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One Day on Isla Mujeres

The origin of the name Isla Mujeres is debated-  some theories assert that the name comes from the statues of the medicine and childbirth goddess, Ixchel, found at a Mayan temple on the south of the island.  Others say that the name comes from the fact that the Spanish explorers left their womenfolk on the island before heading into the Yucatán.

No matter the nomenclature, the island is truly beautiful.  Sitting offshore, it has maintained its incredibly chill vibe despite the proximity of frenetic Cancún.  It’s a decidedly Caribbean place, where the pace is determined by the sea and sand.

First, Playa Norte-

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

… it’s a gem of a beach.   Just off the main town, it is very well appointed with bars and bathrooms nearby.   For 150 pesos (13 dollars or so) you can rent a pair of lounge chairs and umbrella at the edge of the water for the entire day. You’d think there’d be a crowd here, but the place was wide open- at times I was the only one swimming.

The water is impossibly clear and blue, and very swimmable, despite a strong side current.  Towards evening a school of thousands of tropical fish appeared, racing along at crazy speed around my legs.

It feels as though one could spend an eternity here.

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As evening begins to fall and the heat becomes bearable again, people start lazily coming off the beach and into the town.  In the narrow streets, small restaurants begin opening their doors while street vendors, selling everything from jewelry to plastic toys, try to snag would-be shoppers.  Bicycles and golf carts (some packed to the brim) abound on the narrow, colorful streets filled with lazy markets and passers-by.

Outside the stores on the corner, people congregate for evening chats.  There’s a certain endearing eccentricity to this place-  at one point a beat-up old humvee rolled up, coughing diesel, driven by a huge shirtless guy with scraggly long hair.  He stopped to talk a while and then moved on.  Meanwhile, just out of view, local teenagers with a laptop were trying to tap into a rogue wireless signal…

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It was a really nice ride back to the mainland-

 

The scene felt like one giant sigh that comes after a day at the beach- huge extended families covering 3 generations posed for pictures, while couples stared up and watched the stars begin to appear.  The ship’s lights illuminating the bright blue water around us.   At some point between Isla Mujeres and Cancún -the lights of both twinkling far in opposite distances- in the middle of the dark bay, a salty breeze kicked up.  Above all the festivities and the blaring Mexican pop music and satiated joy, you could just make out the eternal serenity of a calm sea under moonlight.


Sunset, Isla Mujeres

 

Undead – Mt Saint Helens

In true Pacific Northwest fashion, it was impossibly damp, and as the morning rolled in, the fog covering the nearby peaks above Yale Lake created a scene reminiscent of some German Romantic landscape painting. Completely still and almost smothered in a heavy blanket of silence, the night had been spent under a dark cathedral of dripping-wet evergreens. The dense air bore the sort of earthy, tree-y smell that is hard to ever forget.

We warmed up the car, rented a few days before on a blistering August day at the Portland, Oregon, Rent-a-Wreck. The speedometer on the beat-up, early-90’s Plymouth Acclaim didn’t register – there was no real way of counting our speed on the lonely back roads, as we burned a crazed line through the dried brushlands of Maupin and Madras, the rainforests of Silver Falls, the stunning Columbia River Gorge, the humid cold-water coast of Cannon Beach and Astoria. The previous night, we’d pushed the old boat to her limits, careening around the close turns of the Cascade foothills, blowing past the countless espresso stands that dot this region.

Now, on this heavy-aired morning, we were chugging up a steep, steep gravel road that seemed to hang half-way off the cliff- the view plunged downward into grey obscurity. The first hour or so on the trail was a deeply forested ramble. It is said that wildlife goes quiet just before a natural cataclysm, and so the eeriness of the foggy, lonesome silence was knowingly palpable. We began to feel the volcano beneath. Not far under our very feet magma was flowing- a fact completely lost on the still pine woods.

Mt. St. Helens timberline

It was much that way in this forest a little more than 30 years ago, right before the mountain blew up. Back then, the area was an idyllic retreat of cabins, lakes, and scenery. Mt. St. Helens’ perfect, snow-capped cone had been known as “the Fuji of America”. Magma had flowed underneath back then as well, but not many had paid it much mind for centuries.

Soon the trail abruptly emerged from the forest – the treeline. Now the mountain began to bare its volcano-ness. A great wall of boulders and pumice spread out before us, sloping into the clouds. Sitting on some rocks, seeing nothing but quickly moving fog (now we were truly in the sky), we lunched on a healthy assortment of Chef Boyardee, granola bars, and Red Bull. Scavenging chipmunks, the only discernable form of animal life at this desolate height, pressed against our legs hoping for a scrap of the processed American food of the world below.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, tons and tons and tons of rock were immediately pulverized, cast into the atmosphere, or sent roaring down into the untouched forests below. Summer homes, unfortunate outdoorsmen who disregarded evacuation warnings, scientists, and an entire lake, disappeared without a trace. The ash cloud, which was just minutes before sold mountain rock, darkened the Northwest. Riding by cab at 2am, a few weeks before our climb, coming from the airport to my friend’s place in Portland, the driver told of the cloud. How everyone was told to stay inside, how the ash was possibly fatal to inhale, how it looked like a snow storm, how the falling fertilizer made everyone’s lawns spectacular that summer.

Now the trail itself became an immense field of ash – the remnants of the peak that was. An endless dune extending beyond sight. Here we forgot about the magma and the evidence of earth’s explosive power surrounding us. There is always the point during any climb when the romance falls away and the journey becomes a test of will. Here on the snow and ash, we came to that point. Everything was powder, and every step resulted in a Sisyphean slide backwards. The air was thinner now than we coastal dwellers were used to, and the pauses became more and more frequent.

The summit and crater rim

Then finally the summit. Though, it could hardly be called a summit in the normal sense. It was really just the highest point along the crater rim. The true summit had been blown away years ago. There was no rewarding view – we were still in the clouds. We worked up the courage to peer over the crater rim and looked into a great foggy abyss, like the edge of the earth. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew that thousands of feet straight below, a new dome was forming- the molten stone building anew, ready to thrust another summit slowly into the clouds. To have it explode again hundreds or thousands of years from now. To see a volcano in this state is a rare privilege of place and time. Afterall, for most of its life, a volcano is just a mountain, alive surely, but not true to its nature until it convulses and discharges and rebuilds. A release it must wait centuries for, the power of the ages sent spewing out in a flicker of a moment.

(From an alternate perspective, a volcano is pretty much an earth zit, building until the pressure is just too unbearable…)

After a considerable rest, some snacks, and an ill-advised cigarette, we started back down. As we did, the sky began to break and a glorious, though short-lived, view of the green distantly below finally tempered the barren world we’d been traversing the entire day.

Entering New York, by bus, from New Jersey – northbound

The scenery of the southern New Jersey Turnpike is horrifically boring.  All endless, uniform, monotonous forest.

But then gradually, from inside the rocking white-noise silence of the bus, the landscape begins to show evidence of a great metropolis – giant warehouses and factories appear, their numbers growing slowly more dense.

Once upon a time, coming from the south, the first visible signs of New York City were the small boxy silhouettes of the monolithic Twin Towers way in the distance.  Today the new World Trade Center has become the new beacon, announcing Manhattan across scores of miles.

The Meadowlands – marsh, straight marsh…  squeezed between Newark and the cliffs lining the Hudson River, fighting heavy industry for scraps of waterlogged earth.  Enormous steel skyways arc impossibly, hundreds of feet above –  arteries feeding the great city.

The diminutive skyline of Newark, New Jersey, shirks huddled in the northwest, as planes taxi and take off from its airport along the turnpike, receiving and discharging people from every corner of the globe.

Now – paralleling the ridge of the southern Palisades, the entire breadth of Manhattan becomes abundantly clear.  You can pick out more of the skyscrapers now – the Time Warner Center, Worldwide Plaza, the Chrysler, the Empire, 40 Wall, the AIG Building, the World Trade….

Here the highway turns eastward and begins to trench through the ridge; the skyline mysteriously disappearing as the road burrows through primal granite.

And then emerging back into the wide open air, suddenly the view becomes total Manhattan, the skyline, right in your face, just across a thin stretch of the Hudson River.  Arrival.

The bus curves around the Helix, and then quickly into the Lincoln Tunnel, plunging under the river and straight into the into the very shadow of the Empire State Building –  a tower you’ve been tracking from afar for many minutes.

“counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…”:

(Granted – this journey is far less magical in heavy traffic.)

Amsterdam! Amsterdam!

To a vast number of people, the name “Amsterdam” conjures up visions of a rampant emporium of drugs and sex.  Rest assured, the vice is here in ample supply, but if you have even a tad of interest beyond getting royally knackered in a red-light district, then it will be clear to you that there’s so so much more going for this city.

Amsterdam is a grande dame of sorts – sophisticated in taste, and refined by prosperous centuries.  However, despite having impeccable table manners, she hasn’t forgotten how to be warm and precocious – to get down on the floor and play with the kids a bit.

It is appropriate then that Amsterdam has been a mother city:  a mother of modern capitalism, a mother of tolerance, a mother of the modern republic, and for a New Yorker, still fondly remembered as the mother city of NYC.

Begijnhof of Amsterdam

It’s a proud city- full of life, confidence, positivity and openness – a rare place of  “live and let live”- Though, truth be told, like any metropolis, it’s not without its downsides.  Organized crime has taken hold of the town’s legal vice “industry”, most heinously in the red light district, where it engages in human trafficking and exploitation.  And, for all the city’s openness, I know of someone who was attacked on the street because he was gay.  Bad things happen everywhere, unfortunately.

The neighborhood around the train station is best missed. This is where the unadventurous, hedonistic day-trippers hang out:  Stumble off the train, get stoned, get laid, come-to in the morning and stumble back on the train.  On weekends, mobs of drunken, young, British men make a zoo of his area.

The further one heads into the tangles of street and rings of canal, the more even-keeled the place becomes – hidden little squares of book sellers, cloistered medieval convents, the famous Bloemenmarkt (tulips!), stately churches, modest cafes and bars, and of course, the magnificent houses of the Golden Age’s well-to-do.

It’s an ambling sort of city – no straight lines, no hard angles – even the old mansions lean forward slightly to facilitate the hauling up of goods to upper-floor storerooms.  The canals wrap around the cityscape in tree-lined ribbons of water.  Without the canals, the city would be impossibly cramped and dark – The presence of so much water gives the place gills –  breathing room and light.

(Speaking of canals, someone has to clean them, especially all the bikes that fall in)

Bikes dominate the streets here. When you see them piled up in squares or along canal fences, tangled all together, it's not hard to think that Amsterdam might have more bikes than residents. No one locks them up, because everyone has one. In order to recognize theirs among all the others, some cyclists take to decorating their vehicles in unique ways. When they move, they move in swarms, plying the streets silently, ready to take down the next clueless pedestrian, tram, or car.

Quiet conversation emerges from cafes and weed smoke occasionally wafts from a coffeeshop.  The daytime is certainly not lazy, but definitely not hectic.

Amsterdam, in general, is full of sensuality, but the night bears it especially well.  In one venerable sidestreet bar, old men may be drinking jenever, and in another place, ramshackle bookshelves and colorful art may line the walls…  The streets themselves are an enticing labyrinth by night, with lights reflecting off the canals, and hundreds of dark nooks.  And the red light district…

De Wallen has been catering to the carnality of the waterfront for centuries.  It’s a strange spectacle – women writhing in windows, while hundreds gawk in curiosity and desire.  The scene is made all the more surreal by the tower of Oude Kerk (built 1306)  looking down from on-high.  This is the heart of the old city, and nearby also stand De Waag, Nieuwmarkt, and other medieval locales.

Not far from here is the Begijnhof, a line of homes surrounding a large courtyard completely cut off from the rest of the city.  Dating from some time around the Black Death, it was a home for widowed and single women of the church who, while not sequestered nuns, did charitable works and took vows of chastity.  When we passed through, the morning before leaving, there was a soprano duo singing at the altar of the church here – –  piano and crystal clear singing.  Sobering and sublime.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR A HISTORY OF AMSTERDAM)

Amsterdam had one of the greatest runs in history.  It’s a relatively new city- settled around the 1200’s, when the Amstel River was dammed.  (The place of “The Dam” still exists).  It remained relatively obscure for a few centuries, and so, was never a center of Medieval culture, and thus, never firmly established the feudal institutions and extreme religion of that age.

The city didn’t rise to prominence until after 1588, when the Dutch Republic drove out the Spanish Empire during the Eighty Years War.  As the first modern Republic, it was not bound by a totalitarian religious and political regime.  Its policy of relative religious freedom drew in Europe’s misfits- Huguenots, Jews, and traders and artists driven out of the cities of Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), especially from the formerly prosperous Antwerp.

Its policy of free trade inspired the city to become an economic powerhouse- the first major mercantile city of the Modern era.  It spread its influence far and wide, establishing bases and colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.  At its height, it was the most prosperous city on Earth.  The magnitude of the city’s wealth at this time can still be seen along the canal rings, where the houses of the merchant class still stand proudly.  Its stock market, founded in 1602, is the oldest continually operating exchange in the world.  Accordingly, it was also an intellectual and artistic center of Europe- the home of painters such as Rembrandt, and philosophers such as Spinoza.

In 1609, the Dutch West India Company, one of two major arms of Dutch trade, hired the English explorer, Henry Hudson, to find a northerly route to Asia.  Instead, he found the American river that still bears his name.  In 1624, on an island where that river meets the sea, a colony was established called New Amsterdam, which eventually became a city that had its own unprecedented run in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Dutch only held New Amsterdam for a few decades, but the similarities between the mother and its child are striking.  Historical Amsterdam is huddled around a ring of canals and has a bustling, congested feel, full of pedestrians, trams, cars, and bicycles darting here and there.  In its heyday, the city was the preeminent commercial city of the world, much as New York was in its prime.  Amsterdam drew the misfits of the world under a spirit of openness, much like NYC has done.  As an artistic and intellectual center, it is home to world-class museums and orchestras, as well as ambitious and successful artists.  The two cities also draw a constellation of tourists.

A Brief History of Antwerp

Last month I posted about Kulminator, a legendary Antwerp beer spot.  Here’s some history on a fantastic city:

Antwerp is a most cosmopolitan city.  There seems to be a certain indescribable ennui throughout much of Belgium-  but not in Antwerp.  There is a causal sophistication here.  Unlike Bruges, which is stuck in time, and Brussels which seems to have lost its identity in its role on the international stage, Antwerp is vibrating through another golden age.

The area has been settled at least  since the Roman era, but really rose to prominence in the 1500’s after the Zwin River silted up and Bruges’ economy collapsed.  If Bruges was an incredibly prosperous port whose realm of trade stretched throughout medieval Europe and the Levant, Antwerp was a port of intercontinental scale- one of the first such ports in the world.  As part of the Spanish Empire, it brought in goods from as far as the Americas and Asia.  Some sources say that in the early 1500’s, Antwerp saw up to 40 percent of global trade, and was one of the largest cities in Europe.

This, of course, is where the city’s cosmopolitanism originated.  Merchants from across Europe set up shop in Antwerp, and the spirit of tolerance inherent in most port cities attracted a large population of orthodox Jews.  And, as always, wealth attracted the arts, including some of the most prominent painters and musicians of the Northern Renaissance.

Under the evening bells of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal

Despite this boom period, there was a great underlying tension rising.  The Low Countries became swept up by the Protestant Reformation and by a growing resentment of Spanish rule.  Violence erupted in 1566, with the Iconoclastic Fury, in which Protestants  ransacked towns and churches, destroying Catholic icons.  A reason why many Medieval churches in Belgium have interiors adorned in the style of the Renaissance and the Baroque is that so many of the items made before 1566 were lost.  The fiercely Catholic Spanish came down hard, and thus began the Eighty Years’ War which resulted in the independence of the Netherlands.

As a city at the heart of the Dutch Revolt, Antwerp suffered mightily.  In November of 1576, Spanish troops sacked the city, plundering property and killing 6,000 residents – an event which became known the “Spanish Fury”.  In 1585, Spain took full control of Antwerp and expelled the Protestants to the north.  The population was reduced by half, and Amsterdam became the new center of international trade.

After this, the city fell into a long period of decline and was revived only in the early 19th century, when Napoleon invested in upgrading the long-neglected port (which the British attempted to capture in a disastrous campaign).  In the 1890’s, Antwerp hosted a World’s Fair, and in 1920, the Olympics.  The city was heavily damaged by German bombs in WW2, but today is on the rise once again- today ranking among the top 20 of busiest ports in the world- certainly larger than the port of New York.  Standing on the bank of the River Scheldt, one can see shipping facilities stretching to beyond the horizon.

Stadhuis - 1565

And once again, Antwerp is a cosmopolitan place.  There is a diverse immigrant community, the arts have returned, and the city is taking a seat among the most prominent fashion centers of  the world.  80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through its diamond markets (unfortunately though, this includes many blood diamonds).

In short, there is a lot of action here.  By day, the streets bustle with a certain vibrancy and lust for life. By night, bars and restaurants host a sophisticated conviviality.  It feels like a new city.

Antwerp Dusk

It’s interesting how history works though.  Walking at dusk through the Grote Markt, with its magnificent Golden Age houses of trade, under the sublime carillon of the Cathedral, you realize that, though the faces and much of the cityscape have changed,  it is, in essence, the same city it was half a millennium ago.

 

 

Het Steen - early Middle Ages

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Our Lady Cathedral)

Construction began in 1352. (though a a number of churches have existed at this site since the 800’s)

This cathedral is notable for a number of reasons- it has the tallest spire in “Benelux”.  From the 1450’s to the 1650’s it hosted a number of the most influential composers of their time, including particularly Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obtrecht, and John Bull.

Though the interior was plundered twice (during the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566, and during the French Revolution).  Still, the cathedral is home to a number of paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, who made his home in Antwerp.

And it rings the most sublime of  bells.  By day, an amazing sound from on high, an ethereal singing above the afternoon bustle.  By evening, the carillon echoes off the buildings of the empty Grote Markt and the small surrounding streets-.  Music resonating from all sides- at times, a high tinkling and at others, a low sonorous gong.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal

San Francisco and the West Coast Spirit

San Francisco Bay

San Francisco Bay

This is a fairly NY-centric way to begin-

With its concentration and depth of soul and history, San Francisco strikes me as something of a New York of the West. In many ways, SF is what NY once was; and in many ways, SF is what NY has always wanted to be-
It’s a port town and the port spirit here survives- whereas NY’s has passed on-  perhaps this is because San Francisco was still on the free-wheeling frontier long after New York had become dominated by finance and status.

This metropolis on the edge of a wild continent was still a tabula rasa long after the East had become staid.   Like the Europeans seeking all sorts of freedom in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, California was settled by American Easterners, seeking freedoms of their own- whether in  the form of the  ’49ers coming for Sutter Mill gold or the counter-culture which gathered in the 1960’s or the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.
A beginning anew that permeates California ..

…The reward here for having the courage to strike out across this wild continent according to one’s own instincts and nature is a forgiving climate, a wealth of stunning landscape, a generous generous sky, the bounty of earth and ocean, and most of all, the understanding amongst everyone that all is reasonably possible and acceptable.

… But –   the price for having this understanding is an unstable geology, a precarious dependence on water, unforgiving flames, rolling blackouts, millions bent on distraction, and the general bloating of the american dream.

Presenting the Golden Gate

If one walks west from Fisherman’s Wharf along the hilly bike path, one is greeted with a curving vista of the city, bay and the unfathomably clean and rich sky.  The air, ocean, mountains, and city all co-mingle here in a such a way that you can never be sure which is the most dominantly striking feature.

At one moment the steely blue shine of the water catches the eye, and then the very next moment, it’s the clouds.  And then you notice the mountains in the distance, and suddenly realize that the clouds are actually squeezing through the mountains.   And just when you settle into thinking about the natural wonders, the Bridge comes into view, half-enshrouded by the fog, its towers ethereal, its red arc a rainbow of steel vaulting across the Golden Gate.  Finally, turning around, you catch the city, with its houses perched on impossible hills and its universe of humanity.
This is a very rich place.

Russian Hill from St. Peter and Paul Church

Russian Hill from St. Peter and Paul Church

Bruges

Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) is a gem of a museum piece- almost miraculously so.  It rose early enough to create its own prosperity and identity before most other cities in Northern Europe, and it faded soon enough to escape the cataclysms of the Reformation and Industrial eras.


Belfort, Bruges

Belfort, Bruges

–    Bruges built its fortune upon the trade and processing of wool products from England and Scotland, and upon goods from the continental interior.  By the late 1100’s, ships began arriving in the city’s Zwin River from as far as the Hanseatic League and Venice with goods from as far as the Middle East and Russia.  Trade was conducted along the canals, and Bruges quickly became arguably the most important port in Europe.   This complex trade led to the development of more sophisticated financial systems, and in 1309, Bruges opened what was possibly the world’s first stock exchange.

Such was the city’s prosperity that when the queen of France visited in 1301 she is quoted as saying: “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here”.  Bruges’ richness also helped develop the earliest artists of the Northern Renaissance, most notably Jan van Eyck.

Only a year later, the French garrisoned an army in the city to settle a dispute among the ruling and merchant classes, and on the night of May 18 a revolt against French rule began with the “Bruges Matins”, in which a mob filled the streets killing anyone who could not properly pronounce the Dutch phrase: “schild en vriend” (supposedly difficult to pronounce for a French speaker).  Almost the entire French population (estimated at 2,000) was massacred.   Over the next few years, local militias throughout Flanders drove the French out, thus permanently cementing the city in Dutch/Flemish culture.

Markt, Bruges

Markt, Bruges

At its peak, Bruges had a population of 200,000, and by many accounts was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  The miraculousness of Brugge as a “museum piece”, however, comes from its precipitous decline.  Around 1500, by one of the many whims of the North Sea, the Zwin River began to silt up.  Lacking its lifeblood, the city fell into obscurity as business moved to Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp.

It became a forgotten city, Die tote Stadt of Korngold’s 20th century opera.  Its dormancy, however, was its preservation.  Hardly, if any, Baroque, Classical, or 19th century developments ever touched this town.  In the past century, however, Bruges has picked up speed again, this time due to tourism.

The result- a pretty much intact medieval city, not terribly different from its original state.   As such, it draws its requisite tourists, and can be seen at times a sort of historical theme park (but thankfully without much of the commercialization).

Night in Bruges

Night in Bruges

To walk its streets is surreal.  A fever dream of sorts. The real magic is at night, when the daytrippers disappear, and the few tourists that are left hole up with locals at the bar or sit in the Grote Markt listening to the ethereal and ornate rings from the bell tower.  The ancient streets then are dead quiet, the canals still, and one can feel the ghosts rising.

Heilig-Bloedbasiliek/Basilica of the Holy Blod

Helig-Bloedbasilek

Helig-Bloedbasilek

This is a place of wonder.  In 1150, Thierry of Alsace returned from the 2nd Crusade with what is supposed to be the blood of Christ.  This church was completed in 1157 to house the relic which has been encased in the same glass cylinder ever since.  At one point during the Middle Ages, the pope granted indulgences to those who made a pilgrimage here.

Within, there is a rainbow lit chapel.  There is a line of people who have come to see the Holy Blood; all for various reasons.  There are the sight-seers, and those with the utmost of reverence.  At your turn, you walk up the red steps, make a small donation for the upkeep of the church, and then kiss or touch the glass, which is being watched over by a statuesque priest.  Within the glass there appears to be a bloody wrapping of gauze.

This has been happening for 900 years.  And that fact alone is a piece of awe.

Brussels

Brussels is a hard one to explain, especially after staying only a few days.  But sometimes a first impression can be most revealing…

Grand Place, Brussels - taken with the Diana

Grand Place, Brussels - taken with the Diana

Unlike the other cities we visited in Belgium and the Netherlands, Brussels is not quite bursting with a sense of history.  Other than the phenomenal Grand Place, the majority of historic sites are scattered further afield – and everything that lies in between the major points of interest is wholly unattractive- swaths of uninspired 20th century office blocks, ugly residential streets, etc.

At first, I thought it a grumpy city, with a lot of reeling, half-belligerent drunks.  On our first night, there was a street brawl right on the Grand Place.  West Side Story shit…  a bunch of inebriated teenagers kicking the crap out of each other.  The drinking culture in Brussels definitely gives the city a bit of an edge.

But, actually, I find it more a tired city than a grumpy one-  a reluctant capital of sorts.  Wearily carrying the weight of a history that was never really its own.  And the weight of a present that is not exactly its own.  The Brussels of the past belonged to the heavyweights of Europe.  The Brussels of the present seems to belong predominantly to the European Union, NATO, and hoards of tourists.  If there is a vibrant native urban culture, it is very well hidden, for the residents seem to be turned inward.

Accordion player in Marolles, Brussels

Marolles, Brussels

Beyond all the international hubbub, Brussels seems to be a very large provincial town, segregated by neighborhood. People tend to keep to their own, whether it be in the Arab community around Gare du Midi, the opulent buildings along Boulevard Anspach, or the African community near the Royal Palace.  Even the tourists do not spread too far afield from the city center.  This certain lack of cosmopolitanism is striking for a capital city.

In the past, this provincialism was especially true in working-class Marolles, a fiercely individualistic neighborhood dating from the Middle Ages, which, until very recently, even had its own dialect (Bruxellois- a hybrid of French and Dutch).  A fiercely proud neighborhood battered in the 19th century by the urban development plans of a megalomaniac  monarchy with imperialistic designs.

The final blows to the old Marolles are underway.  Gentrification spreading south from the nearby center is overtaking the area once and for all- another piece sliced off of Brussels’ native character.

……. Of course, there are always exceptions. 

And here, thankfully we  found quite a few.

I came to Brussels for the history and beer.  I got both in great abundance-  The rest was somewhat weary and sad- a confused, frustrated city shrinking from the international spotlight.

Porte de Hal, Brussels

Porte de Hal, Brussels

Porte de Hal:

Hallepoort in Dutch.

The sole surviving gate of the 2nd set of defensive walls built around Brussels in the 14th century, La Porte de Hal dates from 1381.

It faces the adjacent city of Halles and one can still see part of the moat built in front.

If the builders of this structure were to see such a thing as the plane in this picture streaking across the sky, one can only imagine the mortal panic that would ensue, especially only a generation or so after the Black Death.

Le Grand Place, Brussels

Le Grand Place

History of Le Grand Place-

Le Grand Place, or Grote Markt, is undoubtedly the prime attraction of Brussels.  There has been a market here since the 900’s, when a fort was constructed nearby on an island in the Senne (the city covered the river in the 19th century).  As Brussels grew during the Middle Ages, the square became the focal point of the city, hosted many markets, and was the site of the public executions commonly associated with this era.

In 1695, a French army under Louis XIV bombarded Brussels in order to draw its enemies away from a siege at Namur, in the south of Belgium.  A third of the city’s buildings were destroyed, including much of Le Grand Place.  Within 4 years, however, members of Brussels’ mercantile guilds rebuilt the square in grand Baroque style- a testament to the city’s wealth.  These guild halls, and the Hotel de Ville (which survived the attack, despite being a prime target), have made this square one of the most noted in Europe.