Bruges: Art, Architecture And Mortality

Bruges is a curious town. It's almost a bubble: a city that's also a World Heritage Site, a place that is home to hundreds of thousands of people, yet contains more functional medieval buildings per square foot than nearly any other urban centre on the planet. Ringed by a canal and a four-lane highway, Bruges is a place out of time, and one that embraces that most modern of money-making activities: tourism.

It is, without a doubt, an astonishingly pretty town. Centred on the town square, the Markt, Bruges is stuffed with ancient churches, beautiful statuary, imposing public buildings and many, many low-ceilinged dim little bars. Everywhere's walkable or, if you like, it's even quicker to whizz around on a bike. The canals that cut through the city are well worth a boat tour explore, giving you a different perspective on a place that offers new camera-fodder with every corner. There are many bridges but one, overlooking a weeping willow, is one of the most photographed sites in Europe. Cars are tolerated but, in the civilised fashion of most towns in the Low Countries, they're viewed as second-class citizens: on the narrow, winding streets of Bruges, the motor car is a liability.

 

The town is almost an gallery in itself, a lasting tribute to the explosion of artistic invention that came out of Belgium and Holland in the 14th and 15th centuries. The work of the Flemish Primitives and the sacred art that came before it is celebrated in the Groeninge Museum, which houses a wealth of local masterpieces. Medieval art has always been a bit of a slog for me, to be honest: shonky anatomy, static, lifelike poses and occasionally shocking bursts of violence. The Death Of Marcus Lucinius Crassus by Lancellot Blondeel is a sweetly rendered pastoral scene with… hang on, what's that in the corner? Ah, there's Crassus, tied to a rough framework of branches, having hot lead poured into his screaming maw. The surrealists at the end of the show are more to my tastes, with pride of place going to a Magritte. His calm, dry wit is a welcome tonic to the shrieking gilt-caked lunacy of the Flemish masters.

A ticket to the Groeninge Museum also gets you into the Arentshaus, and I can't recommend this highly enough. Home to works by Frank Brangwyn, a member of the Arts And Crafts movement in the UK who studied under William Morris, I instantly felt at home. His etchings, prints and linocuts have a fluid, joyful muscularity that manages to blend a sympathy with the human condition with a celebration of the everyday achievements of the working man. As a comics fan, I was reminded of Joe Kubert and Barry Windsor-Smith. As an art-lover, I was brought almost to tears by his astonishing series of lithographs depicting the passion and crucifiction of Christ. A must-see, to my mind. Also visit the garden, which contains four statues of the Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Armoured, insectile and terrifying, they're part Terminator, part Dark Judge, all mean.

 

A five minute walk brings you to The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church Of Our Lady), which houses a Michelangelo Mother And Child in marble. Her calm serenity is breath-taking, and seems a perfect fit in a building that, while imposing, serves as an engine of faith to the Roman Catholic community that use it on a daily basis. There's nothing uppity about Michelangelo's Madonna. She and her child are at peace with the world.

 

 

Modern art gets more of a showing than you might expect in an old town like Bruges. The old St. John's Hospital, next door to the Church Of Our Lady, has a permanent exhibition of Picasso and his contemporaries (featuring, at the time of writing, a showing of Andy Warhols). There's a Dali museum on the Markt, and a cluster of sharp-edged modern statues on t'Zand, to the west of the centre. This is also home to the new Concert Hall and, while we were visiting, a big screen showing Belgium's first World Cup match. The big square was full to bursting with football fans in black, red and yellow, draped in flags and wearing foam afros. An example, perhaps, of an art happening for and by the people.

I haven't mentioned comics yet. How silly of me. The Belgians love their comics–how could they not in the birthpace of the sainted Hèrge? On this visit we sadly didn't make it to Brussels, which wears its love of the Ninth Art firmly on its sleeve, to the point of hosting a Museum Of Comics History. But Bruges has its own little corner of comics nirvana; De Striep, on Kaeterinastrass. On the outside it looks a little underwhelming, but once inside the place opens up like a puzzlebox. There's a gigantic range of bande desineé in Belgian, French and yes, even English. Upstairs houses a great range of prints and artbooks, and the secondhand shelves at the back are a treasure-trove of goodies. If you're a comic fan, you owe it to yourself to visit and support De Striep. I certainly found it tough to drag myself away.

 

As I said at the start, Bruges is a curious place. It's easy to buy chocolate, yet surprisingly tough to get a pint of milk. The bars are full every night, yet there's no real sign of trouble even late at night. If anything, the streets are eerily quiet after hours. Apart from one sanctioned underpass on the way to the train station, there's no graffiti or street art to be seen. Possibly the odd sticker on a lamp-post. It's very clean and very friendly. You do get the feeling that there's an element of theme park about the whole place, particularly at weekends when coach parties and school trips descend and the streets clog.

Nevertheless, it's a fun place to visit, with plenty to see and admire. It's perfect for a long weekend, and very romantic. Just make sure to leave room in your luggage for the chocs and beer that you'll need to bring back with you.

 

TLC has posted an evocative Flickr set of our travels: check it out.

 

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In Bruges

Next week, Excuses and Half Truths will be reporting from Belgium. A place where cultural boundaries blur and blend, a hub of European commerce, trade and co-operation.

We'll be looking at the culture and Art Nouveau architecture of historic Bruges and paying a visit to stunning, medievel Ghent. In the interests of our Fodderblog fans, we'll sample the best food and drink that Belgium has to offer. There's more to the place than beer and sausages, you know. Although I am looking forward to the beer and sausages.

We'll also take a look at the rich art scene in Bruges, home of the master of surrealism Rene Magritte. And it wouldn't be Excuses And Half Truths without a focus on one of Belgium's great passions: comics. From the birthplace of Hergé, how could it be otherwise?

Join us, whydoncha, and TLC and I take a week off… in Bruges!

 

 

Fodderblog: Seven Wonders

We could spend hours discussing the seven wonders of the modern world. The Burj Khalifa Tower in Abu Dhabi, up which Tom Cruise so famously glove-walked. The Øresund Bridge connecting Sweden to Denmark, home of so many angst-driven murders.

But we foodies have our places of worship, too: those parts of the globe where grub is god, where our senses and greedy tums can be fulfilled. These are the culinary Seven Wonders of the world… as least, as far as I'm concerned.

 

Sukiyobashi Jiro, Tokyo, Japan.

Perhaps the most famous sushi joint in the world, and rightly so. When President Obama visited Japan recently, he made darn sure that he stopped off at Jiro's for lunch. Looking at the place, you might wonder why. It's a tiny box in the basement of an office building in the Ginza district, with room for perhaps ten diners at a time. Jiro serves one menu, and offers only beer or sake to drink. If you can get a reservation to Jiro's (and it's not easy–the booking office is currently closed until June) you're there to eat sushi.

The food is prepared and served with an attention to detail that's obsessive even by Japanese standards. Jiro will watch as you eat, the better to guage what to serve you next, and even where on the plate the next piece will sit. You will pay on average £400 for a meal, and there's a good chance you could be in and out in 20 minutes. But this is food with a purity and rigour that's worth making the effort. The award-winning documentary on Jiro and his life will tell you more–like the food, it's a perfectly presented, tasty little jewel.

 

Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Loch Fyne, Scotland.

Not, I hasten to add, anything to do with the ubiquitous seafood restaurants (nice as they are). The tiny, woodlined restaurant on the banks of beautiful Loch Fyne serves a small, perfectly formed menu. But really, you should be going for the oysters. Grown and harvested within yards of your table, Loch Fyne oysters are among the best in the world, and eating them with some good bread (baked on the premises) while gazing out over the loch is a very distinct pleasure. I speak from experience on this one: TLC and I went to Scotland on our honeymoon, and the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar was a very smart stop-off for lunch. A place of peace and beauty, and a very fond memory.

 

The Cordon Bleu School Of Cookery, Paris, France.

No truly great chef is self-taught, and many of the giants are alumni of the Cordon Bleu. It's an international concern these days, with campuses worldwide. But Paris was the first and, for many, the heart of the French school of cookery that still has such a hold on our preconceptions of culinary excellence.

Let's face it: no chef can consider to have arrived without at least one Michelin star, and that reward comes from cleaving to a model of service and food preparation that springs directly out of the Cordon Bleu. Sure, there are outliers: Jiro's place is Michelin-starred, for example. But for the most part an apparance in the blue book means that a restaurant has achieved a certain level in a certain way. France is, for many, still the home of fine cuisine, and the Cordon Bleu is where you go to learn the skills to make it.

 

Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark

A list like this would not be complete without including the restaurant that many believe to be the best in the world. That honour can change over time, of course: Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck is currently closed for refurbishment, Ferran Adria's El Bulli shuttered years ago. Nowadays, the place to be is Denmark, and the place to eat is Noma. Recently returned to the No. 1 spot of Restaurant Magazine's Top 50, Noma is the creative home of chef René Redzepi. His food is deeply connected to the Nordic terroir–that is, the food, ingredients and flavours most typical of the region. Fellow chef Niklas Ekstedt joked recently that you can tell if something's Swedish by the amount of dill on it, but Redzepi's food is far more open to experimentation and adventure than that. There aren't many places that can get away with a dish of beef tartare and ants.

It's said that to get a true feel of a country you need to eat its food. Noma's food is earthy, humorous and full of surprises. If you can get a reservation, and you can afford it (both increasingly unlikely following Noma's return to the top spot, but no harm in trying, eh?) then this is one place to put on your bucket list.

 

Soi Rumbuttri, Bangkok, Thailand

If your tastes or your bank balance don't run to Noma's level, then there's always street food. Here's where you can get a true sense of a country, with the food that people are lunching, breakfasting or simply snacking on every day of the week. From Mexico to Marrakech, there are plenty of hubs where people gather for their fix of noodles or deep-fried goodies.

The place to be though, at least according to the well-travelled trencherperson, is Bangkok. More precisely, Soi Rumbuttri, a U-shaped street off the Khao San Road (in other words, away from the backpackers) that is home to over a hundred food stalls. Here's where you can track down your food fix from a wild mix of Asian cuisines, prepared on the spot for pennies. OK, you don't get the refinement and service of a place like Noma. But you are getting a jolt of culture and flavour straight off the main grid. The nightlife in this buzzing, active area is amazing too. If you're hungry for the real Thailand, this is where to head.

 

 

Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne, Australia

Any foodie worth his or her salt will want to track down a local market. Again, if food is a mirror to a nation's soul, then the raw ingredients that a market supplies are the frame on which that mirror is built. There are a ton of truly great markets for the adventurous food fan to seek out, from London's own Borough Market to La Boqueria in Barcelona–the only place to buy jamon. I'll admit to a soft spot for Oxford's covered market, which has some great food stalls amongst the clothes shops.

But for sheer dizzying size and spectacle, you'll have to take a trip to the antipodes. Queen Vic Market is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 700 stalls selling… well, you name it. The place takes up two whole city blocks, so if it's food related, you'll probably find what tickles your taste buds. The Meat Hall is the place for curious carnivores, with stalls selling everything from chicken to crocodile. If you're peckish, the Food Court seats 400, so you can probably snag a table. The problem, I feel, is going to be lugging all your goodies home at the end of the day.

 

Quayside, Whitby, England

We've talked about food reflecting the soul of a country, so let's finish off by bringing it all back home. There's nothing more English than fish and chips, and those in the know agree that the best in the country are found on the north-east coast. Although my mate Rev Sherlock has always bigged up the fish suppers in Grimsby (a little local bias, perhaps: he's from there) the place to be, at least according to the Fish And Chip Awards, is a little way up the coast at Whitby.

Quayside, run by Stuart Fusco since 1999, is housed in a historic building right on the quay. Stuart fries his fish and chips the traditional way: in beef dripping, with a special-recipe batter. There's no better way to enjoy them then out on the quayside, watching the waves. To my mind seafood doesn't get any simpler are more tasty than that.

 

 

Those are my picks–where have I gone wrong? Hit me up in the comments, Readership!

 

 

(a tip of the toque to Edible Reading, who set me on this road in the first place).

 

Food In Montpellier

It would hardly be the most mind-boggling revelation to say that the French love their food. It’s intertwined in the culture, part of the national psyche. The French get food at a pure, primal level. In the UK we’ve come along in leaps and bounds in our understanding and appreciation of good food in the past twenty years. I’d argue that English cheese has the better of la fromage francaise, and there’s no such thing as a decent French pork pie. But food and eating are an intrinsic part of French daily life, and our weekend in Montpellier gave us quite a few different examples of that fact.

Continue reading Food In Montpellier

The Chain Of Life

I gave my bike a little dose of love yesterday. A good dose of lube, a bit of a wash down and de-rust, a fresh tube on the back tyre. The poor old thing gets dreadfully neglected for the amount of abuse it gets, and it’s quarterly wash and brush up is quite literally the least that I can do*.

I try not to make it look too shiny though. I lock up at Reading Station when I’m at work, and a bit of protective colouration goes a long way to making sure that the thieves keep their mitts off my wheels. Hence, although I often swoon over the gorgeous machines at AW Cycles on the Henley Road, I know in my heart that I couldn’t use them. I’m not a competitive or leisure cyclist. My four-year-old Ridgeback Motion is a mode of transport, simple as that.

You notice things on a bike that simply pass most other people by. The state of the roads, for example. Last year’s brutal cold snap took place not long after a fairly major resurfacing project in Reading – a surface that simply hasn’t held up. The side roads, in particular are drastically potholed and cracked. My Ridgy has no suspension. You feel everything. I bounce around on the saddle so much that it makes the bell on my handlebar ring*.

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Our friend here is not in the bike lane. For obvious reasons.

Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had a decent and consistent cycle lane policy. The bike lanes around here are badly-thought out, and have a tendency to merge you into traffic or simply disappear just when you least expect it. Or, in the case of the lanes around the Vastern Road rail bridge, they abruptly cut off with whacking great stop signs. Pedestrians grumble about cyclists on the pavement – in this case I simply have no option.

Ah, pedestrians. They walk in your bike lane. They wander out in front of you. They run out in front of you. They never look where they’re going. I’ve noticed this more and more over the past couple of years. I suspect, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that it’s connected to the fact that so many people are plugged into iPods and other devices when they’re out and about. With a soundtrack in your head, you become invulnerable.

They’ll still look out for cars. The mass displacement of half a ton of steel bering down on you must trigger some latent impulse to at least look around before you step out on to the road. If you’re on a bike, you’ve got no chance. If they’re texting while they’re walking, the temptation would be to plow into them anyway. I know riders that do that just to prove a point.

The problem is that when I’m off my bike, I’m guilty of exactly the same crimes that I’ve just bitched about. I dreamily amble around, letting stories and characters flit through my head, barely hearing the scream of brakes and curses from behind me. In Amsterdam, a true cyclists city, TLC and I both nearly ended up in someone’s front forks. I really thought I knew better, but it seems that as soon as I’m off the saddle, my spatial awareness goes to pot. I’m as bad as everyone else, bitching at cyclists on the pavement when I’m on foot, at pedestrians in my way when I’m on two wheels.

Some things never change. Pedestrians hate cyclists. Cyclists hate drivers. Drivers hate cyclists. Cyclists hate pedestrians. The chain of life continues, unending as the loop round my deraillieurs.

*The more waggish members of the Readership who might postulate that I’m not talking about my bicycle here are filthy minded reprobates – and that’s probably why you’re here. Fair do’s. Carry on.

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The Daily Grind

Commuting is horrible. Yes, I know, that one’s up there with gems of wisdom like “oranges are not the only fruit” or “poking oneself in the eye with a stick is a bad idea”, but it’s a truism that somehow packs some weight. I think we treat commuting as a task that we simply don’t think about. Getting to and from work is just something that has to happen. It becomes blank time, a zero point that we don’t think about unless it becomes more difficult than usual. I think that if we properly considered the time, effort and money that goes into the simple act of getting in and out of the workplace, then there would be a lot more people simply rethinking their lives and walking away.

If a train breaks down or if there’s a tube strike, then we are confronted with the true, mind-clawing horror that we have to deal with at the start and end of every day of our working lives. It becomes work on top of work, a trial to be completed before we can get on with all the other crap we have to sort out.

Otherwise, it’s a journey that’s erased as soon as it’s over. There are days when I have walked into my suite and stopped dead, realising that I have no recollection of the steps I took to get there. The bike ride to the station, the train journey, the tube, walk or bike ride to Soho – all gone. Dropped out of short term memory like veg peelings into a bin. Scraped off the brain and composted without a second thought.

I’ve often talked about the virtues of my morning commute as valuable writing time, and that’s still true. But time spent on the netbook has a second, and almost as important benefit. It kills time, compressing the half-hour spent on the fast train from Reading into an eye-blink. On the odd occasions where the batteries on my devices have drained, and I have nothing to read, that 30 minutes stretches out to something like three days. It drags interminably, and I begrudge every wasted moment.

And I consider myself lucky. My shift pattern means that I have to do this trip fourteen times in any given fortnight. An ordinary 9-to-fiver has to do it twenty times. And if you’re driving, or if you have to stand on a bus or a train, that really is time in which you can’t do anything else. The very thought of it fills me with the fear. It feels more like a punishment then a task that we willingly impose on ourselves. It’s not surprising that we wipe it as soon as it’s done.

25 Minutes

Another in my series of short-short films about – well, whatever I’m doing at the time. This one focusses on that strange, fuzzy mood that descends on the train trip home after a long day at work. Sometimes, that journey can seem to take no time at all. Flashes of sunlight punctuate the time. Moments blur into each other. I drop into a fugue state, and the world spins past the train window.

I did the soundtrack for this too. I wouldn’t say I wrote it. It formed itself out of a similar fog of unfocussed activity, and took about an hour in Garageband. Overmodulation is my FRIEND.