A couple of days in Maastricht

Maastricht in the Netherlands – a photo essay and a wander through this charming, picturesque little city in company with Mrs SC and TheSupercargo.

Maastricht's Basiliek van Onze Lieve Vrouwe from WyckI wrote last time that I went through a bit of a dark patch in October and November, but even in the dark there can be flashes of light. At the end of October we celebrate Mrs SC’s birthday. It can be hard to wrestle the time from her schedule, but last year we managed four days in Florence. This year we pulled an overnighter in Maastricht.

The John F Kennedy Bridge and the MaasThis little Dutch city on the Maas river (downstream from Belgian Liège where the river is the Meuse) claims to be the Netherlands’ oldest. Apparently there’s a dispute with Nijmegen. It’s probably best known today – for those of us outside Benelux – as the city that gave it’s name to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. That was the treaty that established the European Union and the euro as a currency. Which probably puts Maastricht near the top of the EU-haters’ hit-list.

Disused docks on the Maas, Beisenwal, MaastrichtA shame if true. It’s an appealing little city – or at any rate the centre is. But even the docks and factories by the side of the river, run-down or disused now, have a picturesque charm in the autumn sunlight.

Maastricht: Through the Helpoort 1229Walking around the centre, you can see how the city grew. Maastricht was awarded its city charter in 1204, and immediately started building protective walls. This gate proudly displays a date – 1229 – making it, I suppose, one of the earliest city gates. It’s called the Helpoort – the Gate of Hell, though it looks fairly innocuous now.

A part of the Maastricht city walls along Lang GrachtjeClearly a wealthy city, like Brussels and other places in the area Maastricht outgrew one ringwall after another. There are well-preserved remnants of city walls from various periods inside the city, incorporated now into the structure of the town.

Maastricht: Lit interior through arrow slitLook through a slit window in one massive bastion and peer into a room already decorated for Christmas. Is it someone’s living room or the interior of a shop? (It’s a shop – even in forward-looking Maastricht, private homes are not decorated for Christmas at the end of October.)

We reached Maastricht in the afternoon on Saturday 29th after an adventurous train journey. Not so adventurous really, just that we missed our stop to change for the Maastricht train. It meant we took a detour through the surprisingly hilly country towards Eupen before the ticket inspector put us right. The history teacher in me was interested to see Eupen. The victors after the First World War granted this largely German-speaking area to Belgium in reparations. Nazi Germany took it back in 1940, but Belgium regained it in 1945.

Eye contact in Maastricht 2That first day was overcast and dull. Not great photography weather – especially not from a moving train. It was better in Maastricht. In the Vrijthof, a big, light, open square, lots of people were standing around or sitting in pairs looking one another in the face. Hand-draw signs asked “Where has the human connection gone?”

Eye contact in Maastricht 1It was a manifestation – or an installation – or perhaps just a happening. On Facebook when I checked later it was billed as The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment.

The bar and barmaid at Café de Pieter, PieterstraatWe stayed not far from the Vrijthof at a little hotel on a street called Achter de Molens (Behind the Mills). There’s a restaurant, Le Petit Bonheur, in the same building which seems popular. At least, there was a late-night party going on there the night we stayed. Hallowe’en, of course. But it really didn’t disturb us because we were out exploring the town by night and drinking in a local bar – Peter’s Café.

Through an arch on Achter de MolensThe following day, though, the autumn sun came out and we took a long photo-walk through the old town. The sun and the turning leaves made Maastricht even more attractive.

Part of Maastricht city wall and moat at Haet ende NjitAt the newest gates to the old city (I think they date from the 16th century), the Jecker, a tributary of Maas, was once canalised into a moat. The Jecker is still here, and the moat, to the delight of quite a variety of water birds. And one or two photographers.

The Hoge Brug from Wyck 1A little beyond, we crossed the Maas by the modern pedestrian and bicycle bridge, the high bridge – Hoge Brug. On the the far bank, Wyck seems to be an early suburb of Maastricht.

Preparing for a street party on Rechtstraat in WyckThere was some sort of a local food day in preparation in Wyck. This whole street, Rechtstraat, was blocked off and filled with a laid table. But not, at the time we passed, with any food. The sign advertises “La Saison Culinaire de l’Euregio”. The Euregio turns out to be a local cross-border region covering this part of the Netherlands and adjacent districts in Germany. It’s been building cultural links (and other links) here since 1958.

Nee on RechtstraatI must share this picture that suggests there’s a sold front against direct advertising in Maastricht. I saw many letter boxes – or letter slots perhaps – where the home owners made it clear they didn’t want advertising or free publications. Nee! Nee!  and Nee! Nee! But this house had the best contrast between the Nees and the surrounding material. I should add – in the interest of balance – that I did see the very occasional Ja! but never in a context that made it easy to photograph.

De Wiekeneer by Frans Carlier - Wycker Brugstraat outside Hotel BeaumontOne final picture. This is a representation of the typical Wyck resident. That’s how I interpret sculptor Frans Carlier’s title “De Wiekeneer”. A stoic citizen who strides on his way though the sharp wind off the Maas cuts like a knife. Though I may be reading more into it than I should.

All in all it was a very nice short break, though we didn’t see everything that Maastricht has to offer. There is said to be a fine collection of early Dutch paintings in the Bonnefantenmuseum, but it was closed when we came by. Perhaps another time. It’s only a couple of hours away.

(I find myself saying this rather a lot nowadays, but there’s always somewhere new to visit instead.)

Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht
Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A walk in Molenbeek

A walk – with photos – through Molenbeek, the Brussels district vilified in the international press as a hotbed of jihadist terrorist activity

Greater Brussels is made up of 19 communes. These are local authorities, in effect towns, and are responsible for among other things the parks and the streets, local schools and sports centres. They also co-operate with one another (sometimes) to administer or oversee other services such as water and power supplies and (I think) the collection of rubbish. The communes are fiercely protective of their autonomy (a bit like Britain in the EU now I think about it).

On the Porte de Flandre bridgeOne of these communes, Molenbeek, recently attracted international opprobrium as a nursery of terrorism. Terrorists associated with both the major attacks in Paris last year had family connections in Molenbeek. You can still find articles on-line in the international press with titles like: “Molenbeek: Inside Belgium’s seething city of jihad where ISIS are heroes” (the British Express) or “Molenbeek: A Troubled Neighborhood in a Failing State” (the US National Review).

Graffiti along the Charleroi canal near Porte de FlandreWhen all the world’s press started writing about how terrible and dangerous Molenbeek was (and by extension Brussels), friends and relatives started getting in touch to check that Mrs SC and I were “safe”. It was all a little confusing. While I wouldn’t claim to know Molenbeek, I’ve been there, I’ve shopped there and I’ve walked through parts of it with a camera. It never struck me as exceptional in the context of Brussels, or particularly alarming. We own a standard lamp bought in a furniture store in Molenbeek; we have a favourite art work there we sometimes like to show visitors.

But perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places? Last Saturday 27th February, I joined a party from the Swedish Club for a walking, talking tour of what US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has branded “Europe’s Hellhole”. (Bless!)

Barge on the Charleroi CanalThis photo, taken from the Porte de Flandre bridge, I actually took last February. Our walking tour started on the bridge and the Charleroi Canal, which separates Molenbeek from the Ville de Bruxelles, is a key to the history of the place. On Saturday’s walk I learned that the Charleroi Canal was one of the earliest navigation canals in Europe, though it’s gone through many enlargements and extensions over the years. It now links the port of Antwerp to the north with Walonia and, beyond, with the extensive canal system of France to the south. The canal is the reason Molenbeek developed as an industrial centre in the 19th century.

Artists' colony in old brewery on rue du Cheval NoirAlong the Molenbeek side of the canal is an area of once busy industrial buildings. This building on rue du Cheval Noir used to be a brewery. With the collapse of industrialism in Brussels – as in so many places in western Europe – the local authorities have put a deal of effort into “repurposing” the buildings. This one, as you can see, has been extended with a modern construction alongside the original structure to create purpose-built artists studios and music practice rooms.

Our motley group with Tomas G on rue du Cheval NoirOn rue du Cheval Noir, here’s our motley group of Swedish speakers led by Tomas Grönberg, our erudite guide. Note the colourful wall of graffiti behind. There were several examples of graffiti on the walk. I liked them but several of my companions seemed divided over their artistic worth.

In the square behind the breweryHere we are in the square behind the artists’ studios/brewery. The brewery is the old brick building in the far corner. See how the architects have echoed the round windows of the brewery in the architectural features of the newer buildings around the square.

In the square behind the brewery 2The same scene from the opposite side (with the bright sun behind me now). And the roundels in the building on rue des Marinier are mirrored in the round shapes of all the satelite dishes on the balconies of the block of flats on rue Fernand Brunfaut. According to information on the Molenbeek commune website about half the 90,000 residents of Molenbeek are Moslems, and the majority of those come from Morocco. Several of the residents in the block of flats took an interest in our visit, standing on their balconies to look down at us, but it was damn cold in the wind, despite the sun, so no one hung around long.

Indoors at La FonderieIt was so cold that we were rather happy when that our tour broke for a visit to La Founderie – the foundery – a museum dedicated to Molenbeek’s industrial history. The foundery originally produced both practical objects (gas and electric light armatures for example) and art works. They were responsible, we were told, for most of the bronze statues of Belgium’s King Leopold II dotted around the city. (Objects that are – in my opinion – neither artistic nor practical.)

Indoors at La Fonderie 3 - chocolate bean roaster Still indoors, this machine was used to roast cocoa beans, the first stage in the process of extracting cocoa butter for chocolate making. Our guide – we had a special one for the museum – was keen to impress on us how all the industrial processes of the city supported one another, were integrated with one another and ultimately shaped the society that both worked in Molenbeek and bought the goods produced here.

On Molenbeek PlaceBut then it was out into the cold wind again to walk to Place Molenbeek – the Molenbeek market square next to the town hall. This photo was taken just as Tomas G informed us (in Swedish of course) that we were standing in front of one of the shops said to be a hotbed of jihadists. It looked very sleepy, though I did not tempt fate by trying to take a photo.

The minaret of the church of St John the Baptist Molenbeek A little way beyond Place Molenbeek is this remarkable tower. Though it looks like a minaret it is the bell tower of the Parvis Saint-Jean-Batiste – the Parish Church of St John the Baptist. (Officially, this commune is Molenbeek-Saint-Jean). The church was built here in the 1930s, long before the first Moroccans were recruited to work in Belgium in the 1950s. It’s just a happy accident it looks the way it does.

Playing cricket in front of St John the Baptist MolenbeekIn the square in front of the church, a group of young men were enthusaistically playing cricket. Not exactly a sport otherwise associated either with Belgium or the Arab world, I hazard a guess they or their families originated in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

L'Agent 51 - VaartkapoenOur tour of Molenbeek proper came to an end at Place Sainctelette where everyone crowded around trying to get a photo of this bronze. (Nothing to do with Leo II and not produced in the Molenbeek Foundary.) The figure (by the Belgian sculptor Tom Franzen) shows “De Vaartkapoen”. That’s him coming up out of the manhole. Apparently the vaartkapoen are people born in Molenbeek. “De vaart” means “the canal” and “kapoen” means something like “cheeky”. The cheeky young rebel is upsetting authority. The sculpture went up in 1985 and it portrays something that is much older still (the policeman’s uniform is reminiscent of something from the 19th or early 20th centuries). I’m not sure what it has to say about the current culture of Molenbeek, but I suspect if a modern vaartkapoen were to try this on nowadays the terrorist rapid response force would arrive in short order and arrest him. I’m trying to decide how I feel about that.

Graffiti rue Fin
Graffiti rue Fin

My thanks to Tomas Grönberg and the other members of the Brussels Swedish Club for a fine day out.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A walk in Hisingspark

On Easter Sunday while Mrs SC was still home we went for a walk in Hisingspark – on e of our old haunts. With us was Aliz, a border collie, with her human. A sunny day, though cold in the wind.

Originally I used these photos to test out a number of different photo gallery/slide-show plug-ins. Having settled on one that works on PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets (Responsive Lightbox by dFactory), I choose to update this entry and present the photos with the new gallery plug-in.

Aliz with Lena and Agneta

Above: Aliz and her humans.
Below: A felled tree trunk wearing a fetching pair of sunglasses

Glasses on the felled tree

Do you suppose children who learn to climb on this climbing frame will grow up to have a more concrete grasp of abstraction?

Orange abstract climbing frame

Although the above was actually taken in a children’s playground in Hisingspark, it turns out to be a sculpture: “Knutpunkten” (“knot point”/”junction”) by Lill Lindblom and Jens Erlandsson.