School starts in a few days. Despite this fact, I have only just returned (four days ago) from a brief sojourn to Amsterdam and Brussels. It made preparing for Tuesday a bit hectic, but travel is never to be regretted. I told my brother that I travel for art, books and beer, and this excursion provided a glut of all three! I should add cheese to the list, as I feel I have come back to a cheese desert.
If one needs a reason for travel, and I am not sure that one does, mine is always art. I am a museum junkie when I travel, and it is all I really do, apart from glorying in the cheese utopia that is Europe. I had four days in Amsterdam and four in Brussels, happily spent visiting as many museums as I could. Both cities offer excellent museum and transit passes that allow one such as me to revel in art for 72 hours.
For this trip, it all started with Vincent Van Gogh. A book was released this summer, coinciding with an exhibit in the Van Gogh Museum (entitled On the verge of insanity), about the last year or so of his life. This was the year in which he cut off his ear after an argument with Gaugin, was in and out of asylums (asyla?), and ultimately committed suicide on July 27th, which is my birthday. (He shot himself in the chest on the 27th, and died of his wounds on the 29th.) The book contained the examining doctor’s illustrations of the ear incident. I had always understood that he cut off the earlobe, but the illustrations show that all that remained was the earlobe.
I had just read two biographies of Egon Schiele (over whose painting The family, shown blurrily below, I sat silently weeping at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna eight years ago),
and was in a tortured artist kind of moment when I decided that I had to go to this exhibition. Also, cheese! And the many other delights of Amsterdam! I booked my ticket and hotel, decided to go to Brussels as well, and bought new suitcases.
I am afraid that I took no photos in Amsterdam. I never brought my camera with me, although I always had my phone. Amsterdam is quite photogenic, unlike me, but I was too busy to stop and take photos, I suppose. Readers will have to bear with my photos from my trip journal.
After an overnight flight, I did very little the first day, apart from checking in to the hotel, taking a nap and walking around the neighbourhood. I found a gelato stand and enjoyed a lovely mango gelato as I walked through Sarphatipark, which was across the street from the hotel. I got started the second day visiting museums, with the Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk, a contemporary art museum in the same quarter. Rijksmuseum is also there, but I did not go. I find I am more interested in art that is slightly more contemporary. Also, it was not included in the pass, apart from a discount. And it is a big museum. It will be there for my next visit.
I loved that the Van Gogh museum is dedicated to a single artist(I had only been to one such museum before: the Chagall museum in Nice, France.), although the collection includes some contemporary (to him) artists. The exhibition on his final year was amazing, but it was equally amazing to see his development as an artist. He was really only active for about ten years, and what a decade. Although it was difficult for Van Gogh to have only sold one painting in his lifetime, how fortunate that the family was able to maintain such a complete collection of his entire oeuvre for us to see now. Only a very few major paintings are not at the museum in Amsterdam.
Some of my other favourites: Flowering plum orchard (after Hiroshige), Butterflies and poppies (I almost bought this iPhone case as well, but thought it would be excessive) and Almond blossoms.
On that first day, I really only had time for these two museums. There was so much to absorb: Van Gogh had a prolific correspondence with his brother Theo and I had to read everything! There are many other museums in Amsterdam, and on my third day, I visited three.
I am not a history museum person. Nor am I a war museum person, but I went to the Dutch Resistance Museum anyway. It was terrific! So interesting to learn about the little ways in which the Dutch rebelled against the German occupation. My notes are messy, but I was impressed with the way in which the museum laid out the history of this difficult time. This museum also helped absolve me of the guilt I felt in not going to Anne Frank House, as it detailed the Jewish experience during the occupation.
Who knew the Hermitage had a branch in Amsterdam? I was toying with going to St Petersburg this summer, until I found out about the Van Gogh exhibit, and I got to go to the Hermitage anyway! There were two main exhibits: one on Catherine the Great and one on portraits of important people in Dutch society. Very well presented and interesting commentary. The Hermitage, in Russia, will be a future voyage.
On the last day, I went to two museums: FOAM and Tassen Museum.
FOAM is a photography museum. The museum had a temporary exhibit on Helmut Newton, who did a lot of fashion editorials. Amazing photographs! And on the top floor were contemporary fashion photographers. Tassen Museum is a museum about handbags. It is quite a collection! It tracks the movement of handbags from men to women and from function to form. Very interesting collection and commentary.
After this, I went to Brussels. I took a bus and arrived at 6:30PM. Everything was closed. No map! I used my phone to find my hotel, as I knew it was not far from Gare du Nord. My data roaming cost me 25$ for those 10 minutes (Bell sends helpful texts whilst traveling, including fees incurred!). I did very little, apart from checking in and going to Proxy, a small grocery store next door (cheese utopia!) for something to eat. I love going to grocery stores whilst abroad. I like knowing what people actually eat and can find in their stores. I ended up having to buy a bottle opener so I could try a raspberry beer: lovely! And I have a Belgian bottle opener now!
I made my way to the Grand Place the following morning, in order to obtain my Brussels card and start my museum visits. My attempt at a panorama of the Grand Place:
The left is the city of Brussels museum, centre is the tourist bureau and the right shows cafes. There was a fourth photo, between the museum and the tourism office, but it was heavily shadowed. Newly armed with my Brussels card, I set off for the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. The site contains four museums: Musée Fin-de-siècle, Musée Modern, Musée Old Masters and Musée Magritte. I skipped the Old Masters (as I generally do), and went through the others. They are primarily art museums, although the Musée Fin-de-siècle contains decorative objects as well. Brussels, along with Paris and Glasgow, were major centres for Art Nouveau.
I was particularly interested in Magritte. There are two Magritte museums in Brussels and I went to both. This one contains the major works, and is amazing! It includes many of his articles about his work, which make for fascinating reading and a deeper understanding of how he viewed his art. I amassed a small Magritte library!
There is always a particular museum that I treasure on a trip; in Vienna, it was the Globe Museum (and the Esperanto Museum, in the same building). In Brussels, it was MIM, the Musée des instruments de musique (Musical Instruments Museum).
MIM closes at 5PM, and I did not get there until after 3. It was not enough time, and I went back two days later to complete my tour. There are four floors of musical instruments to experience, and it takes awhile. The audio guide contains extracts of music featuring many of the instruments in the museum. Numbers on the floor in front of the instruments indicate the track on the guide. This is a delightful museum! My favourite floor was the fourth: the keyboard instrument gallery.
These instruments are pieces of furniture, and beautiful ones at that. I took several photos in the keyboard gallery, and of harpsichords and a geigenwerk in the other galleries.
The decorative aspect of pianos and their role as a piece of furniture are what make me love them so much. Many of the pianos on display were quite ornate.
There was also a Theremin in the mechanical instruments gallery. I am fascinated by the Theremin, with its eerie sound. The Ondes Martenot was another instrument that intrigued me. So, I bought the book and CD to help me remember these instruments and their unique sounds.
On this first full day in Brussels, I only managed these two museums, as I spent a lot of time getting to know my way around. (Some may call it getting lost; I prefer to think of it as getting to know the city.) I do my utmost whilst traveling to not look like a tourist: I dress nicely, speak politely, keep my camera hidden and, although I carry a map, I only consult it away from others. I hate asking for directions and prefer to muddle my way through until I recognize something: a landmark, a street name, etc. It always works out, somehow! It was also a distinct advantage in Brussels to speak one of the languages well enough to not be immediately pegged as a tourist. I am so afraid of being seen as that worst kind of tourist: belligerent, sloppily dressed and unappreciative. So, I end up wandering a bit the first day, but then I am able to navigate successfully on subsequent days.
The following day, I navigated the metro! I went to Musée René Magritte in Jette. This museum was his house for a 25 year period. There are no paintings there, but it was interesting to see the house. A delightful Belgian woman gave us (me, a Russian couple, a Korean couple and an Englishman) a tour of the Magritte apartment, replete with anecdotes about the artist and his wife, Georgette. In the neighbourhood, there were many mosaic images in the style of Magritte, on the sidewalk and in front of a school.
I returned to the centre of Brussels to visit the Musée du costume et de la dentelle (Costume and lace museum). The temporary exhibit was all about wedding costumes and was beautifully displayed. The guidebook was very well-written.
A few doors down from the museum, on Rue de la Violette, is a children’s bookstore, Le Wolf. I travel for art, books and beer, remember? I bought some books for my classroom, including two that reimagined Little Red Riding Hood and The three little pigs. The wolf family role plays the story of Little Red Riding Hood and it is hilarious! Of course, all of the books were hardcover, which explains my suitcase gaining 10 kilos…
Around the corner from these two sites was Éditions Jacques Brel, which I went to the following day (after revisiting MIM). There are two parts to this museum: the museum itself screens films by and about Brel, there is a room reproducing his writing process (he wrote all of his songs on graph paper!) and the audio guide contains interviews and songs as you go through. It’s very small, but it still takes about 90 minutes for a completist like me! The second part of the experience is the Promenade. For this, you are given another audio guide and a map, and are sent out into Brussels to see sites important in his life and career.
The walk takes about 2,5 hours and is very interesting. It is again accompanied by interviews and his songs. I skipped the yellow part of the map, as I was tired, but it was a great excursion. Only two wrong turns (but the songs were playing long enough for me to right myself!). A few videos to acquaint those unfamiliar with the brilliance of this man, especially in performance:
My final day in Brussels was spent buying chocolates and macarons at Pierre Marcolini in the Galeries St-Hubert. I’ve had a few macarons; so far, my favourite was salted caramel.
I visited another bookstore, Anticyclone des Açores, which is a travel bookshop! I found some interesting books for my classroom as well as inflatable globes in French!
My last museum was the Musée de la bande dessinée (Comic strip museum).
It was very interesting, particularly the first floor explaining how comics are made. The second floor had two exhibits on perhaps the best known Belgian comics: Tintin and the Smurfs. The third had a temporary exhibition on current comic artists.
In all of my wanderings around Brussels, I encountered marvellous architecture. (I am finally getting to the title of this post: on doors!) As someone who will probably never get to choose a front door, I am obsessed with them (and highly critical of those I see around me). Brussels has some beautiful doors, due to its importance as a centre of Art Nouveau. The houses may be small, but the entrances have impact.
The list of sites I did not see in Amsterdam and Brussels is at least as long as the list of things I did see! Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, European Parliament, Atomium were all missed. So were Mini Europe and Bruges, both of which I had every intention of visiting. Time is never on my side when I travel, and it is just not possible to do it all. I am, as mentioned above, a completist and want to see everything in the places I do go, which takes time. However, I never go anywhere just once, so there will be a next time.