Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
2006.06.22 : Bruxelles et Bruges

"The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown."
                 - René Magritte

And so Alex had to be in Paris for a week, and happily managed to carve out another week on the backside for us to kick around somewhere. I talked him into Belgium. I took Eurostar (for the first time!) out of London Waterloo, underneath that little Channel thingy, and into Brussels. Alex took the TGV from Paris Gare du Nord, arriving same place and time. Pictures, movies, and intermittent commentary follow.

Alex was completely flailed after his week of toils in Paris, so he fell asleep the first afternoon/evening while I went for a walk around. I ended up sitting at a sidewalk table outside a nice pub, just off the Grand Place. This is the awning, and the building opposite.         (hide)
View from my table into the Grand Place.         (hide)
View OF my table. C'est parfait, ne pas?         (hide)
Had a wander around the Place. Brussels is renowned for its art nouveau architecture, in particular the old guildhouses that line the Place.         (hide)
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This being Europe, the Place was filled with al fresco eaters, drinkers, and general relaxers.         (hide)
Spire of the "monumentally Gothic" Grand Hotel, built in the early 15th century, and still used as town hall.         (hide)
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In the fading light, the shootin' wuz good.         (hide)
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Note the eight billion stone figures that cover all sides.         (hide)
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So I'm a huge fiend for the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte (ever since I saw a big show at SFMOMA back in, oh, maybe 2000). This meant Alex got drug around to every museum in Brussels or Bruges that had any Magrittes. This rather characteristic one hung in the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (which is awfully good fun to say out loud in an extravagantly goofy French accent).         (hide)
This one, too. It has his trademark clouds and equally trademark silouetted tree in fading light, but is otherwise strangely not strange. Nonetheless, I was totally chuffed to see these.         (hide)
Alex thought this one looked like childbirth. He doesn't spend a ton of time in fine arts museums. Still, we both had fun listening to him trying to figure out what every single thing meant. As a technologist, he thinks everything has to mean something. ;^) Magritte also said, evidently: "Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."         (hide)
Particularly this one, which was I think his favourite, and one of mine as well. We sat in front of it an awful long time. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, Alex saw laptops and circuit boards and GPS devices and biotechnology. I was knocked out by how much it managed to cram in without really being busy or crowded; I think this was accomplished by effectively doing it in "layers".         (hide)
The MRdB-AdB is really two museums glommed together – one modern, one ancient. We darted over to the latter side for a quick poke around just before closing time.         (hide)
It was a really good room for camera play.         (hide)
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Military bearing?         (hide)
Lovely paintings and sculpture, lovely light, best friend – what's not to like?         (hide)
I made one of the statues take this shot.         (hide)
And this one.         (hide)
Alex starting taking revenge . . .         (hide)
. . . by snapping me right back.         (hide)
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Unforunately, I was badly outgunned: he's got an 8gig microdive in his digital SLR that stores so many photos (even 8-megapixel photos) that his little readout of shots remaining, which only goes to three digits, eternally reads "999".         (hide)
He started zipping around, lighting me up, with his camera in full-auto mode. (Unfortunately, in the following movie, the sound of it triggering off is not audible, which was half the fun.)         (hide)
"Sacre bleu!!"         (hide)
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This was bigger than it looks here. Really big.         (hide)
Getting his snipe on.         (hide)
Out front, after they kicked us out for being such juvenile troublemakers. (Well, okay, they kicked us out because they closed, but I'm pretty sure they would have kicked us out if we had kept it up. At least real eight-year-olds have parents around to assert some discipline at some point.)         (hide)
The museum nearly fronts the Palais Royal.         (hide)
We sauntered over to the Parc du Bruxelles, to take it easy for a bit. Alack, Alex, obviously still feeling his inner (or perhaps not so far inner) eight-year-old, leapt into the fountain.         (hide)
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"Love these topless parks!"         (hide)
I drug us out on what was certainly the most annoying bit of the trip – a pilgrimmage out to see the European Parliament, in the "EULand" part of town. Unsurprisingly, it was terribly hard to find, not sign-posted in any helpful way, and undergoing what was obviously enormously expensive construction and renovation (which I'm helping to pay for).         (hide)
Welcome to the Star Chamber.         (hide)
We then grabbed a cab the heck out of there (the walk out wasn't that nice the first time), and repaired to the Ilôt Sacré district, back near the Grand Place, for a nice al fresco Lebanese dinner (Brussels is pretty multi-ethinic.) This is the view of the street from the upstairs window, where I went to wee.         (hide)
After, we had an amble around the Place.         (hide)
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Unfortunately, the Heubster's ambling was attenuated by a foot injury sustained in Paris, dragging around his 48 cubic metres of luggage (most of it camera equipment).         (hide)
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Then south to the impressive Palais de Justice, which took 17 years and the death of the architect to get built. Still in daily use, lots of people in white wigs walking around.         (hide)
Yet you can just walk right in . . .         (hide)
. . . to a rather huge and ornate lobby.         (hide)
Alex had the very clever idea of shooting the oculus overhead (up in the 100m-high dome) by simply placing cameras on the floor. No tripod required!         (hide)
Out front, or, really, out back, in Place Poelaert (that's the name of the unfortunate architect), there are nice elevated views of the city.         (hide)
And also a funky elevator to bring up all the jurists (and tourists).         (hide)
We then worked our way north, starting with a stop in the Place du Petit Sablon – a "lovely, formal, miniature garden planted in 1890".         (hide)
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It is guarded over by 48 bronze statues, one for each of Belgium's medieval guilds.         (hide)
Also another fountain (ack), but perhaps the imposing and dour figures of Counts Egmont and Hoorn overlooking it kept Alex honest (and dry).         (hide)
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Had also just scored some goods at a produce stand, so we made our dejeuner here.         (hide)
Across the street is a church, Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon. We ducked in to admire the notable stained glass – which fall "like a waterfall behind the main altar".         (hide)
Interstingly, this late-Gothic construction was begun by a guild of crossbow enthusiasts, in the 14th century.         (hide)
We were slightly disappointed not to see any crossbows.         (hide)
From there! onto the Place du Grand Sablon (and grander is better)! for a nice sitdown outside with some proper coffee – and then a run by what I can only characterise as the Tiffany's of chocolatiers – Pierre Marcolini. I can say it was truly a shopping experience.         (hide)
I solved a number of my tough gift problems here. Everyone likes Belgian chocolate.         (hide)
So you might be forgiven for not believing this, but the beloved mascot and symbol of Brussels is this statue(/fountain): called, I kid you not, Manekin Pis.         (hide)
This actually solved a longstanding mystery for me. Back in the day, I used to drink a Belgium white beer called Blanche du Bruxelles – at the time not even knowing that Bruxelles is Brussels. Anyway, it had an image of this on the label. I used to sort of ogle at it, thinking: A child urinating? I can't be seeing that right . . .         (hide)
Two big eight-year-olds and a small pissing boy.         (hide)
A unique and unmissable photo opportunity at the chocolatier next door.         (hide)
Um, another damned church. Europe! (Is that St. Peter with whom St. Alex is juxtaposed? Or Paul? I'm fuzzy on my saints.)         (hide)
The Colonne du Congress: "Guarded by a pair of impressive bronze lions, this 50m-high Joseph Poelaert-designed column was raised in 1850 to commemorate the constitution-proclaiming National Congress."         (hide)
Also, the lions eat tourists who behave inappropriately.         (hide)
Back for siesta – but I went out alone for a bit, mainly to try and find a birthday gift for Alex, who was to turn really old the next day. It was such a lovely day, and I was feeling in such fine fettle, that I took this photograph to celebrate my fettle.         (hide)
Later, we took an evening stroll into some more northerly (and ethnic) neighborhoods, gunning for dinner.         (hide)
We found this rather huge and amazing church . . .         (hide)
. . . of which our guidebook made no mention. (Is it allowed for cities to have things not in the guidebooks?!)         (hide)
We ended up at a veg-friendly place called (intuitively?) L'Ane Vert – the green donkey. It was incredibly cool and welcoming and homely.         (hide)
And had this donkey on the wall over our table, plus the unknown huge church.         (hide)
The best part was our server person, who was incredibly stylish – and much nicer to us than we deserved. She let me fumble around with "my" attrocious "French" long enough to be polite, then started speaking in a pretty, measured English – which she used to suggest that "perhaps it would be best" if she brought us English menus. 8^)         (hide)
"My donk-ey, eet ees large ahn green!"         (hide)
Walking on (and around and back), we passed these nice, erm, brownstones.         (hide)
Off of this place (church visible down boulevard).         (hide)
We stumbled into the Place du Martyrs. (I'd pretty much put away the guidebook at this point, which is always a pleasant point, particularly for others with whom I'm traveling).         (hide)
On our last morning before grabbing a train up to Flemish country, I drug Alex by another museum (the Musee d'Ixelle, which had some Magrittes, including this one). Finding the joint turned out to be a truly epic and comic adventure. Suffice it to say that I now know that "Gallerie" is not a rough synonym for "Musee" – rather it means shopping mall. Suffice it also to say that the Gallerie d'Ixelle (as entirely distinct from the Musee d'Ixelle) is a cave-like complex of shops selling African/ethnic hair products and colourful African/ethnic women's clothing. Suffice it finally to say that no one we asked for directions could quite understand why were keen to go there.         (hide)
Hour on a train, nice conversation with a Belgian man and woman, quick cab ride, and there we were in our room in Bruges.         (hide)
The centerpiece of town, the medieval Markt, is towered over by the 90-meter, 13th-century Belfort. This bell tower houses a 47-bell carillon, as we were to learn every morning when we were trying to sleep in.         (hide)
Chilln in the Markt.         (hide)
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Random arch we passed.         (hide)
Hot canal action.         (hide)
Dinner at one of the half dozen or so (toursist-orientated) restaurants that flank the Markt. We were to discover that, while Bruges bills itself as sort of relaxing, preserved, sleepy medieval town where you can stroll the canals in peace; in fact, it's Belgium's number one tourist destination, and really a bit of a holidaymaker-overrun gingerbread village. After a day or so, we enjoyed it a lot more by A) throwing away the guidebook (which we finally realised was just leading us to the very heart of the tourist scrum, and also the very heart of all the crap chi-chi shops in place to sell crap to the tourists); and B) going out after nightfall, when the day-trippers had left, and the pensioners gone to bed.         (hide)
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A block over from the Markt is the Burg – "one of Europe's finest medieval squares" – and towered over by the 14th-century Stadhuis, "one of the oldest town halls in Belgium and a Gothic masterpiece".         (hide)
Inside is the Gothic Hall, which we got to see after buying tickets. I was surprised by this, as well as for having to pay for the next couple of attractions – I'd told Alex, "Hey, man, everything in this town is free!" On closer inspection, I saw that the note on all the entries in the guidebook was "Admission FEE".         (hide)
One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a set of statues outside a museum which sadly had all its Magrittes in storage.         (hide)
A, uh, church. The big one.         (hide)
Their claim to fame is this Michelangelo, Madonna and Child – which is one of the few of his sculptures outside Italy, and the only one to leave the country during his lifetime.         (hide)
We swang by the Beguinhof, hoping to find some of the "unmarried or abandoned women" for whom it was built, but no luck.         (hide)
The rain started coming down a bit, resulting in this nice misty view of the church spire.         (hide)
Seeking shelter, partially from the rain, but mainly from the tourists, we found a public but very hidden courtyard, beside this canal.         (hide)
That evening, I went wandering around by myself for a bit; as I got further from where the guidebook told me to go, things got every nice. For instance, this lovely city park, the only users of which were a group of a dozen or so local twentysomethings, playing footie and lounging.         (hide)
There was also proper peaceful canal strolling.         (hide)
All of it much more like what I thought we'd come here for.         (hide)
Went back and recovered Alex to take him on the Obscure (and non-Annoying) Bruges tour. For better or worse, we ended up stumbling on an attraction: Jan van Eyck Plein. There's the painter in the, erm, stone.         (hide)
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We circled back to the Markt in the nice late light.         (hide)
I'd actually settled into the room for the evening, when Alex came back in and told me the lit-up Markt was really shootable. I went back out, and shot all of the following.         (hide)
Including this scooter zipping through, which was a fun surprise.         (hide)
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Next morning, I succumbed to temptation and paid my 5 Euros for the privilege of walking up some 400 steps to the top of the Bell Tower. View.         (hide)
At almost the top level, I discovered this mechanism that scored our morning wake-up music. The whole building's basically a really, really huge music box.         (hide)
So the carillon – which we had been listening to for days, including and in particular when we were trying to sleep – had been going off when I arrived up top at the belfry. By the time I drug my camera out to capture some audio, they'd stopped. No problem, I figured. Damn things go off every three minutes. And of course I ended up standing there in the cold wind, holding my device, for a half hour waiting for them to go again. Finally rewarded (60k RealAudio, pardon the wind).         (hide)

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about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (2014); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of spec-ops zombie apocalypse dark action thrillers. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE ASS, AND OTHER STORIES by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
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