Archive for July 2016

Europe: A Day In Brussels

We spent only one day in Brussels. Not enough time to feel the pulse of a city that hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, and is the most important seat of the European Parliament. But the nature of these hectic, multi city, multi country tours, is a frenetic pace at which sight seeing is accomplished. 

As we walked from our hotel to the nearest railway station, I noticed dirt and grime around me. Public spaces were covered in graffiti. It was surprising because our hotel was in a pretty good part of town, near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the Grand Place. Moreover, I was just coming in from Amsterdam, a place where people could and did, sprawl out in public places just to enjoy the weather. Plus of course the expectation that Indians have of 'foreign' countries being so spanking clean that you can eat off the road. 

This might perhaps explain (although not justify) the horrific bomb blasts that took place in Brussels in March 2016. Violence and terror as a means to express anger and protest is sadly becoming the order of the day. 

Moving on to more pleasant thoughts....

The husband, a rabid Tintin fan, was determined to visit the Herge Museum. In fact, it was the reason why we were visiting Brussels at all! 

The Herge Museum is located in Louvain-la-Neuve on the outskirts of Brussels at 26, Rue du Labrador. It is dedicated to the life and works of Georges Remi the creator of Tintin, who wrote under the pen name Herge. The museum which opened to the public in June 2009, was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc and cartoonist Joost Swarte. It is a three storey building containing interesting photographs from Herge's childhood, family and working life. It also has rooms dedicated to the various characters in his books - from the major ones - Tintin, Haddock and Calculus to the supporting cast like Nestor and Jolyon Wagg.

Audio guides are available in English and French and are included in the cost of your ticket. So be sure to pick them up from the counter at the reception. There are lockers where you can deposit your bags and walk around freely. The museum is very spacious and airy and not overcrowded with exhibits which makes the time you spend here very enjoyable.

If you are a die hard Tintin fan, don't forget to go to the little chamber where you can take photographs with the characters. You basically stand in front of a camera and digital screen and select montages from the various adventures. The camera juxtaposes you onto that image and you become a part of it! After this, type in your email address on the screen and the picture is emailed to you. This is a great souvenir from the trip. There is also a little cabin where the walls are covered with the cover pages of all the adventures in every language in which it was ever printed. Another great photo opportunity, all free of cost! The downside is that no other photography is permitted inside this museum.  Wifi access is also limited.

A little extra information - if you're in Brussels later on this year, plan a trip to Musee Herge and take a wheel chair tour of the museum atrium. On 3 December 2016, which is the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, the museum is organising a free wheelchair tour to raise awareness of disabilities. 

Back in Brussels, we walked down to the Grand Place, not far from our hotel. According to Wikipedia "The Grand Place or Grote Markt is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city's Town Hall, and the Breadhouse building containing the Museum of the City of Brussels. The square is the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark in Brussels. It measures 68 by 110 metres (223 by 361 ft), and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site." And I must admit that this was the first time I had heard of anything called the Grand Place (said she in a small and ashamed voice).

The origin of the Grand Place dates back to the 11th century when an open air marketplace was set up on a dried up marsh near the Fort on Saint Gery Island. By the 13th century, three indoor markets were established - a meat market, a bread market and cloth market - because of which sales carried on even during bad weather. These belonged to the Duke of Brabant. By the 14th century, the area passed into the hands of the local authorities. With the building of the Brussels City Hall, the Grand Place became the seat of municipal power. In a show of one-upmanship, the Duke of Brabant built a large building right across the city hall as a symbol of ducal power. This was built on what used to be the bread and cloth market. It is now known as the Maison du roi (King's House) in French. In Dutch it continues to be known as Broodhuis or Breadhouse.

The Grand Place saw war, destruction and rebuilding over the next few centuries and continued to serve as a market till November 1959. In 1998, it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tucked away amidst the many souvenir shops, in the by lanes of the Grand Place, is yet another object of art - Manneken Pis or simply Little Boy Pee, a 61 cm tall bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain.
There are many legends and stories behind the statue. Wikipedia claims the most famous one to be of one Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, a two year old aristocrat, who led his troops in battle while hanging from a basket on a tree. He is said to have urinated on the enemy troops and defeated them. A compelling story about the Terrible Twos! The most plausible seems to be one where a wealthy merchant, visiting Brussels with his family, had his son go missing. The search party found the boy urinating in a garden. The merchant had the statue built as a sign of gratitude to the locals. 

An interesting tidbit of information is that the statue is dressed in different costumes every week according to a schedule that is displayed on the railings surrounding the statue. The little boy has an impressive wardrobe and the costumes are displayed in a permanent exhibit inside the museum in the Grand Place. All the work with the costumes is done by a non profit called 'The Friends of Manneken Pis'. 

With that our sight seeing around Brussels came to an end. It was a really tiring day for me, having traveled from Amsterdam and then spent a good part of the day on my feet. It was also cold with occasional rain on that day. By the end of it, I was ready for a hot bath, food and sleep. 

Before I sign off on this post, try your hand at these trivia questions. Leave your guess in the comments section. And I'll provide the answers in about a week's time:

1. Musee Herge is located at 26, Rue du Labrador - what is the significance of this
Ans. Tintin's address in the comic series

2. What is Snowy called in the French version of the adventures?
Ans. Milou

3. How are Thomson and Thompson related?
Ans. They are not related. They are doppelgangers

4. Name Captain Haddock's family home
Ans. Marlinspike Hall

5. What is the origin of the writer's name 'Herge'?
The reverse of Georges Remee when initialled (GR = Herge)

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Flower Power: Keukenhof

Keukenhof is something that Indians would be quite familiar with. Perhaps not by name. But if I showed you a picture, I guarantee that you would immediately know what I am talking about.

I am talking about the world famous tulip gardens of Amsterdam. And if you still don’t know what these are, you either don’t watch Indian films or (as a friend once said of me) ‘you live under a rock!’

Keukenhof, also known as the ‘Garden of Europe’ is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. It is located in a place called Lisse on the outskirts of Amsterdam in 32 sprawling acres with 800 varieties of tulips and nearly seven million blooms. Every year, the gardens see nearly 800,000 visitors and since it opened, 50 million people have visited it. 

The word ‘keukenhof’ means kitchen garden in Dutch. In the 15th century, the gardens used to be part of hunting grounds. It provided herbs for the nearby castle of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainut from where it derives its name. After her death, the ownership of the estate passed into the hands of rich merchants. In the 19th century, the owners commissioned landscape artists Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul Zocher, to design the grounds around the castle. In its current form, the gardens were established in 1949 by the then mayor of Lisse.

The purpose of the gardens was to exhibit flowers of growers from all over the Netherlands and thus boost the Netherland’s export economy of flowers. So in that respect, Keukenhof is actually a living and growing advertisement. What a novel and attractive way to showcase and market your products!

Tulips found their way to the Netherlands from the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) in the 16th century. The foundation of the Dutch tulip industry is attributed to Carolus Clusius, a Flemish doctor and botanist. Right from the start, tulips were a huge hit and Clusius's garden was frequently raided and flowers regularly stolen! During the Dutch Golden Age there was a period called 'Tulip Mania' when the prices of tulips climbed so high that they were used as money till the market finally crashed. 

Today the Netherlands is the largest exporter of flowers in the world. The Dutch produce 4.32 billion tulip bulbs each year, some 53% of which (2.3 billion) are grown into cut flowers. Of these, 1.3 billion (or 57%) are sold in the Netherlands as cut flowers and the remainder is exported: 630 million bulbs in Europe and 370 million outside of Europe. So the beautiful Keukenhof gardens and the acres and acres of multi coloured tulip carpeted fields surrounding it are not just about aesthetics. It is serious business!! (note: the tulip gardens should not be confused with the tulip fields.)  

Back home in India, Keukenhof and the tulip fields seem to have captured the imagination of Indian film makers (ok, maybe not as much as the Swiss Alps, but still). Both the gardens and the fields have appeared in several Indian films. The one that is most popular among the Hindi film viewing audience is, of course, the evergreen song ‘dekha ek khwab’ from the Amitabh-Jaya-Rekha starrer Silsila. This song is picturised only in the tulip fields and not in Keukenhof. The montage of colours perfectly expresses the euphoria of love. 

Keukenhof appears in another song from the same film – 'ye kahan aa gaye hum'. This beautiful song, is rendered magical by poetry in Amitabh's deep baritone. The lyrics blend in beautifully with Keukenhof's winding paths lined with flower beds along the gently flowing waters of a lake. 

Keukenhof and the tulip fields, both, are also seen in Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog for the song ‘bhanwre ne khilaya phool’. 

The film, as you may know, is about widow remarriage. So, the visual of a plain, white clad Padmini Kolhapure, framed by the brightly coloured tulips, is actually quite metaphorical. 

Down south, the tulip fields appear in the song 'Kumari' from the Tamil film Anniyan. Personally I did not take a shine to the song and in fact found it jarring. First of all, I cannot understand why it is shot in the tulip fields. When one has such a strong backdrop for a song, I feel it might have been better to generally tone down the song. The music does not blend well with the ambiance of the beautiful tulips. The make up and costumes seem loud and out of place. There are these four guys dressed like caricatures running around the lead pair with assorted musical instruments which is frankly annoying. And you can see cars driving past in the distance!! 

The tulip gardens and fields once again make an appearance in a song from the Tamil film Nanban. This is your typical jhatak matak film song and is actually quite dreadful. If I were a tulip in Keukenhof, I would be seriously offended at the ridiculous dancing and bewildering costume changes. I mean....I'm the star of this show. What do you mean by taking attention away from me in this garish and distasteful way?! 

 (Disclaimer: I have not seen either film. I do not have the context in which the songs are set and I do not understand Tamil well enough to get a sense of the lyrics. So please forgive me if I sound harsh. I would also add that Hindi film songs and picturisations in today's YoYo Honey Singh world would probably be equally horrible if not worse.)

Now a bit about my visit to Keukenhof. What a spectacular visual treat! One can't help but feel completely special when one sets eyes on these blooms. But just seeing it with your eyes is not enough.  You need to experience it with all your senses and feel the beauty of the flowers permeate your entire being. I can't explain it. You feel like you've arrived in paradise and you just want to sink into all this beauty and be transported to some place else. The smile never leaves your face!

From Deepa's collection

From Deepa's collection

My advice to those going to Keukenhof:  You must visit the place with your beloved. Hold hands, cuddle, kiss, express your love. This is the perfect setting for it. Take loads of photographs. It would be criminal not to! There are little corners that provide lovely backdrops to take pictures. Little bits of whimsy here and there. Like gigantic clogs or klompen as they are called in Dutch, right in the middle of a pathway, that will make you laugh out loud. Step into them and click away. Walk up the wooden staircase in the windmill and step onto the balcony  You will get a lovely view of the canal and tulip fields that border that part of the garden. Take a boat ride on the canal and you can float past the lovely and colourful tulip fields. 
No crying about no shoes here! (Deepa's collection)

Visit the various pavilions to see a wide selection of plants and flower shows. The Beatrix Pavilion is reserved especially for orchids. The Keukenhof website claims it to be the most beautiful orchid show in all of Europe. The Willem-Alexander exhibition showcases lilies while the Orange Nassau Pavilion shows off how flower bulbs can be used in interior design.  

Orchids at Beatrix Pavilion (Deepa's collection)
The gardens are open every year only during spring, between April and May. In 2017, they are scheduled to be open from 23 March to 21 May. 

Cute displays just made for photography (Deepa's collection)

So if you are visiting Amsterdam, be sure to visit this lovely piece of nature and enjoy a day out among the flowers. 

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