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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Belgium trip - Leuven (Part 2)

For once, the weather gods took favor upon me during my travels. Although the forecasts were repeatedly calling for rain, for the most part we were blessed with beautiful weather during our time in Belgium. Still, it was surprising how often things changed during the course of the day, going from warm to cold to sunny to overcast and rainy and back to pleasant again. I would start out in short sleeves, before having to don a windbreaker and/or a sweater, then revert back to short sleeves only to bring out the sweater again for the evening walk back to my friend Jeff's apartment. Take our second full day in Leuven, for example. The morning began in a crisp and somewhat clear manner...:

...but it soon became overcast, and then started to rain. A good time to stay indoors and relax:

The rain showed so signs of abating, so eventually Amber, Jeff and I headed out to the area in front of Leuven's train station in search of lunch, not to mention the first beer of the day, in this case a Duvel:

I don't recall what we ate, but you'll notice the fries in the background. Fries are a national obsession in Belgium, transcending the linguistic divide between Flemish and Walloon as they are served at practically every meal (or at least the lunches and dinners we had). Amber quickly learned the Dutch word for them, frietjes:

Oh yeah, about that weather. While it poured during lunch, the rain had already stopped when we stepped outside following the meal, and soon after starting down the main road toward the central part of Leuven, it'd become so bright I had to put on my sunglasses. Our destination was the M Van Museum, a fascinating combination of art old and new, set in a modern building combined with an old mansion. Among the more traditional pieces are a couple of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments...:

...and Holy Trinity. A close look at Christ's shoulder reveals a pair of bird's feet, the remains of a dove that van der Weyden had originally wanted to include in the work:

Also included in the museum's permanent collection are examples of old glassware, porcelain and silverware:

The more modern collections include examples of the light touch and subtlety so often employed by contemporary European artists:

 Brussels (yes, that's the title)

On the roof of the museum. The brick tower is the that of Katholieke Universiteit van Leuven's (KUL) library. KUL was founded in 1425 and is one of Europe's most prestigious institutions of higher learning:

Following Museum Leuven, Jeff and my daughter went off to meet our wives at a local pub, while I went to check out the Universiteitbibliotheek:

The university library was displaying some examples from its Asian collection:

On the way up to the top of the tower were exhibits on the tortured history of the library. It was destroyed by the invading Germans during the First World War who believed they were under fire by snipers in the tower. The library was rebuilt and restocked with donations from some 4000 American universities. During World War 2, the library was burned down, with most blaming the Germans (again), who apparently did not appreciate the anti-German inscriptions on the exterior of the building. The library was rebuilt and restocked yet again with American help, and the names of the U.S. institutions who contributed are inscribed on the outside walls:

 The views of Leuven from the top of the tower:

Of course, there were bells:

Back on solid ground, the carnival was going strong:

The beetle on a needle, a sculpture called Totem that was created in 2000 to celebrate KUL's 575th anniversary. It supposedly emphasizes the relationship between art and science, but it really is just a large bug skewered on a giant stick:

Rejoining family and friends at The Capital:

The menu boasts having the "Largest beer selection of the world" with over 2000 beers. I settled for a Bush Amber. With an alcohol content of 12%, it proved ideal for a late afternoon respite:

Our day ended with dinner at Troubadour, another restaurant specializing in Belgian delights. The house specialty is mussels, but who could pass up the chance to have filet of horse?:

The service left something to be desired at Troubadour (it took about 90 minutes from the time we were seated for our food to arrive at the table), but they have their own beer, so in the end all was right in the world:

Have I mentioned that I could get used to this lifestyle?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belgium trip - Leuven (Part 1)

Belgium is a small, somewhat densely-populated nation in western Europe, home to roughly 10 million people, divided between the 5.5 million Flemish (Dutch) speakers in Flanders and the 3.5 million inhabitants of Wallonia (where French or Walloon is the primary language). Brussels, the capital of both the country and the European Union, has a population of about a million residing in the officially bilingual city (there's also a German-speaking region in the eastern part of the country). My wife, daughter and I are back in Shànghăi 上海 after having spent the past ten days on a Rest & Recovery visit to the land of beer, chocolate, mussels, waffles and fries, lots and lots of fries (served with almost every meal). The reasons for choosing Belgium as our R&R visit were simple: one of my best friends lives there, and the opportunity to get out of China for a few days, introduce Amber and Pamela to the charms of Europe (the first time for both to set foot on that continent) and catch up with Jeff and his charming wife Barbara was something that couldn't be passed up. So sit back with a Belgian brew (preferably a Trappist like Chimay but, if you must, a Hoegaarden will also suffice) and enjoy this and the next few blog posts on our trip to the linguistically-divided but always engaging Kingdom of Belgium.

Jeff and Barbara live in Leuven, a small city only a half-hour by train from Brussels (and which is even closer to Brussels Airport, a fact we three appreciated after the long flight from Shanghai) that also serves as home to the oldest university in Flanders. Our friends have an apartment close to both the train station and the city center, where they very graciously put us up for the duration of our visit. They also took the time to show us around, starting with Leuven the day after we arrived. Much of the city's center was destroyed in both World Wars, but several historic sites have survived, and many of the buildings that were rebuilt after the Second World War were done in the traditional style. Jeff and Barbara began by taking us to see the Stadhuis. Most historic Belgian towns have such halls, but Leuven's is particularly flamboyant, dating from the 15th century:

The statues on the exterior were added during the 19th century and represent noted personages such as the cartographer (and Flanders native) Gerardus Mercator (holding the globe):

Across the square from the old town hall sits St-Pieterskerk, a late Gothic-style cathedral. Work began on the church in 1425 and continued up until the 17th century. It was intended to have a 170 meter-high tower, but unstable subsoil meant the foundations were too weak, and it was never completed:

The interior of the church is exactly what you would expect from a medieval European cathedral, with its stone rood screen topped by a wooden Jesus...:

... as well as a wooden pulpit showing St. Norbert being thrown off his horse after a bolt of lightning struck at the animal's feet, after which he decided to devote the rest of his life to the Catholic church, founding a religious order called the Premonstratensian Canons:

The church's Treasury houses several marvelous works of art, including a copy of Rogier van der Weyden's triptych Descent from the Cross...:

...and two noted works by Dieric Bouts, the Last Supper, which shows Christ and his disciples in a Flemish dining room (if you look through the left-hand window in the center panel you can see Leuven's Stadhuis):

...and the unsettling Martyrdom of St Erasmus, showing in graphic detail how his entrails were removed from his body. This painting, along with several others in the Treasury depicting saints being tortured in creative ways, so traumatized my daughter that she doesn't want to visit any more churches and has probably been turned off by Christianity. Which wasn't my intention, but isn't necessarily a bad thing, either:

The sight of all that medieval gore worked up an appetite, so it was off to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and the national dish, steamed mussels. Jeff instructed us in the proper eating manner, which is to find an empty shell and use it like you would a pair of chopsticks to pry the meat from inside other shells:

The first of many beers on this trip. There are more than 760 different beers brewed in the country, and I regret that I didn't have the time to try them all:

Following lunch we took a stroll through the Oude Market, the center of Louven's nightlife area, filled with bars and cafes:

Approaching St-Pieterskerk from the Oude Market:

Delivering beer the traditional way:

Barbara having gone back home to have a rest, Jeff and I relaxed with glasses of Leffe Bruin at an outdoor cafe while Pamela and Amber went to check out a carnival taking place on the squares around the university library:

My daughter was certainly having a good time in Leuven:

Being a university town, Leuven has no shortage of places to eat and drink. For our first dinner in Belgium, Barbara and Jeff took us to a place called De Wiering, specializing in the kinds of dishes your Flemish grandmother used to make, such as the rabbit stew cooked in Lindemans Framboise raspberry beer that I had to eat (and drink):

One could get used to this Euro way of life:

An after-dinner stroll led back toward the Stadhuis...:

...and dessert outside on a comfortable Saturday evening in late September:

Did I already mention that I could get used to this way of life?

Jacques Brel - "Born in French-speaking Brussels but raised by Flemish-speaking parents, Brel never fully felt at home in either language group – a sentiment increasingly echoed by many modern Belgians."