Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eurostar chunnel train

London to Brussels in 1 hour 56 minutes, departing since November, 2008, from the new St. Pancras International Station. 20 minutes of that time is spent whisking through the Channel Tunnel, 250 feet under the English Channel, linking Dover and Calais. The service is operated by 18 car trains that travel 189 miles per hour. The Channel Tunnel is constructed of two single track tunnels, one for each direction; there is also a center service track.

Adjacent to the metal and glass St. Pancras terminal, the enormous Victorian era brick and stone train station hotel, long shuttered, is being restored and will once again serve guests, under management of Marriott Hotels. The projected opening date is 2010.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Atomium - Brussels

Created for the 1958 World's Fair, the Atomium is a symbol of the atom concept. It represents an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. As with most of the pavillions, it was never intended to stay longer than the duration of the fair. Nevertheless, The Atomium remained by popular demand, underwent major renovation in 2005-2006, turned 50 last year, and has long been regarded a major symbol of Brussels and Belgium.

The World’s Fair was held from April to October 1958 and hosted more than 42 million visitors. It was the first major world exposition after WWII; the previous world’s fair had been held in New York in 1939, when German troops were invading Poland.

The World’s Fair, more commonly called Expo 58, was certainly one of the most representative international events of the fifties. It symbolized a democratic desire for peace between nations, faith in technical progress (despite fears about the atom bomb) and optimism about the future of a modern world that promised to enhance people’s lives.

The appropriately named DEATH RIDE allows the brave to zip-line down from the top.

London Eye

Since opening in March 2000 the London Eye has become an iconic landmark and a symbol of modern Britain. The London Eye is the UK’s most popular admission-charged tourist attraction, visited by over 3.5 million people a year.

A breathtaking feat of design and engineering, passengers in the London Eye's capsules can see up to 25 miles in all directions, as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day. Each revolution takes 30 minutes.

The London Eye, located directly on the shores of the Thames River, was the vision of David Marks and Julia Barfield, a husband and wife architect team. The wheel design was used as a metaphor for the end of the 20th century, and time turning into the new millennium. Back in 2000, the London Eye was known as the Millennium Wheel when British Airways was the main sponsor.

Bruges - Flanders

Walking around the beautifully preserved city of Bruges (Brugge) is like taking a step back in time. Bruges seems to have changed little from its 13th-century origins as a cloth-manufacturing town. In the Middle Ages, Bruges was among the wealthiest cities of Europe, evidenced by the elaborate and distinctive architectural treasures that remain from that time. UNESCO has recognized the cultural importance of the historic center by awarding it World Heritage status in 2000, and Bruges was a 2002 European Capital of Culture.

Photos below - Bruges Town Hall (top) and its spectacular interior (bottom):

About an hour north of Brussels by train or car, the Dutch-speaking city is the capital of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province and the pride and joy of all Flanders citizens. Around four million visitors a year descend on the city of 115,000 residents.

Medieval Gothic architecture is the big deal that Bruges provides, in quantities that come near to numbing the senses. In addition, its scenic canals and reputation as a lace-making center add icing to the cake that is one of the wonders of Europe.

The main sights of Bruges are concentrated within a fairly small area, making the city easy to explore on foot. Highlights include the 272-foot tall 15th-century Bell Tower (with a clock and 47-bell carillon), that offers stunning views over the city and surrounding countryside. The architecture of the adjacent Market and Burg Squares is spectacular, most notably the City Hall dating from 1376. Its gothic council chamber on the building’s first floor is open to the public, and features distinctive wooden ceilings decorated with gilded medieval carvings. Various other sites offer daily lace- and chocolate-making demonstrations.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Place du Petit Sablon - Brussels

One of the most attractive small gardens in Brussels, Place du Petit Sablon was created in 1890 by architect Henri Beyaert and is dedicated to the memory of martyred Counts Egmont and Hornes, whose statues rise above an elaborate fountain. It is an attractive tree-lined space enclosed by magnificent wrought iron fencing and gates, encircled by 48 bronze statuettes, each representing a different medieval guild.

The Sablon is one of the most prestigious and attractive areas in central Brussels. In recent years it has become known as the center of antiques shops and art galleries.

The name “sablon” refers to the yellowish earth layer that could be seen along the shoulders of the dirt roads. This type of sandy clay was called "zavel" in Dutch and "sablon" in French. In the 14th century a small chapel in the sablon area was transformed into an important pilgrimage site where a miraculous statue of Our Lady was venerated. Soon the area became more populated and was enclosed within the 14th-century city walls. Around 1450 the little chapel had been transformed into a beautiful Gothic church, the Sablon church, known as Our Lady of the Victories. In the following centuries more and more noblemen settled in the area because it was close to the duke's palace.

A dramatic change occurred in the second half of the 19th century. The Sablon was divided into two parts by the construction of the Regentschapstraat/Rue de la Régence. During this period the church was renovated in neo-gothic style and the houses which had been attached to it were demolished. On the eastern side of the church a new park was laid out, called "De kleine zavel/Le petit sablon".
The Église Notre Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of Sablon) is noted for its gallery with brightly colored stained glass windows which are illuminated from the inside at night. The celebrated statue of St. Hubert inside was once stolen from Brussels and taken to Antwerp, but was seized and returned to the church in 1348, where it has remained ever since.

Not only famous for its antiques, the Sablon area also offers a range of good restaurants and pleasant cafés. A visit to Wittamer, the most exclusive pastry maker in Brussels, is also a must.

Bottom photo: Several of the 48 columns supporting bronze statues, each representing one of the trade guilds. (click to enlarge)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Grand Place - Brussels

Every 2 years, on the 15th of August, the city of Brussels produces an enormous carpet of flowers in the center of the Grand Place (Grote Markt in Dutch), the city’s central market square. This photo from 2008 shows 700,000 begonias forming an intricate design.

The Grand Place of French-speaking Brussels is the location of the city’s Town Hall, La Maison du Roi and many ornate Guild Houses. The entirety of the Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is one of the most glorious town squares in all of Europe.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hotel Russell, London

373 air-conditioned guest rooms over eight floors.

The Hotel Russell, built in 1898, is an imposing late Victorian hotel in London. It is located in the heart of Bloomsbury, with the British Museum, Covent Garden and Oxford Street within comfortable walking distance. This majestic terra-cotta clad historic hotel is adjacent to the Underground and overlooks the gardens of Russell Square. The exceptional mosaic floor that lies in the lobby was laid when the hotel was originally built and was recently restored to its original state, after being covered up due to war damage.

Detail of the terra-cotta clad exterior:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Hotel Metropole, Brussels

Inaugurated in 1895, this legendary Brussels hotel is the city's only 19th-century property still open for business. It was originally built by a brewer's family as an addition to their café, intended to promote their selection of beers on the famous Place de Brouckère. Today, it boasts the grandest hotel setting in Brussels. The main entrance is all French Renaissance frivolity leading to an Empire-style reception hall replete with gold stained-glass windows that celebrate the city's art-nouveau heritage. Glittering with chandeliers, the sumptuous lobby retains many of its original features.

Throughout its history the hotel has become part of the city's social, economical, political and cultural life, welcoming such guests as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Rubinstein, the crew of the Challenger space shuttle, as well as many presidents and royals.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Russell Square - London

In the late 17th century the Russell family, who were Earls and later Dukes of Bedford, acquired most of the present Bloomsbury area and established many formal squares. Completed in 1806, Russell Square became the most distinguished and largest of the group. Besides some uninspired alterations in the 1960s, it had never seen changes to its design. However, it also wasn't receiving adequate care. While the trees had time to reach their maturity, the rest of the place fell into benign neglect.

In February of 2001, Camden Council undertook the full restoration of the square and refurbishment of the gardens. There is now a fine café just opposite the grand Victorian-era Hotel Russell, and a modern fountain operates at the very center. All four corner entrance gates have paths that lead to the central fountain. Today Russell Square (just north of the British Museum) is once again a handsome, beautiful urban oasis, and now has a permanent gardener.

Russell Square also has one of London's few remaining Cabman's Shelters. These were built in the 19th century to provide some facilities for Hansom Cab drivers who by law weren't allowed to leave the cab stand where they were parked. They were set up by the Earl of Shaftsbury and were green huts that weren't allowed to be longer than a horse and carriage. They had an attendant working there who would cook and sell food to the cab drivers; around ten drivers could fit inside at any one time. Drinking, gambling and swearing were banned from the premises. 61 were built, and 13 are still in operation today, all of which are Grade II listed buildings.

Much of the cultural reputation of this area is related to the Bloomsbury Group. The members had all met while attending Cambridge University at the end of the 19th century. It included the writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, critic Lytton Strachey, and artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell – not to men an economist, John Maynard Keynes. Although their atheism, liberal economics, modernist fiction, and their non-nuclear family and sexual arrangement alienated many, the Bloomsbury Group pioneered many aspects of popular culture that continue today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Lamb - a London pub

Located in Bloomsbury at 94 Conduit Street, south of Guilford (just east of Russell Square).

There may be a lamb on the sign, but the pub and the street were named after philanthropist William Lamb. In 1577, he improved the conduit that brought fresh water to the people of the area. Today, Lamb's Conduit Street is a three-block stretch of book and music shops, clothing stores, pubs and restaurants, each of them independent; there's not a single chain retailer. This popular pub was built in the 1720s but "improved" in the 19th century, when much of the original structure was lost. What remains is a fine Victorian pub in the heart of Bloomsbury.

The exterior is fairly typical with the exception of striking green tiled walls. Inside, at head level above the U-shaped counter, are rare snob screens. These small pivoting panels of etched glass were positioned at head height to conceal a drinker's identity from the pub staff. The pub would have originally been divided into several small bar areas, each with its own access to the central counter.

Dark wood, tufted leather banquettes, smoke-brown walls, a polished wood plank ceiling, sepia photographs and Victorian artefacts provide a bygone atmosphere. A Polyphon, a kind of Victorian juke box , occupies one corner, and by all accounts it still works. At the rear of the pub is a small covered patio.

The service is friendly and the Young's beers are invariably in top condition. There's a good variety of set meals and daily specials at reasonable prices, such as savory pies, bangers and mash, and fish and chips.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wittamer Patissier

Wittamer Patissier & Tea Room
Place du Grand Sablon 6
Closed Mondays

Wittamer is the stuff of legends. The founder, Henri Wittamer, established his shop at the Grand Sablon in 1910. Until his death in 1945, the bakery in the Sablon square went from strength to strength, building a solid reputation and fame. It would bake bread on weekdays, and then on Sundays fruit loaves and bread rolls, as well as some traditional fruit tarts, the memory of which will never fade.

After the war, still in the frustrating period of ration tickets, Henri Wittamer junior, the founder’s only son, and his wife Yvonne, took over the reins of the family business. In 1955, they enlarged and modernized the selling areas.

Later, in 1965, Henri-Paul Wittamer, the third by that name, having been awarded a diploma in the art of chocolate making from the prestigious COBA school in Switzerland, gave free rein to creativity in the workshop, by creating his first mousses and Bavarois, and by setting up the chocolate shop and the patisserie. Then in 1980, his sister Myriam joined him in running the company.

In 1994, Leslie Wittamer, the founder's great-granddaughter, joined the 60 skilled workforce. In 2000, The Maison Wittamer officially became the Supplier by Appointment to the Court of Belgium. The company is currently managed by Paul and Myriam Wittamer.