From Visby and on my way to Bergen, I made a short stop in the city of Kongsberg, Norway. I stayed here for 2 days in a wonderful Airbnb!
Kongsberg (Viken County) is a historical mining town, just one and a half hours by train from Norway’s capital of Oslo. It is one of the only places where you could mine silver in Europe, operating from 1623 until 1958.
The mines are located in a beautiful park that is also great for hiking! My Airbnb host, Tale, was kind enough to give me a guided tour of the historical area – she knew everything there was to know about Kongsberg’s history and the old silver mines. We walked around for a few hours and even managed to sneak into Kongsberg Church, a beautiful and unusual building with a surprising theatre-like interior.
Even though I was only there for a short time, Kongsberg is definitely worth a visit!
Not every morning starts in the best way. Unfortunately, today’s day brought us some trouble right from the start. Our plan was to leave Amsterdam and head for Leiden by crossing the inner canals. To do this we would have had to leave at night because there are railroad bridges that open only at 3 and 4 a.m. Before leaving, however, it was necessary to take back and reassemble the engine component that had been fixed by the mechanic. Gloria immediately tried her hand at reassembling the parts and tried to access the engine to see if there were still water leaks. Unfortunately, a few drops still gushed out, but this time from the hose instead of the pump. Moreover, after a few attempts to start the engine, there was a strange noise of stuck gears and a burning smell. Immediately Gloria stopped the attempts and contacted an experienced mechanism from Italy who suggested step by step what to do to figure out the cause of the problem. The situation is more complicated than expected. Maybe it’s the batteries, maybe it’s the battery charger, or maybe it’s the starter motor. Hard to tell.
The Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
After a long and agitated morning, we understand that we had to wait and that we are unlikely to be able to sail in the next few days. We decide, therefore, to break away for a while, have lunch, and go for a walk around downtown. Our afternoon is once again absorbed in artistic discoveries, this time in the field of photography at the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (FOAM). As soon as we started visiting we bumped into “Blessings from Mousganistan”, an exhibition by self-taught photographer Mous Lamrabat (Morocco, 1983). Lamrabat’s work is characterized by beauty and a sense of hope. His work is an exhilarating and occasionally confronting fusion of his diasporic life, employing beauty and humour to create powerful new narratives about sensitive issues such as racism, religion, and women’s rights. The artist conveys a message of love through a colorful and eclectic visual experience in Blessings from Mousganistan.
But the most interesting part was exhibited at the first floor. The group exhibition is entitled Foam Talent 2022 and presents the work of a new generation of artists. The 20 participating artists examine both the world around us and the one within – without fear of discomfort or pain. Climate change, political conflict, discrimination, displacement, and social justice issues are addressed in the works, which remind us that photography has the ability to capture the unspeakable. One of the artists that impressed us the most is Yushi Lii. Moving deftly between vulnerability and quiet violence, so the work of Yushi Li holds the viewer in its thrall. Her gaze falls ipon contemporary masculinity, desire and eroticism, as well as the often-unspoken awkwardness of a potentially sexual encounter.
But what we liked the most was Kata Geibl’s masterpiece, “There Is Nothing New Under The Sun”. In this monograph she interrogates the rampant individualism that underpins our contemporary social, political and economic system and how capitalist ideology infiltrates our consciousness. She brings this to life by means of photographs, quotations, critical theory, personal essays and cultural references. The book invites the viewer on a journey of immense existential questioning as we confront what it means to be human in this moment. There are no easy answers, just an impulse to unsettle establishing narratives, expose the underlying ideology and metabolize the chaos all in the spirit of transformation. Reading and looking at her images and words was a mental journey that we will not forget easily. He felt so lucky because we had a chance to take two of her photographs directly from the exhibition wall.
Typical Dutch dinner
Once again, art has used its super powers to elevate our mood. So, happy and content, we returned to the boat, took a quick shower and then took our bikes back to the typical Dutch restaurant where some of Allegra’s university classmates were waiting for us. The restaurant’s name is ’t Zwaantje, instead of tablecloths there are thick Dutch carpets, there are copper pots hanging from the ceiling and dim lights reminiscent of candle lighting. How nice to get together in such a typical setting! after sitting down at the table, we immediately began to tell the boys about our trip and adventures. Only after a while did we remember to order! We tried many different specialties such as “Saté van varkenshaas met pindasaus”, which is sate of pork tenderloin with peanut sauce, and “Kip in ’t pannetje”, which is chicken in a pan. And of course, we had a lot of Dutch fries!
One of the first things Anna, the lady who hosted us in Brussels, showed us was a wonderful book with beautiful illustrations of the city at the turn of the last century before splendid 18th-century buildings were demolished and when Art Nouveau was at its peak. Therefore, we could not resist following a short itinerary in search of some of the masterpieces of the artist and architect Horta. A forerunner of Art Nouveau, Horta revolutionized the way people conceived of dwelling buildings, broadening the architect’s task from the design of spaces, interior and exterior, to a conception that also included the study and implementation of lighting, furniture, wall decoration, even objects. According to the definition of one of his admirers, French architect Hector Guimard, Horta was an “artist architect” who conceived of the home as a “total” work of art, like a “shell” built around its owner. We were so curious that we read a lot of information while walking from one house to another.
«To each epoch, its art. To art, its freedom.»
This motto, displayed on the frontage of J.M. Olbrich’s Secession House in Vienna in 1898, reflects the desire to which Art Nouveau was a response: the desire to break away from imitating styles of the past, to develop an art that reflected the sensitivities and way of life of a particular society, the extreme individuality of the artist dreaming of inventing an original language that would ensure the absolute harmony of life’s ornamentation. With its newly acquired wealth in commercial or industrial enterprises, the private home became the framework for an aesthetic experience for a new middle class. Art Nouveau was thus adopted by progressive individuals who sought to assert their modernity before it became widespread across all social classes or a passing fad. Images in decorative arts magazines and in commerce (department stores or magasins d’art) spread the word.
Our favorite house was Saint-Cyr house, one of the most extravagant Art Nouveau achievements. It was built by Victor Horta’s protégé, architect Gustave Strauven. Between 1901 and 1903, he built and designed this house for the painter George Saint-Cyr. The four-meter-wide narrow façade is rich in delicately crafted ironwork. The circular loggia surmounted by a wrought iron gable in Baroque style is one of the most stunning elements of the façade. The house has a fairy-tale atmosphere thanks to the architectural twist and ornamentation.
A coffee with the Italian Ambassador
After this amazing walking, we took the underground to get to the Italian Embassy in Brussels. We were so honored and grateful to be welcomed there. It was a great thrill to dialogue with Ambassador Francesco Genuardi, tell him about our project and answer his questions. In addition, we had the opportunity to ask more about his work and what it means to represent Italy in a country of central importance for European purposes, such as Belgium. The ambassador explained to us his role in connecting Belgian and Italian instances from both economic and political and cultural perspectives. We were positively impressed by his openness to citizenship and youth initiatives.
It’s time to leave Belgium
Unfortunately, time ran out in Brussels and we had to head to the bus station where with some difficulty we found our Blablabus waiting for us to leave. Before reaching our destination, which is Amsterdam, we passed through Rotterdam, a city we did not know and were dazzled by as we peered out of the windows. During the long bus ride, we rested and used the time to post social content about the wonderful days in Belgium.
Once we arrived in Amsterdam we ran into the doors to greet Moses the cat who patiently waited for us during these days away. Just enough time to unpack and then we got right to work preparing a small aperitif for Door Mariam and her boyfriend. Door Mariam studies in Groningen as Gloria and writes for the online newspaper Ukrant. Interested in our project she asked us for an interview. It was an in-depth and extremely pleasant conversation. It was an opportunity to focus on all the activities we had copied over the past weeks and reflect on them. After letting them taste some Italian amaro, we said our goodbyes and sank into bed to give ourselves a great rest!
“La grande force de défense, c’est l’amour qui engage les amants dans un monde enchanté fait exactement à leur mesure et qui est défendre admirablement par l’isolement” – Renè Magritte.
Surrealism for breakfast!
This morning we woke up poetic and thirsty for art, so we decided to devote our morning to visiting one of the city’s most important collections, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. We started visiting the Magritte Museum, which not only holds the largest collection of works by the famous Belgian Surrealist but also the most important collection of works from Magritte’s “vache” period. In addition to numerous world-famous paintings in typical Magritte style, we also discovered works from his less well-known periods. For instance, we expanded our knowledge about the advertising collaborations the artist has made throughout his career to support himself. One of Magritte’s masterpieces that surprised us the most was the “Empire of Light”. A nighttime street scene is set against a pastel-blue, light-drenched sky dotted with fluffy cumulus clouds. René Magritte upends a fundamental organizing premise of life with no fantastic element other than the single paradoxical combination of day and night. Sunlight, which is normally associated with clarity, causes the confusion and unease that is traditionally associated with darkness. The brightness of the sky becomes unsettling, making the empty darkness below appear even more impenetrable than it would in a normal situation. The strange subject is treated in an impersonal, precise style that is typical of veristic Surrealist painting and that Magritte has preferred since the mid-1920s.
A journey into the last century
Once we concluded Magritte collection, we dove into the astonishing Musée Fin-de-Siècle. The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the 1900s, when Brussels, Europe’s capital, was a unique artistic crossroads and Art Nouveau’s capital. Paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints, sculptures, photographs, films, models, and decorative objets d’art can be found in this cultural history sanctuary. Ensor, Khnopff, Spilliaert, Horta, Rodin, Gauguin, Mucha, Bonnard,…: more than 30 major artists are honored at the Fin-de-Siècle Museum! Plunged into the heart of the effervescent atmosphere of Brussels 1900, we discovered a range of artistic currents, from impressionism to Art Nouveau, and different disciplines, from fine arts to opera.
We were impressed by a wonderful oil painting by Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. The title is “Nude Against the Light”, also known as “Backlit Nude” (in French: “Nu à contre-jour”). Marthe de Mrigny, the artist’s naked model and partner, is shown in the work applying eau de Cologne after a bath in a tub. She is silhouetted against the window light, which fills the room with bright warm shadowless light and color. The bather is reflected in a mirror, which is a recurring motif in Bonnard’s work. Another amazing painting that dazzled us is “Dimanche après-midi” by Gustave Van de Woestyne. Gustave organized his life and art around deep philosophical reflections. Even at a young age he was very concerned with existential questions, which were quickly amplified by religion. The artist made several attempts to lead a clerical life, but he was too driven by creative desire to devote his existence exclusively to the church. Instead, he understood the pictorial palette as a tool to spread the word of God by deploying subtle earthy colors to represent Catholic values such as simplicity and humility, love of God, respect for all creatures, human suffering, and hope. The artist embodied this spiritual dedication with an open stance on the world. His eclectic body of work is informed by his receptivity to developments in Modernism.
Institutional meeting at the Grand Place
After this long morning among masterpieces, we had lunch with Gloria’s friend in a nice park in the middle of the city. Then we walked around till a terrace over the city: we enjoyed the beautiful landscape. It was almost four o’clock and it was time to head for the town hall at the Grand Place. What a thrill to enter these wonderful buildings and meet Ans Persoons, alderwoman of town planning, public spaces and dutch-language education and affairs.
We talked about many topics, in particular management of mass tourism. Ans explained to us that in the old town many old stores have moved away and made way for souvenir stores or small bazaars. This, in addition to creating problems with the identity of the central areas, is a reason for the emptying of the downtown dwellings. In fact, in order to access the upper floors of the buildings, it is necessary to go through the stores. But currently few people who work in the stores live above their stores. So, the municipality is trying to create secondary entrances where possible, so as to make the downtown apartments more desirable. Another issue is related with Airb&b and the rising rental costs. In addition to that, Ans explained to us the municipal difficulties to combine several different interests, such as accessibility for disable people, cycle paths, monumental conservation and sustainable restorations. For example, Ans told us that the “Royel des Monuments Commission” carried out a study of the famous Place de la Liberte and lobbied the municipality to uproot the trees currently in the square because they do not belong to the original neoclassical design. Clearly the idea of removing trees from a city is absurd considering the efforts being made to plant new ones!
Honored to have been able to attend this meeting, we said goodbye to Ans and headed home, where we had a chance to chat some more with Anna and her husbands, the kind Italian couple who welcomed us into their apartment.
For two European Youth Parliament members like Gloria and Allegra, Brussels means firstly the home of Europe. So, our adventure begins at the House of European History, the foremost museum dedicated to the transnational phenomena that have shaped our continent. It connects and compares shared experiences and their various interpretations by interpreting history from a European perspective. The House of European History is a place for learning, reflection, and debate for people of all ages and backgrounds. Its primary goal is to improve understanding of European history in all of its complexities, to promote the exchange of ideas, and to challenge assumptions. The House presents Europe’s history in a way that highlights the diversity of perspectives and interpretations. It keeps both shared and divided memories. It exhibits and collects information about the history and foundations of European integration. The House of European History is an academically independent project of the European Parliament and part of its visitor offer. Its international collection, exhibitions, and programs provide unexpected and inspiring encounters. The idea is to strengthen the European dimension in debating, exhibiting, and learning about history through outreach and partnerships. The House’s multifaceted interpretation of the past, as a place for encounters and exchange, builds bridges to questions relevant to today’s Europe.
The permanent collection is organized in the following sections: 1) shaping Europe, 2) Europe a global power, 3) Europe in ruins, 4) Rebuilding a divided continent, 5) Shattering certainties, 6) Europe now. We traveled from one section to another listening to audios, watching videos, reading original documents and much more. It was very interesting to find out how much common ground there is among European countries, as well as to learn more about the recent history of European nations farther away from Italy and about which we knew less.
Bumping into dear colleagues
With great enthusiasm we left the museum and headed for the European Parliament. Right in the square dedicated to Altiero Spinelli we happened to meet a close friend of Gloria’s: Filippo, also an active member of EYP. Together we went to the headquarters of the European Youth Forum where we met Francesco, a friend and colleague. Together we conversed about our project and their initiatives related to the theme of climate change and cultural heritage. The meeting was really prolific because we got the interesting view of this NGO, which is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe. It is made up of over 100 National Youth Councils and international youth NGOs from across Europe. The European Youth Forum works to empower young people to participate actively in society and improve their lives by representing their interests towards the European Institutions, the Council of Europe, the United Nations and other partners active in the youth field.
The magnificent Grand Place
Later, we left Francis at his work and headed with Filippo to the city center to admire the famous Grand Place. The square has been influenced by architecture from the Baroque, Gothic, and Louis XIV eras, giving it an eclectic feel. Because of its eclectic character, UNESCO designated the Grand Place as a World Heritage Site in 1998. Historically, the Brussels Grand Place was a marketplace where traders and citizens exchanged goods. The streets that surround the square are named after foods. As in the case of butter (Rue au Beurre), herbs (Rue du Marché aux Herbes), cheese (Rue du Marché aux Fromages), and so on. Market stands gave way to the grand buildings that surround the Grand Place today as the city grew. The Maison du Roi in French means “King’s House,” but the Broodhuis in Dutch means “Bread House.” After France bombarded Brussels in 1695, most of the buildings were rebuilt or restored.
The most popular Belgian boy
Then, we walked around the city center and came across the Manneken Pis. It is a figurine of about 50 centimeters, depicting a naked child, urinating from the top of a fountain. Manneken Pis was carved in stone in 1388. Since its placement in the 14th century, they tried to steal the statuette on several occasions, until an ex-convict managed to steal it. Thus it was that a bronze copy of the original stone statue, made in 1619 by Jérôme Duquesnoy, a famous Belgian artist of the time, was placed on the fountain. Subsequently, attempts were made several times to steal this copy, and today, it is not known for sure whether the statuette is really the one that Jérôme Duquesnoy made or whether it is another copy. In 1698 a governor gave Manneken Pis his first dress, a tunic. This was the first of 650 suits given to him by government presidents visiting Brussels. In the Museé de la Ville, located in Maison du Roi, you can see the young hero’s clothes, small regional outfits or costumes, such as that of the bullfighter and Elvis. At various times of the year, the Brussels City Council dresses the Manneken Pis in original clothes. We saw the Manneken Pis wearing an officer’s outfit!
To conclude our day, we decided to have dinner together before Filippo went back to Maastricht where he lives. We took advantage of this time together to exchange some more ideas about our project and some thoughts about the city of Brussels!
Anyone who wishes to know what I got up to in Budapest, need only follow the trail of my parking fines. They lead from Józsefváros in Pest, to Bikás park, to the scenic cliffs in Buda that look over the city, the slow ships on the river Danube, and the dark plains beyond.
Parking fines come in what resembles a dog waste-bag, tucked affectionately under the windshield wiper. Once you get one, you begin to see them everywhere. When you see a car with a pile of six or seven, you can’t help but wince in solidarity.
Why did I end up with so many parking fines, you might ask? Why not just pay for a ticket like everyone else? I need only show you Budapest’s parking machines with instructions solely in Hungarian, looking like relics from the Communist times and you will understand my desperation. In the five minutes it takes to find, examine and stand gaping at the machine, a green bag will have already landed on the windshield.
Kertész and Van der Meer
I visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center hoping to see Capa’s famous picture of the dying Spanish Loyalist, a photograph which has haunted me since I first saw it in a textbook as a child. Unfortunately, the Capa exhibit is under renovation, but there’s an exhibition of André Kertész’ photographs of rural Hungary on, and it’s wonderful. Also very moving are Hans van der Meer’s photographs of Budapest in the 1980s.
The Buda Castle
Like K in Kafka’s Castle, I have a hell of a time entering. From Gellert Park, I step into a shiny elevator on the west side. Up on the first landing, the door opens on a disorienting scene: People in suits scurry around, vacuuming, sweeping, and hauling large crates of the brightest, largest oranges I’ve ever seen. They barely notice when they crash into each other or into me. The sun sinking in the sky and lighting up the stones only seems to make them run faster.
When I slip away and try to take the stairs up to the next landing, I meet a stout security guard with his legs spread out on the steps. He tells me something angrily in Hungarian and motions with his nose back down to the first landing. When I try to take a kind of ramp, a police woman appears imposingly at the top, shaking her head solemnly. An orange rolls down the ramp and past my feet.
My third and last attempt to get into the Buda Castle is a small elevator, tucked around the corner, which takes me up to the next landing with a jolt. When I exit, I am alone in a stone courtyard, empty except for six or seven huge French flags flapping in the wind. I jog my memory but cannot remember the Budapest ever being occupied by the French. The Ottomans, yes. The Habsburgs, yes. The Soviets, yes. But the French?
Eventually I hear footsteps, and a film crew passes by wheeling a massive crane. Someone appears in the upper windows and slowly begins lowering the French flags, which drop into a pile on the stones.
Inside the Buda Castle is the Hungarian National Gallery. It’s there that I see ‘The Visitation’ in an exhibition about medieval Hungarian altarpieces. Painted in 1506, ‘The Visitation’ shows the figures of Mary and St. Elizabeth surrounded by irises, strawberries, and peonies. The sky behind them is red, as if someone had pulled a curtain over the sun. The picture is beautiful and disorienting, containing both (what I, with albeit little art history knowledge) think of as Japanese and Art Nouveau elements (look at the Iris!). I stand and look at this picture for at least ten minutes before I read that it that it was taken from the Church of St. Catherine in Banská Štiavnica, where we rattled on the doors but couldn’t enter.
The other painting that leaves a comparably deep impression on me is Sandor Trauner’s ‘Picture 1’ from 1929. It’s empty darkness is as comfortable, full and disturbing as a László Krasznahorkaibook or a Béla Tarr film. I carry both paintings with me in my mind as I exit the beautiful Buda Castle.
A few streets in Józsefváros, where I’m staying, are being torn up and redone. When Friday evening comes, the street becomes still, and tools and materials are left here and there, waiting for Monday. When Monday comes, the workers return, and with them, the noise. After sitting for ten minutes in Józsefváros, a thin layer of dust has accumulated on my head and I look and feel as useless as a jack hammer on a Sunday afternoon.
From the window, I watch construction workers who gaze at iridescent green beetles on the sidewalk. I watch the shadows of yellow honey-locust trees on the walls. I watch the ticketing officer on his rounds. He slips green bags under the cars with a mournful expression (he doesn’t look nearly as mean as I imagined). I watch old women with shopping bags swinging, propelling them forward, youths who trip over their legs, and middle-aged men who drag their feet as if they weighed a million tons. I watch fights between lovers and neighbours passing objects through windows. At night the street-lamps grow so dim that it’s hard to see anything at all.
October sun streams into Budapest Keleti, the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. I stand amongst a mass of people under the arrivals board. We fidget in anticipation of whoever is coming or perhaps our own going. The station is quiet, and somehow provincial: people run over the tracks and slip between standing trains. The train from Munich finally arrives and A gets off, pale as a ghost. He has the flu. We decide to spend two extra days in Józsefváros, to let him rest. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to worry about parking fines.
On Monday we decide to take off. Only, the car won’t start. The battery is dead. after receiving detailed instructions from a mechanic friend on the phone, I get into the drivers seat and A pushes the car (this can’t be very good for someone with the flu) down the street. A few bystanders join him in pushing. Second gear! Second gear! They all shout at me. I am screaming. I shift into second, the car starts with a cough, and we glide out of Budapest and head south.
The sun shined high over the canals of Bruges and the scent of chocolate filled the streets of the city. We could not resist long walks through the picturesque streets of the city, stopping occasionally to admire the fairy-tale landscape around us. Immersed in an ancient atmosphere, we photographed the most beautiful sights, sent postcards to Italy, and drank coffee in the shade of a weeping willow tree on the canal bank.
We thoroughly enjoyed the magical morning, before heading to the town hall at 12 a.m. to meet the Climate and Energy Department team. Once we got in front of the meeting point, we were left speechless by the magnificence of the palace facade. The monumental City Hall (1376-1421) is one of the Low Countries’ oldest structures. For more than 600 years, the city has been governed from here. The Gothic Hall, with its impressive vault and 20th century murals depicting Bruges’ history, is an absolute masterpiece. Using original documents and paintings, the adjacent historic hall sheds more light on Bruges’ governance over the centuries.
A meeting at town hall
At the second floor of the town hall, we had the honor to talk with Schepen Minou Esquenet, aldermen of climate and energy, environmental policy, smart city and facilities management, and with Leentje Gunst, department head of building design. They explained to us that one of their main duties is to develop a masterplan to manage, preserve and restore more than 500 monuments. In particular, large concentration of monuments causes a huge flow of tourists from all over the world, whose presence undermines the proper physical preservation of places, but also the cultural characteristics of the city. An example of this problem is the emptying out of the center: the inhabitants of Bruges and the typical stores have moved further outside or even outside the city walls in order to be able to enjoy more peace and quiet. Instead, the center has been filled with tourist stores selling low-quality chocolate, souvenirs, industrially produced lace, and cafes with international menus. The historical buildings close to the monuments became mostly airbnb accommodation. That’s why the Municipality of Bruges tries to encourage an overnight stay for several nights in order to promote a visit to the city spread over several days. Moreover, they have taken up citizens’ demands and shaped the so-called golden triangle in which to concentrate tourist attractions so that the rest of the old town is quieter and more livable. In addition to that, Minou and Leentjie talked about their will to regulate the airbnb rentals limiting them to a period of 30 days per year for each apartment.
As had been the case in Amsterdam, here we were shown various problems that arise in trying to improve the sustainability of older buildings. Most of the palaces cannot be subjected to exterior changes because of legislation on the preservation of cultural heritage. The gas crisis is also creating difficulties because the inevitable drop in temperatures inside the buildings could damage artwork, ancient furniture, and the oldest and most delicate architectural structures. For this reason, the municipality has already taken steps to install dehumidifiers in every room.
Once our meeting was over, we decided to use our remaining time to visit another place on the unesco heritage list: the Beguinage.
The Bruges beguinage dates from the 13th century, specifically 1245, and is one of the best preserved. The majority of its buildings are not as old, dating from the nineteenth century, but the original layout of the Beguinage has been preserved.
A Beguinage was a community of women who followed the apostles’ example of poverty, simplicity, and preaching. These are lay orders that make no binding vows. They could break their vows and leave the Beguine community at any time.
The Beguines were a group of single or widowed women who wanted to live a religious life outside of the confines of a convent or monastery. As a result, many north Belgian and Dutch cities established beguinages where these women could live and pray. The beguines led a hardscrabble existence, earning their living at first with looms. No vows were taken, but they followed a strict regime overseen by a mistress who protected the establishment’s independence. The last beguinage nun left in 1927, and it has since been occupied by a community of Benedictine nuns.The Beguinage is accessed via a small bridge and a gatehouse built in 1776. The first church on this site was built in 1245, but it burned down in 1584, and the Gothic replacement, built in 1605, was given a Baroque facelift around 1700. It is dedicated to St. Elisabeth of Hungary, patron of many beguinages, and to St. Alexis, reputedly the son of a wealthy Roman family who chose poverty and charitable work over riches: desirable virtues among Beguines. This church is still active, with daily services led by the Benedictine Sisters who live in the former beguinage. Silence is requested, as it is in the rest of their home. St. Joseph is commemorated on the altar to the right. The gilded Madonna and Child below is a Medieval treasure from the chapel: “Our Lady of Consolation” or “Our Lady of Spermalie” dates from 1240. A small museum recreates the living quarters of a beguine in the corner to the left of the beguinage’s entrance. We lit a candle in the church, took a moment of reflection then said goodbye to this place of faith.
Bye bye Bruges
Our time in Bruges was almost over! We went home to say goodbye and thank you to Magdar and Stan, packed our bags and ran to the station to catch the train that took a little over an hour to Brussels.
The arrival in the Belgian capital was magnificent: wide Parisian-style streets and hubbub of international people greeted us as we exited the metro.
Also in this city we found a supportive and loving welcome from, this time, one of our fellow Italian citizens who has been living in Brussels for a few years now. Anna hosted us in her large house where we were able to rest from our trip. With her we talked amiably about our project and the initiatives we carry out, while Anna told us about her work in the capital of Europe and anticipated the wonders and history of the city.
Visby is a 12th century Hanseatic town with an old city center that looks like it came straight from a painting – it is no wonder many Stockholm residents choose to spend their summer months here!
From Stockholm, you can take a 1 hour transfer bus and then a 3 hour ferry to arrive in Visby, the harbour and capital city of Gotland, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
On Tuesday afternoon, I had the privilege to get a walking tour from Louise Hoffman, World Heritage coordinator/ Site Manager in Visby. She showed me where the harbour used to be, and we walked along the incredibly well-preserved old city wall. On the way, we walked past several impressive ruins and the beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral.
At one point, Louise pointed towards a part of the wall that had fallen down a few years before, due to an old renovation that used cement in between the bricks – instead of the more elastic limestone. She explained the importance of mapping the entire wall for weak spots and fortifying them, a large-scale project that is still going on!
Of course we also discussed climate change and its impact on the island/ the island’s heritage. As Visby is an island, it is particularly vulnerable to changing weather conditions such as storms, heavy rainfall, droughts, and rising sea levels. Especially droughts has been a big issue in recent years… During summer, there have been campaigns to encourage people to be more frugal with their water usage – which is very much necessary.
Another interesting aspect of the city’s sustainability is the preservation of its traditional knowledge with regards to renovating the old houses inside the city center. Using the island’s own natural resources (mainly limestone) and traditional techniques to preserve these houses in a low-cost and ecological way, can definitely be seen as a way to use heritage as a mitigation tool for climate change.
We also talked about the difficult balance between preserving heritage and incorporating ‘new’ solutions such as isolation and solar panels, a complicated and challenging topic.
In conclusion, the town of Visby has charming cobblestone streets, numerous little shops and even a wonderful botanical garden – perfect for spending a couple of relaxing days. Next time I hope I have time to visit the other towns and natural reserves in Gotland, which are rich with tens of thousands of cultural artifacts!
The city between the bridges, the capital that floats on water,… was built on 14 (!!) islands surrounding the original mediaeval city or Gamla Stan/ Old Town, these islands are connected by more than 50 bridges.
In Gamla Stan, there are many beautiful buildings to be spotted, most of them dating back to the 16th and 17th century. One of my personal favourites is definitely Kungliga Slottet or Stockholm Palace, it is the official residence of the Swedish monarch Carl XVI Gustaf (although it is not where he usually resides). The impressive building was built on the site of the original Tre Kronor Castle (13th century), which was destroyed in a fire at the end of the 17th century. In the 18th century, Kungliga Slottet was built and has remained relatively untouched since its completion in the 1770s.
Apart from impressive built heritage, the capital of Sweden is also home to another extremely important part of Swedish heritage: fika. Fika is a vital part of Swedish social life, having a relaxing coffee with friends – never forgetting to accompany it with a baked treat! The most popular pastries to have for fika are the kanelbulle/ cinnamon bun and kladdkaka/ sticky chocolate cake, which were tested and approved alongside many coffees (I had to, for the integrity of this blog).
And if beautiful buildings and amazing food cannot convince you to pay Sweden’s capital a visit, there is always the Museum of Modern Art/ Moderna Museet, where you can visit the permanent collection for free. Home to a collection of art from right before the First World War until the 1980s (from Malevich and Picasso to Abramovic and Sherman), with a distinct attention to feminist art and female artists – it is definitely worth a visit!
So if you are lucky enough to visit Stockholm on a nice sunny day, enjoy the perfect combination of heritage and fika while sitting by the water and looking at the beautiful surroundings…
The city of Stockholm published a Climate Action Plan (2020-2023), with the main objective being “A fossil-free and climate-positive Stockholm by 2040“. You can read the whole plan online via this link: https://international.stockholm.se/globalassets/rapporter/climate-action-plan-2020-2023_ta.pdf . The Action Plan talks about biodiversity and natural heritage, however, cultural heritage is not mentioned specifically. The Swedish Portal for Climate Change Adaptation does include the impact of climate change on cultural heritage – mainly focussing on preventive work and preserving traditional knowledge.
In September apples start to be in-season and we went to pick them! Magdar and Stan, the couple that hosted us in Bruges, proposed that we go with them in a forest close to the city and to join the community in apple-picking. What a great idea and a wonderful experience. None of us had ever picked apples before, so we were like children enjoying our first time. The activity is organized by the Municipality of Bruges, which makes the municipal apple trees available for everyone one day a year. The orchard was full of families and groups of friends. At the entrance the staff gave us a basket and a stick with a net, a specific tool for picking apples. We really had a good time while filling our basket and eating some fruit!
We conclude our morning excursion sitting in a nice dehor to drink a coffee with whipped cream and chatting about our lives. There was so much to share with them!
Exploring Bruges: the old city
Once back home, we had lunch all together. Later, we left our hosts enjoying their Sunday and we walked towards the city center. We bought “Musea Brugge Card”, with which you can visit all open locations of Musea Brugge for 72 hours at a reduced price.
The first place that we visited was the Church of Our Lady, a magnificent medieval church that was built over at least two centuries, beginning in the 13th century. At a height of 122.3 m it includes the second tallest brickwork tower in the world (after St. Martin’s Church in Landshut, Germany) and is the tallest spire in Belgium. The church is a classic example of brick Gothic, but it is also unique due to a centuries-old connection with the Gruuthuse palace through an oratory in the chancel. The church chancel houses an impressive triptych of the Passion by Margaret of Austria’s court painter, Bernard van Orley, as well as the 15th and 16th century mausoleums of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, who died tragically in an accident. The altarpiece of the large chapel known as the Cappella sacra, created in the 18th century in the Baroque style, enshrines the church’s most celebrated art treasure—a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child created around 1504 by Michelangelo. Payments made to Michelangelo by Florentine bankers Baldassare and Giovanni Balducci between 1503 and 1504 provide evidence of this date. Because the block of marble used to sculpt the Madonna weighed nearly a ton, carving locations would have been limited. Michelangelo most likely began carving the sculpture in Carrara, where he spent nearly a year in 1505. The Madonna was finished in 1506. It was most likely intended for Siena Cathedral, but it was purchased in Italy by two Brugean merchants, Jan and Alexander Mouscron. Due to a monetary disagreement, Michelangelo had the statue privately transported to the Mouscrons in Bruges instead, and it was donated to its current home in 1514.
Our second step has been the Gruuthusemuseum. In the museum, we travel through three pivotal periods in Bruges’ history. First, there is the city’s Burgundian heyday, followed by the previously underexposed period of the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally, the ‘rediscovery’ of Bruges in the 19th century neo-Gothic style that is so characteristic of the city today. More than 600 exhibits, each with its own story to tell, bring these three periods to life. From magnificent tapestries to Gothic stained glass, elegant wooden sculptures to refined historical lace, period paintings to a 17th and 18th century dinner table set with silver cutlery and luxurious Chinese porcelain. The theme running through the exhibition is ‘Plus est en vous,’ which was the motto of Louis of Gruuthuse, the man who gave the palace its stunning grandiosity in the 15th century.
What surprised us the most was the private chapel located in the museum. With its original 15th-century oak plank floor and panelling, this extraordinary chapel connects the palace and the Church of Our Lady. When we ended our visit, we felt immersed in the atmosphere of times gone by.
Exploring Bruges: contemporary art
Just rounded the corner, we came across other interesting museum. Properly, it’s St John’s Hospital, one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe. The first traces can be found in the middle of the 12th century. St. John’s Hospital houses an impressive collection of artworks and medical instruments that tell the story of early hospital life and depict how hospital wards looked in the mid-17th century.
We have been really lucky because there was an exhibition, titled Underneath the Shade We Lay Grounded, took place on the ground floor and in the hospital’s impressive wooden attic. The artist is Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian-Belgian contemporary artist. Nkanga’s groundbreaking exhibition aims to engage visitors, the historic St John’s Hospital, and Bruges in an intense dialogue. Nkanga hopes to ‘heal’ visitors’ injuries and ‘cure’ them through their connection with her art and a dialogue with the works of, among others, Hans Memling and Jan Beerblock from the Musea Brugge collection. The concept of grounding is central to this exhibition, and it runs throughout the entire exhibition display. She reconnects people with their material, spiritual, and cultural roots in this way.
The sweet ringing of bells
When we left the Hospital, we saw that the golden hour was coming, so it would have been the perfect moment to enjoy a panoramic view from Belfort and to eat some Belgian fries.
The Belfort is the most striking tower in Bruges dates from the 13th century, stands 83 meters tall, and is a world heritage site. Climbing all 366 steps we have been rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city and its surroundings. On our way up, visit the treasury, which once housed the city’s charters, seals, and coffers. A few steps further on, we saw the impressive music drum that powers the carillon as well as the keyboard that the city carillonneur uses to play the tower’s 47 carillon bells.
Real Belgian bear
After a long and full day such as this, we deserved to enjoy the finest belgian beer. So, we went to a hidden alley in the middle of the inner city of Bruges to find “Staminee De Garre since 1984”. An establishment with its own typical atmosphere and where time seems to have stood still. We drank an amazing Tripel van De Garre (11%), a full bodied beer of high fermentation, which is rather soft and has a slightly bitter aftertaste. The brewing process of the triple goes through five stages and takes several months. It begins in the brewing room and ends in a room where the temperature is a constant 22°C.
Really happy and tired, we said goodnight to Bruges!