Occasionally, the WWT links up with others to visit a country in attempting to reform and travel in a more "sane" way. Because everyone else is a better tourist than I, I am not able to apply all principles of the WWT to such travels; even so, it is instructive to see how others travel and compare notes.
This trip was launched from London from my friend, Pauline’s, home. Her sister Alison and brother-in-law Colin joined us. We began the trip at 7AM from the town of Flitwick, which is about an hour by train northwest of London. The trip was well planned, with proper hotel and train reservations all in place. I assumed that these, being locals, would know all of the transportation loops and I would simply follow most of the time until we hit Belgium. We walked from Pauline’s home to the Flitwick station.
The first ambiguity occurred in the London tube, where we required a movement across town from the Kings Cross Station to the Waterpool Station where the Eurostar Tunnel train begins. I have always known that the quickest way to get lost is to start out almost knowing the way. In this particular case, having three people that almost knew the way led to a rather amazing phenomenon that for some reason reminds me of the Keystone Cops. For most of the time in the tube, the major decision became which of the three to follow, since they all seemed to be heading in different directions. Quite often I could see the three together, each pointing in a different direction. Miraculously, we made it to Waterloo with time to spare, though a little exhausted from running up and down stairs in the tube. The London tube is definitely not constructed to be negotiated by the mobility disadvantaged, or by someone lugging a bag packed to handle 10 days of touring. (I wound up getting a hernia somewhere during the trip.)
Eurostar has revolutionized the trip from London to the mainland. There is little reason today to fly from London to such cities as Brussels or Paris, since, what used to be a seven or eight-hour trip can now be done in less than three hours from city center to city center. One would easily spend that much time getting to and from airports, which require a ninety-minute check-in before takeoff. Trains leave Brussels every hour for Brugge, our final destination. Upon arriving in Brussels I had to make train reservations for another trip (see installment 9) so Colin and Alison headed on to Brugge while I began a two-hour negotiation with a train agent (Pauline stayed with me during this debacle). I finally achieved what I wanted; however in the process I had an angry and impatient Pauline on my hands who was experiencing frustration instead of holiday fun during her first hours. Fortunately Brugge is such a calming town, that her anger was quickly replaced with excitement upon arrival there.
Not wanting to risk reigniting Pauline’s anger by immediately getting lost in Brugge, I took the chicken’s way out and hired a taxi to take us to our hotel. This is not such a bad idea in Brugge since taxi drivers speak English and Brugge seems to be one of the few cities in the world where the taxi drivers are actually honest. While it may be more like the WWT to catch a tram for a dollar and get within walking distance of the hotel, I have to admit that seven dollars to pull up to the front door of a place we would have had a hard time finding on foot could be considered a bargain. It was, indeed, a solid investment. Hotel Ter Brugge is out of story book, a restored 15th century building with window boxes filled with beautiful flowers and overlooking a canal not far from Van Eyck ( my hero in art) Square. One realizes how important it is to travel light in such places after climbing steep stairs to the third floor. One also gets reminded again that in Europe, the first floor is what we in the U.S. call the second floor.
We set out for the main square to use as much daylight as possible. Brugge is possibly the best city in Europe for walking. Nevertheless, tourists can hire horse and buggy and boat rides. But walking is hard to beat. We wandered around the streets of Brugge for several hours, completely captivated by the 14th-15th century architecture in a setting of canals. The town square contains the bell tower (which we climbed), the post office and other government buildings and is filled out with restaurants where people sit outside and sip coffee or have complete meals such as moules (mussels). Adjacent to the town square is another small square, the Burg, that contains the town hall, other government buildings and a chapel where the blood of Christ is contained in a shrine.
Brugge has some major collections of art, especially Flemish art. We attempted to visit the Brugge museum of fine art only to find that it was closed in preparation for an exhibit "From Memling to Pourbus" which was to start in the following week. Fortunately, a small notice instructed us to go to the Groening Museum, where the paintings had been placed on temporary display in preparation for the formal showing. There we saw paintings and alterpieces from a time period beginning around 1200 AD through the early 17th Century.
I always feel the chill of excitement upon viewing the works of the Flemish masters that I had seen only in photographs before. A few of paintings especially caught my attention. A large diptych by David, that once hung in the town hall, called "The Judgement of Cambysis", depicted Cambysis, apparently a town official convicted of embezzlement, strapped to a table and being skinned alive. This is the kind of picture I don’t want to look at and yet I couldn’t stop looking at it. Another favorite was by the artist Hyeronimous Bosch, a painter who seemed well ahead of his time, who created "The Last Judgement", depicting a hell full of weird creatures doling out every form of torture. Christians of the time really went in for some weird stuff.
Another painting by Van Der Weyden caught my attention. There was an often overlooked period in art now referred to as "Mannerism" in which artists introduced unusual symbolism into the paintings including sometimes subtle, often glaring rebellious humor deriding strongly held beliefs and/or the corruption of the church. One example was the treating of the Christ child, sometimes removing him from the central focus of the picture or painting him small and insignificant to the other characters in the painting. Without awareness of the period, one often overlooks such subtleties. Van Der Weyden seems to be a forerunner of the period with this painting depicting Mary nursing the baby Jesus while the Priest looks on. This is the first time I had seen such a depiction. I could not help but notice the smile on Jesus’ face and the curl in his toes. Van Der Weyden must have had fun with this piece, but I seriously doubt that it would have hung in a church, subtle as the symbolism may be. If you look long enough, you can even see a wink in the priest’s eye.
Memling and Pourbus were well represented in the display with dozens of paintings of various subjects. Memling was to Brugge what Rubens was to Antwerp, that is, an artist who was in great demand in the 1500’s for producing portraits of the wealthy merchants. I had not heard of Pourbus, but after this exhibit I became excited to see his work over and over in the churches. It is easy to overlook the importance of these men if one forgets that photography had not yet been invented. People of the time were rarely exposed to fixed images of things, so a church full of paintings was a very special place. With today’s saturation of everyone with pictures in every direction, paintings are simply lost in the noise. Painters such as Rubins, Van Dyke, and Van Eyke were less represented but certainly present in this gallery. I received an added appreciation for Van Eyke, who in my book was the greatest genius of the period. In one of his greatest works the depiction is so accurate that one can take a magnifying glass and see the reflected image of the room in a jewel being worn by god.
The museum had a reasonable collection of modern art, which we simply skimmed over, having been saturated by the old masters collection. As always I find it difficult to mix eras in art. I can get absorbed into ancient or modern art, but to do both in the same visit is like attempting to follow a wonderful crepe suzette with cherries jubilee or better yet, following the cherries jubilee with moules (mussels)…..YUK.
By dark, we had walked for miles and were ready to test the Belgian beer and mussels. I would never have guessed I could eat so many mussels. It must have been the beer that made it possible. Near the restaurant lies the lake of love, where swans seem to form a base from which they head into the canals. Legend has it that the swans were placed in the city by King George to remind the townsfolk of a mayor, who had been a friend of the king, and who was hung for embezzlement. Remembering the Judgement of Cambysis, I realized that politicians should look out in dealing with these people. Another more pleasing legend is associated with the Minnewater (lake of love). It is said that if someone comes to this lake willingly with another who loves him or her, then the love will become mutual forever or if one comes with a dream of love, then the dream will come true.
During the next day, we attended a harpsichord exhibit, which included a soloist who played several different harpsichords. Who could have ever guessed so many different people make harpsichords? There must have been at least a hundred makers showing their wares. One especially caught my attention through his name "Kloop Klinghamer"; what a fitting name for a harpsichord maker! Oddly enough, Pauline’s friend, John, a harpsichord maker, was attending and we met up with he and his wife. After a tea break we convinced him to give us a demonstration on one of the harpsichords on display.
Later we visited "Our Lady’s Church", which contains many priceless works of art, including a pieta by Michaelangelo, paintings by Rubins, and several extremely elaborate baroque wood carvings. The pieta had been stolen from the church on two previous occasions, but somehow, fortunately had made it back to its proper place. The rarity of a piece like this and its association with this church provides it a measure of self-insurance. If you steal the piece, priceless as it is, what can you do with it? When an object can no longer be sold or purchased, what can one say about its value? In hard dollars, of course, it draws many people into this church, people who pay to get in and who buy the trinkets for sale.
For the first time, I became fully aware of the striking difference between viewing art in its proper setting as opposed to viewing it in a museum. Altarpieces were made to be placed at an altar. Seeing them in a museum is much like seeing an elephant in a zoo, not entirely unpleasant, but incomparable to seeing them in the proper environment. Many paintings were designed especially to be hung in a church, with the lighting and viewing angle being accounted for by the artist. In the church I could sit and look at a work of art for hours. In the museum, the distraction brought on by the other works and the setting prevent this. I began to wonder if the concept of the art museum might actually be the beginning of the downfall of art. Art in the museum cannot do the job it was intended for. Moreover, museums create a market for art that is driven by the wrong forces, leading to some of the financial success of what I consider garbage art of people like DeKooning, who made a fortune slinging paint onto canvases. Such art never really served a purpose other that for collecting and making money.
Through experience I developed a technique I call The One Photograph Maneuver regarding church art, and though I admit that it is a tad unethical, I will share it here anyway. Most churches and museums do not allow photography. Sometimes they say that the light can be damaging to the art. More likely, they want you to buy a postcard or picture in their gift store at elevated prices. Monitors are posted throughout to nail you if you take a photograph. But they don’t throw you out the first time. After looking around the church, you can always pick out the one thing you really want a photo of and take it before apologizing and putting your camera away. This is not always necessary. In some churches people seem to flash away even with signs prohibiting it everywhere.
On the third day, we took a train to the neighboring city of Gent to visit a friend as well as to specifically see the famous "Mystic Lamb", Gent Altarpiece, by Van Eyke. This colossal work is a polyptych with about 20 paintings. One of the panels was stolen early in this century. A person who was holding the panel for ransom died, keeping the knowledge of the panel’s whereabouts unknown. The story is that people were unable to persuade him to disclose the hiding place even with his dying breath, and the church was unwilling then to cough up the money. The Belgians are still looking for the panel today. Some believe that it is hidden in the walls of the church.
Pierre Boone, a professor at the University of Gent and a long time friend, joined us for lunch. After lunch we separated from Colin and Alison (I will explain the importance of this fact later) and went with Pierre to the university, where he operates a holography studio. As he had promised he produced a holographic portrait of me while we were there. (The portrait now hangs in my gallery in California.)
Pierre gave us an additional treat of visiting his home, where we met his wife, Bridget. Their home, which lies in the Belgian countryside, is a classical 15th century structure, possessing such an ambiance that one feels comfortable just sitting in it. After admiring his house and garden we all left for dinner at a Flemish restaurant called Zwalmkoets, which means "Coach House". The route took us over several miles of narrow country roads through fields of wheat and flowers. The Belgian food kept getting better and better. The meal began with a large plate of small snails that we picked from the shells with a straight pin. Pauline and Bridget had one snail each. Pierre and I ate the rest. Maybe it was the wine that made them taste so good.
There is always so much to learn and so much information to exchange in such visits that the conversation never lags, and time always runs out too soon. Language discussions are always an interesting topic. Pierre explained some of the peculiarities about the Flemish language and how the dialects change in vertically segmented regions across the country essentially tracking the various invasions as each one pushed its predecessor inland, adding its characteristics to the local dialect. Flemish has always seemed to be one of the most confusing, strangest sounding and looking of the western languages, and this phenomenon provides one explanation. Pierre returned us to the station at about 10 PM.
I always look for signs from my guardian angel, Synchro, to signal the extent to which I am in harmony with the universe. I enjoy observing amazing synchronicity especially in the timing of events as well as how they are described quantitatively, e.g. Numbers. I had noticed the numbers 3 and 8 (my lucky number and soul number) arising recently at every turn, and it occurred to me that some kind of resonance was about to take place. Such resonance or synchronicity accompanied our trip back to Brugge. We had missed a train to Brugge by a few minutes and waited for another half-hour for the next train. Upon arriving in Brugge we chose to walk back to the hotel, walking somewhat randomly through the streets. Just as we arrived at the town square we ran head long into Colen and Alison who then joined us for tea. The odds of such encounters are much too small to be completely random without some special outside force. One of my wildest synchronicities had occurred during another trip beginning in Belgium. I had parted from a friend, W.H. Goethert in Brussels and a week later, with no planning or a’priori knowledge, ran headlong into him on a train (that I nearly missed) in the middle of Germany.
We chose to take a side trip to the village of Damm, which lies near the sea north of Brugge. Damm once served as the gateway for sea trade with Brugge. Belgians are not stagnant in art. Near the old church is a modern sculpture of a three faced stature called "Vision of Light" that stands twenty feet tall. On the face of the town hall hang two punishing stones that were used to punish people. People who had violated laws were required to wear the stones around their necks for a period of time, mostly a humiliating effect. I wondered why we gave up such humane forms of punishment. We returned to Brugge by boat through one of the canals that had once been used for ships.
On the last morning we took one final, leisurely stroll through the streets of Brugge. I would never tire of walking these streets. At noon we caught a train to Brussels where the plan called for meeting a friend, Michel Riethmuller, a professor at the Von Karmen Institute, where I once taught optics. Michel was waiting at the bottom of the gate escalator since I had told him we would take the train that would get us to Brussels Gare Midi (South Train Station) closest to one o’clock.
Note that "Midi" means "South" in French. Strangely enough, when one comes from the north of Brussels the first stop is at the south station, Gare Midi. This really gets confusing since Brussels is a two-language city (French and Flemish). Every public sign has two names, in the case of the station, the Gare du Midi is also Gare Zuid. We had just enough time to have lunch and visit "Grand Place", which is also called "Grot Mart" (in Flemish), before splitting off into another adventure (see Installment 9).
We took the subway to the central district, known as the Bourse, or Stock exchange. Michel had picked out a restaurant called "Falstaff" which served the local dishes. We all ordered the "menu", which is like the plate lunch for the day, always the best deal in such a place. About the time we were half way into the main course, we began to smell smoke. At the same time we began to notice an elevated level of excitement among the waiters. Within a few minutes, fire trucks rolled up in front and firemen began rescuing people from windows above the restaurant where a fire had started. Pauline went out to photograph the whole operation. Michel and I were too caught up in the Belgian beer and our conversation to move, so we continued while the firemen did their job. When Pauline returned, I said to her, "See, I told you Michel would arrange something special for us."
After lunch we made our way on to Grand Place, which is one of the most beautiful old squares in all of Europe. This square is surrounded by fourteenth century architecture, which is covered with more sculpture than many people see in a lifetime. The square is used as a marketplace for flowers and birds during the weekend, and it is surrounded by many narrow streets lined with many tiny restaurants, some seating just a few tables. Many of them serve the famous "moules", which I had already sampled in Brugge. While mostly designed to deal with tourists, the food in these restaurants is excellent.
One pleasant thing about traveling with locals is that they can provide the local legends that have developed over the years. Michel told us of one such legend concerning a bronze statue of a reclining lady on the West Side of the square. It is said that if one rubs the arm of this lady, then he will find his true love and be married within a year. The legend is widespread and one can see through the shiny brass that many people count on the good fortune of the legend. Pauline and I both rubbed the arm of the statue. Let’s see now, I have the power of Qatar Selab in India, the Hindu Shrine prayer in Japan, the Lake of Love in Brugge, and the Brass Lady in Brussels all working for me. How can I fail?