Sunday 30 April 2023

Once more fooled by April

We were in for a bit of a letdown on Sunday the 16th of April. All week long, the weathermen had kept promising a sunny weekend, but when push came to shove we had to content ourselves with a half-day of sunshine on Saturday. By Saturday evening our phone's weather app spoke of grey skies and showers again, which made us regret not having gone for a walk and having just whittled away the time not doing very much at all instead. Serves us right for turning a blind eye to the weather's general fickleness which makes forecasting it such a balancing act.

But they got it right this time, as the gloomy morning we'd woken up to soon turned into a wet one, the rain pitter-pattering against our windows and creating puddles on our garden path. Thankfully, the rainclouds soon departed elsewhere, but the sun was no match for the thick blanket of grey they left behind in their wake.

Still, determined not to be beaten by the ongoing unspringlike weather, we decided to go ahead with our intended walk, picking a destination which wasn't too far from home. After tossing around a couple of possible contenders, we settled for Solhof, the municipal park in the neighbouring village of Aartselaar.

Laid out in English landscape style, the park is part of the  former pleasure grounds of an old castle estate whose history goes back to the 15th century. 

Apart from two watchtowers on either side of the entrance, dating from around 1550, one of which you can catch a fairy-tale like glimpse of in the first collage, there's nothing left of the original castle. In its place, there's a neoclassical, late 19th century mansion, now much much modernized and turned into a hotel. 

Apart from the rather neglected parks's natural delights, there's the quirky knoll with gazebo (above, top left), which is built on top of an ice house. Reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty's castle, it is half-hidden, not behind a thicket of thorns, but behind an insulating layer of yew. Although there isn't much of a view up there - depending on the season, one can just make out the ugly white hotel in the background - we can never resist climbing the knoll's narrow winding path to the gazebo with its gnarled, graffitied pillars.

At first glance, the park didn't look all that much different from our last visit back in November, the lawns and pathways still strewn with a crunchy layer of dried Autumn leaves and the majority of the trees still awaiting their Spring finery. The mind-numbing whitish grey sky and the temperature which barely reached double figures made it hard to imagine it was actually a Sunday in April rather than an Autumn one.

Fortunately, signs of Spring were all around, in the bright, chartreuse clad branches of the weeping willow meeting its reflection in the pond, the clusters of golden-yellow Mahonia flowers, and the hundreds of delicate white bells adorning the Pieris japonica shrubs. It isn't all that hard to see why one of the latter's common names is lily-of-the-valley bush!

Here's the outfit which was hidden underneath my cream, tan and light blue Winter coat.

My blue dress with its pattern of cow parsley and daisies is vintage, from the Finnish Karelia label, and was found at Think Twice in September 2020. Both the necklace and the resin ring encasing some kind of dried flowers were found on the high street. The latter is being shown to you by the wooden hand model I was seduced into buying when we went to IKEA.

The multicoloured slubbed longline cardigan is by the Danish ONLY label and was charity shopped a couple of years ago. At my waist, an old tan leather belt from my collection, while the brooch I pinned to my dress was picked up from the indoor flea market last year.

Typically, we were treated to a handful of sunny days during the working week that followed, even if courtesy of the wind the chill factor belied the 13-15°C shown on the thermometer in full sunshine.

Clearing my head and giving my eyes a rest from the screen is a necessity half-way through the day, so I walked to the Botanic Garden both on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I was delighted by the sight of the host of yellow daffodils in front of my old school building which backs the garden, and was snapping away happily, entering the garden proper, when I was promptly shooed away by a film crew who were about to call "Action!".

I scurried away on the path leading into the direction of the luxury hotel, but was halted in my track by the abandoned wheelbarrow and the rake missing several of its teeth. I decided they were worth a photo or two and had just done the deed when, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a guy waving frantically at me from the path leading paralell to mine. Apparently, I was persona non grata here as well, so I reluctantly carried on walking away from the scene.

Strangely enough, both the wheelbarrow and the rake were still in exactly the same position when I returned the next day. Were they abandoned film props, perhaps, or does the city Antwerp employ negligent gardeners? 

In a newspaper article this past week I read that plans to revamp the Botanic Garden are afoot. Nothing major, mind you, as the garden has been protected as cultural-historical landscape since 1950 and both the garden and its buildings have received architectural heritage status three years ago. I had to laugh when the article mentioned some of the noticeboards would be replaced as well, as it instantly put me in mind of the rather pointless noticeboard I photographed in the prairie garden near my old school (above, top centre).

On the day when I was exiled by the film crew, my feet took me to the site of the luxury hotel, which also contains several fine dining restaurants, three of which have recently been awarded Guide Michelin stars. Nobody batted an eyelid when I walked through the gateway into a courtyard which contains the herb garden belonging to one of the posh restaurants, but I was given the side-eye by a guy, possibly a waiter, when I was on my way out.

Walking past the chapel and its ghosts, I finally made my way back to the street, where I snapped the two towers of the neo-Gothic St. Joriskerk (St. George's church). I had to look up its name, as it's known to us as the soup church. Jos, who often stayed with his older brother who lived nearby when he was a young boy, remembers the aroma of soup always lingering here.

Friday was another half-day for me, on which I took the tram to Mortsel, where Jos picked me up.

Apart from the Bohemian beaded brooch, all of my outfit's elements were recently worn in other constellations. My blouse from the Belgian Wow To Go label was bought in an Outlet shop in the Autumn, the belt a recently charity shop find, and the skirt charity shopped last Summer.

This time, Jos had no problem persuading me to go charity shopping, so here are the results of the good old rummage I had in the shop in Mortsel.

The zebra-esque pattern of this lightweight bracelet sleeve length shirt-waist dress made it a no-brainer ...

... as did this faux-wrap dress with its pattern of green squirrels!

This flouncy, tiered C&A skirt landed in my basket as well.

There was no way I could resist this pair of green floral Ballerinas, for which I gladly paid € 5.

Looking up the brand, Andrea Montelpare, at home, I was gobsmacked when I learned they are a luxury children's footwear label, and that they would have retailed at around € 150. The perks of having small feet!

My final find was this miniature booklet on architecture, dating from 1964.

I photographed it next to the shoes so that you can see how tiny it actually is. Even my Size 4s are gigantic compared to it!

So, that was it for now. I'll be back with more April adventures soon, hopefully with a significant improvement in the weather!

Tuesday 25 April 2023

Sights for sore eyes

At the time of writing, my eyes and glasses seem to have come to some sort of agreement, which means I'm no longer suffering from daily headaches and sore eyes. 

However, it was a totally different story on my first days wearing them at the office after the Easter break. Although I did  make the effort to take regular breaks and look into the distance to avoid digital eye strain - the ideal is 20 seconds every 20 minutes - my eyes were taking a long time to refocus whenever I was taking time off from the screen.

Both Tuesday and Wednesday saw me reach for paracetamol on more than one occasion while eye drops were administered aplenty. I was so tired in the evenings that I fell asleep on the sofa, which is virtually unheard of for me. But I did manage to go outside into the garden and see - although with slightly blurred vision - that all was thriving. As always the honesty flowers popping up one by one, a sea of bluebells in the making, and the first of the dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) blooms were a sight for sore eyes!

Then Thursday the 13th of April dawned and much to my surprise my eyes were behaving more or less normally. I was gazing out of the office window at the cityscape at my feet when I suddenly noticed the steep gable roof with its rows of dormer windows belonging the 500-year old Gothic Vleeshuis (Butchers' Hall) peeking out above the roofs to the right of the cathedral. It truly beggars belief that I'd never noticed this before in all the 28 years I've been working here! 

Apologies for the crap photo, but I only had my phone at my disposal.

It was a sunny day, with highs of 13°C, and a blustery wind propelling along an armada of clouds. After a string of rainy days which had kept me inside for most of the time, this was the perfect opportunity to go for a bracing walk and give my eyes a well-deserved rest. So, why not walk to the aforementioned Butchers' hall? 


My route first took me to the Grote Markt, Antwerp's market square, which is lined with lavishly decorated Guild houses. Admittedly, they are not as old as they look. The original houses being destroyed by fire in 1576, they were rebuilt in Flemish Renaissance style, and revamped again in the 19th century. 

The bronze statue in front of the newly renovated 16th century town hall is the famous Brabo, caught in the act of throwing away a severed hand. According to legend, Brabo rid the city of the evil giant Antigoon, who demanded tolls from people wanting to cross the river, cutting off the hands of those who refused to pay. After slaying the giant, Brabo gave him a taste of his own medicine by severing his hand and throwing it into the river Scheldt. According to popular belief, this is where the city's name is derived from, handwerpen being Flemish for hand throwing.

At the other side of the square,  Antwerp's Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of our Lady) is proudly showing off the elegance of its tower, finally rid of its disfiguring scaffolding behind which it was hidden for many a year.

I wasn't too pleased to see the dark clouds behind it, but courtesy of the stormy wind they didn't linger, taking their liquid content elsewhere. Phew!

I left the Grote Markt by taking the street at the right of the town hall and continued walking into the direction of the Butchers' Hall. This part of Antwerp used to be the site of a colourful harbour district. Completely demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, it was replaced by a soulless and much scorned social housing development (below, top left).

Finally arriving at the Butchers’ Hall, I was dismayed to find that construction work was going on in front of it, my view marred by a flock of fluorescent orange-jacketed workmen and their machinery. I only managed to photograph around them by pointing my camera upwards.

A Butchers' Hall was built here as early as 1250, functioning as a meat market where butchers could sell their merchandise. The beginning of the 16th century marked the start of Antwerp’s Golden Age and when the existing hall could no longer cope with the needs of a growing population, a new one was decided upon. Built between 1501 and 1504 in the same spot, it was twice the size of the original hall, its façade made of alternating layers of red brick and white sandstone, locally known as bacon layers.

After the Butchers’ Hall lost its primarily function in 1810 when the French occupying forces abolished the Guilds, the building was used as a storage depot and a theatre. Eventually, in 1899, the city acquired the hall and opened it as a museum in 1919, displaying a miscellaneous collection of historic objects, including pottery, drawings, lace, weapons and jewellery. In the 1970s, musical instruments became a prominent part of the collection, at which time I remember visiting it with my Dad. After another round of renovations, it was finally reopened in 2006 as Sounds of the City, a museum which tells the story of 600 years of music in the city of Antwerp. I haven't been to see it yet, but Kezzie has, on my recommendation, when she visited Antwerp back in February 2022.

Walking away from the Butchers' Hall and into the direction of the quayside, I came across a remnant of the early 13th century town walls, living cheek by jowl with early 20th century and 21st century architecture.

At the quayside, I came face to face with Het Steen. Literally meaning "the stone", it was given its name as it was the city's first large building constructed in stone. What remains today is only a fraction of the once mighty castle. The building used to be the centre of the city's oldest neighbourhood, with narrow streets, gates, towers and a fish market. The castle was altered several times during its history, and it is actually quite easy to see which part of the castle is still original, as the 13th century masonry is much darker than the later additions.

In fact, its latest addition is brand new, built between 2018 and 2021. Once again considered a monstrosity by the citizens of Antwerp, you can see part of it at the left of the old castle in the photo on the top right. You can find a much better photo here, on the Visit Antwerpen website. Opened in 2021, it contains a Visitor Centre, a cruise terminal, The Antwerp Story discovery trail and a panoramic roof terrace. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, I didn't realize the latter was freely accessible, so I'll have to return for the view!

Near the entrance of the castle stands one of Antwerp's most famous statues. Dating from 1963, it depicts the legendary figure of Lange Wapper who, according to Antwerp folklore, could grow to the size of a giant and terrorized the city in the 16th century.

Above the gateway leading into Het Steen is a heavily worn bas-relief sculpture known as Semini which is said to date from as far back as the 2nd century. Like its female counterpart, the Sheela-na-gig, it is considered to be a fertility symbol. In the 16th century, the local clergy came to find the well-endowed figure inappropriate and had a certain body part removed in 1587. 

On the occasion of the reopening of Het Steen, the city commissioned Antwerp artist Sharon Van Overmeiren to create a new artwork inspired by the Semini. Made from wrought iron, bronze and clay, the contemporary sculpture entitled "De Gulle Waard/The Generous Gatekeeper" is taking pride of place in the castle's courtyard.

All too soon it was time to return to the office. But not before walking past the Water Bus terminal towards the promenade on the banks of the River Scheldt and the giant Ferris wheel called The View.

I'm sure this will offer an even more magnificent panorama of the city, its port and its river. If one doesn't suffer from vertigo, that is!

There wasn't any time for a proper stroll along the windswept promenade - so windswept, in fact, that I had difficulty holding on to my beret - but I promise I will return for more Antwerp views one day soon.

And then we were Friday! No day off for me, though, as my colleague is still on sick leave, but I did manage to take the afternoon off. 

In order to avoid traffic, I'd agreed with Jos that I would take the tram into Mortsel like I did in the olden days, and he would pick me up there. It was my first tram ride in three years, and it felt strange and curiously familiar at the same time.

As my eyes were once again behaving badly, I declined Jos's proposal to go charity shopping and went straight home instead.

After a frosty start, the day brought a continuation of Thursday's sunny weather, with highs of 14°C.

I was quite surprised to find that this plaid patterned Diolen dress hadn't received its seasonal outing yet. Apart from it cheery green, red, navy and white colours, it's got a dagger collar, shiny square black buttons framed in white metal and turned-up cuffs, closing with two buttons. Here are some details, if you're interested.

As usual, I added lots of red (belt, ring, necklace and cardigan), but this time I opted for sage green opaques and my beloved green ankle boots. To my - charity shopped - King Louie cardigan I pinned the green bird brooch I found at the indoor flea market's last edition.

After a slow start on Saturday, the sun came out to play, warming up to 15°C. However, the wind once again played spoilsport, making it feel rather unpleasant in the shade.

After lunch, we drove over to the garden centre and made use of their offer on perennials, choosing some shade loving ones for our passageway project. 

We ended the afternoon sitting outside in the sunshine in Jos's son and daughter in law's garden, watching grandson Cas play with the remote control tractor we gave him as a present.

I'll leave you now with the day's outfit. It was warm enough to the wear the moss green H&M cord jacket I picked up from our local flea market in July 2019. The spotty red blouse was charity shopped between Lockdowns in 2020, and I combined it with the recently found Terra di Siena Paisley patterned maxi skirt.

Accessories consisted of one of my stretchy belts, my green birds in flight brooch bought in Cardigan, and a charity shopped necklace which always reminds me of a set of wooden mosaic tiles I played with as a child. On my feet, the comfy faux-lace-up No Stress boots which came home with me from a charity shop last December.

See you next time!

Thursday 20 April 2023

Easter Sunday dilemma

It isn't procrastination, nor lack of subject matter which is making my blog run seriously late again.  The thing is that I've been limiting screen time these last couple of weeks. My eyes are having a hard time to adapt, not only to my new prescription lenses, which are a lot stronger than before, but to the change of frames themselves. I'm having good days and bad, the latter quite obviously mostly occurring when I'm at the office. But I'm persevering and I'm glad to report that there's been a definite improvement lately, as I've had the pleasure of enjoying a string of headache-free days this week.

So, Easter Sunday! Time having had its usual tendency to fly, it's now almost two weeks ago since Chocolate Fest. The last of the buy 600 grams, get 300 grams free mini eggs from our local chocolatier, Leonidas, have been consumed. The Easter bunny has hopped away into the sunset for another year.

We woke up to glorious weather with the sun streaming in through our windows, so that wild horses couldn't have kept us inside. The forecasted highs of 16°C made us all giddy, but posed a dilemma at the same time.

Shall we do some long-overdue gardening, or go for a walk? Weighing up the pros and cons, we decided on the former. I still needed the pot up those patiently waiting plants purchased at the garden centre the other week, for starters.

I quickly got dressed in my gardening gear - old cord skirt and jumper plus purple striped Pippi Longstocking knee-high socks worn over an ancient pair of tights - and put on my charity shopped ankle wellies. But oh, those gardening gloves definitely have seen better days ...

In spite of my efforts to protect them from the worst of the frosts, last year's trailing geraniums hadn't survived. The green enamelled cones - which quite possibly once started life as lampshades - they used to live in now being vacant, I planted them up with tête-à-tête daffs. Aren't they a cheerful sight? The flowers started opening one by one in only a matter of days, so they clearly they are enjoying their new homes.

I also did some random pruning and clearing up wherever it was needed most, while Jos made a start with cutting back the rampant ivy.

The back of the garden a.k.a. the courtyard is still a mess of hastily moved pots and ornaments, as well as bags of compost from our bin, the latter unfortunately mixed with building rubble as a result of the wall saga and our neighbour's ignorance.

I was rummaging around to see what could be salvaged when I came across the remains of a terracotta pot in which a Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta) was doing its best to keep its head above water. I transferred the poor plant to another pot, added a stone toadstool dug up from the garden during Lockdown and a tiny plastic gnome which was mixed in with our Christmas decorations, et voilà!  Now let's pretend that  non-ribbiting frog is a toad!

Elsewhere in the garden, signs of Spring are definitely in evidence. Our Spirea bush is flowering as never before, white Muscari are popping up among the more common blue, and there are plenty of flower buds in the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber). Oh, and the Honesty on the top right had the audacity of growing through the slats in our bench. We gently teased it out to give it - and us - some room!

All that hard work and fresh air had made us hungry, so Jos made us omelettes for lunch, mopped up with thick slices of bread and washed down with a refreshing glass of non-alcoholic beer.

Then, after getting dressed in my proper outfit of the day, we decided go for that walk after all. We didn't stray too far from home though, opting for Fort 5 in the neighbouring village of Edegem. It is one of a string of old forts around the city of Antwerp dating from the 1860s, most of which have been converted into nature reserves and recreation spaces.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones making the most of the balmy Spring weather, so we soon veered away from the narrow path skirting the moat and the children's playground near the entrance. The path we selected took us past the War Memorial (top left), unveiled in 1926 and commemorating 16 resistance fighters which were executed at the fort during the First World War. 

Continuing our walk, we soon came across part of old fort itself: a long row of low brick and sandstone buildings, in various stages of dereliction.

Browsing my previous blog posts on our walks here - the last one incredibly as long ago as October 2021 - revealed that this wasn't the first time we selected this particularly appealing peeling blue door as a backdrop for outfit photos. This time, however, I was wearing matching blues!

And what better backdrop for my red skirt's first outing? Picked up for a pittance at Think Twice back in March, I fell head over heels for its pattern of blowsy indigo and white flowers. 

The white, red and blue spotty blouse by the Belgian Wow To Go label was a charity shop find, as was the blue beaded necklace. 

My brooch, with its leaping stag on a shimmery blue background, is a bit of an oddity. A flea market find back in January 2020, it is actually made of butterfly wings! This kind of jewellery, usually made from the South American Morpho butterfly, was popular from the Art Deco period up to the 1960s.

The final components of my outfit, a blue belt and ring, were both retail buys.

Walking through the gate on the top right and along the echoing and faintly eerie passage on the bottom left takes you inside some of the atmospheric, time-forgotten and heavily graffitied buildings.

The passage ends at a padlocked gate, the gap between its slats offering a glimpse into a spooky, pitch-black, musty smelling interior. 

The fort bridges the moat here, its paneless windows looking out on moss and algae encrusted brick walls. The odd window is still holding on to its weathered wooden frames or shutters, but surely it's only a matter of time before time and tide - not to mention wet rot - dispenses with them completely.

The cobwebbed old light switch was still in working order ... if only it had had a light bulb to feed! 

Twigs and leaves carelessly abandoned by nature have been swept inside by the wind, joining the population of dust bunnies who have taken up residence here in these rooms decked out with bunting of ancient blackened cobwebs.

The narrow winding path along the moat takes you through a long, low tunnel (above, bottom right) to the inner sanctum of the fort, and out again at the other end. Mind your head if you're tall, as even vertically challenged yours truly did have to duck her head at one point.

Here's a view of the spot where the fort bridges the moat. There's the exit of the tunnel on the right, while the arched doorway in the middle is where the passage we entered the fort through ends. Opposite this is the spooky, padlocked and graffitied gate I posed against.

Our itinerary then took us along the moat, where the single track path was a bit of a logical problem on this busiest of days. We nevertheless enjoyed the antics of the local population of water birds and turtles, none of which were prepared to pose for a photo.

All traces of Sunday's sunshine had gone by Monday, which was quite a disappointment. The mercury still climbed to 16°C but without the warmth of the sun it felt quite a bit cooler.

There was nothing for it but to give one of my long-sleeved Diolen Delights another run for its money. This one never fails to cheer me up, with its pattern which is a mixture of huge yellow hued flowers and two borders of sea shells near the hemline.

More yellow was added with a long-line cardigan, opaques and a necklace, while I opted for a contrasting caramel mock croc belt at my waist. The blue of the dress was repeated in the iridescent blue and emerald green peacock feather brooch. 

It might have been a grey and cloudy day, but at least the weather gods had the decency of waiting until mid-afternoon to send more rain our way.

We made the most of the dry spell by ticking another couple of gardening chores off our list. While I cut back the strawberry in its hanging bucket (the red blob in the photo below), Jos tackled some more of the ivy, and unearthed the parking meter from the clutter in the courtyard. A gift from a late friend of Jos's, it spent its working life on the streets of Antwerp in the late 1950s, early 1960s, when 5 Belgian Francs (the equivalent of about € 0,12) paid for 30 minutes' parking. It's going to be a feature in the passageway.

Talking of which, we're in the process of clearing the border in front of the compost bin (see above, top left) and plant it up with some shade-loving perennials. Watch this space!

I'm leaving you for now with this view from the back of the garden towards our house and the passageway, framed by the exuberantly flowering, but oh so transient, Spirea bush!

See you next time!