On Thursday morning, we used the now-functioning washing machine in our parking garage to get through a couple of loads of laundry before finally exploring the Porte de Hal, a fortified gate just down the street from us that was built in 1381 as part of the the second city wall that once protected Brussels. The wall and the six other gates have long since disappeared, but this one survived through the years as a prison, customs house, granary, church and now a museum. The view on the left is the outside that once included a portcullis and drawbridge over a moat while the image on the right shows the city side.
Around 1870, the inner tower and many embellishments were added including a vertigo-inducing spiral staircase surrounding by statuettes of knights and other medieval figures. Here's a view looking up from floor to ceiling, which I preferred over leaning out to get the opposing view.
The galleries included several suits of armor and a lot of weaponry including hand cannons, pikes, axes and crossbows as well as prison items such as the restraining devices and branding iron shown here.
We even got to try on some of the armor and practice doing battle with our souvenir swords. Here Xander illustrates the advantage of being right-handed on a spiral staircase designed to benefit the defending troops.
It was fascinating to see in person the clever ways the fortress was designed to help the people of Brussels defend themselves against external attacks in the Middle Ages. We enjoyed imagining fighting off invading troops by dropping stones and pouring boiling oil on their heads from the hatches built into the floors and towers.
The kids were much more willing than I to lean out for the archers' views of the city streets and they were very accommodating as I hugged the walls to traverse the walkways a dizzying five stories above the pavement below.
Oddly, one floor was filled with an intriguing exhibit of wire-framed paper sculptures that, delightfully, included the figure below as well as a large, phallic dirigible hanging from the rafters.
So an Australian, a Belgian, a Colombian and an American walk into a bar. The American says, "Let's order one of those beer towers!" Then, uh, well, that's all I can remember...
I enjoyed a fun guys' night out with friends Warren, Frank and Carlos on Thursday evening. We enjoyed some good food and drinks and a lot of laughs on the patio of an Irish bar overlooking the Brussels Stock Exchange building before grabbing some late-night fries on the way back home. My hosts made sure we stopped by the Jannekin Pis statue, a 1980's work of art (?) that serves as a sister to the famous Mannekin Pis. Here's a G-rated shot, courtesy of a well-positioned protective bar.
On Friday, confident we had truly conquered the mysteries of the Metro, the kids and I boarded a subway train to head west to visit a centuries-old Gothic house known as the Erasmus House. While we successfully navigated a line switch and ended up at the end of the track in Erasmus, I had neglected to confirm that the Erasmus house was actually in Erasmus. So after a brief, fruitless expedition through the town, I finally turned on my iPhone roaming feature to di$cover that we should have gotten off six stops earlier in Anderlecht. Fortunately, our brief visit wasn't a total loss as we got to see this mural on a bridge wall near the Metro stop.
Upon arriving in Anderlecht, we raced through the streets to reach the museum before closing and were pleased to find that we had almost two hours to enjoy both the Erasmus House and the nearby Beguinage for one admission. A Beguinage is a small home constructed between 1252 and the 17th century for widows of crusaders and Catholic lay sisters known as Beguines. The house we saw dated from 1603 and included a variety of objects of archaeological and religious interest and local history artifacts documenting a thousand years of Anderlecht's past.
One object of special interest was this cabinet which holds a series of cut-out prints on horizontal slots to provide a three-dimensional image when viewed through a lens and mirror on the opposite side. While this offers a visitor of today little more than a moment's whimsy, it is easy to imagine the hours of entertainment this doubtlessly extravagant item of the time would have provided.
Next up was the Erasmus House, so called because of the brief period the classical scholar and humanist reformer Desiderious Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) lived there.
As early as the 17th century people were making pilgrimages to the grounds which today shelter a museum, a study center with early manuscripts of Erasmus' works and a historical garden. The house has been restored to look the way it did in 1521, the year the Renaissance philosopher arrived, complete with creaky, uneven wooden floors and touches such as a servant's peephole and an outdoor fountain for carriage horses.
A variety of artifacts are presented in the setting of ornate furniture and artworks. In addition to the paintings and sketches that tell the story of the man and his life, we enjoyed looking at shelf after shelf of ancient books, some displayed open with hand-written marginalia.
The garden behind the house was designed in the late 1980's around existing structures to provide a botanical history of the time. The beautifully manicured grounds include about a hundred medicinal plants that were commonly used in the 16th century as well as a series of cartographic flowerbeds designed to illustrate Erasmus' journeys and a philosophical area supposedly conducive to reflecting on the human condition. The kids found it more conducive to playing tag.
I won't be forgiven if I fail to mention the lady who tried to cram herself into the closing doors of the subway on the way home. She ignored the many signs warning one not to do so and as the alarm sounded and the doors squeezed together she was stuck half in and half out. Without a word from anybody involved, two other passengers gave a half-hearted effort to prop the doors open. I was about to shove her out for her own safety since she was neither trying to extricate herself or slip through; she just kind of stood there looking around. Finally the mechanism forced the doors shut and she was ejected back onto the platform...but the sleeve of sweater that was tied around her waist was stuck in the door! I thought we were going to witness a death but we were all relieved to see the garment come loose as the train sped away with her sweater flapping in the breeze. It was surreal as no one else seemed to think it was much of a big deal but it served as a memorable safety reminder for the kids.
To end on a happy (and somewhat neurotic) note, we love the un-canned vegetables here that come in jars! We avoid canned food at home because BPA and phthalates from the plastic lining inside the cans can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the food. I hope that American suppliers make the switch soon.
We head off for a couple of day trips this weekend with Monschau, Germany on Saturday and Luxembourg City on Sunday. Read all about it right here!