed at least one more night, if not two, in both cities. If you’re thinking of visiting either, add on days!

Because of being short-timers here we wanted to be within easy walking distance of the sites we planned to see. And, we wanted to be able to park the car without having to pay half our room budget. AND, we wanted a comfortable place to crash with good wifi that wasn’t too expensive. Oh, and the ability to make a cup of joe in the morning… Good luck, right?

Well, we found one:  “Because the Night” B&B.

Not only did our room meet all the above criteria but also included one of the warmest and most helpful hosts you could find. Paul and Ann have an inn with three rooms available in a quiet neighborhood close to the city center. He greeted us, helped us park (free on the street!), and spent time showing us the best walking routes to reach our destinations as well as pointing out some good, but inexpensive eateries (one only served spaghetti, and, boy, was it tasty and filling :). In short, we found it the perfect place for our 36-hour touring of Antwerp.

Antwerp is the unofficial capital of Flanders, the northern region of Belgium populated by predominantly Flemish (Dutch) speaking people.

Its name originates (some say) in a legend involving a Roman soldier (Silvius Brabo) and an evil giant, Druon Antigoon, a toll-keeper living in a fortress beside the Scheldt River. Antigoon would cut off the hands of those unfortunate boaters who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the toll and toss the bodiless appendanges in the river. As you can gather, manly Brabo killed this despot and threw HIS amputated hand in the river. Now that’s a helping hand… Thus, the city carries the name derived from the Flemish word (Antwerpen) and Dutch (hand werpen) for hand throwing. Which a statue on the main square commemorates.

Considering Romans settled here in the 2nd and 3rd centuries you can see how this could be true, right? Right.

Skipping ahead 12+ centuries Antwerp became a Spanish enclave after the Netherlands won their independence from the Spanish King Philip II

whose father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, bequeathed him the Low Countries. Catholicism remained the official religion; yet, today similar to many Western European capitals, the city’s population features multiple religious affiliations.

Antwerp’s strength grew out of its opportunistic location of being where three rivers–the Scheldt, Meuse and Rhine–flow together into the North Sea, forming the largest estuary of Western Europe. Its growth as a shipping port, second today only to Rotterdam, began when Bruges’ water access began to silt up in the 15th century. This loss of watery transportation caused merchants and businesses to relocate east to Antwerp (reason for the title of this post). Add in the increased trade due to colonization and Spain’s exploitation of the Americas and you have a booming commercial city. Population grew five-fold from 20,000 at the end of the 14th century to 100,00 in the mid-16th century.

During this economic growth the city’s Golden Age blossomed with the Flemish School of painting. And, for those, like moi, who need a definition of this style, here it is: “Flemish painting is characterized by extraordinary subtlety, attention to detail, vivid colours, and inspired technique.” (http://www.historyofpainters.com)

With such a rich history during the 15th and 16th centuries, it’s not surprising two of the museums we targeted featured amazing feats by two local sons:  a printer and an artist.

But, before we began our cultural experiences we were on the hunt for a good breakfast while walking towards our first site. We reached a small plaza where the museum stood but no cafes seemed to be open with the exception of one, only because he was waiting for a repairman. And, he only served alcohol… He did point us to the other side of the square and down a block, and, voila! the perfect spot for an excellent cup of coffee (or two) and a healthy breakfast of fruit and bread items (my type of meal). Although, Max wasn’t too keen on being the photo subject…

After satisfying our stomachs, on to food for the mind:  MUSEUM PLANTIN-MORETUS.

Two friends had told us about this museum: Seppe, one of our Belgian Family members who visited it with his school group, and Deborah, one of our Dutch Family members who knew it from her touring. Two good recommend-ers.

The name comes from the founding printer, Christophe Plantin (1520-89), a Frenchman who began as a bookbinder and leather maker, and emigrated to Antwerp around 1500, Antwerp’s Golden Age.

He opened his printing shop, Officina Plantiniana, and within 20 years had expanded his business to Frankfurt, Leiden (actually he printed marine charts there), and Paris garnering the distinction of being among Europe’s industrial leaders. He operated 16 printing presses, and the museum’s collection included two of the oldest in the world (Max and I assume ‘Western’ may need to be added as a qualifier)

and employed 50 operators as well as shop assistants.

But, he definitely established a family business which included Plantin and his wife Jeanne Rivière (not the happiest looking creature) and five daughters.

During their childhood he ensured they could contribute to the family enterprise, which also included making lace, with an education in reading and writing and languages. What I found pretty wonderful was the involvement of these women in the business world. One daughter, Martine (1550-1616), begins working in the lace shop and eventually is put in charge.

Another daughter, Madeleine  (1557-99), holds an important position as a proofreader for one of his major achievements, the polyglot Bible (the proofreaders’ room is pictured below and an actual sample of proofing work)

If you’re wondering about the second name of the museum, Moretus, it’s Plantin’s successor:  Jan Moretus (1543-1610). He began work here at the age of 14 and became the boss’ right-hand man partly due to his language ability (he knew Dutch, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French and German) as well as his managerial skills. He also married Martine, the boss’s daughter, with whom he fathered 11 children.

Delightfully, we literally stepped and explored where these families had lived and worked. Over two floors and several hours we walked through this history.

The ground floor included a portrait gallery featuring family faces, many of which were painted by family friend Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). I tired to keep who was who straight but after awhile I gave up and just enjoyed gazing at the actual founders seen above, as well as influential friends, one being Justis Lipsius (1547-1606), a humanist who favored the Roman stoic Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.).

In the painting below Lipsius (in the fur collar) is explaining a classic text with a bust of Seneca in the background and Rubens looking on.

The family kept a study for this guy, which attests to Plantin and Moretus’ honoring intellectual pursuits. Balthasar I Moretus (1547-1641), considered the intellectual of the family, printed Lipsius’ collected works of Seneca with illustrations by Rubens.

Plantin’s belief was ‘With hard work, perseverance and patience one is able to surmount any hardship.’ He did experience hardships throughout his career (one being when he had all his possessions auctioned off due to a run-in with the authorities). Yet, he lived by his motto and continued to build his business with the bulk of the Plantin’s printing featured religion (35%), Humanism and Literation (35%), Science (10%), Governmental publications (8.5%), Pamphlets (4.5%), and Other (7%).

He also knew how to network, acquiring the lucrative contract as the appointed typographer royal to King Philip II of Spain (the one who fought William I of the Netherlands at the beginning of the Eighty Years War). It was with the death of Philip II’s father, Charles V, that helped Plantin establish his reputation with a book covering the 1558 funeral procession (also sold as a 12-meter roll). It was printed in the five languages (Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Italian) spoken in the Holy Roman Empire.

Although he printed for the Catholic King, including the church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1569*,

he also was a businessman who would print competing religious teachings, such as Hendrik Barrefelt’s preaching of tolerance in 1584. But, Plantin wasn’t stupid:  he did so using the pseudonym Jacobus Villanus.

* This listing of banned books began in 1559 and didn’t end until 1966 (!).

In addition to the humanist and religious works the company published atlases by Abraham Ortelius (1527-98). Ortelius first atlas contained 53 maps, growing to 117 eight years later. Because maps were printed individually one could build their own atlas based on which maps they collected.

‘Atlas’, by the way, is a term first coined by Gerard Mercator whose maps would eventually be seen as more accurate than Ortelius’.

Plantin and his successors kept a competitive edge by constantly improving the printed word. He would use engravings over woodcuts to ensure a better quality of illustration.

And, typography was another of the company’s key strengths. He used the best designers for his typefaces (for example, Robert Granjon’s modern Times New Roman and Claude Garamont’s Garamond), and he ensured no other printer could use them because Plantin literally owned the metal type. Eventually, the company had 90 fonts enabling them to print in a variety of languages, which they did:  Latin (62%), Dutch (14%), French (14%), Greek (5%), Spanish (2%), Hebrew (2%), and ‘Other’ comprised of German, Italian, English, Old Syriac, and Aramaic (1.8%). The typefaces were stored in large wall drawers.

Balthasar, mentioned earlier, went one step further by building a foundry which operated between 1622-60 and 1736-60.

A staff member–who saw us peering at minute type with quizzical expressionswondering how the hell did they do that?!–

kindly explained some of the printing and fonts. He asked us why capital letters were called ‘upper case’? It’s because they stored those less-frequently-used letters in the upper case of the cabinet holding the alphabet of a particular font.

To ease the arm movement of the typesetters they placed the most commonly used letters in the lower center to avoid unnecessary movements.

Plantin’s masterpiece was the Biblia polyglotta or Biblia regia. Under the sponsorship of King Phillip II (who sent theologian Benedictus Arias Montanus to overseer it), this work composed of eight volumes gained international fame. An original set shows the interesting clasps used to bind them.

During our wanderings I discovered quite a few business women assisted in running this business, such as Anna Good (1624-1691)… Anna Maria de Neuf (1654-1714) who grows the business during difficult times… and, Maria Theresa Borrekens (1728-1797) who married François-Jean Moretus.

Nine generations of this family managed to produce amazing work. Edward Moretus (1804-80), grandson of Maria and François-Jean mentioned above, publishing the last book, the breviary of Saint Francis. He sold the house and contents, including a rare musical instrument–a combination of  a harpsichord and virginal (one of the only four known in the world),

to the city who, thankfully, turns it into a museum.

By now my eyes are rolling sloppily in my head and I’m feeling very, very uneducated and, definitely, not very linguistic. But, wow, did this museum exceed all expectations.

It wasn’t all serious pondering. We managed to get into the spirit of it all when I persuaded Max (didn’t take much) to don an outfit of the time…

After lunch at a laundromat (great idea and one my sister and a friend almost started),

we headed for our second museum of the day, RUEBENSHUIS. In actuality, a mansion.

Unlike Plantin’s abode, Peter Paul Rubens’ home didn’t survive the four centuries without major renovations by subsequent owners. The only remaining parts are those Rubens, himself, commissioned:  the garden portico and the garden pavilion, heavily influenced by his study in Rome.

Yet, the ‘house’ Rubens inhabited beginning in 1610 until his death 30 years later definitely felt like he’d been there.

Although he was born to a Calvinist father who fled with his family from the Southern Netherlands to avoid religious persecution, Rubens was raised a Catholic (his mother’s religion) after his father’s death in 1587. With a classical education and apprenticeship to Antwerp’s leading artist, Otto van Veen (1557-1629)– one of Ruben’s earliest paintings (of Adam and Eve) reflects van Veen’s influence with the use of cool blue and green color hues as well as a more static background –

Rubens eventually left for Italy in 1600 where he continued to perfect his talent, marrying the styles of Renaissance to Baroque.

When he returned to Antwerp in 1608 he gained local fame with his 1609 commission Adoration of the Magi for the Town Hall, which found its way to the King of Spain in Madrid in 1628 (now in Madrid’s Prada Museum).

Like Plantin, Rubens obtained the patronage of royalty, the Hapsburg regents Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, enabling him to amass even more wealth. At the time of his death he owned this mansion and several country properties.

His studio became the largest and best known in Europe, helping him to become a superstar at the time of his death.

We learned apprentices would use Rubens’ preliminary oil sketches to do the large scale versions. Then Rubens would fine-tune the most important elements–people and flesh tones. Yet, the master painted the entire piece of his most important commissions.

One of his most successful apprentices was Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) who became more of a collaborator with Rubens as opposed to pupil. Later considered a rival to his teacher, Van Dyck became a court painter to Charles I in London, who knighted him in 1632. Below is a portrait by van Dyck.

Royalty is definitely one’s ticket to success…

We meandered with a small booklet through rooms showcasing a variety of paintings, Rubens’ as well as his contemporaries’.

Later, in reading about this artist it’s not surprising he became a friend of Plantin and other famous residents of the city. Rubens spoke five languages, was a scholar, a humanist, a diplomat and possessed extraordinary energy.

Speaking of energy, ours was flagging. We had filled our heads with the art of printing and of oil painting, both fields represented by two genuises, one I had heard of and one I hadn’t. Time for that full plate of spaghetti, bed, and home to JUANONA.

With a stop for a libation

in the shadow of the cathedral,

we slowly strolled back to our B&B stopping to gaze at some art along the way.

Unfortunately, we missed touring a third site on our list, the Red Star Line Museum covering the emigration of several million folks to Canada and the United States between 1837 and 1934. We learned afterwards what a mistake this was when two friends told us how rewarding their visit thad been.

Next time, for Antwerp along with Bruges and other historical, thriving places are on our list for repeat visits.

Now, back to JUANONA and prepping her for summer cruising… and a visitor!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Venice of the North

BRUGES in French, BRUGGE in Flemish

Sunday-Monday, April 14-15, 2019

To make the most of our out-of-town boat errands we sandwiched between the tasks two Belgium cities we wanted to explore:  Bruges and Antwerp. We had visited the former when visiting with our Belgium family (Ta, Koen, Seppe, Frieke, & Wannes and pup Cuba) in 2002. But, Max didn’t feel well, it was cold, and early Christmas shoppers packed the streets. And, we had missed Antwerp in our previous travels, making it now a prime destination before starting summer cruising.

So, off we drove early Sunday morning, first dropping off Scandinavian cruising guides to some friends in Blankenberge, Belgium then to Bruges.

This once-fortified city was one of the richest in Europe during the Middle Ages thanks to the trade of cloth. And, the city wears this mantle of medieval entitlement well, starting with its stately buildings

and scenic canals, which give Bruges its well-earned descriptor Venice of the North*.

*Another nickname this city earned is Brugse Zotten (The Bruges’ Crazies) from the time of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). Due to his having been held captive here for four months, he denied Bruges the right to hold fairs. The residents tried to appease him with a huge party in his honor. In addition to being allowed to have fairs again as well as levy taxes, the townsmen requested the right to build a madhouse. Reportedly he replied, “Close all the city gates and it is a madhouse”. By the way, the local beer is called Brugse Zot and, since the early 2000s, is sent by pipe out of the city to be bottled, as we saw in the Brewery’s floor.

For an excellent background of Bruges during its medieval period read Dorothy Dunnett’s eight-book series THE HOUSE OF NICCOLIÒ. I hated reaching the last page of the final book. Frankly, I think it would rival “The Game of Thrones” if someone managed to translate her story into a TV show.

But, you can see Bruges on the screen in the film noir “In Bruges” with Colin Farrell. Definitely another worthwhile view of this town, although we later met two travelers who hated it, so consider my recommendations as very subjective.

The history of Bruges and the province of Flanders becomes clear as mud when you start reading about the power struggles between various rulers and wanna-be-rulers over control of this European territory. So, below are excerpts providing a glimpse of this city’s past:

  • The site began as a landing on the Zwijn estuary of the Reie River (Bruges’ name is derived from a Roman bridge over the river). Later flooding of the area created channels as well as a link to the North Sea and an opportunity to increase trade.
  • The town later served as the fortification of Baldwin the Iron Arm (love these names), the count of Flanders, against Vikings/Norman invaders in the 9th century.
  • The House of Burgundy entered into the picture when Count Louis II of Flanders’s heiress Margaret III (1350-1405), the last Countess of Flanders, married Philip the Bold (1342-1404), the youngest son of French King John II and Duke of Burgundy.
  • Due to its monopoly on English wool (considered the finest grade) used in the weaving of Flemish cloth, Bruges became one of the richest European cities during the 13th- and 14th-centuries, along with nearby Ghent and Ypres.  With such a reputation, it’s not surprising to hear of the royals purchasing Flemish tapestries to warm their damp and chilly castles. Some of the most famous and stunning ones- black & white as well as full color -are the Jagiellonian tapestries ordered by Polish Kings Sigismund I & II in the mid-1500s for their Krakow royal residence, the Wawel Castle. Out of the approximately 170 made, miraculously over 100 still remain.
  • The city’s wealth led to internal struggles including one between the guilds and the governing power, resulting in the Brugse Metten (Bruges Matins) May 18, 1302:  guildsmen murdered anyone who couldn’t pronounce the Flemish phrase ’schild en friend’ (shield and friend). A statue in the main square memorializes the two leaders of this revolt, Pieter de Doninck (head of the Weavers Guild) and Jan Breeder (head of the Butchers Guild).

  • Bruges, whose status in the cloth trade attracted the attention of the economic powerhouse, the german Hanseatic League, joined this commercial organization in the 14th century.
  • In the 15th century the Dukes of Burgundy helped foster Bruges’ trade dominance. Not only aristocrats and merchants prospered but also artists, such as  Jan van Eyck (1370-1441) who became the court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467) (not sure why he acquired the nickname ‘the good’ but I did read he had at least 18 illegitimate kids so he was obviously good at something besides begetting riches).
  • But, just as water positioned Bruges as a vital trading port on the North Sea, it also took this gift away when the Zwijn waterway began silting up. The Hanseatic League moved to Antwerp with merchants soon following, and by the end of the 15th century Bruges slipped into dormancy.
  • The Eighty Years War (1566-1646) between the Spanish rulers and the Dutch created a split between a Protestant secular governance in the Netherlands and a Catholic royal rule in the Spanish Netherlands (basically, present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and a part of northern France).
  • Bruges began its revitalization in the 1800s when wealthy tourists discovered this idyllic city wreathed by canals.

  • Spared during German occupations in WWI and II Bruges became a UNESCO site in 2000 and was designated the European City of Culture in 2002.
  • In 2015 the city hosted 7.8 million tourists. A bit overwhelming considering only 20,000 of the just under 120,000 residents inhabit the city center.

Okay, I’m finished with the history lesson, now off to explore.

With less than 24 hours to see the sights we booked a room within easy walking distances of the sites, which isn’t difficult since one can cover the whole area within two hours of walking. We quickly stashed our luggage and exited into medieval times.

Believe it or not, we didn’t tour many museums because we wanted to simply soak up the ambiance during our short stay here. Which meant we strolled the streets in spring sun beginning in the Markt, (the main square) where the Halle with its famous, 83-meter (272 feet) belfry stands.

The belfry was added in 1282 with the octagonal upper section completed 200 years later.

With 366 steps to climb we opted out of that exertion but did peek into the courtyard

and snapped a photo of a photo showing the view if we had climbed all those steps.

Similar to other cities we’ve toured a small carnival plopped itself on the main square flashing colorful lights advertising kiddie rides and games.

All a bit surreal against a backdrop of imposing buildings; yet the modern fair added a light-hearted touch to the surroundings dominated not only by the 13th-century Belfry but also the late 19th-century, Neo-Gothic Provinciall Hof (seat of the provincial government).

Spotting a city tour bus

we hopped on for 50 minutes of a bored driver who would pull up to a site, point his arm and let the multi-lingual headphones provide their limited commentary. The only time he smiled occurred as we were exiting next to the tip jar.

Just to give you an idea of the throngs milling about this spring day (foretelling the mob scenes to come as spring turns into summer), I took a photo out of the window:

Not too informative of a ride but it did provide an opportunity for our picking out where we’d want to go next.

And, two sites we selected centered on the importance of religion (not unusual since churches seem to sprout like mushrooms in these medieval towns), the first being Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (aka O.L.V.-Kerk, aka The Church of Our Lady)

Built on a plot inhabited by previous churches (first from the 9th-century, followed by a Romanesque one in the 12th-century) the current structure began 1210 in the Gothic style and continued birthing additional parts (steeple tower, chapels, etc.) into the 16th and 17th centuries. Bizarrely (to me) in the 18th century, after the French Revolution, the church was for sale resulting in the parishioners buying it back.

During the centuries saintly relics, those pilgrim magnets, i.e., money-makers, pumped up attendance and the church’s coffers insuring O.L.V.’s religious importance. But, entering structures of this magnitude with their soaring ceilings and impressive decor, such as the 12 apostles lining the main aisle of the nave, one doesn’t need dead people’s organs to feel spirituality hovering in the air.

Today the church serves as a museum with one of its most notable pieces being the statue ‘Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564). Commissioned by a Cardinal who later became Pope Pius III for the main alter of Siena, Italy’s cathedral, it ended up as a gift by Bruges merchant Jan Mouscron to O.L.V.

Because you can’t get within less than 20 feet of this guarded piece of art (I zoomed in to capture the image above), there’s an unimpressive duplicate, although, that, too, is encased in a glass box. When I noticed Max peering at it, I pointed to the real one. He was happy to hear it wasn’t the original as he didn’t think the copy looked too great. (Nor did this statue replace Michelangelo’s Pieta as his all-time favorite.)

The need for security is understandable considering the statue was stolen in 1794 during the French Occupation, returned in 1816 following the Peace of Vienna, only to be seized by the Nazis in 1945, then found along other priceless pieces of art in an Austrian salt mine. And, it was placed back in its original site for paying visitors to now see.

Other notable work catching my eye included:

two elaborate oaken confessionals carved over two years in High Baroque style (1697-98)…

two ceremonial tombs of Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) who died falling off her horse and whose husband, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Austria (1459-1519), commissioned this tomb in 1502 with her son, Philip the Fair (1478-1506), adding the gilt-work,

all on top of her bricked-in remains (empty burial tomb seen below through glass floor)

and lying nearby is Charles the Bold (1433-1477), Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy, in the other glittery tomb after Charles V brought his remains to Bruges in 1558 and his son,  Philip II (who fought William I of the Netherlands for control of the Low Countries during the 80-year war) commissioned this one in 1562.

Unlike Michelangelo’s statue these monuments were safely squirreled away during the French Revolution only to be returned in 1806, and you could get with ten feet of them…

The pulpit created in the mid-1700s features a woman (‘Faith’) sitting on a globe who’s proclaiming the ‘Good News’ while holding the proverb “Understand what is wise, O ye of little wisdom; listen, and I will tell you many great things; for what passes my lips is righteous and true”, obviously what’s true has something to do with Jesus or God and not advertising Burger King’s Impossible Whopper…

finally, lots of paintings hung on the walls with one, to me, of the most striking being ‘The Crucifixion’ attributed to Antoon van Djick (1599-1641).

 

Of course, we can not not tour something with even a whisper of an MDT (Max Disaster Tour ), and we found one of those in The Basilica of the Precious Blood (a 19th-century photo of this building appears earlier in this post)

The Chapel sits on the 9th-century fortification occupied by the first count of Flanders, Baldwin Iron Arm.

Crusading Count Thierry of Alsace (1099-1168) built a Romanesque, two-story chapel. Dedicated to St. Basil, the lower chapel creates a sombre and muted atmosphere with its unadorned stone walls and dim lighting,

while the upper story, added in 1530’s, matches the exterior with regards to ornate architectual elements. With no flash allowed some of my photos, as you’ll see, are unfortunately blurry but will give you a hint of the richness within these walls.

And, it’s in the Upper Chapel where one can witness and partake of the bizarre, daily ritual of parading past a cylindrical vial holding some of Jesus’ blood; and, those who know me can probably imagine my eye roll at that bit of ‘truth’. But, hearing this event would occur in 15 minutes we decided to take one of the seats in a small area (seen below) off to the right of the main altar (seen above) to get our dose of sacredness.

Supposedly the Patriarch of Jerusalem bestowed this valuable bit of Jesus to Count Thierry, a fanatical crusader, to thank him for his bravery during the Second Crusade (1147-49).

However, later research indicates the relic most likely came to Bruges from Constantinople in the early 13th century. Oh well, at least the Jesus’ blood part is true…

By the time the relic made its appearance on the altar, a guard motioned people, by now standing as well as sitting in front of the altar, to begin lining up one by one. When my turn came I climbed the eight steps or so, approached the relic, smiled at the woman overseeing it, then dropped my eyes to see a stained bit of cloth.

A bit anti-climatic for me but I can only imagine how powerful this must be for those who believe in it.

However, for me, all I can imagine is the power of the all-mighty coin; yet, to be fair, surprisingly we were not charged extra to see the relic.

When not being brought out for 30 minutes of homage by tourists such as ourselves, the encapsulated blood resides in a gold and silver, gem-encrusted reliquary.

The highlight of this worship occurs every Ascension Day (when Christ finally goes to Heaven 40 days after his resurrection).

After our holy episode, it was time to leave Bruge, but not without gazing once more at this sumptuous jewel of a Medieval city and saying to one another, we’d love to come back. Only this time I can skip the blood.

And, that ends our 24-hour stroll through this medieval treasure.

Next, Antwerp!

 

 

 

End of Our November MDTs…

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GHENT (Gent)

Saturday – Monday (November 5-7, 2016)

We were finalizing our MDTs (Max Disaster Tours) with a non-diaster, at least not an apparent one, just the typical Middle Age bloodshed.  We were headed to Ghent, the largest city in Flanders (Belgium) during the Middle Ages thanks to cloth, where we landed for two nights and one full day.

Our hotel, which included a tiny kitchenette, sat conveniently within the historic center one block from Vrijdagsmarkt Square or “Friday Market Square”, so-called from, you guessed it, hosting Friday markets beginning in 1199. Amidst the shops and cafes a pointing statue dominated the square, which turned out to be the city’s famous citizen, Jacob van Artevelde (1290-1345).

Ghent’s ‘hero’ wasn’t a military leader, a royal personage, or religious figure but a businessman. I’ll abbreviate his place in history here because trying to explain who’s who to get to why this, why that is too convoluted for my taste…

You know this area of the world during the Middle Ages was raking in the dough from cloth. So much cash was being generated that Ghent, along with Bruges and Ypres, were floating in wealth. Those making this possible were the Guilds, specifically the Cloth Guilds. They’d import English wool, weave it, and sell it back as finished cloth. A wonderful and tidy circle of funds created a wonderful and productive income for all, well, at least for the owners and higher-ups.

But, inevitably all good things come to a close… and, it begins in 1332 with the Count of Flanders, Louis I, leaving Flanders after choosing sides in a power struggle between two kings , King Philip VI of France

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and King Edward III of England.

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Louis left a power vacuum, and in steps Jacob, a wealthy man, who now becomes a prominent business leader in the city.

But, back to the power struggle… Why the King of England would claim ownership to a French throne is due to an unclear line of succession.  The French King Charles IV died in 1328 without a male heir. There happened to be a widow, but, no surprise, her title didn’t count. Philip, a cousin of Charles IV, however, became regent and was then crowned king when the widow-queen begat a daughter, not a son.

But, whoa, here comes England’s Edward III, King of England as well as a vassal of France (ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066 by William, the kings of England are also dukes of Normandy, which further adds spice to this French-English monarchy stew.) Seeing an opportunity to expand his realm, Edward states his claim to the French throne via his mom who happened to be the daughter of Philip IV, a previous French King.

Well, Philip VI and Edward III ended up sniping at one another resulting in Edward III boycotting Flemish cloth. Well, as we know, money Trumps all. Jacob, the one immortalized in the Friday Market Square statue, convinced the Federation of Guilds to back Edward III. After all, that’s where the all mighty dollar lay (and why this 19th century statue is pointing towards England).

FYI:  Historians say this is the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), a war of constant back-and-forth with England and France fighting over who’s going to sit their royal hinny on the French throne.

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Returning to our rebellious Jacob, he didn’t do so well in the end. He became unpopular among all the Cloth Guilds and ended up being hacked to death by the head of the Weavers Guild in 1345. But, hey, he still has an imposing monument in one of Ghent’s beautiful squares.

Leaving Jacob behind we continued our self-guided walking tour. Ghent is a lovely city but definitely a city with an modern, urban feel if you step foot outside the historic district. Yet, within the confines of the medieval cobblestone streets and squares magnificent buildings abound.

As we wandered around the city we passed by buildings, some easily identified, such as the 17th-century gateway to the fish house featuring Neptune with his trident…

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and some not so easily id’ed such as these frolicking figures danced their way across a roofline (it turned out to be the Mason’s Guild Hall).

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One of the most noticeable buildings is the Cloth Hall and its Belfy. In 1313 the people of Ghent decided to build a tower as a symbol of independence, and the Belfry was constructed. Approximately 600 years later the flying dragon was added to its peak. Remarkably, the civic privileges from 1180 still reside here under heavy guard.

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Another symbol of town pride is the huge brass drum in the belfry belting out tunes.

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We took a stroll around the balcony circling the tower obtaining some city views. Let me rephrase that:  Max took a stroll. I, on the other hand, stuck to the stone wall with my back never leaving it until I scurried from one portico to the next all the time thinking ‘this, too, will pass’.

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A ‘you-HAVE-to-see-this’ piece of art awaited us at the Cathedral of St. Bavo; and, it was definitely worth seeing. “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (the neck-bleeding lamb symbolizes crucified Jesus dying for mankind’s sins) was painted by two brothers, Jan and Hubert van Eyck (1420s-32).


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Jan, whose patron happened to be Philip, Duke of Burgundy, is credited with being the father of oil painting; and, if you’re like me wondering what did they paint with if not oil, it was the ‘tempera method’, pigments bound together with various liquids, the most popular one being egg (to which they would sometimes add myrrh to offset any offending odors…).

To view this momentous work we were ushered into a tiny room, which quickly filled up as more and more visitors filed into an ever-increasingly small space. But, we could still see it, and with an audio guide learned something about this piece of art composed of twelve panels painted front and back. The NEW YORK TIMES recently covered the ongoing restorations, so it was fascinating to see it in person.

With our one, must-see destination completed, we began our walk home taking a back street

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to where we spotted a small courtyard enticing my husband to perform his obligatory peep, this time into a medieval well.

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In another plaza we mingled with tourists and locals alike as the afternoon morphed into twilight.

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And, one of my favorite Belgian works of art tempted us as we slowly walked home…

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The second and last morning we had our first meal out in Ghent (all others being picnic-style in our room). Consisting of dual cups of excellent coffee and freshly baked items, our breakfast not only provided nourishment but also an opportunity for Max to snap me at my best.

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Or, worst, as the case may be. And, just so you know, I haven’t looked this bad on a passage…

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After feasting on freshly brewed java and aromatic croissants we drove back into the Netherlands with a planned stop at an engineering marvel, the Maeslantkering, a moveable storm surge barrier. As one of the 13 components comprising the North Sea Protection Works, this surge barrier is the largest in the world.

A display featured an explanatory exhibit (all in Dutch so we basically gazed at the models while scratching our heads) demonstrating why it was constructed (the devastating 1953 flood and the  potential for more) and how (for engineering brains).

Since I will never do this justice, check out this link that describes the project and this water baby in concise and non-engineering terms:  http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/04/the-netherlands-impressive-storm-surge.html

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After the indoor explanations, we headed outside to get an overview of the site and the immense floating arms.

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all while a cold wind buffeted us, hence the shoulders clenched to the sides and hands stuffed into coat pockets.

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Back in the car we commented on how cool it’d be to actually witness the annual-test closing of the gates. Hmmm… another road trip!

Next: ’tis the season in Netherlands!

The Lion’s Tale

IEPER (Ypres)

November 2016

The sculptors stood next to a stone lion composed of two blocks forming a regal pose. The older man leaned against the immobile flank poised for the next chisel. The younger appeared in mid-stroke as he glanced up at the camera while an assistant seemed to be measuring the plinth. A second lion, serving as part of the sculpting process, completed the tableau.

A black & white photograph captured this scene, one which caught my eye as I waited for a glass in the breakfast room of our inn, Demi Lune.

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When Greet, one of the owners, returned I asked her about this large photograph, and she began to tell me a story that her husband, Peter, finished the next morning.

Most visitors know this town as a landmark of WWI, one completely destroyed and later reconstructed based on historical plans. Yet, Peter spoke of a much older history of this area beginning with the Romans raiding the Belgae people during the 1st century. By the way, the town’s name came from the Belgaes’ word “Iep”, their name for the elm trees, which grew along the banks of the river “Ipre” or “Iepere”; so, it was a natural progression to name the settlement along the river:  Iper, which was altered by the Romans to “Ypra”, the latin derivation.

Located along key transportation routes including easy access to the coast and England’s wool, Ieper began a lucrative trade in textiles. By the 13th century, it became the third largest city in Belgium after Ghent (Gent) and Bruges. Guilds formed to support the trade resulting in the construction of the magnificent Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), a dominant feature of this medieval town (Ghent and Bruges were the only other Flemish cities featuring this symbol of prosperity).

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Built of stone, Ieper’s Lakenhalle provided a safe storage for both imported wool and the finished cloth stowed for export. However, the stone building also provided a habitat for those furry animals called rats. To help reduce the rodent population cats were introduced. This created another problem at the end of the season when no wool or cloth was stored resulting in a heavily reduced rat population and an over-abundance of felines. So, a tradition began that occurred on the last day of the annual fair (Cat Wednesday): cats, also considered evil spirits, would be bundled into burlap bags and tossed from the hall’s bell tower by the city jester.

Thankfully, this tradition stopped in 1817 only to be reinstated in 1930, but the meowing sack is now replaced with a furry, inanimate object.

Cat parade jester

If you’re interested, you can experience this festival every three years (next one is 2018).  And, if you’re wondering about cat karma, just think of how the bubonic plague spread.

Ieper experienced an economic decline in the late 1300s due to the annihilation caused by the Bubonic Plague roaring through Europe and to the effects of a devastating siege in 1383 waged by an English bishop (yeah, really, he was a ‘holy’ man). But, I’m only mentioning this decline because of that ‘the world is a small ball’ moments:   In 2014 I saw a special door at Canterbury Cathedral for the Flemish weavers who headed over to England and started a competitive cloth trade. Due to the economic benefits of these immigrants, the rulers and religious heads allowed them to open a church in the underbelly (crypt) of the cathedral.

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Another example of how the threads of history weave together, the warping and wefting of time flow through the loom of life, lives intertwine amidst the carpet of the earth…  Okay, I’ll stop.

Ieper attracted the attention of power-hungry forces way before the Germans tried to take it in 1914. Eventually earthworks morphed into stone fortifications, some built under the direction of the famous French military engineer, Seigneur de Vauban, after King Louis XIV (1638-1715) invaded and overtook the city in 1678. Below is a mock-up commissioned by the French king in 1701.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the remaining walls but we did stand on the site where the eastern road led to the town of Menin, and, so we return to where I began this tale…

Peter, who can trace his ancestry back 16 generations, told me how the sculptors were his great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather, Alphonse and Josef Pollee. He pointed out how the work was being done on top of the gate to avoid any difficulty placing the lion in its final position when completed. Peter also mentioned how his great-grandfather took off on a new motorbike to see the coast only to be fired upon his return. The reason? His father felt his son should have been marching in the May 1st Socialist Parade.

This lion isn’t to be confused with two carved in the 17th century holding Ieper’s coat of arms. Those stood guard at the gated, eastern entrance to the city. Eventually the gates were dismantled in the mid-1800s but the lions, placed on plinths, remained on either side of the Menin Road, the road on which thousands of WWI soldiers marched on the way to the Salient and, in many cases, towards death. (Many may know this already, but a salient is a military term for a battlefield bulging into enemy territory resulting in being surrounded on three sides by the enemy.)

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The two lions survived the shelling with some damage but intact enough to maintain a regal presence. In 1936 these limestone sculptures were donated to the Australian government in gratitude for the sacrifices that country made during WWI. They were placed in the Australian War Memorial and later repaired in the late 1980s based on historical photographs. In 2014 they were loaned to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa along with the 1927 painting of the Menin Gate Memorial by the Australian war artist, Capt. William Frederick Longstaff who served in WWI (this painting is at the top of this post). In 2017 the lions will be returned to Ieper for commemorating the 100th-anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

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I found it quite astonishing that we were meeting the grandson of sculptors who had their hand in honoring those who had fallen during WWI. Their lion sat in repose atop Menin Gate, the memorial constructed in 1927.

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Yet, Max and I discovered even more of a connection between our hosts and the war:   the photographer of the iconic photo of Peter’s sculpting ancestors was none other than Greet’s great-uncle, Daniel Pynck.

As a young boy, Daniel lived with his family in Ieper. It was here, during WWI, where he lost his leg when a shell struck their home. His brother was killed and his mother and sister, wounded.

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Daniel was transported to a hospital on the coast to recuperate. An English nurse then took him to England while the war raged throughout his homeland.

While in England he learned the art of photography. As a young man he returned to the home of his birth, arriving on his relatives’ doorsteps speaking fluent English. He opened a shop on the main square, Photo Daniel,

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and began a successful career, being one of the few photographers in the area (we noticed his photo credit in an exhibit at the Flanders Field Museum).

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The store only recently closed but the building still stands, yet another landmark in Ieper’s history.

Peter and Greet also shared with us the historical significance of Demi Lune, the name of their B&B. Demilune, french for ‘crescent’, has several meanings:  it’s the name for a crescent-shaped island standing in the middle of water that one has to cross to enter/exit a city gate (if you look again at the 1701 mock-up of Ieper you’ll see several of these demi lunes); it’s the shape of a half-moon, a time when one is suppose to sleep well; and, it means little croissant, one of those delicate, flakey pastries offered as part of your B&B breakfast. A perfect appellation for this inn.

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Thanks to Peter and Greet, our understanding of Ieper’s history stretched way before the devastation of WWI. If anyone is planning a visit to this town, it’s definitely worth booking a room at this welcoming inn, Demi Lune (http://www.demi-lune.be). And, if you can spend some time with the owners, you, too, will feel the breath of history.

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MDT 3

French:  YPRES / Flemish:  IEPER

Thursday-Friday, November 3-4, 2016

Our final MDT (Max Disaster Tour) encompassed another key battle site, Ypres, a town destroyed or, more aptly described, obliterated during World War I.

Just a brief overview:  In spite of some advocating for peace and disarmament, such as the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Czech-Austrian pacifist and novelist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), European countries were marching towards war due to… world powers struggling for (a) economic power, (b) gaps between the have and have-nots were expanding, and (c) nationalist feelings were soaring due to some international confrontations. [Yikes, I just reread this. does this sound as familiar to you as it does to me?] These ingredients created a bellicose soup with the opening salvo occurring August 4,1914 when Germany invaded neutral Belgium.

And, it’s where we found ourselves preparing to be horrified and goose-pimpled awed as we walked on and around some very hallowed ground.

The chilly raw temperature seemed appropriate for a gray November day spent touring another tragic area. Following in friends’ Marcia and Steve’s footsteps, we also made reservations for a guided tour. And, boy, did that turn out to be an informative way to hear about the war here in Ypres, formerly a fortified-medieval town where wealthy Belgians escaped the city streets of Brussels.

We joined a family of three from Glasgow (the daughter happened to be working for the Scottish government in Amsterdam), two Brits composed of a son-in-law taking his father-in-law to various war sites, and a young Polish woman studying in Amsterdam, all of us being led by Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tour. Friendly and extremely knowledgeable, you immediately know you’re in the hands of someone who wants to ensure you, as guests at these sites, understand why those who fought here deserve our respect and honor. And, his manner is such that you, too, feel respected by this kind soul.

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NOTE:  Woven into the narrative below is information obtained from a visit to the Ypres’ Flanders Field Museum the next morning. 

Over the next four hours Jacques guided us to seven sites. He introduced us to this part of the world with a light-hearted anecdote:  The allied soldiers changed Belgian town names to creative nicknames:  Ypres became “Wipers”… Etaples became “Eat Apples”.  Our wry smiles quickly turned to somber faces as he told us all, and I mean all, of Ypres’ buildings and streets are only 80 to 90 years old.

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WWI had left this fortified-medieval town

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and its pastoral surroundings…

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and a muddy, cratered desert after four years of artillery shelling and trench warfare.

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The Salient (a battlefield created by one army being surrounded on three sides by the opposing troops) is a term you hear when discussing the fighting at Ypres. Similar to WWII the Allied forces needed to keep the Germans from gaining access to key seaports, such as Calais and Dunkirk. This would protect the Allies’ flow of supplies while preventing Germans access to an easy-to-defend new front, one that would include harbors.

The front lines stalled around Ypres, trenches were dug, and hundreds of thousands would lose their lives here. In some instances enemies were within shouting distances of one another as they survived (or not) fighting from these filthy and disease-ridden ditches. A soldier’s rotation of duty typically entailed four days at the front, which could include a night patrol or a stint in no-man’s land, followed by a tour as a reserve further from the front lines, and, if lucky, some time when they were billeted even further from the front.

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WWI witnessed the transition from cavalry and imprecise canon shots to tanks and accurate, rapid-fire machine guns, artillery that created shrapnel and carried a much greater range than in prior wars. WWI also led England to create a large infantry force, having previously relied on their navy; and, in the Flanders Museum we saw a vehicle used by England’s Minister of Defense, Lord Kitchener, for recruiting volunteers (aka, canon fodder).

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The Germans had a slight elevation advantage, even though higher ground might mean just a few feet, and in driving to the various sites Jacques was quick to point out when we were on an incline. Yet, the allies managed to hold Ypres during the war with the exception of one day, October 7, 2014, when the Germans made it into the town before being expelled.

The Germans managed to gather excellent intelligence on the Allies. I don’t remember any of the specific examples quoted by Jacques, but it was uncanny. I’m not sure how it was communicated, but we did see a photo of one of Britain’s ‘signal companies’, which included Radio telegraphy, telephone, and carrier pigeons (!).

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The Salient has the dubious fame of being where the first poisonous gas was used. This occurred on April 22, 1915 with the French and Algerians being its first victims followed by the Canadians two days later. Use of a chemical weapon broke two Peace Treaties signed 1899 and 1907, causing the Brits to retaliate with the same on September 25, 1915. Ironically, the creator of this chemical weapon was the German chemist Fritz Haber (the one pointing in the photo below), who happened to be Jewish.

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In 1918 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (?!). His legacy lived on with this same gas later used in the Nazis’ gas chambers. At least one of the Habers realized the Pandora’s box he had opened:  On May 2, 1915 Fritz’s wife Clara Immerwahr, a pacifist, committed suicide.

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Live gas canisters are still being found today along with all the other unexploded ordinances (about 240 tons are collected and safely detonated each and every year). Jacques and a friend of his, an archaeologist, were documenting a gravesite in 2007. The next day Jacques got a call from his friend saying he was at the doctor’s due to a huge, nasty blister appearing on his forearm. Come to find out it his friend’s forearm and hand had come into contact where the gas had seeped from its 100-year-old-container.

One of the first sites we visited was Essex Farm (again, non-local soldiers called their battle locales by names familiar to them). Here, there were bunkers serving as an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Here, on December 8, 1915, the Canadian Dr. John McCare (1872-1918) wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Field” just a few days after one of his good friends, Lt. Alexis Helmer, died. And, since I can’t speak of WWI without also offering his words, here they are:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Another famous doctor serving in WWI was an American professor of neurosurgery, D. Harvey Cushing (1869-2939), an eye witness to the third battle at Ypres (July 3, 1917 – November 10, 1917). It was when working at a French military hospital he experimented using magnets to extract shrapnel from brain tissue. In addition to doctors, there were nurses, many who sacrificed their lives as they treated the wounded, and the Flanders Museum shows a well-done video with actors portraying Dr. Cushing and several nurses as they speak of this war and its affects on humanity. One recollection that Max noted hearing during the video was “Can one grow used to death? Is it unsafe to think of this? For if death becomes cheap, it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.”

Jacques would mention some conversations he’s had with this war’s veterans over the years. Several of these recollections, in particular, stood out due to contradicting some general assumptions about this battle, and I paraphrase: One veteran strongly disagreed with the phrase ‘all quiet on the western front’… if anything, it was a continuous hell; and, another hated when he heard people say there were ‘five battles at Ypres’… he felt there was nonstop fighting with battles killing and maiming thousands.

While death and destruction wasn’t limited to a particular fight, one location became synonymous with the wanton wastefulness of human life on the Western Front:  “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele”, a battle fought in 1917 to capture a ridge held by the Germans.

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The last site we visited was Sanctuary Woods Hill 62. The woods still have some of the original trenches that have been reinforced to ensure they don’t deteriorate over time, and trees have grown up where once the landscape was a quagmire of filthy mud.

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Jacques told us that most veterans he’s had the honor of guiding here refused to enter the trenches. I can’t really imagine how it must have been standing in one of these trenches with shells exploding and bloodied soldiers being carted into bunkers. Especially knowing you may get an order to ‘go over the top’.

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On March 3, 1918 the war ended on the Eastern Front, but it wasn’t until eight months later on November 11, 1918 that fighting ceased on the Western Front. Soon after Winston Churchill suggested Ypres remain in ruins as a reminder of the horror of war; but, the residents, all who had to forsake their homes, proclaimed a decidedly forceful “NO”, and with that Ypres began to rebuild itself using plans drafted by an architect extremely knowledgeable about all the original town’s buildings.

It’s no surprise most of the sites we toured had either a cemetery or were right next to one. Jacques told us the entire area is one big graveyard with bodies, like unexploded shells, still being unearthed. Nineteen have been discovered this year alone.

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Fortunately there is an organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), headquartered in Maidenhead, England, whose purpose is honoring the soldiers who died during WWI and II. Working in partnership with local groups, they maintain existing cemeteries while ensuring any found body from the war is identified (if possible through a DNA match) before being buried. When a body is unearthed, a funeral is given by the CWGC. To give you an idea of just how much the residents still think of those times and those who died there, the services for these soldiers are packed by locals in spite of never being advertised.

The CWGC even cares for the German cemetery, Langemark. Over 40,000 Germans are buried here including 3,000 from a German Student Battalion. These inexperienced soldiers fought against battle-tested and professional British soldiers during the first battle of Ypres, with the Germans’ death called the “massacre of the innocents”. These young soldiers played a part in WWII’s propaganda when Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940 to promote German bravery.

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Hitler had also fought near here during WWI and a big “what if… we had seen his name on one of the gravestone?” popped into, I’m sure, a lot of our heads.

We viewed a 16th-century cross from the plague years, which had been erected near a memorial for the French soldiers killed in the first gas attack.

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We also saw other memorials such as the famous ‘Brooding Solider’ in honor of the Canadians who held a key piece of ground despite being gassed two days after the French.

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We drove by the Welsh one, which stands where their soldiers fell versus where they were buried.

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One of the largest memorials was the Menin Gate with names of 55,000 fallen soldiers carved on its wall. Later a Wall of Remembrance was placed at Tyne Cot cemetery with 35,000 more names listed.

At Menin Gate there’s a ceremony that Seppe told us about; so, at 8:00pm Max and I witnessed this moving tribute, one that’s been occurring every day since 1927. It continued during WWII in England then returned to Ypres September 6,1944 the day the Polish forces liberated the town. A bugle is sounded playing two traditional tunes: , first is the “Last Post”, a final salute to the fallen, followed by “Reveille”, the wake-up call and celebration of the living. After a moment of silence, relatives of those whose names are on the walls may lay wreaths.

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In spite of this WWI guided tour and excellent exhibits at all the war sites we’ve seen these past there days, I’ve only grasped a cursory understanding of the events at Waterloo, Bastogne, and Ypres. Yet, one doesn’t have to see too much to know war is a curse on humanity.

After touring the Flanders Field Museum the next day, I believe both of us were ready for much lighter fare. We headed to Ghent for our last Belgium stop of our road trip.

But, before we left this area, there’s one more story to be told.

Until next time…

MDT 2

WATERLOO

Thursday, November 3

Once again I’m astonished at just how interesting I found another one of Max’s Disaster Tours, and this MDT 2 covering the Battle of Waterloo fell into that bucket of ‘whoa, this is well done!’.

From what others had mentioned, we thought we’d be trotting on a section of the battlefield and reading a few displays about what occurred, then we’d be out of there; but the museum captured our interest from the get-go and the expected 60-minute visit turned into a four-hour tour.

Memorial 1815, the museum site, combines a hilltop panorama (as well as a mural housed in the circular building below) with a modern, underground museum (just visible to the right of the strollers), all excellent tributes to this battle.

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Similar to the one in Bastogne, Memorial 1815 enhances a visitor’s experience by using a mix of visual and audio tools. After sitting through a ten-minute film with 3-D glasses, Max said he got a good idea of just how it might feel to be an infantryman charged by a cavalry. Based on the progression of exhibit experiences, I wouldn’t be too surprised if in the next ten years (or less) I’ll actually be able to take part in a historical event though virtual reality (NOTE:  I’d opt out of France’s Reign of Terror and chopped heads, and many more, no doubt).

For two hours we walked chronologically through rooms explaining…

the background of Napoleon’s rule (French Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, aka Age of Reason)…

some interesting aspects of his time as emperor:  he honored the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827 ) with the title of count due to Volta’s work in electricity; he championed beet sugar production in answer to the British blocking the Caribbean sugar cane trade; and, one of his most influential legacies:  he authorized the creation of the Napoleonic Code, a modern legal code with no religious content and written in language people could actually understand…

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as well as a brief primer on all the forces escalating against Napoleon:  his enemies sat on many thrones, so this Corsican’s rise to power based on merit and not on inheritance sent shivers throughout all of Europe and Great Britain. The museum Id’ed the prominent rulers opposing this upstart:

Francis II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1768-1835) – detested any whiff of constitutionalism and waged war against France in 1792-97, and fought in subsequent battles against Napoleon; to his family’s dismay his daughter, Marie-Louise, later became Napoleon’s second wife and mother of Napoleon’s only legitimate son.

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Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814) – pushed out of Naples by Napoleon (whose brother Joseph was then made King of Naples, then later replaced by another Bonaparte sib, Caroline); oh, and Maria Carolina was one of Marie Antoinette’s sisters… need I say more?

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Frederick William, Prussian Duke of Brunswick and Wolfenbuttel (1781-1815) – was humiliated by Napoleon’s crushing defeat of the Prussian army in 1806 and looked forward to retaliating.

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John VI, King of Portugal (1767-1826) – his country was invaded by the French and the Spanish during Napoleon’s rule with the royal family escaping to Brazil in 1807; interestingly, Britain under the command of Arthur Wellesley (who becomes THE Duke of Wellington) restored the Portuguese throne in1808.

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Williem I, Stadholder/Governor of the Netherlands (later King when Austrian Low Lands, now Belgium, was added to the Netherlands) (1772-1843) – his country was invaded by Napoleon (Napoleon’s brother, Louis, ruled the Netherlands 1806-10).

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Ferdinand VII, King of Spain (1784-1833) – first sought out Napoleon for protection from his father, Charles IV, then was taken prisoner by Napoleon who installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain (the latter was so ineffective as King of Naples, big bro Napoleon made him King of Spain instead; go figure).

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Louis XVIII, King of France (1755-1824) – brother of the beheaded French king and hoping to take back his family’s throne.

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Quite a club, eh? Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if all of them ever got together in one room. Actually, I’d rather be someone at the table for I can only imagine the food feast served.

With Napoleon invading so many of his neighbors, you wonder who wouldn’t rise up against him? Add the fact he made himself Emperor (so much for abolishing despots) and populated squashed countries’ thrones with his siblings, one would have to be a dummkopf (aka, blockhead) not to realize this was poking a hornet’s next with an extremely short stick. Scratch that:  change ‘poking’ to ‘whacking the hell out of’.

Actually, Napoleon was just continuing the tradition begun with the first (1792-97) of seven Coalition Wars when monarchies tried to stifle the French Revolution. During that time Napoleon was proving his military genius as he ascended from soldier to general to commander of France’s army. Six more coalition wars were fought with the seventh in 1815, ending with the vanquishing of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Oddly the museum used historical paintings to cover earlier battles fought by Napoleon. It was fascinating from an artistic perspective but not too clear regarding the chronology leading up to this auspicious battle. However, one that caught my interest depicted a ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond, the Commander of the Reserve Troops’ wife, on June 15, just three days before the fight.

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She invited top dignitaries, including Wellington and his commanders.  Although the French had already begun preparations for battle, the Duke ordered his officers to attend in order to stave off any panic their absence might have caused.

When we got to the museum’s area covering the actual battle, a timeline adorned each side of a long hallway while soldiers marched towards the battle. Here the information was so detailed you could press a button on your audio guide to hear about soldiers’ belts and other minutia. Must admit I skipped a lot of those for my eyeballs were starting to spin in my head.

Prussian officers led by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742-1819) were instrumental in winning the Battle of Waterloo;

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as were those led by Willem I, King of the Netherlands (mentioned earlier). Without the Prussian and Netherland troops, the French would have won the Battle. FYI:  I’ve seen so many conflicting numbers of troops per army I won’t even begin to try to figure it out. Suffice it to say, the French were outnumbered.

It was a singularly bloody fight with Wellington aptly saying “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

While the actual, June 18th squirmishes didn’t attract my attention too much some specific incidents related to this Battle did, such as…

  • a painting of the capturing and looting of Napoleon’s military carriage (we actually saw his battlefield hat in Berlin’s German History Museum);I later discovered the carriage was shipped to England’s Prince Regent (later King George IV), eventually landing in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (!) where it was destroyed by a fire in 1925;

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  • sketches by Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a surgeon and anatomist who visited the battle field 10 days later to document some of the wounds, possibly to use as part of his medical teachings;

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  • hearing Napoleon went to Mal Maison, the manor he had shared with his ex-wife, Josephine, seven days after escaping capture on the battlefield (and, which Max and I visited with Betsy just before New Year’s Eve in 2014);

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  • and, due to the heroics and victory at the Battle of Waterloo, veterans received free beer for a long time at any British pub.

With all of the information provided several categories seemed to be missing: the personal lives of the main characters; and, the period of Napoleon escaping Elba only to return to lead the French back into war. But, we were definitely ready for a break and some fresh air, so we headed to a key battle site:  Hougoumont.

A short shuttle bus landed us at the site where at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 2015 the first shots were fired. This walled farmhouse stood equidistant between the two lines of engagement, and, for that reason Wellington positioned his troops there. Supposedly, when asked what his orders would be if he died in battle, he said “hold Hougoumont.”  And, they did,  but not without a lot of fighting as the French tried over and over to win this piece of land.

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At one point during the fight, the French caused the buildings to burn. Later, the French managed to push in the gate and storm the grounds. Several soldiers then rushed to the wall and, in a heroic moment–one of many, i’m sure–closing the gate, thus keeping their enemy out. This action is credited with ensuring Hougoumont remained in the Coalition’s possession.

Remarkably, a chapel remained intact after this horrendous fighting. What was deemed a miracle was a 16th-century Flemish crucifix in the chapel actually starting burning but mysteriously stopped at the feet. Some writers whose names I recognized visited this site:  Lady Shelley, friend and confidante of Wellington, travelled there in September 1815;  the following year Lord Byron scrawled his name on the wall (not there now); and Victor Hugo must have been there for he included the manor’s well in Les Miserables.

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Since then the crucifix has gone through a theft of a leg and several restorations.

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Both Max and I found Hougoumont particularly interesting, and moving when you consider the bravery of the few who held this vital site. Where once a woods stood three trees remain, left by the owner, Chevalier de Louville, after the battle due to the heavy damage incurred. Not only humans but nature, too, is befouled by war.

But, time to catch the shuttle back where we both walked up the numerous steps to look across the battlefield; however, I with my shuddering fear of heights climbed up step by step while talking to myself to tamp down my nervousness. Once atop I quickly scooted my backside along the base of the monument only to rush back down the numerous steps, talking to myself with catch-and-release death grips on the metal hand railings.

Do you see the dot in the middle of the picture way down below? That’s moi feeling oh so much better.

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Meanwhile Max took in the view and snapped a diagram of the lines of engagement.

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Lastly we drove to the Waterloo Inn where Wellington stayed during the nights of the 17th and 18th. Here we saw where he slept and wrote his report of the Battle. More interesting, we saw some of his handwritten field notes.

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Other than seeing his room and his orders, this Wellington Museum didn’t offer a lot of information unless you were into weapons of that time. (I had actually seen the chair in which he died, or so they say, with my friend Carol in southern England.)

And, with that our MDT 2 was over, and I was ready to head home to our Belgian Family. Yet, like I mentioned at the beginning, Museum 1815 and Hougoumont are definitely worth exploring if interested in the Battle of Waterloo.

Tomorrow, our MDT 3…