I always somehow imagined Belgium as the crossroads of Europe, a country of men in suits, beer, and, of course, chocolate. The only time I had spent within the borders was that spent waiting in the airport, on a layover. It was past time that I visit the country and see what it has to offer – which was more than I could have imagined, through the royal welcome I was given by generous hosts and tour guides!
My original plane was scheduled to fly into Brussels but I discovered that I would instead fly into Antwerp, leaving 2.5 hours early. The plane was half full. Border control was a little more exciting as, when I told them I was there to give an organ concert, they asked if I had my instrument with me. After being concerned about my reply of “no,” the three guards discussed what an organ was. Once they remembered, I was allowed back into the EU.
Due to the increased traffic at the Antwerp airport, the ATM was out of service, leaving silly Katelyn with no Euros and, thus, no way to take the bus. No cars, buses, or taxis were allowed near the airport and soldiers with big guns disallowed anybody who had exited the airport to re-enter. I finally found a taxi to take me to the train station but, of course, it didn’t take credit cards. Thankfully, the driver kindly found a bank beside the road!
Again, public transportation was perturbed and only one entrance to the magnificent Antwerp Train Station was open. Thankfully, I found it quickly, purchased a ticket, ran to the platform, and stepped into the train as the door closed. I was on my way to Hasselt!
Whirling into this beautiful city, with a population of about 70,000, just after sunset, I met my wonderful hosts, Chris and Ludo, had a bite to eat, and explored the beautiful 1791-3 Binvignat & Houdtappel organ in the St. Quentin Cathedral… having a little more limited practice time than I had envisioned, since I only started working at 8:30PM and the Cathedral closed at 10!
It was as true pleasure to give the concert the following day in the Cathedral due to the stunning instrument, which had a real affinity for French classical music, German baroque music, and even Langlais, and because of the welcoming and generous audience – a record number of attendees, I was told. Several television screens downstairs allowed listeners to watch the performance and appreciate the amount of work I gave my stop puller, Johan Hermans, the organist of the Cathedral. This was quite a bit for the program of “Bach-Inspiring and -Inspired” composers: Buxtehude, Böhm, CPE Bach, Rheinberger, Schumann, Langlais, and Mendelssohn.
We celebrated the concert and the beginning of “Belgium vacation” with, naturally, a Belgian beer – Chimay Bleue, to be specific, which is made by Chimay Brewery, in a Trappist monastery. For those who don’t know, Trappist monks are cloistered Benedictine monks who “live by the work of their hands.” They work through carpentry, clothesmaking, farming, and making beer. There are eleven Trappist monasteries who brew and sell beer throughout the world, with the majority being in Belgium.
Needless to say, this was a fitting celebratory beverage and its sweetness hinted at the many wonderful things I was yet to see. We travelled (by bike) to hear and play the 1878 Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Church of the Holy Heart of Hasselt! This brought me from German baroque revelry back into French symphonic lushness without leaving the borders of the city. Biking also allowed me to see the early 21st-century (and very boxy) justice building of Hasselt and the law school, which was a former jail with cells now transformed into study rooms.
Sunday morning, I enjoyed the quiet lack of traffic while running in Hasselt before most of the residents were awake. The rest of the day was spent mostly surrounded by people in the beautiful city of Antwerp, an hour’s drive away. The historic center features the city hall, which dates from 1565, and a statue displaying the hero Brabo about the throw (werpen) the hand (hand) of the toll-charging giant who had previously inhabited the city’s valuable harbor. Brabo’s victory allowed free passage and gave the city its name of (h)Antwerpen. Wandering through the streets, I viewed the city from across Scheldt River, visited the Het Steen (“The Stone”: a castle replica that has been rebuilt along the river in celebration of Antwerp’s past as a fortified city), the Cathedral (which featured a stunning exhibition on Peter-Paul Rubens, whose home and studio was in the city), St. Paul’s Church (with a stunning Baroque interior), and the harbor. Somehow along the way, I stumbled in to the red light district, which was not quite the area in which I had expected to find myself!
This was a “shopping Sunday,” when all stores were open. Of course, in place of entering these shops, I elected to people-watch, check out the chocolate stores, and listen to the street musicians! Most intriguing of the chocolate stores The Chocolate Line, which is inside a beautiful building, where the paintings are (almost) as lovely as the chocolate.
This first day of Belgium exploration finished with a little American flair – a trip to Boom where, in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw en Sint-Rochuskerk, I found an 1854 E & GG Hook organ that was installed in 2009 by David E. Wallace & Co. This lovely gem brought me right back home to the USA, although the church’s stunning acoustic didn’t quite seem like something I would easily find there! Upon our return to Hasselt, my hosts exposed me to the fourth thing for which Belgium should be known for: its ice cream. This particular ice cream stand was found in the middle of a cow pasture – the strongest scent in the air was not that of dairy products but of another, less edible product that also comes from the cow. I still find it interesting that this smell did not hinder enjoyment of the delectable frozen dessert…
Monday morning found me in quite the variety of locales: our first stop was a church where, in fact, they make beer. This was immediately followed by my first vraie vie visit to a World War II cemetery: the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. There is nothing quite like driving through the Belgian countryside and happening upon verdant green fields that are covered with immediately-recognizeable white spots. With almost 8,000 soldiers buried here, each with their own headstone, the view is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Especially powerful is discovering, among the thousands of crosses, headstones shaped as the Star of David.
Perhaps giving our hearts and minds time to catch up, we traversed the Belgian/German border to visit Aachen, a former residence of Charlemagne! Among the 14th-century Rathaus and the historic city center, we found the astounding Aachen Cathedral, northern Europe’s oldest cathedral, built by Charlemagne in the late 8th century. Not only were over 40 of Germany’s monarchs crowned here, the Cathedral still houses both Charlemagne’s throne and his remains. Fascinating as an architectural study because of its octagonal shape and vaulted ceilings, the cathedral is also intricately decorated with mosaics dating from the late-19th century. Although the city suffered much damage in World War II, the Cathedral was mostly untouched – despite a cannonball flying through a window, rolling out the other side, and detonating several streets away.
Thanks to quick thinking by Ludo and to the kindness of a tour guide, I was able to see the two Klais organs that reside in the balcony. Unfortunately, the guide did not have the keys so, yet again, my own choice is to return in order to play the instruments…
No trip to Aachen is complete without a visit to Nobis Printen for Aachener Printen, which are the amazing local speciality: gingerbread-like cookies. They only barely made it back to Hasselt (and they only did so because I enjoyed plenty of free samples in the Nobis Printen bakery). After a brief stop to the Het Hemelrijk (“the kingdom of heaven”) bar in Hasselt, which boasts 300 different kinds of beer, dinner made me forget the afternoon snacks as it featured Bouchée à la reine with homemade frîtes, salad, and followed by, of course, chocolate.
The final organ of the day was just next door, in St.Catharina Church, Hasselt. Again, German-baroque style dominated, although, this time, it was chiefly neo-baroque. After a day spent in places that were so strongly affected by the World Wars, playing an organ built in 1906, before either had yet broken out, had its own poignance.
Tuesday, we made our way to Liège. I, for one, was thrilled to be back in French-speaking territory. The first stop was Église Saint-Jacques, with the grand orgue originally from 1600, by an anonymous organ builder, but reconstructed only 18 years ago by Schumacher. This beautiful instrument, in a Renaissance style that is based on that of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, has short-octave keyboards and a meantone temperament. It sings best with works by early North German or Dutch composers, including Sweelinck and Reincken. The choir organ was also a surprise, with a pedalboard of only an octave and a half!
The next gem was found at the Abbaye Bénédictine de la Paix Notre-Dame. This 1737 Jean-Baptiste Le Picard organ (the most important liégeois organ builder of the 18th century) was restored in 1980 by Manufacture d’Orgues Luxembourgeoise. I could have stayed here all day, experimenting with de Grigny and Couperin masses and hymn settings on the stunning plein and grands jeux or the lovely cromorne, flutes, and cornets.
After a quick lunch of sandwiches in a boulangerie that made me feel like I was back in Toulouse, the final church (for the moment) was the Collégiale Saint-Barthélemy. The church dates from the 11th/12th centuries in Meuse-Romanesque-Ottonian style, giving it a curious French/German feel. It holds an enormous amount of artwork (like most churches here seem to do) but the most famous object is the baptismal font which is attributed to Renier de Huy, with detailed depictions of important biblical baptisms. We were also able to climb to the belltower, which has a 39-bell carillon! Of course, as it seems that my hosts only chose to show me beautiful organs, the instrument is another treasure, a 1852 Merklin, reworked by Schyven in 1887, and then restored by Schumacher only two years ago. The 8′ Euphone was a new (but charming) stop for me, as was the manner of operating the swell expression pedal (check out the picture above).
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the city: climbing the 374 steps of the late-19th-century Montagne de Bueren to see a war memorial in front of the ruins of the Citadelle de Liège, paying homage at the house where César Franck was born on 95, boulevard Saint-Michel, and peeking down quelques petites rues. While I was on a mission to find gaufres liègoise, I was not successful… However, I did discover that “real hot chocolate” in Belgium is that which you make yourself: warm milk and bars of chocolate are provided. It’s up to you to mix the two together!
The final destination for the evening was the city of Tongeren, the oldest town in Belgium. Part of a wall built in 2AD by the Romans who originally founded the city is one of the main tourist attractions. The 13th-century Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Basiliek is another majestic testament to Gothic architecture.. The first of the two organs was built in 2014 by Belgium manufacturer Thomas. Made for accompanying congregational and choral singing, this instrument is an exquisite addition to the sanctuary.
The Basilica’s grand orgue is, again, a Le Picard, also in the 18th-century “French” classical style. It was the perfect way for this francophile to end a very full day! Having been unable to bring Couperin or de Grigny with me on the plane, I discovered a 21st-century way to read music! I will have to have a much stronger glasses prescription before trying this in a concert, however…
Wednesday morning was a tourist’s dream of exploring Hasselt for goodies: authentic speculoos cookies from Hasselts speculaasatelier, hot chocolate “sticks” from The Chocolate Experience (BOON), and marzipan figurines that were left over from Easter. We also enjoyed the many statues found around the town and lovely views of the Cathedral. My wonderful hosts, Chris and Ludo, have granted me permission to thank them in this blog post. However, no words could adequately recognize how much I appreciate all that they shared during my time in Hasselt and its environs! Trying my best to thank them for everything, I packed up, rather more heavily laden than when I arrived, and boarded the train to Brussels.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying things about arriving in Brussels was being able to speak French again (although I had been able to do so in a small way in Liège). The biggest compliment I received was continually being asked where I came from in France!
The first stop was a visit to the Temple du musée, which has an 1840 Dreymann organ, which makes Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sing. The biggest surprise for mewas using a Cornet as (not instead of) the mixture. The Temple also had a beautiful one-manual positif organ that featured quite the variety of aural colors.
The next visit was Église Notre-Dame du Finistère, in the business district of Brussels. The stunning 1874 Loret/2000 Thomas organ was entirely different from its 35-year-older German cousin at the Temple du Musée. It immediately established its preference for French (but especially Belgian!) music, although I couldn’t resist trying Schumann.
My final full day in Brussels began with an overabundance of “seeing the sights” and visiting museums: the Royal Palace, the Coudenberg Palace, and the Musical Instrument Museum. The Coundenberg Palace was the palace of the area’s rulers from the 11th century until a fire destroyed all but the chapel in 1731. The Musical Instrument Museum is almost 150 years old and boasts over 8,000 instruments from around the world on its four floors. Of course, the floor of keyboards was a favorite!
I regained energy through a scrumptious forêt noire dessert and a coffee. Upon receiving my bill, I learned that the 4€ price at the counter only applies to things à emporter. After paying more than I had paid for lunch (I still maintain that it was worth every cent), I headed to the Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, just across the street from the Brussels Conservatoire. The grand orgue was a dream to play – it is a fantastic 1764 Goynaut meticulously reconstructed only 27 years ago by Westenfelder! The complementary “choir” organ downstairs, built in 2011 by Rudi Jacques, a Belgium organ builder, is only rivaled in its beautiful German-Baroque sound by its elegant façade. The final surprise was a stunning, new portatif organ. This kind of organ requires the player to pump the air him- or herself by operating a small bellows behind the pipes. Its haunting sound reminded me of the Native American flute, with a flexibility of pitch and volume that would beautifully match performance of Gregorian chant.
The final organ that that I visited in Belgium was especially fitting: the 2000 Grenzing organ of the Brussels Cathedral. This massive organ, placed high on the side of the nave, stuns the eye and ear with over eight seconds of acoustic. Each section of the organ was lifted into place and meticulously placed to still allow the viewer to enjoy the stained-glass windows. The full organ reaches every corner of the room and every stop sings.
For my the last evening meal in the city, we purchased cheeses from all over Belgium and complimented them with Averbode beer (from Belgium, of course!). The digestif was Pear liquor – a delicacy I had never before experienced. What a meal! I even brought back Herve, a specialty Belgian cheese, back to France with me.
Before heading to the Brussels Airport on Friday, I finally made it to the beautiful Grande Place, the Manneken Pis (which is indeed smaller than I expected), the Flemish Old Masters Museum, and the Magritte Museum. The last was a surprising favorite and I have several new paintings I would love to add to my dream collection one day, if the lottery ticket I never buy wins. I also finally found a moment to track down a gaufre de bruxelles!
After all of this wonder and beauty, it was a sobering ride to the Brussels Airport, which had reopened only the day before my flight. Several roadblocks slowed the public bus’s progress. Before the first of these, people had left flowers, candles, and written testimonials. Before checking baggage, all of us went through security under a tent and the watchful eyes of Belgian soldiers. I checked my bag and, again went through security before boarding my plane and landing in Toulouse even before the expected arrival time.
This was a trip that will stay for a long time in my memory and I’m so glad I could share this little bit of it with you!