Belgium- Brussels, Bruges, and Bottles

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I recall an oldtraveler saying, `if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium'. For me itwas certainly beginning to feel like that.

After spending a week travelingaround England, (Yorkshire, London, Bath, a day trip to thechannel Island Guernsey), I find myself in the southeastern portcity of Dover, on the English Channel, gateway to Europe.

Several months earlier I read an advertisementin the Antique Trade Gazette, a leading trade paper on antiquespublished weekly in London. The ad was by a travel company called`In the Limelight', specializing in antiquing trips to thecontinent. As I read the somewhat extensive listing of tripsoffered one in particular caught my attention. It was a four-day,three-night trip to Brussels, Belgium that included a side tripto the medieval city of Bruges. The dates were perfect as theycoincided with a few days I had in England before returning tothe States.

At 0 (about$230) I thought the trip to befairly priced and having the time, sent in my booking. Severalweeks later I received a confirmation, detailed itinerary and alisting of pickup points for people going on the trip. One of thepickup locations listed was Dover, which I selected. Dover suitedme perfectly as I would be returning from my channel Island tripto the port city of Poole and could travel up the southern coastof England, being in Dover in about four hours. It also meant Icould stay out of London, a major pickup point for many of the `Limelight'tripsters, but a real hassle and expensive as you had to travelin and deal with parking a car.

My pre-trip instruction pack said if I selectedDover I was to meet a Leslie Howard, our `In the Limelight'tour guide at the P & O ferry boat ticket counter. Isnickered as the thought crossed my mind of Leslie Howard, theold movie actor coming back from the dead to moonlight, or for aplay on words to `limelight' this trip.

Knowing the promptness of Englishtransportation I arrived at my pickup point about 30 minutesearly. No need really, because at 2p.m. sharp, Leslie Howard, (afemale version) arrived, clipboard in hand and sporting a largeidentifying `In the Limelight' tour button.

A brief introduction, a short walk to the bus,and on the ferry boat we went. Two hours later we're back in thebus, off the ferry, through customs at Calais, France, and on ourway to Brussels, Belgium for three days of antiquing and sightseeing.

The ride is comfortable, so O doze a little.It's early evening when our group arrives at the Albert PremierHotel in the center of Brussels, our home for the next threenights. The `Albert' was a moderately priced hotel usedby a number of travel groups basing in Brussels. (No less thansix tour busses were parked overnight on a side street next tothe hotel.)

Saturday started early, a Continental breakfastat 6 am, bus departs at 7:30. Our first antiquing port of callwas a somewhat lowend flea market located off the Rue HauteBoulevard near the Porte de Hal, in the old part of the city. ThePorte de Hal, is the only remaining gate of a medieval wall thatat one time surrounded all of Brussels.

While in route Leslie explains what to expect. “It'sa mixture of some old with mostly new, the fun part is when youfind a legitimately old item, they usually have it priced quitecheaply.”

The `flea market' was located on alarge cobblestone square in the old part of town. The 200 or sodealers simply pulled up to a pre-arranged space, and set up.Some on portable tables brought along but most opted to simplylay where wares out on sheets on the cobblestones.

The day started well. The third dealer I sawhas two good size Flemish pottery jugs. They are identical to the1550-1650 period `Bellarmine' jugs so popular with collectors,but lack the all important grotesque face and belly medallion. Iremembered Leslie's words about bargains as I check the prices.At 100 Belgium Francs each (about $33 U.S. Dollars) they were CHEAP!But how do I get them home? Each one being about 14” high.No problem for the bus, but the flight back to the States was adifferent story. I told myself to think about it for a while andquickly move along. About five minutes later while lookingthrough a couple of boxes of jazz albums from the `classic'1960's period a fellow walked by beaming from ear to ear carryingthe Flemish jugs, one in each hand. So much for thetransportation problem.

After two hours of shopping we all meet back atthe bus and head out to our second antique market.

A number of our group seem to have done wellindeed. In route they exchange stories of the good buys made onbrass figurines, 1900 china, small furniture, etc. One guycomplained about how he debated too long and missed two earlyFlemish pottery jugs! I smiled as I pushed my only purchases, acouple of 1960's jazz albums, into the overhead rack.

Being the weekend, city traffic was light. Ittook only about 20 minutes to maneuver the bus through the narrowstreets of the center of Brussels to our next antiquingdestination, the Place du Grand Salon. In route Leslie informs usthat this market is more upscale with mostly true antiques andlittle junk, unusually pricey but sometimes a bargain can be had.As an extra attraction it lies in an area of Brussels that has anumber of exclusive antique shops on the side streets around it,many specializing in various types of antiquates.

Leslie is right, PRICEY!Unlike the cobblestone market we just left this market issomewhat smaller in size. About 100 dealers are set up underneaththree-sided tents with an overhang protecting potential buyersfrom any rainy weather. (A short but heavy rain proved the tent'sworth as I wandered from one to another without feeling more thana few drops.)

But back to the pricey! An early stonewarewhiskey jug in the highly desirable mallet from with variousraised decoration around it caught my eye. Not a good seller inthe States but big bucks in England. As I reach for it up andcheck the price. I'm thinking 200 to 300 pounds ($300 to 450),the seller refuses to allow me to pick it up! Brashly announcingthat it's 4,500 Belgium Francs ($1,425)! I politely decline, turnand trudge away, grumbling about snobby dealers. Suddenly severalwhimsy canes and a BIG whimsy two piece pipe appear on a table.Much more in the correct price range, but again, how do I getthem home? I take a chance and buy the pipe before moving along.

Another round through the market provesfruitless; time to hit the local antique shops of which no lessthan 40 are within a block or two of the square.

Most shops were specialized with few selling ageneral line of antiques. Oriental rugs, European furniture,Oriental china and pottery, silver and jewelry, `big cityantiques' as they are referred to in the States make up most ofthe merchandise. Nice things, expensive things, but not what I'minterested in. I move along.

Somewhat depressed by my so far meagerpurchases, I turn a corner and am suddenly facing a window fullof glass! All kinds, pressed, blown, cut, and yes Virginia, evenbottles! I'm excited but remembering Leslie's words `usuallypricey', I have reservations. I move forward.

I'm inside as fast as you can say Ralph Finch.The shop was called Au Cherche - Midi, owned and staffed by awoman who tells me she once had a shop in mid-town Manhattan, NewYork City. The shop contains about 90% glass, with a number ofnice things. It's a small shop with two very large picturewindows I pause and hold my breath. On the upper shelf is a rowof very identifiable French figural bottles. All are in thecommon clear glass except for one in the form of a standingwoman, in deep cobalt blue!

I calmly ask to see a few of the figuralbottles, four to be exact. Of those I chose, one is the cobaltblue woman bottle. The first two clear bottles are priced aboutthe same, 1,000 Belgium Francs (about $330.00), too much for theAmerican market. I next pick up the cobalt blue woman bottle.Expecting the worst, I slowly turn over the price tag, $1,000Belgium Francs, the same as the clear bottles! I'm stunned,especially after seeing the prices on the CLEARbottles. Is this a mistake, did I miss a digit? No, the shopowner reassures me it's 1,000 Belgium Francs ($330.00). I don'task questions, except `do you take VISA'? A bigsmile and `yes' seal the deal.

While the owner is keying in my credit cardnumbers I spy a late Dutch 1700's storage jar in olive green for300 Francs, (about $100.00). Not a bargain but in the excitementof buying the cobalt woman, I buy this bottle also.

The amount of time Leslie has allocated forthis market is considerably longer than the earlier market. Doneshopping and having about 45 minutes to kill before heading forthe bus stop at on of the local cafes for, as the English say, `aspot of lunch'. I select a cafe specializing in Italian food andenjoy a somewhat different but very nice Lasagna and a glass ofKrick, a popular Belgium beer with a cherry flavor.

Later I'm back on the bus, but this time withmore than a few jazz albums to show for my effort. I'm feelingbetter about this trip.

The rest of today's tour is devoted to seeingthe more interesting, historic parts of Brussels.

Brussels is a city that went through a lot oftransition in the 1950's including a Worlds' Fair. Like mostfairs of past, when the event was over a lot was torn down, butmany of the more interesting buildings remain. Our bus travelsthrough the old fair site, which is now a park while Leslienarrates on what we are seeing. The most unusual structure, andthe only one we actually stop at, is the Atomium. The Atomium isan impressive and unusual looking 335-foot high structure in theform of an atom, hence the word Atomium. For $3.00 an elevatorwill take you to the top for an overall view of the surroundings.I took a few photos, bought a cone of ice cream from a localvender, then it's back on the bus.

Our next stop is a small parking lot designatedfor tour buses only. It's a few blocks from the famous `GrandPlatz', (pronounced Gran Plaz), thought by many to be the mostmajestic, picturesque square in all of Europe. We follow Lesliethrough the narrow streets to the `Platz' which is certainlyimpressive with tall structures dating to the 1700's on all foursides. Leslie moves onward and we follow her to one of the mostphotographed statues in Belgium, the Mannequin Pis. Athree-foot-tall statue of a young boy doing as Leslie says `whatall young boys do'! The crowd around the Mannequin Pis is hugewith person-after-person standing in front to have their picturetaken with the `Pis' in the background. I take a fewphotos with a telephoto lens and head back to the Platz. ThePlatz is surrounded by side street after side street of varioussmall shops and quaint restaurants. I proceed to look at a numberof menus finding Oso Buco, a favorite dish of mine, on the menuof an Italian restaurant. I note its location and return laterthat evening.

Sunday morning meets us with a clear sky andbright sun, ideal outdoor antiquing weather, which we will need.

Today we travel to Bruges, about a one hourdrive southwest of Brussels. In the 16th and 17th centuriesBruges was one of the richest cities in Europe famous for itschocolates and hand made lace. Located near the sea it was anactive port for the early Dutch merchants who traveled the thenknown world trade. Relatively untouched by both World Wars,Bruges is a delightfully picturesque city of canals, old stonewalls, castles, cathedrals and numerous other buildings of itsgolden era.

Our group is interested in gold of anotherform, antiques! In route Leslie gives us an idea of what toexpect. Over 700 dealers will be set up in the very large townsquare and surrounding streets, offering a potpourri ofmerchandise. The old, and the new, will be intermingled, withplenty of food stands offering various local favorites.

The Bruges market is held only three times ayear and is a major antique and tourist attraction fordealers/collectors throughout Europe. Leslie gives us a few tips.“If you see something you like, don't leave it expecting tofind it later. It will either be sold, or you will get losttrying to find it”. Good advice considering the crowdof 20,000 which is expected to arrive throughout the day.

We arrive at a parking lot about one mile fromthe town's center square, the closest spot that busses can park.Already the overall magnitude of this market is apparent as noless than 30 other busses are already in the lot.

With good expectations our group pushes on,most I won't see again until our departure time later thatafternoon. After about an hour I have found little, (except foranother 1700's jar in olive amber.) While enjoying a piece ofBelgium fudge I spot from a distance a number of glass jars.Moving closer I recognize them as being the French canning jarembossed La Lorraine above a thistle blossom. The quart size jarsall have the original closure and are in perfect condition. TheFrench vender tells me in broken English that they all came fromthe same place. I check the price, 40 Belgium Francs each, (about$13.00). I've seen them priced at American shows for between$60.00 to 90.00, so these are a good buy. But again the problemlooms, how to get them back. I decide to pass.

Gooddecision. A few minutes later at a stand with a number of glassitems I locate THREE teakettle inks! All are inperfect condition and at 150 Francs each ($50.00) quickly findtheir way into my bag. The rest of the day goes quickly. I passon a few more of the olive green storage jars, also several early1800's Belgium black glass mallet's, but do buy a storage jar inthe scarce square form with beveled corner panels, and, can youbelieve it, a few more jazz albums!

By noon time the crowd becomes almostunbearable, making it hard to even get to the dealer tables tosee what is offered. I retreat to one of the many outdoorrestaurants around the square. For lunch I have a large plate ofsteamed mussels, a Belgium delicacy, washing them down with acouple of glasses of Lafete beer.

All in all it was a great day, but all goodthings must come to an end. I return to the bus to find most ofmy antiquing colleagues already there. The final few stragglersshow up shortly and off we go, the storage compartments of thebus being a lot fuller than when we arrived.

The rest of the evening is free so I decided tostroll back to the Grand Platz, for one more look around atnight, and enjoy another wonderful meal before returning to thehotel.

The following day is again sunny and all seemrelaxed during the bus ride back down to Calais, France for ourreturn ferry boat ride back to Dover, England.

The crossing takes a mere hour and forty fiveminutes. A few miles from the English coast, I venture outside ondeck to enjoy the incredible view of the famous white cliffs aswe approach Dover. As impressive now as they must have looked toJulius Caesar when he and a legion of Roman soldiers first seteyes on them in the year 54 B.C.

I depart the bus at Dover, where I joined thegroup three days earlier. And so my antiquing / sightseeing tripto Brussels come to an end. Would I do it again.? The antiquingpart was fairly successful. Not a lot of purchases but what wasbought was reasonable. Some will be added to my collection, therest sold to help offset the cost of the trip.

The sightseeing was great, I personally lovethe great European capitol cities, and having never been inBrussels found it a fully enjoyable, and exciting experience.

Before departing at Dover, I spoke briefly withLeslie. Being the only American on the trip was interested inknowing my reaction to the whole experience, and would I be usingLimelight for future antiquing trips?

Since returning to the States, I've received aschedule of next year's antiquing trips from In The Lime Light'tours.

One is a trip to Brussels for four days andthree nights in July.

Guess who's already sent in a booking?

Interested in receiving aschedule of `In The Limelight' antiquing trips to Europe. Write:`In The Limelight', PO Box 1612, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire,BA15 1FE, England. PH: 011-44-1225-868671

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