5 Quirky Sculptures in Belgium

In this part of the world, one would have to be on a constant lookout for statues/sculptures in public places. Some of them might have a piece of history to fall back upon, while others are installations/artworks that might be labelled as quirky. Part of the world where I grew up rarely indulges a concept of artworks on public display. I think we have more murals or graffiti in India than sculptures or installations. A lot depends on the state or central governments for permissions, bureaucracy and the intention to let art permeate into the lives of citizens. In the past few years, I have felt strongly that public artworks play a monumental role in defining a city and shaping its people. The mere mention of Brussels will make you recall the statue of Mannekin Piss, since it has reached the status of a national treasure here. I would not be writing about that overhyped piece though, there is a lot more on the internet if you’d like to search. Travelling through Belgium, I’ve come across quite a few quirky statues/sculptures. Jotting down a few of them, more will follow later.

Fonske (Leuven)

Leuven is a perfect example of the archetypal European university town. With ancient buildings, cobbled streets, enough greenery and a university founded in 1425, Leuven is often perceived as the perfect city for education in Western Europe. To commemorate the university’s 550 years, they had commissioned for a quirky bookish statue and it had been installed in 1976.

Named ‘Fons Sapientiae’ and fondly called ‘Fonske,’ the statue represents the eternal student. He refills his source of wisdom with water (or beer?) and reads along. The statue is periodically dressed in different costumes around the year. We found him without a costume since its summer, probably. The artist who created Fonske is the famous Jef Claerhout.

Horse Head Fountain (Bruges)

Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities, not only in Belgium, but entire Europe. Bruges in autumn is one of the prettiest sights that you would enjoy. Apart from canals, alleyways and ancient houses though, there are quite a few quirky installations that have a bit of history behind them. We have been to Bruges twice and discovered this horse head fountain the second time.

The troughs below the horse heads are actually filled with water for tired horses. Bruges is famous for horse carriages that impart an old world feel to the tourists. This fountain is placed in midway of the carriage route and the city rules insist that carriage horses should be fed, watered and taken care of. I could not find the artist’s details or date of this installation though.

Zinneke Pis (Brussels)

The last of the ‘piss’ series in Brussels, I like this one much better, it seems more fun. This quirky bronze statue of the third in pissing trio is a cute little dog peeing on a pole. I hadn’t known the history or etymology behind the Zinneke. Research showed that the word can be divided into Zenne-ke – zenne is the Dutch word for the river Senne and the prefix -ke is ‘little’. This dog seems to be peeing in the spot where the Senne river flowed and Brussels was established on its banks.

Zinneke is not fortunate enough like Manneken to be dressed up on occasions though. I think most people in Brussels aren’t even aware of this little one on a street corner. The statue was set up in 1998 and created by Tom Frantzen.

The Bandundu Water Jazz Band (Tervuren)

I must admit that this is my favourite in the list. The Bandundu water jazz band is one of the unique ones that I’ve ever seen. Situated in Park Tervuren, just on the outskirts of Brussels, this large installation was created by Tom Frantzen in 2005. The animals in the band represent the ones that are displayed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The frogs play the accordion and trumpet, crocodiles play the double bass and drum, and a hippo plays the tuba. All the animals are placed on round leaves of water lily that are arranged like a rotating gramophone record.

Totem (Leuven)

We have just been to Leuven a week ago and this giant Thai jewel beetle installation on a pole was surprising to say the least. Situated right before the huge bibliotheque of KU Leuven, this was created by world-famous Belgian multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre in 2000. The university wanted to commemorate its 575th anniversary and commissioned Fabre to create an installation as a gift to the city of Leuven.

Fabre conceptualised the beetle as the memory of nature, an ancient computer that has been here long before human existence. He named it ‘Totem.’ The beetle represents the collective memory of humans and is placed before the library, which is the repository of knowledge and books. Sounds intriguing, right?

I will keep writing about more such sculptures/statues across Belgium whenever I come across them. There are a lot of historical ones, not necessarily quirky.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon

Beguines – One of the Oldest Women’s Movement

I learned about Beguinages for the first time last year while visiting Delft, Netherlands. It wasn’t called a Beguinage, rather Klaeushofje in Dutch (a courtyard of 12 houses for Catholic single women), established in 1605. I had no idea that it was part of an order, or something important in world history. The courtyard was not a large one but it had small apartments surrounded by gardens that are open to public. I was just thrilled to visit a courtyard that was originally built in 1605 and still retained the ancient essence of that era.

Klaeushofje in Delft

Cut to 2021 – we made a day trip from Brussels to another ancient city in Belgium – Leuven, just 26 kms away. As I always research a bit before a trip, Leuven seemed to be insistent on a visit of the Grand Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof). Intrigued at having learned a new term, I looked up Beguinages on the internet. The extent of history that came up is stunning and awe-inspiring.

The Beguine movement started in the 12th century when single women (unmarried/widowed) decided to form a community and live in a semi-religious environment. Women were supposed to live and be cared for by their father/brother, husband or son. The only other choice they had was to become a nun. Doesn’t the first part sound pretty familiar even in the 21st century in most parts of the world? However, at the beginning of the 12th century, single women in the ‘low countries’ (Netherlands, Flanders, Belgium) had few options to survive in the patriarchal society. The convents were mostly full and could not accommodate most of them. They started to devote their life to serve the poor and work for the society without taking religious vows. A new lay religious order was created under Christianity, termed Beguines. They were pious and religious but weren’t bound by the rules of the convent. The Beguines could leave the order at any point of time and get married to start a family. It was more of a spiritual order than a religious one. Some Beguinages were built by the local town officials while others were built by the Christian authorities to house these women. The Beguinages are a beautiful example of communal living by, for and of women. They were architectural marvels as well. The structure included huge open spaces, gardens and cobbled pathways around each house/apartment. The houses were very similarly constructed to each other to impart that community vibe. Bit of utopian socialism in the 13th century, eh? But like every other movement, the Beguines declined since the Council of Vienne by the Catholic church in 1312. Their ambiguous religious status created confusion in the society and in some regions, Beguines were termed obnoxiously religious as well. Marguerite Porete, a mystic Beguine was burned in Paris in 1310 on charges of heresy. Most Beguine orders were absorbed into Christianity hence but some of them survived, especially in Belgium and Netherlands. The last traditional Beguine passed away in 2013 in Kortrijk, Belgium.

We made it a point not to miss the Grand Beguinage in Leuven. It was established in 1232 and is one of the oldest Beguinages in Western Europe. The gate mentions the date it was built and leads to the St. John’s the Baptist Church post the entrance.

Gateway to the Grand Beguinage

None of the oldest houses exist in the Beguinage now. They were demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century during the religious upheaval. There are around 100 houses nestled within 12 alleyways that surround them, including bridges on a narrow portion of river Dijle. It is almost a little town in its own right. I particularly love the local and traditional Flemish Baroque architecture from the 16th-17th century, that is evident in these houses. There are hand pumps and wells from bygone eras that remind of the life Beguines had.

Baroque houses from 16th century
Hand pump

This Beguinage was in dire state in the 196os as the inhabitants couldn’t maintain the ancient houses in their deplorable financial state. The Catholic University of Leuven purchased the property and restored the houses. They turned quite a few apartments into housing for students and visiting professors. The premise is accessible for public viewing but most of the houses are private now. The site was announced as a U|NESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

One of the old houses

Did you know? One of the most famous personalities of the Beguine order was Dorothy Day, the American journalist, anarchist and activist?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon

The Dregs of Autumn

 

I love Autumn. Well, it is my most favourite season, especially when I’m in a country at the Northern Hemisphere. Autumn has never been more distinctly observed in my part of the world – India. In West Bengal, where I grew up, autumn mostly meant romanticising about clear blue skies with soft white clouds playing around, announcing the advent of Durga pujo. The colours of autumn have been evident to me only after visiting countries into the Northern Hemisphere – USA, Northern Ireland and now Belgium.

Today was a rare sunny day after weeks of rain and gloom. The winds are already rocking the leaves down and just before these coloured ones fade away onto the ground, we decided to make a little trip to the famous Park Tervuren in Brussels. It was breathtaking as we reached late and captured a bit of autumn to cherish until the next one. You will find red/orange/yellow/light green/ochre – basically a warm colour palette planted into nature that dissipate and make a comeback every year, without fail.

Here’s a photoblog of a few of them, hope you enjoy the photos. So long!

 

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Road-Tripping During Durga Pujo

If you know a Bengali, most of them would vouch for the fact that they look forward to Durga Pujo every year. As we keep on harping, it is not entirely a religious occasion, but more of a cultural festival. In Bengal, people from every religion can visit the Durga Puja pandals and soak into the throbbing and gay ambience of the festival. There is food, adda, friends, family, cute love affairs that may or may not last long, and the sense of oneness with a huge crowd of people milling towards an inimitable goddess. Considering the promise of such fun and felicity, most of us feel awful when we can’t be at home for pujo.

I have been away from Calcutta for the last fourteen years. There have been multiple instances of a no-show during pujo and it has gradually become a norm that we spend this time elsewhere. I think our parents have accepted this by now and they wait for us to be back during longer holidays in Christmas. While they attend the Durga pujo closer to home, we have devised a better way to keep ourselves occupied. If we can’t be with our loved ones during pujo, then it’s better to go on a road trip!

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” – Babs Hoffman

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Sedlec Ossuary – The Bone Church

Europe is a treasure trove of a unique blend of history and art, which might be bizarre at times, but nonetheless interesting. There are hidden gems that haven’t yet received the attention that they deserve from the rest of the world. Few are easily found on the internet, if you’re looking at the right place, and others might appear in books. It’s true that fiction has a very important role in bringing out artworks and places of importance to the eyes of readers worldwide. A few years ago, we chanced upon a book called The Devil’s Prayer by an Indian writer, Luke Gracias. He had travelled widely across Europe and set unusual backdrops for his story. One of them was Sedlec Ossuary or The Bone Church, near to Prague. It made a special position in our wish list of unique things to see and finally we ticked it off in our trip to the Czech Republic.

In a nutshell

Sedlec Ossuary is one of a kind, a chapel decorated entirely with human bones and skulls. There are bones of an estimated 40000-60000 humans. To all those who have begun to cringe by now at this information – it is neither gruesome nor scary. People weren’t killed so that their bones would be used to decorate this church. When you actually visit the place, it is a calm and serene one, devoid of any horrors or macabre vibes. The sole reason being – this chapel is a memorial of lives lost, it does not celebrate their deaths. There is an enormous chandelier of bones, which is a must see.

Located in Kutna Hora, a suburb about 1 hour by train from Prague, the Sedlec Ossuary receives about 200,000 visitors per year.

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5 Must See Statues in Prague

Growing up in India, statues or sculptures always meant commemorating historical stalwarts and landmarks that we can add later to our postal addresses. In all seriousness, I had never heard of modern art/installations in public places in India while I was young. For us Calcuttans, the biggest statue is the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose one at a five point crossing in Shyambazar. I even doubt if it was installed for the sole purpose of creating a landmark for the important crossing of five roads. Much later while I lived in Pune, I’ve often heard people doling out directions like – “Turn left at the Shivaji ka putla.” It took me a while to figure out that the mentioned ‘putla’ is a bronze statue, installed at the corner of a bridge, while wondering if it was a shop selling Shivaji inspired figurines.

Europe, on the other hand, has been much experimental with statues/sculptures/fountains and I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit and admire a few of them in awe. Surprisingly, Prague turned out to be a haven of sculptures, even while it is called the city of a thousand spires. The main reason behind this revolution is sculptor David Cerny. Frankly, I learned about him only recently, after having seen photos and videos from people visiting Prague. There is no disagreement on the fact that Indian visitors to Europe were sparse before the EU and Schengen visa for 28 countries happened. And now there’s a boom! So, here we go, my pick of the five must-see statues in Prague.

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Hallerbos – The Valley of Bluebells

Spring. Just the mere mention of it invokes a riot of colours in blooms and a clean slate of a sky to rejuvenate the year. It’s the season of rainbows and unicorns, daffodils and fresh blooms. What if there is a blue forest somewhere? Imagine walking past a valley in a forest lined with a carpet of blue and not the usual green. Imagine the entire expanse of your sight awash with blue and purple, slightly swaying in the spring breeze, the bells of the flowers making a silent noise. Well, if you are in Western Europe, do not waste time on imagination and head straight to Hallerbos forest in Belgium which turns blue every Spring.

How blue is my valley?

I haven’t been to many forests, but this one tends to welcome you with its open arms of beeches and sequoia, their young tender leaves imparting a serene hue of green all around. The leaves have just sprung up at the advent of spring, their colour and density changing by the day. Their transparent leaves filter the sunlight and spread their warmth upon the bluebells.

Bluebells/Blue Hyacinten

The blue in Hallerbos hits you right at the start of the trail. There’s a simple theory – the bluebells start blooming somewhere from April and last till mid-May, depending on the weather. The large beeches also begin their sprouting season almost simultaneously. Their young green leaves filter the sunlight that reaches the bluebells on the ground and determines the growth and shade of the flowers. For instance, we were in Hallerbos in the third week of April and the sunlight was fairly abundant, helping the bluebells bloom and retain their bright blue hue. In the subsequent weeks, the beech leaves have increased in density, filtering very less sunlight, resulting the bluebells to turn into a greyer shade of purple and start wilting.

Beeches

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Break Away to Brussels

Breaking away literally implies running farther, far away from something that bothers you. When we were asked to relocate from Pune to Brussels, it seemed like a blessing in disguise, as we were flabbergasted in our stint there. Life was taking its toll and we appeared to be stuck in a hole, an obscure corner of the cobweb that none can see. Brussels came as a welcome break, to break away from the monotony that Pune imposed upon us. Of course, the primary attraction was Europe, a land that both M and I had dreamt of living at some point of our lives. Off we went packing, though the visa debacle took almost two months of our anticipatory survival. Thus I’d say, March to June has been a blur this year from departure to arrival and acclimatisation in a strange land.

Why strange? The cobbled sidewalks that haven’t yet been converted to smooth concrete ‘footpaths’ we have back home, the entirety and incredibility of living in a house built in 1900 AD, the joy and sheer awe of standing before altars built centuries ago but still sitting pretty beside modern superstores, eye-soothing greenery and little rose bushes that peek at you from unkempt gardens, holding a bowlful of the famous Belgian fries and loving them as well…there are so many stranger things that I’d write about in the days to come.

There have been glitches – slow paperwork by the government and banks, a peephole to live in the initial days, good weather playing truant and torturing us with the summer’s wrath – but these are a few and ought to be ignored comparing the bliss of living amidst such architecture. Yes, both of us are lovers of some good Gothic pillars, baroques, nouveau art, ancient cathedrals and old houses that smell of varnished wooden stairs.

I’d say Brussels has welcomed us with open arms, along with thousands of other immigrants and hasn’t been shy of our Oriental origin. I haven’t spotted any sneering glances or condescending remarks yet. In a sea of expats, we are just two more cogs in the wheels that run Brussels.

 

I’ll be back with more, much and soon.

5 Things You Must Eat in Bangkok

People never believed us when we insisted that the main agenda of our Bangkok trip was going to be food. Being a lover of Pan Asian cuisine, it was imperative that a holiday in Bangkok meant trying a lot of Thai food. Even with millions of tourists flocking every month and season, Thai and Chinese cuisine is more popular in the city than Global fast food chains for people who wouldn’t venture out of their comfort zone. Does that imply we didn’t try the amazing Samurai Pork Burger in McDonald’s or Beef Whopper in Burger King? Of course, we did! They were cheap and totally unavailable in India, which made themselves land into our list of items to try. But they aren’t eligible to be featured into these 5 must eats from Thai cuisine. These are nutritious, delicious and well within your budget if you’re a traveller like me and M. We love to explore the local cuisine of any place we visit, rather than sit in boutique hotels and sample gourmet food.

Eat all Thai :)

Eat all Thai 🙂

We recommend these must eat treats once you’re in Bangkok –

Spring Roll and Pad Thai – These two aren’t served together, but they’re often in close proximity. Thai Spring Rolls are probably one of the few vegetarian appetisers that we love. Crisp on the outside with a moist filling of veggies, always freshly fried and served with a sweet chilli sauce – Spring Rolls are a must on the streets of Bangkok. They provide a quick snack break, satiate your taste buds and come as cheap as 30 THB per plate. We’ve had the best ones at a stall on Khao San Road and it’s the best way to fill your stomach before you start partying.

spring-rolls

Vegetable Spring Rolls

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Love Thy Neighbour!

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

True. Having been taught the gospels of Saint Augustine in a school named after him, this is one of his teachings I believe in. You cannot discover more than half of yourself unless you have travelled. Each new sight and sound, flora and fauna unravels a part of you hidden hitherto from your own soul.

Image Courtesy: Google

Image Courtesy: Google

I have travelled in India, yes. As a family, we’ve done the usual ‘South India’ tours, the ‘Bombay-Goa’, ‘Rajasthan’, and the shorter ‘Puri’, ‘Darjeeling’ ones. There’s one more tour that people from Calcutta usually cover early in their life – Nepal, our beautiful neighbouring country. My parents had missed it, somehow. My in-laws have visited there recently. It seems we’re one of the few couples in our family not having been there. I’ve always longed to visit Nepal as I primarily adore mountains. The alluring chill of the hills, the tranquility that is hard to find in the plains, and the familiarity of the people in language and habits are reason enough for a visit or two. So I had planned a Nepal trip long ago including places to visit, food to eat, adventure, religious shrines, national parks and lakes. The itinerary got easier with Skyscanner providing a credit of 1 lakh rupees to accommodate all my plans. Here’s the plan all chalked out for any one to have a great trip in Nepal. I have pointed the key places I’d like to visit in the map here – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Patan (5 km from Kathmandu), Royal Chitwan National Park, Pokhara and Lumbini. Each has it’s own significance in my trip, read further to know how they fit.

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