Easter in Brussels

My heart has been with the people of Brussels this week after the tragic act of terrorism that occurred there on Tuesday.  That beautiful small city of 177,000 will always be special to me because it was the place that introduced me to Europe. I first travelled there in 1987 to visit my friend and colleague Diane from TIME who had moved there to work.

The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.
The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.

I especially think of that first trip this time of year because I spent Easter that year in Brussels. And the memories I have of it are wonderful. Some of the best French food I’ve ever eaten was in Brussels; the chocolate was tastier than any other; the famous ‘gaufres’ or waffles were warm,crisp and yummy and the ‘pommes frites,’served in a paper cone topped with a dollop of mayonnaise still makes my mouth water. Beyond the food, the city itself was bright, delightful, charming, rich in history and architecture and very manageable for a first time visitor to Europe.

I keep journals whenever I travel and thought I’d share with you the page I wrote about that Easter in Brussels.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Guild Houses lining Brussel's Grand Place gleam in the night lights.
The Guild Houses lining Brussel’s Grand Place gleam in the night lights.

“Easter. What a way to spend the holiday–sightseeing in Brussels. First we’re off to the Grand Place to see the Sunday morning bird fair. Little birds of all sorts in cages being sold to the people right there in the square. Some of the birds were beautiful canaries of beautiful peach and white, or yellow and red.

Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.
Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.

When it began to rain, we took cover in a nearby cafe where we had Belgian waffles covered with strawberries. They were like the kind that I remembered eating at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.

Afterwards, we strolled back to the Grand Place and I rubbed the leg of the statue of Everard t Serclaes, a local hero. Everyone rubs the statue for good luck so his leg and arm are well polished and shiny.

We then went to see the antique fair at the Grand Sablon. By the time we arrived, about noon, the dealers were starting to fold away their tents. We walked through but most of the things were too expensive for me to buy.

Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.
Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.

We left the market and went inside a church there in the Grand Sablon the Eglise Notre-Dame du Grand Sablon. This ‘chapel’ was built by the archers who practiced in this area when it was a sandy marsh. The stained glass was so beautiful and rich in color. The ceilings were vaulted and so high.  Buried in the church is the Taxis family–the family who founded the first private postal system and about whom Diane had read in the Thomas Pynchon book, “The Crying Lot of 49.” 

From the church, we crossed the street and walked through the Petite Sablon, a small but pretty park surround by a fence with statuary of the different Guilds placed all along the top. The tulips were just beginning to bloom here.

Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.
Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.

We walked up the steps and down the street from the Petite Sablon to the Palais de Justice–the favorite Belgian building of Freud and Hitler. There’s a good view of Brussels from the Palais de Justice. You can even see the Atomium that lies just outside the city. On the way, I spotted a family out for Easter. The two girls were carrying two large chocolate Easter eggs. Bigger eggs than I’ve ever seen so I took a picture of them.

The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.
The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.

Before heading back to the apartment, we stopped at a cafe on Avenue Louise and had a cafe and chocolate chaud. The restaurants always give you a little piece of chocolate with every cup of caffe or tea and it’s usually very good. They also put on the saucer two little cubes of ‘sucre.’

We rode the tram back to Diane’s. I went in and took a nap. It had been a wonderful Easter.”

Maybe my European Easter memoir will bring a memories of your own to mind and that one day, you have the chance, as I did, to visit this beautiful Belgian city. If you do, take a moment to remember those who innocently died in the attacks last week.

In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel's Grand Place for good luck.
In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel’s Grand Place for good luck.

MIM Shows Stradivarius String Masterpieces

You may have heard a Stradivarius violin, but have you seen one?  Up close?  I had a chance thanks to a special exhibit currently at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix.

While in Phoenix recently as a board member with the Bellingham Festival of Music (BFM), I and BFM President, Karen Berry met with MIM’s director of marketing, Karen Farugia. Afterwards, I had some time before heading off to meet friends. It wasn’t enough time to visit the MIM’s permanent collection (which I’ve done) of 6,000 instruments, but thought I could manage a quick tour of MIM’s special exhibit in the Target Gallery:  Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker.  I bought my ticket and stepped into the gallery.

Phoenix' Musical Instrument Museum, known as MIM, is one of the city's newest museums.
Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, known as MIM, is one of the city’s newest museums.

The exhibit, which opened in mid-January and continues through June 5, welcomes you with a multi-screen video introduction to the area where this legendary violin maker lived and worked: the Northern Italian city of Cremona.  The video gives a brief overview of this rich, historic city which yielded so many early master violin makers, in addition to Stradivari, and explains how the city’s proximity to the Fiemme Valley forest provided these craftsmen with the fine materials they needed to produce what became some of the premier instruments in the world.

The Stradivarius exhibits starts off with a multi-screen video about Cremona.
The Stradivarius exhibits starts off with a multi-screen video about Cremona.

The violins of this exhibit have been artistically (and no doubt carefully) hung within a clear, climate-controlled plexiglass case so that the viewer can walk entirely around them to get a close and complete look at them.  In addition, every ticket to MIM comes a set of earphones so that as you approach the instruments on display, you also hear the sound of the instrument played by musicians who are masters of it. But what’s striking about the Stradivarius exhibit, is how incredibly gorgeous these stringed instruments are, indeed works of art in appearance as well as sound. Their beautiful, burnished wood shines in the light reflected from overhead.

A visitor to the Stradivarius exhibit reads the description on the wall while listening to the music of the instrument on display.
A visitor to the Stradivarius exhibit reads the description on the wall while listening to the music of the instrument on display.

First on display is the exquisite violin made by Andrea Amati, recognized as the father of the violin. Amati was a luthier in Cremona who, according to some histories, was asked to make a lighter instrument than the lyre and viol di gambas that he was building at the time. The viol di gambas resemble the modern-day cello in that they are played upright between the knees. Amati came up with a design that was smaller and lighter although similar in appearance to the viols. He added the fourth string which soon became standard to violins and is credited with developing the methods used in constructing the Cremonese violins. Only 20 of his instruments survive today. One of them, known as the ‘Carlo IX’ created for France’s King Charles IX in 1566, is in the MIM exhibit.

The beautfiul Amati violin with its contrasting neck, fingerboard and tailpiece.
The beautiful Amati violin with its contrasting neck, fingerboard and tailpiece.

As you can see from my photograph taken at the exhibit, Amati used a lighter colored wood for the neck, face of the fingerboard and tailpiece and decorated it with fine, delicate black line design. On the backside of the violin, he added a golden crown and fleur d’lis, still visible but fading with time. Interestingly, whenever Amati made violins, including this one I believe, he made them as part of a matched set. They were used, with the viola, viol da gamba and lyres for example, to provide dance music for those at court. It’s a bit humbling to stand in front of this historic instrument and realize that its maker gave us the start of our beloved violin of today.

The ribs of Sacconi's violin on display at MIM are gorgeously embellished.
The ribs of Sacconi’s violin on display at MIM are gorgeously embellished.

Equally as stunning is the “Violino Barocco” by Simone Fernando Sacconi, also displayed at MIM. This violin is so named because its neck is shorter and its fingerboard like those from the Baroque era of music.  It was built in 1941 by the Italian maker who is regarded as one of the foremost violin makers of the modern-day. Sacconi, who died in 1973, devoted himself to extensive study of Stradivari’s techniques even using his antique tools. Although difficult to photograph through its display case, you can still see here the exquisite design of this violin’s ribs and get an idea of the lacelike intricacy of the bridge.  To view it in person is breathtaking.

The bridge of Sacconi's violin is amazing unto itself.
The bridge of Sacconi’s violin is amazing unto itself.

But of course, the instrument in the exhibit that draws your greatest attention is the one violin made by the master himself, the “Artot-Alard’ violin of 1728. It is the first time that this particular violin has ever been on display in the United States. Made when Stradivari was 84, it is a fine example of his craftsmanship.  Look closely and you can see the close, straight grains of the spruce wood used to make it. Undoubtedly, this is as close to a Stradivari that I will ever get so I stood before it as I might an art masterpiece, which it truly is, taking in its beauty, admiring its deep color and imagining what it must be like to actually play it.

A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood. A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood.
A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood.

I could have lingered there in the exhibit for an hour but my time had run out.  I managed to watch the short video on the “Science of the Stradivarius”, which you can see here by clicking on this link:  http://bit.ly/1pFwDEq.  It’s an excellent and fascinating explanation of how these incredible instruments were constructed.

Should you find yourself in Phoenix between now and June 5, I’d encourage you to plan some time to spend at MIM and this special exhibit. And if you miss it, don’t miss MIM next time you’re in the city. It’s truly a place where you can spend an entire day.  It’s a topic for a future blog post!

I had only a short time to visit the Stradivarius exhibit at MIM but was glad I did!
I had only a short time to visit the Stradivarius exhibit at MIM but was glad I did!