After three years in Brussels, we returned home to Sweden at the end of December. I celebrated this in a post and and attached video earlier in the year. So, why go back?
Brussels banking business
In a sense it was bureaucracy. When we left we had to keep our bank accounts open. There were a few bills we were expecting, and it was easier and we thought it would be cheaper to keep the accounts open till we had paid everything off. Perhaps not the best decision. When we consulted with our Belgian bank (and getting an appointment to do that was a palaver in itself) we discovered that in order to close the accounts we would both have to be physically present.
OK. It’s a security precaution. We could appreciate that. So, we said to one another, how about we come back to Brussels in the spring? The end of April so we would have a fine final memory of the city, rather than the rainy winter we were experiencing in December. After all, who could say when we might be coming back to Belgium otherwise? We returned home and booked our flight, congratulating ourselves on getting relatively cheap tickets because we booked so long in advance.
We forgot one minor detail. We were in Brussels in the first place because Mrs SC was on secondment from Swedish Customs. She was working at the World Customs Organisation’s Brussels HQ. Returning to Sweden she was given a new job as one of Swedish Customs international experts. And where is her expertese best used? Why, often it’s in Brussels! So, the week before we’d booked our nostalgic visit to the city of beer and chocolate, the Atomium and pissing children, she was actually working there from Sunday to Wednesday. She flew home Wednesday evening, and on the Friday she was back again. This time, to be sure, on holiday and with me in tow.
Our brief return lasted from Friday to Tuesday and our appointment at the bank was on the final day.
“I don’t want to stay in Brussels all the time,” she said. “Too much like work.”
So instead we tried to visit some of the places we’d talked about visiting but never got around to while we were living there. Saturday was Ixelles (which, OK, is a suburb of Brussels and where we were staying) and Ghent. Sunday was Namur. Monday was Leuven.
Blanche of Namur
There’s a nursery rhyme familiar across Scandinavia. The version I know starts:
Rida rida Ranka
hästen heter Blanka
More or less “Ride a cock horse, Blanche is the horse”. The rhyme is chanted in time to a small child bouncing on an adult’s knee. Nobody knows how old the rhyme is, but supposedly Blanka is Blanche of Namur. She became Queen of Sweden and Norway (and Skåne) in 1335 after marrying King Magnus Eriksson. There’s a world famous (in Scandinavia) painting by the Swedish artist Magnus Edelfelt that shows Blanka bouncing her son Hååkan.
We’d been talking about visiting Namur, just for Blanka’s sake, ever since we discovered one of Brussel’s underground stations (named for a former city gate) is Port de Namur. Then on one of our expeditions south we came back by train to Brussels at night. Passing through Namur we saw the castle all floodlit and dominant. So, Sunday was Namur. We climbed to the castle – and up through the castle – and took ourselves to the cafeteria at the top. Being Belgium, the cafeteria also sells alcohol and proudly displayed magnum bottles of the local beer decorated with Edelfelt’s painting.
At the university in Leuven
Namur is in Wallonia, south of Brussels. Leuven is in Flanders, in Brabant, east of the capital. Previously we’d visited the French-speaking town of Louvain-la-Neuve, but Flemish Leuven is the original. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the new town is a consequence of a 20th century language dispute at Leuven’s old university. The original universty – the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven – dates from 1425 and (Wikipedia tells me) is “the oldest Catholic university still in existence”. As in every university town, student life overflows into the city. There were young people everywhere, and bicycles.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Leuven is also the headquarters of Anheuser-Busch InBev, “the world’s largest brewer”. (Wikipedia again.) Means nothing to you? What if I say Stella Artois?
As I walk around the old centre of Leuven, admiring the buildings – the modern restorations and the new architectural additions – the decoration old and new, it is born in upon me how fabulously wealthy this part of the world is. How wealthy it has been for centuries. I’ve felt this repeatedly all through my time in Belgium. Yes, the country is not a museum – though parts of it may seem to be. It has it’s eyesores and post-industrial blight. But there is a reason it was the cockpit of Europe, the place for centuries that everyone went to have a war. The pickings were rich, and the country always lifted itself up again and made more money – which then became another magnet for the armies of Germany and France, England and Spain. And further afield. Wikipedia says “The earliest mention of Leuven (Loven) dates from 891, when a Viking army was defeated” here.
Leuven also, once upon a time, housed one of the largest Beguin communities in the Netherlands. The Beguine are all gone, but the Beguinage – the Groot Begijnhof – still stands as picturesque university accommodation. Speaking of (some parts of Belgium) looking like a museum.
Back in Brussels
We were staying in Air b&b accommodation in Ixelles – mostly because it was a district of the city we didn’t visit much when we lived here. It’s always nice to see new places. The room was fine, but at the top of four flights of steep stairs. A bit of a challenge to negotiate after a day out in the sun followed by an evening in a bistro.
Just outside, a few doors down the road, one house owner had set up a private book box. Of course I had to photograph it, and look inside. Two books in French – thrillers judging by the covers. Something to do with the Second World War. And a book in English by David Lodge. Paradise News had gone on Tuesday, the day we left, so I replaced it with Burning Angels – about which more in a later post.
Another little pleasure about staying in Ixelles came as we waited one day to catch a bus into the centre. Parked under some trees across from the bus stop I saw this van (left). Just after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015 I started to notice a graffiti pencil turning everywhere in Brussels. I’m fairly sure it must be the same artist who decorated this van. I don’t think I’ve every taken a picture of one of the pencils, though. But now I have. You can’t see in this photo, but on the cover of the open book by the pencil-artist’s foot it reads “à mes amis”.
All good things must come to an end. The weather, which had been fantastic all weekend, broke on the Tuesday. That was the same day we had to see the bank and the day we were travelling, so it didn’t matter. Not least because I have captured the good days. Here below is a little gallery of the photos from the article and a few more. There’s more to say about our brief return, and probably a bit of fun to be had from the frustrations we had dealing with the bank and our mobile phones. But, for now, I prefer not to let my pen dwell on that.
In the gallery below, click on the pictures to see them full-screen.
This article has a number of links to other posts I’ve written about Brussels and Belgium. If you’re interested to see more, go here!
I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.