Tuesday, June 30, 2009

St. Margaret's Church (Westminster)

Sir Winston Churchill was married here, John Milton was a parishioner, and Sir Walter Raleigh (most of him) is buried here. The Anglican church of St. Margaret, Westminster, is situated in the grounds of Westminster Abbey on Parliament Square, and is the parish church of the Houses of Parliament in London.

Originally founded in the 12th century by Benedictine monks, so that local people who lived in the area around the Abbey could worship separately at their own simpler parish church, St. Margaret's was rebuilt from 1486 to 1523. It became the parish of the Palace of Westminster in 1614, when the Puritans of the 17th century, unhappy with the highly liturgical Abbey, chose to hold Parliamentary services in the more "suitable" St. Margaret's, a practice that has since continued.

Notable features include the Eastern window of 1509 of Flemish stained glass, created to remember the engagement of Catherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII. Other windows commemorate William Caxton (d. 1491, Britain's first printer), who is buried here, Sir Walter Raleigh (all but his head buried in the church in 1618), and the poet John Milton, a parishioner of the church.

Note: Sir Walter Raleigh's body was buried at St. Margaret's after his execution, but his embalmed head was kept by his wife, Elizabeth Throgmorton. She kept it in a red leather bag, by her side, for the last 29 years of her life. Their son Carew took care of it until his own death in 1666. Carew was buried in his father's grave with the head, but in 1680 Carew was exhumed and re-buried, along with his father's head, in West Horsley, Surrey. Way more than you wanted to know.

The church continues to be a popular venue for "society" weddings.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Parc de Bruxelles

Detail from the bandshell (1840) inside the Parc de Bruxelles, located in the Upper Town. The Royal Palace of Brussels, the Belgian Parliament, Théâtre Royal du Parc and the US Embassy encircle the park, which was once the hunting grounds of the Dukes of Brabant. After a devastating fire in the early 18th century, the park was redesigned in the 1770s with fountains, kiosks, statuary and tree-lined paths, which were laid out in the design of Masonic symbols, most notably the square and compass.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

This pub, mentioned in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, was already well known in the 17th century, but other pubs had previously occupied this address (one of them, the Horn Tavern, was recorded in 1538). The earliest incarnation of this site was a guest house belonging to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery; the pub's extant vaulted cellars are thought to belong to that building. However, the pub was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt the following year, giving us the building we enter today.

Approached through a narrow alleyway (Wine Office Court off Fleet St., east of the Temple Church), the “Cheese” boasts an entrance board listing the reigns of the 15 monarchs through which this grand old pub has survived. The dark wooden interior is a warren of narrow corridors and staircases, leading to numerous bars and dining rooms. There are so many, even regulars get confused.

A portrait of one of the Cheese's most famous patrons, Dr. Samuel Johnson (his house is around the corner) hangs on a far wall, and his chair is set upon a shelf. A copy of Johnson's dictionary is nearby. Another painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, was found in a cellar relatively recently and restored. Other distinguished patrons were Goldsmith, Dickens, Pope, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Voltaire and Thackeray.

One famous mascot was a parrot who's mimicry entertained customers for 40 years; the bird’s death in 1926 was announced on the BBC, and obituaries appeared in newspapers all over the world. I’m not making this up.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


After waffles, the next most famous Belgian food is Waterzooi, a classic Flemish stew. Its name is Dutch, meaning “watery mess.” I’m not making this up. It is sometimes called Gentse Waterzooi (in Dutch), which refers to Ghent, a major city in Belgium.

The original form was based on fish, though today chicken waterzooi (kippenwaterzooi) is more common. The most accepted explanation for this is that rivers of Ghent became too polluted, and the fish there disappeared. The stew is made of fish or chicken, vegetables (including carrots, leeks and potatoes), herbs, eggs, cream and butter. It is invariably delicious, cheap and filling.

Both the chicken and fish versions are based on a vegetable broth thickened with egg yolk and cream, usually served as a soup with bread to sop up the liquid.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bangers and Mash

A staple of pub fare, bangers and mash is a dish of sausages served atop mashed potatoes with a brown onion gravy. A classic accompaniment (veggie on the side) is buttered peas. Flavorful, satifying and cheap -- a winning combination. You'll find this served in pubs all over England, Scotland and Ireland.

Note: Not all pubs accept credit cards, so be sure to ask, if this is important to you. For first timers, also note that in pubs you will be expected to pay for food as you order it, though most pubs will allow you to run a tab for alcohol.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cathédrale des Sts Michel et Gudule

A relatively restrained Gothic cathedral, St Michel's (dedicated to the city's patron St. Michael, and to St. Gudula), is the national church of Belgium. Its purity of line and lack of superfluous frill is the distilled essence of a style that dominated European cityscapes for half a millennia. Its somewhat plain interior is partly due to Protestant iconoclast ransacking (1579-80) and thefts by French revolutionists in 1793. The cathedral was fully restored in the 1990s.

Victor Hugo considered this magnificent church to be the "purest flowering of the Gothic style." Begun in 1226, it was built over a period of 300 years; it was not officially consecrated as a cathedral until 1961 (I assume they wanted to be really sure about the whole bishop thing). The 16th-century Habsburg Emperor Charles V donated the remarkable stained glass windows, and the locally quarried sandstone exterior is also distinctive. The Baroque carved wood pulpit by noted Antwerp sculptor Henri-Francois Verbruggen was added in 1776. The cathedral is located in the Upper Town of Brussels, near the Gare Centrale and the Parc de Bruxelles.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Millennium Bridge - London

The Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian-only steel suspension bridge across the Thames connecting the Tate Modern Gallery and St. Paul's Cathedral. Construction began in 1998, and the bridge was opened in June 2000. The design of the bridge was the result of a competition organized in 1996 by Southwark council. The winning entry was an innovative "blade of light" effort from Arup, Foster and Partners and Sir Anthony Caro.

Londoners nicknamed the bridge the "wobbly bridge" after crowds of pedestrians felt an unexpected swaying motion on the first two days after the bridge opened. The bridge was closed and modified, and further modifications eliminated the wobble entirely.

The southern end of the bridge is near Globe Theatre, the Bankside Gallery and Tate Modern, the north end next to the City of London School below St Paul's Cathedral. The bridge alignment is such that a clear view of St Paul's south facade is presented from across the river, framed by the bridge supports, thus providing a scenic view of the cathedral. Perhaps the best view of the bridge itself is from a restaurant inside the Tate Modern.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

René Magritte - Belgian surrealist

From 1930 to 1954 the great Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967) lived and worked in an undistinguished rented town house in suburban Brussels. Now restored, that 19-room house is a museum of the artist's life. You can visit most of the rooms but can only view through glass the dining-room-cum-studio where he painted many of his fantastical masterpieces while wearing a three-piece suit. You can even look through the famous window, with a view of nothing in particular, on to which Magritte projected images that would revolutionize art and the way we look at the world. That said, there is very little to see, even though the museum's founders have been diligent in uncovering bits and pieces of the artist's banal private life.

However, since June 2, 2009, visitors have been able to enjoy the new Musée Magritte in a building of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Located at the Place Royale, in the very center of Brussels, the museum displays the works of the surrealist artist, which belong to the museum, private collectors, as well as public and private institutions which have loaned their masterpieces. This multi-disciplinary collection is the richest in the world. It contains more than 200 works consisting of oils on canvas, gouaches, drawings, sculptures and painted objects as well as advertising posters, music scores, vintage photographs and films produced by Magritte himself.

Museum web site (click):

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Covent Garden - London

The Royal Opera House is adjacent to the Piazza outside Covent Garden market. This opera house is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden." The present structure dates from 1858 and is the third building on the site. The original structure (1732) is where many of Handel's oratorios and operas were premiered.

Covent Garden Market and the adjoining Piazza, one of London's premier tourist attractions, is famous for its past as well as the current transformation into a showcase for a vibrant, modern London with attendant street performers, restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues. The market and Royal Opera House were memorably brought together in the opening of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, where Professor Henry Higgins is waiting for a cab to take him home from the opera; he then comes across Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in the Covent Garden market. With My Fair Lady we have music to go along with the story.

The older generation of Londoners still remembers Covent Garden as the largest fruit and vegetable market in England. But its history goes all the way back to the early 13th century when "Convent Garden" (covent was the Middle English form of the modern word convent) referred to a 40-acre plot in the county of Middlesex, bordered west and east by what is now St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. In this quadrangle the Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, maintained a large kitchen garden throughout the Middle Ages to provide its daily food. Over the next three centuries, the monks' old "convent garden" became a major source of fruit and vegetables in London and was managed by a succession of leaseholders by grant from the Abbot of Westminster. This type of lease eventually led to property disputes throughout the kingdom, which Henry VIII solved in 1540 by the stroke of a pen, when he dissolved the monasteries and appropriated their land. In the 1630s on this land formerly belonging to Westminster Abbey, the “Convent Garden” was developed by the 4th Earl of Bedford as an experiment in Italian-style town planning, resulting in the first public square in the country.

Inigo Jones, the most important English architect of the 17th century, was commissioned by the Earl of Bedford to design the Piazza; Jones lined the square with with arcaded houses. It is thus one of the oldest squares in London. His distinctive St. Paul's Church (1638, and not to be confused with St. Paul's Cathedral) with two square and two round columns and a false center door (the true entry door is round in the back) is the only one of the original Jones buildings still standing on the Piazza. The square end columns are arcaded. Curiously, the facade that faces the Piazza is stone, while the rest of the church is red brick. It is commonly called the Actors' Church, due to its proximity to several important theatres; there are memorials to Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Ivor Novello and Boris Karloff.

The fruit and vegetable market in the square began in a small way in 1649, but by 1760 occupied much of the piazza. The main iron market building in the Piazza we see today was erected in 1830 by Charles Fowler. By the 1940s it was evident that the country's principal fruit and vegetable market could not remain in this very congested part of London. It was eventually relocated to Nine Elms in 1973, leaving empty market buildings and numerous vacant premises in the surrounding area.

A vigorous campaign by local residents defeated the planner’s intentions to knock down most of the buildings, and instead the Market was renovated to become the popular shopping centre and mecca for arts, crafts and theatre that it is today.

Houses of Parliament

The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament, is a complex of buildings on the north bank of the river Thames in London. It was used as a royal residence from 1065 until Henry VIII moved out following a fire in 1512. Although it is the seat of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (House of Lords and House of Commons), it maintains its status as a royal palace. The structure contains around 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and 2 miles of corridors. Although the building mainly dates from the 19th century, remaining elements of the original historic buildings include Westminster Hall (used today for major public ceremonial events such as lyings in state), and the Jewel Tower across the street, now a museum for relics of the old palace and an exhibition of Parliament's history with a video. After a disastrous fire in 1834, the present Houses of Parliament complex was built in neo-late-Gothic style over a 30-year period. The House of Lords chamber contains the sovereign's throne (shown in photo):

Big Ben is the name of the great 14-ton cast bell that sits inside the four-faced tower clock situated beside the Houses of Parliament. But these days the term "Big Ben" is used to refer to the clock, the 320-ft. tall tower and the bell collectively. Note: When Parliament is in session, there is a light above the clock.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

La Maison du Roi (Broodhuis)

The beautiful neo-gothic building with its many decorative architectural details is the "Maison du Roi" (King's House) in French or "Broodhuis" in Dutch. Located opposite the Town Hall on the Grand Place, it now serves as the historical City Museum of Brussels.

The Dutch name "Broodhuis" (bread house) indicates the origins of this building. In the 13th century a wooden building stood here that was used by the bakers to sell their bread. In 1405 a stone building replaced the original wooden bread hall. When the bakers turned to selling their products from house to house in the 15th century, the ancient bread hall began to be used more and more for administrative purposes by the Duke of Brabant, hence the French name "Maison du Roi". During the reign of emperor Charles V, the King's House was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic style (1515-1536). In one of the rooms the counts of Egmont and Hoorne spent their last night before their execution by order of Filip II of Spain on the Grand-Place on June the 5th 1568.

After the French bombardment of 1695 the building was restored as far as necessary to keep it from collapsing. In the following centuries it was used for different purposes (e. g. as "Maison du Peuple" - the people's house - after the French revolutionists had taken over power in the country at the end of the 18th century).

In 1860 the mayor of Brussels had convinced the city authorities to buy the old King's House, which was then in a sorry state. The entire building had to be build up from scratch. The restoration was done in the then fashionable neo-gothic style. The architect was clearly influenced by the early 16th century town hall of the City of Oudenaarde.

In June 1887 the King's House became the City Museum of Brussels. On exhibition are original statues of the town hall, paintings, wall tapestries and different artifacts which have a relation to the history of the city. A favorite among tourists, the wardrobe collection of Manneken-Pis is housed on the second floor. Between 1918 and 1940, Brussels received around thirty "suits" that were used as a special costume for the little pissing statue that has become the mascot of Brussels. By the 1980s the museum counted more than 400, and today its collection numbers more than 800! Most of the costumes were donations from embassies, tourist offices, sportsmen, artists, bon vivants, associations, anyone who wished to honor Manneken-Pis with a suit or costume. The surprisingly small statue is located two blocks southwest of Grand-Place on the corner of rue du Chêne and rue de l'Etuve. Today the museum houses hundreds of statuettes of Manneken-Pis which present a selection of his costumes from all over the world (be sure to check out the "Elvis" costume, shown in use in the photo below).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hôtel de Ville (Brussels Town Hall)

This magnificent construction from 1402 shows off Gothic intricacy at its best, complete with dozens of arched windows and sculptures. Some of these, like the drunken monks, a sleeping Moor and his harem, and St. Michael slaying a female devil, display a sense of humor as well as extraordinary skill. The interior reflects the extravagant tastes of the imperial aldermen who ruled over the city from here. A 315-ft. tall tower (built in 1449) sprouts from the middle, yet it's not placed directly in the center, and it's slightly crooked. Atop the spire is a statue of the Archangel Michael, patron saint of the city.

The building, which occupies the entire southwest side of the Grand Place, is still the seat of civic government, and its wedding room is a popular place to marry. You can visit the interior on guided tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays. Worth seeking out is the spectacular Gothic Hall, open for visits when the city's aldermen are not in session. Baroque decoration stands side by side with magnificent 16th- to 18th-century tapestries.

On summer evenings there is a popular son-et-lumière (sound and light) show in which various buildings on the Grand Place are illuminated by lasers. Summer evenings at 10:30p. The following video is the 2008 December illumination:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, the oldest parts dating from the year 1050, is officially named the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster. It stands adjacent to the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. In this Gothic edifice the kings and queens of England have been crowned (and buried) since William the Conqueror in 1066. Westminster Abbey is also a Royal Peculiar, a place of worship that falls directly under the jurisdiction of the British monarch, rather than a diocese.

Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated in the early 1600s.

Henry VII Lady’s Chapel, a riot of flamboyant Gothic style dating from 1503, is the mother church of the Order of Bath. Banners of the members add colorful, festive adornment as the eye moves upward to glimpse the astonishing tracery stone ceiling (shown above).

Westminster Abbey's main nave is remarkably narrow at just 35 feet wide (photo above). The ceiling, however, at more than 100 feet high, is the tallest in England.

St. Edward's Chair (shown above), the throne on which British sovereigns are seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the Abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308; from 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when it was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scotland are crowned, but pending another coronation, the Stone is now kept in Scotland.

Geoffrey Chaucer and other writers are buried and memorialized in Poets' Corner. These include William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, John Dryden, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, John Milton, Laurence Olivier, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth (for starters).

Musicians get their proper enshrinement, too. Henry Purcell served as abbey organist from 1679, Orlando Gibbons from 1623, John Blow from 1668, and William Croft from 1708.

The Great West Door and Towers (below):

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The British Museum

The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture situated in central London, immediately south of Russell Square. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginning to the present. Among its greatest treasures are the Elgin Marbles, fragments from the frieze that adorned the Acropolis in Athens (Greece very much wants them back, and the brand new Acropolis Museum that opened this month in Athens reopens the controversy). The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on January 15, 1759. Admission is free.

Among its greatest ancient holdings is the Rosetta Stone, crafted in 196 BC and rediscovered at Rosetta (the Egyptian port city of Rashid) by Napoleon’s army. This astounding find subsequently contributed to the deciphering of the principles of hieroglyph writing. Comparative translation of the three languages (including Classical Greek) chiseled onto the stone assisted in understanding many previously undecipherable examples of hieroglyphics. The text on the stone is a decree from Egypt’s King Ptolemy V, describing the repealing of various taxes and instructions to erect statues in temples.

The Rosetta stone is about four feet tall and two feet wide and has been displayed in the British Museum since 1802, three years after its discovery by the French in 1799. In July 2003, Egypt demanded the return of the Rosetta Stone. The secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, told the press: "If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone, because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity." In 2005, the secretary general was negotiating for a three-month loan, with the eventual goal of a permanent return; in November 2005, the British Museum responded by sending him a replica of the stone. No further negotiations have since taken place.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tower of London

Situated along the north bank of the Thames in the eastern edge of the city center, the Tower of London served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, and an astronomical observatory. The White Tower (reopened in 1999) holds the Armouries, which date from the reign of Henry VIII, as well as a display of instruments of torture and execution that recall some of the most ghastly moments in the Tower's history.

The Tower is a compound of structures built mostly as expressions of royal power. The oldest is the White Tower, begun by William the Conqueror in 1078 to keep London's native Saxon population in check. Later rulers added other towers, walls and fortified gates, until the buildings became like a small town within a city. Until the reign of James I (beginning in 1603), the Tower was also one of the royal residences. But above all, it was a prison for distinguished captives, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Devereux, two wives of Henry VIII (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) Sir Thomas More, and the 9-day queen (Lady Jane Grey), all of whom spent their last days on earth imprisoned here.

In the Jewel House are the Tower's greatest attraction, the Crown Jewels – some of the world's most precious stones set into robes, swords, scepters, and crowns. The Imperial State Crown is the most famous crown on earth; made for Queen Victoria in 1837, it's worn today by Queen Elizabeth II when she opens Parliament. Studded with some 3,000 jewels, it includes the Black Prince's Ruby, worn by Henry V at Agincourt. The 530-carat Star of Africa, a cut diamond on the Royal Sceptre with Cross, is breathtaking. You'll stand in long lines to catch a glimpse of the jewels as you and hundreds of others scroll by on moving sidewalks.

An ancient palace inhabited by King Edward I in the late 1200s stands above Traitors' Gate; it's the only surviving medieval palace in Britain. Guides at the palace are dressed in period costumes, and reproductions of furniture and fittings, including Edward's throne, evoke the era, along with burning incense and candles.

One-hour guided tours of the entire compound are given by the Yeoman Warders (also known as "Beefeaters") every half-hour, from the Middle Tower near the main entrance. The last guided walk starts about 3:30pm in summer.

Adjacent to the Tower complex is Tower Bridge (separate admission), one of the world's most celebrated landmarks. Despite its medieval appearance, Tower Bridge was built in 1894. An exhibition inside the bridge commemorates its century-old history; a tour takes you up the north tower to high walkways between the two towers with spectacular views of St. Paul's, the Tower of London, and the Houses of Parliament. You're then led down the south tower and into the bridge's original engine room, containing the Victorian boilers and steam engines that used to raise and lower the bridge for ships to pass. Multimedia exhibits in the towers illustrate the history of the bridge.

Tip: the worst crowds at the Tower of London are on Sundays. Early morning on a weekday is your best bet. Don’t miss the six ravens!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Belgian Lace

The intricate lace patterns of Belgium are unmatched in any other country. The lace trade rose during the early Renaissance, and Emperor Charles V decreed that lace-making should be a compulsory skill for girls in convents and beguinages (where women live as nuns without taking vows) throughout Flanders. Lace became fashionable on collars and cuffs for members of both sexes, and trade reached its peak in the 18th century.

Lace makers are traditionally women. Hundreds of craftswomen still work in Bruges (Brugge) and Brussels, both centers of bobbin lace, creating intricate work by hand – often using over 100 threads per bobbin. Belgian lace is bought today mainly as a souvenir, but despite the rise in machine-made lace from other countries, the quality here remains as fine as it was in enaissance times.

In Brussels, close to the Grand Place, the Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle (Museum of Costume & Lace) has a permanent collection of fine lace. Displayed in subdued lighting and safely laid out in drawers, this extraordinary collection contains pieces made on the spindle and with needles. The costumes the lace was made for are also displayed in thematic exhibits.