The Fantastic Cities

Belgium is arguably the European country that Britain most resembles. Both are small countries composed of a mish-mash of different nationalities who don’t like each other very much, both are predominantly bourgeois and suburban in their outlook, with a horrendous history of imperialism behind them and a multicultural present in front of them. Ceci n’est pas on pays, might be a good motto for both of them. Both regard beer, steak and chips as the height of culinary excellence and both studiously cultivate eccentricity as a national characteristic in spite of actually being as dull as dishwater. Both had a history of rapid industrialisation in cities like Ghent and Manchester, matched by both undergoing an equally rapid postwar decline. Both have a history of monarchs with dubious and repellent views who still seemed to maintain an inexplicable level of popular support. They even resemble one another in all sorts of small ways, like the red postboxes that grace the streets of both countries. Of course, rather stark differences also apply. Brussels looked towards Paris as its architectural role model, with Second Empire architecture shading into joyous outbursts of art nouveau that are difficult to conceive of in England. Statues in Britain are in bronze or stone, Belgium prefers copper. Belgium unavoidably had to look outwards to its neighbours while Britain remained insular. Where Britain created a national mythology where Britons would never be slaves, Belgium had repeatedly been invaded and ruled by almost every single other European country; Spain, Austria, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Nonetheless, of all the European cities I’ve been to, Brussels is the one that most resembles London. Both cities are semi-disconnected from their host country with a population that is vastly more ethnically diverse and with economies that are equally disconnected, both having a high preponderance of international businesses in areas like financial services. Both have grandiloquent and bombastic landmarks juxtaposed to singularly drab modern buildings and skyscraper cities – ‘Bruxellisation’ as a syndrome applies equally to either city. To take a more provincial example, Bruges is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North,’ but in truth the parallel has little to it beyond the presence of canals in both. Where Venice is locked into a death struggle with the corroding salt waters of the lagoon and the taint of decay is difficult to miss, Bruges simply looks rather neat, tidy and efficient, more like Delft or an English cathedral city than anything else (with the lion and bear heraldry it actually rather resembles Warwick). The resemblance is not that surprising, as the presence of a large British colony in nineteenth century Bruges accounts for much of the city’s appearance, with plaster being scraped off walls to reveal bare stones while neo-classical buildings were replaced with neo-gothic. Pugin’s ideas were as influential as Viollet le Duc’s. Louis Delacenserie and George Gilbert Scott would have got on well with each other, both having built careers on tinkering with insufficiently medieval buildings. The main difference lies with the Catholic icons and statues gracing every street corner, although the statue of Jan Nepomuk above one of the bridges brings Prague to mind rather more than Venice.

I leave Britain on the Eurostar; travelling by train certainly makes for a rather more civilised trip than by plane. The first thing I come to in Bruges is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Built around a phial of clotted blood makes for a suitably antediluvian premise reinforced by a dark exterior that is only enlivened by guilding. Inside, the crypt is Romanesque with some grisly Spanish style statues depicting the crucified Jesus, but the chapel itself is brightly coloured and could easily be a Victorian gothic revival design (much of the chapel is indeed the work of William Brangwyn, a although in Bruges it can be rather difficult to work out what is medieval gothic and what is gothic revival). The same thought comes to be in the adjacent gothic hall, which reminds me even forceably of Cardiff castle and the main hall there; both are lavishly decorated with images of local history. In this case, Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling look down from the walls alongside the various royal families that have ruled. The adjacent renaissance chambers though do remind me more of Venice and the Doge’s Palace though. The two main churches in Bruges often seem rather disappointing, faded and decayed; it’s the one place where the mythology of Bruges La-Morte seems to hold force. The church of Our Lady has the distinction of holding a Michaelangelo sculpture of the Virgin and Child as well as various Romanesque angel drawings and the gold mortuary sculptures of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold. The gold reliquary of Charles the Good is in the nearby cathedral, that probably being its most distinctive feature.

Going further abroad, the Jerusalem Church is one of the oddest buildings I’ve come across. Modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it’s split on three levels with a lower tomb modelled on Golgotha, the normal church building at ground level and an upper section presumably designed to show the way to heaven. The altar is a gruesome affair, with three skulls embedded in it and three crosses pointing upwards. The main floor is dominated by a black marble tomb with various other monuments lining the wall; quite most gothic of churches, which makes the fact that it’s combined with a lace museum somewhat incongruous. By contrast, the nearby church of St Anna is pure baroque, with one wall dominated by a painting of the Last Judgement. Wood carving seems a particular Belgian speciality, with wooden angels flanking the confessionals and churches often having bizarrely elaborate pulpits with birds and palm trees carved in wood. The church of St Walburga too could very well have been built in Rome. The far north-east of the city is ringed with a line of windmills next to the former moat. As the day closes I walk southwards and out of one of the medieval city gates towards the nineteenth century cemetery. Belgian graves are often commemorated with large stone slabs with stone picture frames of the deceased built into them and partly covered in layers of moss. If the design is rather more sombre than British cemeteries, the skull motifs are rather more macabre while the ornate iron crosses remind me of the ones I saw in Poland last year.

The following day is taken up with a visit to St John’s Hospital. Amongst the contents are a colourful plate with a sculpture of St John the Baptist’s head on it. The highlight is a Hans Memling altarpiece though, with the Virgin Mary flanked by an odd choice of the death of St John the Baptist on one side and the Book of Revelations on the other. Due to the closure of the main art gallery, this is joined by Hieronymous Bosch’s version of the apocalypse. There’s also a reliquary shrine for St Ursula, with Memling miniatures embedded in each gold panel. I rather prefer the portrait of a Bruges merchant though. The nearby Gruuthuse also rather reminds me of Cardiff Castle; I’ve seen skybridges into churches from palaces or the presence of royal boxes, but one passage in the Gruuthuse leads directly to a set of windows looking into the Church of Our Lady.

As some of the galleries in Bruges prove to be shut, I decide to spend a day in Ghent. In contrast to Bruges it looks rather rundown, more like Birmingham than Winchester. The train station is rather beautiful though, its atrium decorated with a set of mosaics of other Belgium cities including Burges and Ostend. The churches here are generally rather more impressive than those in Bruges, with their interiors done in a gentle redbrick that contrasts to their dark grey exteriors. The cathedral is most noted for its Jan Van Eyck triptych; unfortunately away for restoration while I was there. I note the series of paintings of past Bishops, something I’ve not seen in Britain. Like many Belgian churches, its quire is decorated in while and black marble with a series of grisaille paintings on its walls. The crypt is rather extensive, with several Romanesque paintings surviving on the walls. From the exterior, St Bavo’s is rather less impressive than the nearby St Nicholas, whose nave is lined with marble statues (tied to the adjacent columns, presumably in case any of the statues decide to run off). St Michael’s church is perhaps the most ornate and decorative of the churches I visit with colourful wall decorations and statues of saints such as a particularly fey Sebastian. I note that hatchments also seem prevalent in Belgian churches, something else I’ve not generally seen outside Britain.

Ghent is also notable for the rather dark Gravensteen castle, which owes its survival to having served as a prison in later years. It presently holds an exhibition of medieval weaponry, torture instruments and armour. I also ascend the town’s Belfort, notable for copies of the iron dragon that serves as its weathervane and of the watchmen that stand at the tower’s four corners. There is then the ruins of St Bavo’s abbey, where the skeleton of the abbey’s structure are supplemented by a range of decaying sculptures and architectural elements. Tombstones, finials, stone suits of armour and images of the virgin abound. The interior of the abbey also has its walls lined with tombstones in what is otherwise a cavernous and empty space. Finally, I had a somewhat rushed visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. The medieval collection is especially good, with Bosch’s paintings of Christ on the Cross and St Jerome, Weyden’s painting of the Virgin and a host of Brueghels. I particularly like a trompe l’oeil by Gijsbrecht showing letters pinned to a wall and Van Vliet’s church interiors. In the nineteenth century, Theo Van Rysselberghe and Emile Claus’s works made a particular impression on me. A solitary Kokoschka and a Magritte represent the best of modernism, along with a Delvaux.

In due course, I move on to Brussels. As I mentioned above, this is perhaps more like London than anywhere else I’ve been to, although it’s odd to see derelict old seventies tower blocks and ruined houses in the centre alongside skyscrapers and in otherwise prosperous districts. The first thing I visit is the Palais De Justice. It’s covered in scaffolding when I visit and much of the exterior seems to be crumbling with buddleia sprouting out of the cracks. I accidentally walk in through the wrong door and quickly see that rumours about its labyrinthine character are correct; walking in through the correct entrance results in an entrance hall that must be one of the largest interior outside of a cathedral. Built to awe the working class district below, it reminds me of nothing so much as Ceaucescu’s Palace of the Parliament; certainly the size of the country appears to hold an inverse relationship to the size of its buildings. From the square outside, you can see over to the other size of Brussels and the building that dominates the other end of the city, the Koekelberg basilica. A somewhat ugly building designed in ‘expressionist gothic’ and built from a queasy mix of green copper and dull brown brick, its size seems out of all proportion to it use. The interior is lacking in decoration and is largely defined by its darkness and emptiness. Returning to the Palais, the square outside is home to a pair of rather crumbling twentieth century war memorials; these are not uncommon here and are certainly preferable to London’s endless parade of heroic military statues. The same applies to the Colonne du Congres, an elaborate affair that reminds me of an ornate version of Nelson’s column but with an eternal flame to the fallen soldier at the base. I walk onwards from there to Notre Dame du Sablon, one of the smaller but more elaborate gothic churches.Some of the tomb designs are particularly macabre here. Further along again is the Church of Saint Jacques sur Coudenberg, a contrasting vision in neo-classical white. Finally, I visit the cathedral. Here and in all of these churches, I’m amazed at the quality of the stained glass. The treasury contains an especially grisly anatomical collection, such as the skull of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary as well as an ornate set of black and white monuments. Walking past some of the medieval city walls, I finally come to St Jean Baptiste au Beguinage, a somewhat austere neo-classical affair but which has a bizarrely large number of skull tombstones.

The following day begins with exploring the Grand Place, with it’s gothic town hall. From there I pass onto the Porte de Hal. Whereas the city gates in Bruges didn’t look terribly different from similar gates in Britain, this one looks as much like a castle in its own right. Afterwards, I go hunting for art nouveau houses in the Brussels suburbs. Where Britain emphases uniformity, Belgium prefers diversity with each house on a street looking different. Whereas in Barcelona or Prague a modernist or cubist villa represents a break with its surroundings, the difference is rather less marked in Brussels, particularly since art nouveau is essentially only a decorative style. Horta’s later buildings are often fairly similar in structure to his earlier ones, but the absence of art nouveau decoration turns them into something more prosaic. As such, I begin at the Horta Museum. The dining room with its tile lined walls strikes an odd note; the tiles remind one of a shop but the arched bas-reliefs make it seem more like a church or crypt. Like Gaudi’s villas, the centre of the house is the stairwell, which becomes lighter as one progresses upwards to a top-floor where mirrors create the effect of an infinite recursion of stairwells. From then, I go to the north of Brussels to the Maison Autrique. This particular district seems to be mostly Turkish now, with a beautiful tiled mosque. There’s also the domed church of Saint Mary’s, a building with a somewhat unfortunate history; as a restoration was nearing completion a fire sent it back to square one. Today, the domed interior makes it one of Brussels’ finest buildings, but many of the side chapels do nonetheless look rather dilapidated. If the Horta Museum was rather crowded, Maison Autrique is deserted, which is quite the best way to discover it. I even have to ring the bell to be let in. Inside, much of the exhibition design has been done by Francois Schuiten and accordingly turns out to have a giant camera in one room and a peephole in a door look into a strange world with analytical engines therein. I’m amused to discover that one of Horta’s villas is now the Cuban embassy, but begin to conclude that in several ways I prefer Paul Hankar’s designs, with their sgraffito drawings.

I have a meal in the gardens of the former botanical gardens. It’s rather pleasant, although some of the sculptures are rather odd, such as a crocodile wrestling with a snake. I try to visit the Horta pavilion in the Cinquantenaire park, which contains a sculpture of unspeakable horror and depravity. That may be why the pavilion turns out to be shut. The park also contains a triumphal arch and the Belgian equivalent of the Imperial War and Victoria & Albert museum; more super-sized structures. After this, I take out a tram out to the Colonial Museum in Tervuren. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden on a tram that goes through woodland before. Some of the museum highlights included a masked statue of an assassin from a thugee style cult and a longboat. Later on, I briefly have a look at the Comic Museum Centre, a former Horta designed department store, where everything is based around a central courtyard with glass lined floors. It all seems rather more elegant than Paul Saintenoy’s Old England store, although that building’s use of iron and elevators at the centre must have seemed more futuristic at the time.

The following day is mostly given up to the Musee de Beaux Arts. The main hall has a set of symbolist paintings by Montald and sculptures by Meunier. Walking beyond it into the medieval section, more merchant portraits by Weyden and Memling figure as well as a set of Cranach’s. Brueghel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels is as strange as anything in Bosch, with its horde of oddly piscatory rebel angels, but I still prefer works like The Fall of Icarus, The Massacre of the Innocents or The Enrollment of Bethelehem. I really can’t bring myself to like Rubens, which only leaves a Rembrandt portrait, Fetti’s Melancholie and some Guardi and Panini cityscapes in the seventeenth century section. The neo-classical section is very strong, with David’s Death of Marat. Nineteenth century Belgium seems to have been particularly keen on social realism, as with Laermans and Meunier. Symbolism seems to have been the next vogue, with Khnoppf and Delville. More surprisingly, a Burne Jones crops up in this section. This is followed by impressionism and pointillism, as with Claus, Rysselberghe and Signac. One of the Claus paintings of London rather recalls a similar Monet painting. The modern section has another solitary Kokoschka, various Delvauxs and a Dali (a temptation of St Anthony that rather mirrors all the medieval treatments of the same theme elsewhere in the museum). From the contemporary artists, I like Pistoletto’s Green Curtain showing a curtain painted on a mirror, and rather reminding me of Magritte’s curtain designs and some of the trompe l’oeil designs I’d seen in Ghent. Lastly, there is Magritte. For all of his connections with surrealists like Ernst, Magritte often seems to be as much of a post-structuralist, dealing with the connections between words and images and the differance produced by the substitution of an image in a particular context for another quite different one, such as a nightime street and a day time sky. Where Dali has his own personal mythology that forms the backbone of his symbolism, it’s more doubtful whether Magritte’s symbols represent anything as such.

The following day is given up to a visit to Antwerp. One of the main things I had wanted to see was the train station itself, an extraordinary structure by Delacenserie split over four levels and with an enormous ticket hall that resembles a basilica. Another example of Belgian grandiloquence. Although Leipzig is supposed to be a largest train station in Europe, Antwerp is clearly the more impressive. Walking into the centre I briefly visit Antwerp’s counter reformation baroque church, Saint Charles Borromeo, complete with elaborate wood carvings and stucco ceilings. From there, I pass onto the other thing I’d wanted to see, the cathedral. Many of the side chapels have been restored to their original colours but the ceiling of the main nave remains a gleaming white. Given the delicate Brabant gothic of the building, some of the counter reformation elements seem rather odd, such as the fresco on the crossing ceiling. Many of the paintings were removed to the fine arts museum after the French had abolished the guild altars they belonged to; however, many of them are back on loan, including works by Metsys and Rubens. I have a meal on the Grand Place and walk along the river side, by the old Victorian fish markets and the mock-gothic ship museum. From there it’s onto Saint Paul’s church and its bizarre Calvary Garden; rows of angels and saints line the paths up to a recreation of Golgotha and the fires of hell. Things like this do give Jonathan Meades comment about the Catholic death cult being at its worse in the gothic north a certain force. By contrast, the interior is gleaming white, only broken up by the Rubens paintings lining the walls. Finally, I look at St Jacob’s church, a somewhat dowdy church where Rubens is buried. It’s also worth mentioning another of Belgium’s super-sized structures; the KBC tower, Europe’s first skyscraper.

The last day in Belgium begins with the Atomium. It’s an odd picture of something that still looks rather futuristic but also rather resembles a Butlins holiday camp at the same time. It has an exhibition of the world fair it was built for inside along with a rather worthy section of Belgian immigration. I then go for a walk in the surrounding parkland to the Leopold Monument, a gothic folly that rather reminds me of a simpler version of the Albert Memorial. Back in the centre, and I visit the EU quarter; a strange mix of skyscrapers and gleaming offices with the smallscale. I walk down one such road, past the Natural History Museum with the model Iguanodon outside, to the Wierz museum. Wierz can perhaps be best described as the acme of the nineteenth century video nasty; a range of paintings showing various grisly subjects. In one painting, a man is seen blowing his own brains out, in other a man opens his own coffin after a premature burial. In another a naked woman stands opposite a skeleton. Painting in a Rubenesque style, a lot of his better paintings rather recall Blake to my mind, but it can still be rather strange to see sentimental genre paintings immediately adjacent to pictures of Satan. Details of tromple l’oeil doors, dogs and keys on the walls to give it a certain vein of Magrittesque whimsy though.