ANOTHER "OLD TRAVELER ARTICLE" FROM THE PAGES OF
ANTIQUE BOTTLE AND GLASS COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
THE MAGAZINE OF THE ANTIQUE BOTTLE COLLECTING HOBBY
Belgium - Brussels, Bruges, and Bottles
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I recall an old traveler saying, `if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium'. For me it was certainly beginning to feel like that.
After spending a week traveling around England, (Yorkshire, London, Bath, a day trip to the channel Island Guernsey), I find myself in the southeastern port city of Dover, on the English Channel, gateway to Europe.
Several months earlier I read an advertisement in the Antique Trade Gazette, a leading trade paper on antiques published weekly in London. The ad was by a travel company called `In the Limelight', specializing in antiquing trips to the continent. As I read the somewhat extensive listing of trips offered one in particular caught my attention. It was a four-day, three-night trip to Brussels, Belgium that included a side trip to the medieval city of Bruges. The dates were perfect as they coincided with a few days I had in England before returning to the States.
At £0 (about$230) I thought the trip to be fairly priced and having the time, sent in my booking. Several weeks later I received a confirmation, detailed itinerary and a listing of pickup points for people going on the trip. One of the pickup locations listed was Dover, which I selected. Dover suited me perfectly as I would be returning from my channel Island trip to the port city of Poole and could travel up the southern coast of England, being in Dover in about four hours. It also meant I could stay out of London, a major pickup point for many of the `Limelight' tripsters, but a real hassle and expensive as you had to travel in and deal with parking a car.
My pre-trip instruction pack said if I selected Dover I was to meet a Leslie Howard, our `In the Limelight' tour guide at the P & O ferry boat ticket counter. I snickered as the thought crossed my mind of Leslie Howard, the old movie actor coming back from the dead to moonlight, or for a play on words to `limelight' this trip.
Knowing the promptness of English transportation I arrived at my pickup point about 30 minutes early. No need really, because at 2p.m. sharp, Leslie Howard, (a female version) arrived, clipboard in hand and sporting a large identifying `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 the bus, off the ferry, through customs at Calais, France, and on our way to Brussels, Belgium for three days of antiquing and sight seeing.
The ride is comfortable, so O doze a little. It's early evening when our group arrives at the Albert Premier Hotel in the center of Brussels, our home for the next three nights. The `Albert' was a moderately priced hotel used by a number of travel groups basing in Brussels. (No less than six tour busses were parked overnight on a side street next to the hotel.)
Saturday started early, a Continental breakfast at 6 am, bus departs at 7:30. Our first antiquing port of call was a somewhat lowend flea market located off the Rue Haute Boulevard near the Porte de Hal, in the old part of the city. The Porte de Hal, is the only remaining gate of a medieval wall that at one time surrounded all of Brussels.
While in route Leslie explains what to expect. It's a mixture of some old with mostly new, the fun part is when you find a legitimately old item, they usually have it priced quite cheaply.
The `flea market' was located on a large cobblestone square in the old part of town. The 200 or so dealers simply pulled up to a pre-arranged space, and set up. Some on portable tables brought along but most opted to simply lay where wares out on sheets on the cobblestones.
The day started well. The third dealer I saw has two good size Flemish pottery jugs. They are identical to the 1550-1650 period `Bellarmine' jugs so popular with collectors, but lack the all important grotesque face and belly medallion. I remembered 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 a different story. I told myself to think about it for a while and quickly move along. About five minutes later while looking through a couple of boxes of jazz albums from the `classic' 1960's period a fellow walked by beaming from ear to ear carrying the Flemish jugs, one in each hand. So much for the transportation problem.
After two hours of shopping we all meet back at the bus and head out to our second antique market.
A number of our group seem to have done well indeed. In route they exchange stories of the good buys made on brass figurines, 1900 china, small furniture, etc. One guy complained about how he debated too long and missed two early Flemish pottery jugs! I smiled as I pushed my only purchases, a couple of 1960's jazz albums, into the overhead rack.
Being the weekend, city traffic was light. It took only about 20 minutes to maneuver the bus through the narrow streets of the center of Brussels to our next antiquing destination, the Place du Grand Salon. In route Leslie informs us that this market is more upscale with mostly true antiques and little junk, unusually pricey but sometimes a bargain can be had. As an extra attraction it lies in an area of Brussels that has a number 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 is somewhat smaller in size. About 100 dealers are set up underneath three-sided tents with an overhang protecting potential buyers from any rainy weather. (A short but heavy rain proved the tent's worth as I wandered from one to another without feeling more than a few drops.)
But back to the pricey! An early stoneware whiskey jug in the highly desirable mallet from with various raised decoration around it caught my eye. Not a good seller in the States but big bucks in England. As I reach for it up and check the price. I'm thinking £200 to 300 pounds ($300 to 450), the seller refuses to allow me to pick it up! Brashly announcing that it's 4,500 Belgium Francs ($1,425)! I politely decline, turn and trudge away, grumbling about snobby dealers. Suddenly several whimsy canes and a BIG whimsy two piece pipe appear on a table. Much more in the correct price range, but again, how do I get them home? I take a chance and buy the pipe before moving along.
Another round through the market proves fruitless; time to hit the local antique shops of which no less than 40 are within a block or two of the square.
Most shops were specialized with few selling a general line of antiques. Oriental rugs, European furniture, Oriental china and pottery, silver and jewelry, `big city antiques' as they are referred to in the States make up most of the merchandise. Nice things, expensive things, but not what I'm interested in. I move along.
Somewhat depressed by my so far meager purchases, I turn a corner and am suddenly facing a window full of glass! All kinds, pressed, blown, cut, and yes Virginia, even bottles! I'm excited but remembering Leslie's words `usually pricey', 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 a woman who tells me she once had a shop in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. The shop contains about 90% glass, with a number of nice things. It's a small shop with two very large picture windows I pause and hold my breath. On the upper shelf is a row of very identifiable French figural bottles. All are in the common clear glass except for one in the form of a standing woman, in deep cobalt blue!
I calmly ask to see a few of the figural bottles, four to be exact. Of those I chose, one is the cobalt blue woman bottle. The first two clear bottles are priced about the same, 1,000 Belgium Francs (about $330.00), too much for the American market. I next pick up the cobalt blue woman bottle. Expecting the worst, I slowly turn over the price tag, $1,000 Belgium Francs, the same as the clear bottles! I'm stunned, especially after seeing the prices on the CLEAR bottles. Is this a mistake, did I miss a digit? No, the shop owner reassures me it's 1,000 Belgium Francs ($330.00). I don't ask questions, except `do you take VISA'? A big smile and `yes' seal the deal.
While the owner is keying in my credit card numbers I spy a late Dutch 1700's storage jar in olive green for 300 Francs, (about $100.00). Not a bargain but in the excitement of buying the cobalt woman, I buy this bottle also.
The amount of time Leslie has allocated for this market is considerably longer than the earlier market. Done shopping and having about 45 minutes to kill before heading for the bus stop at on of the local cafes for, as the English say, `a spot of lunch'. I select a cafe specializing in Italian food and enjoy a somewhat different but very nice Lasagna and a glass of Krick, a popular Belgium beer with a cherry flavor.
Later I'm back on the bus, but this time with more than a few jazz albums to show for my effort. I'm feeling better about this trip.
The rest of today's tour is devoted to seeing the more interesting, historic parts of Brussels.
Brussels is a city that went through a lot of transition in the 1950's including a Worlds' Fair. Like most fairs of past, when the event was over a lot was torn down, but many of the more interesting buildings remain. Our bus travels through the old fair site, which is now a park while Leslie narrates on what we are seeing. The most unusual structure, and the only one we actually stop at, is the Atomium. The Atomium is an impressive and unusual looking 335-foot high structure in the form of an atom, hence the word Atomium. For $3.00 an elevator will 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 local vender, then it's back on the bus.
Our next stop is a small parking lot designated for tour buses only. It's a few blocks from the famous `Grand Platz', (pronounced Gran Plaz), thought by many to be the most majestic, picturesque square in all of Europe. We follow Leslie through the narrow streets to the `Platz' which is certainly impressive with tall structures dating to the 1700's on all four sides. Leslie moves onward and we follow her to one of the most photographed statues in Belgium, the Mannequin Pis. A three-foot-tall statue of a young boy doing as Leslie says `what all young boys do'! The crowd around the Mannequin Pis is huge with person-after-person standing in front to have their picture taken with the `Pis' in the background. I take a few photos with a telephoto lens and head back to the Platz. The Platz is surrounded by side street after side street of various small shops and quaint restaurants. I proceed to look at a number of menus finding Oso Buco, a favorite dish of mine, on the menu of an Italian restaurant. I note its location and return later that evening.
Sunday morning meets us with a clear sky and bright sun, ideal outdoor antiquing weather, which we will need.
Today we travel to Bruges, about a one hour drive southwest of Brussels. In the 16th and 17th centuries Bruges was one of the richest cities in Europe famous for its chocolates and hand made lace. Located near the sea it was an active port for the early Dutch merchants who traveled the then known world trade. Relatively untouched by both World Wars, Bruges is a delightfully picturesque city of canals, old stone walls, castles, cathedrals and numerous other buildings of its golden era.
Our group is interested in gold of another form, antiques! In route Leslie gives us an idea of what to expect. Over 700 dealers will be set up in the very large town square and surrounding streets, offering a potpourri of merchandise. The old, and the new, will be intermingled, with plenty of food stands offering various local favorites.
The Bruges market is held only three times a year and is a major antique and tourist attraction for dealers/collectors throughout Europe. Leslie gives us a few tips. If you see something you like, don't leave it expecting to find it later. It will either be sold, or you will get lost trying to find it. Good advice considering the crowd of 20,000 which is expected to arrive throughout the day.
We arrive at a parking lot about one mile from the town's center square, the closest spot that busses can park. Already the overall magnitude of this market is apparent as no less 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 that afternoon. After about an hour I have found little, (except for another 1700's jar in olive amber.) While enjoying a piece of Belgium fudge I spot from a distance a number of glass jars. Moving closer I recognize them as being the French canning jar embossed La Lorraine above a thistle blossom. The quart size jars all have the original closure and are in perfect condition. The French vender tells me in broken English that they all came from the 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 problem looms, how to get them back. I decide to pass.
Good decision. A few minutes later at a stand with a number of glass items I locate THREE teakettle inks! All are in perfect condition and at 150 Francs each ($50.00) quickly find their way into my bag. The rest of the day goes quickly. I pass on a few more of the olive green storage jars, also several early 1800's Belgium black glass mallet's, but do buy a storage jar in the scarce square form with beveled corner panels, and, can you believe it, a few more jazz albums!
By noon time the crowd becomes almost unbearable, making it hard to even get to the dealer tables to see what is offered. I retreat to one of the many outdoor restaurants around the square. For lunch I have a large plate of steamed mussels, a Belgium delicacy, washing them down with a couple of glasses of Lafete beer.
All in all it was a great day, but all good things must come to an end. I return to the bus to find most of my antiquing colleagues already there. The final few stragglers show up shortly and off we go, the storage compartments of the bus being a lot fuller than when we arrived.
The rest of the evening is free so I decided to stroll back to the Grand Platz, for one more look around at night, and enjoy another wonderful meal before returning to the hotel.
The following day is again sunny and all seem relaxed during the bus ride back down to Calais, France for our return ferry boat ride back to Dover, England.
The crossing takes a mere hour and forty five minutes. A few miles from the English coast, I venture outside on deck to enjoy the incredible view of the famous white cliffs as we approach Dover. As impressive now as they must have looked to Julius Caesar when he and a legion of Roman soldiers first set eyes on them in the year 54 B.C.
I depart the bus at Dover, where I joined the group three days earlier. And so my antiquing / sightseeing trip to Brussels come to an end. Would I do it again.? The antiquing part was fairly successful. Not a lot of purchases but what was bought was reasonable. Some will be added to my collection, the rest sold to help offset the cost of the trip.
The sightseeing was great, I personally love the great European capitol cities, and having never been in Brussels found it a fully enjoyable, and exciting experience.
Before departing at Dover, I spoke briefly with Leslie. Being the only American on the trip was interested in knowing my reaction to the whole experience, and would I be using Limelight for future antiquing trips?
Since returning to the States, I've received a schedule of next year's antiquing trips from In The Lime Light' tours.
One is a trip to Brussels for four days and three nights in July.
Guess who's already sent in a booking?
Interested in receiving a schedule 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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