Friday 26 April 2024

It's a long way to the castle

After having tricked us with a handful of warm and sunny days, April decided to live up to her  reputation for capriciousness by making a U-turn to Winter temperatures in the month's third week. 

As this was the time of our little getaway, we could have wept at the weather forecast, which spoke of heavy rain, hailstorms, frosty nights and highs of well below 10°C. So much for packing a selection of Spring frocks and jackets, I actually had to dig out one of my warmest Winter coats again!

Monday and Tuesday were stormy, four-seasons-in-one-day office days, so waking up to a bright blue sky and sunshine on Wednesday, the first day of our break, was a nice surprise. We even started hoping against hope that they'd got it wrong and it was going to be a sunny albeit bitterly cold, day.

As our holiday destination was only one hour away, we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in, having a leisurely breakfast, and giving Bess an extra cuddle before stowing our bags into our car and driving off at around 11.30 am. 

By then, however, dark clouds had been gathering on the horizon and, sure enough, we'd hardly left our village behind before the first drops of rain appeared on our windscreen. 

Torrential rain accompanied us on our one-hour journey on the motorway, our windscreen wipers going at full speed, until finally a gap appeared in the layer of grey as we were nearing our destination. 

For the 8th time, we would be staying at Het Soetewater, a delightful B&B in Beernem, a rural village just a stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of Bruges. Here, as always, we were welcomed with restorative cups of coffee and slices of yummy cake!

Then it was off to our luxury room complete with kingsize bed and whirlpool bath in the annex, making ourselves at home and saying hello to our neighbours at the front (above, bottom left) and back (above, top right). 

After eating the packed lunch we'd brought from home, we were ready for our first adventure: a visit to the magnificent Loppem Castle, which involved a drive of a mere 15 minutes.

45 minutes later, we trundled up the cobbled drive and parked our car in the castle's car park. And no, we didn't manage to get lost! In fact, our Satnav expertly guided us along secondary roads and through the village of Loppem until we found ourselves at a dead end as extensive roadworks where blocking the final 2 kilometer stretch of road we needed to take.

Diversions signs were non-existent and our Satnav made us drive around in circles until we were dizzy. In desperation, we decided to return part of the way to Beernem and then take the motorway, as I remembered from our last visit that the E40 virtually skirts the domain. To cut a long story short, we finally made it, although we'd lost 30 minutes of precious time along the way.

While we were driving around, the sun had come out in full force and, although she once or twice tried to hide behind some angry-looking clouds, she was still with us when we walked through the gatehouse (above, bottom right). Inside, two medallion sculptures were looking down on us, mere mortals, as we made our way outside into the quadrangle of stables and other outbuildings. 

Just 10 kilometers from Bruges, stately Loppem Castle is surrounded by a romantic English style garden and park, with centuries-old trees, ponds, grottos and even a notoriously tricky maze. 

In 1856, the English architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875) was commissioned by the future inhabitants, Baron Charles van Caloen and his wife, Countess Savina de Gourcy Serainchamps, to draw up plans for the castle. Later on, supervision of the building work was entrusted to the Belgian architect Jean-Baptiste Bethune (1821-1894), who gave a slightly more Flemish character to the building. 

Construction of the castle was completed by 1863 and the result is an excellent example of the Flemish neo-Gothic style. 

The interiors at Loppem castle are decorated and furnished in perfect harmony with the neo-Gothic architecture. The furniture designed by Pugin as well as Bethune’s stained-glass windows, chandeliers, staircases and fireplaces were all executed with immense skill by local craftsmen.

The impressive entrance hall or vestibule (above), with its grand staircase and its vaulted ceiling, is where van Caloen and his guests played billiards.

Reaching up 17 metres from the floor, in polychromed wood with six bosses decorated with family coats of arms, the ceiling is a faithful copy of the 14th century vault of the gothic hall in Bruges' city hall.

The stunning encaustic floor tiles were produced by Minton Hollis from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

The grand staircase's banister is composed of a hundred exquisitely crafted panels featuring native plants, animals and hunting scenes.

The blue drawing room (below, bottom left) is decorated with murals by the German artist August Martin, who created these scenes from medieval Flanders in 1869-70.

Leading off from the gallery on the first floor are the formal bedrooms, which include the set of rooms  used by King Albert I and his family when they resided at the castle at the end of the First World War, between 24 October and 21 November 1918. 

For one month, Loppem Castle was the headquarters of a newly liberated Belgium. It was here that the famous "Loppem Government" was formed, the first government to include socialists, and which, among other things, introduced universal male suffrage, the right to trade unions and strikes, and the promise of a Dutch-language university in the city of Ghent.

The busts on the bottom left and right are those of King Albert I and his wife, Queen Elisabeth.

Also on the first floor is the family chapel. The two-storey, single-nave chapel has pink walls and a blue-painted wooden vault. From a stand on the upper floor, staff could attend the service. Jean-Baptiste Bethune's stained-glass windows depict the family's patron saints.

The castle is home to an impressive art collection, largely assembled by Baron Jean van Caloen (1884– 1972), Charles’ grandson. 

Jean was a passionate collector with wide-ranging interests, including medieval sculpture, Flemish painting, stoneware from Raeren (a German town, now in present-day Belgium) and Westerwald, Mechelen alabasters, Portuguese ivories, illuminated manuscripts, prints and drawings. 

These collections are mostly displayed in museum style in a set of  remodelled rooms on the first floor.

Besides the numerous paintings, there is an exceptional collection of old sculptures as well as art from Asia and Africa. 

The kneeling angel (above, top right) is Italian and dates from 1425-1450. I wonder why she was promptly rechristened waffle angel by us ...

Our heads were reeling after taking in room after room of arts, crafts and artifacts. In fact, I was quite goggle-eyed, which was exacerbated by catching sight of my reflection in one of the mirrors in the passageway downstairs!

Rain-pregnant clouds were once again in evidence by the time we made it outside, which meant that our plans of a walk around the castle park were off the cards. Now, if we hadn't been waylaid by those pesky roadworks ...

As it was, we barely had the time for a quick look around the garden until the heavens opened.

I still managed to take a photo of the castle in all its glory and show you the prominent, corbelled sandstone chapel crowned with an octagonal spire. 

Having learned our lesson, our return journey was a doddle, although it had started raining in earnest by now.

Back in our room, we rested our feet. Then, when our stomachs started rumbling, we made our way to the main part of the B&B to sample Veronique's trademark tapas board, which we'd ordered for our first evening.

Day one ended with a soak in our whirlpool bath and an evening of relaxing and reading.

If the weathermen were to be believed, we would be in for a dry and sunny day with highs of - gasp! - 12°C on Thursday. Would they have got it right for once? Find out by joining me again for installment no. 2 in a couple of days!

Sunday 21 April 2024

A glimpse of Spring

In the past week, we've been to Bruges and back. The weather gods have been reasonably well behaved, all things considered - although it seems they still didn't get the Spring menu - and my camera has been working overtime. 

As I'm due back at the office tomorrow, it'll be a while until I've uploaded all my photos and written the first installment of our travel adventures. So, here's one I prepared earlier, so to speak, catching up with what has been happening in my life in the week or so preceding our little getaway!

The weather forecast for Saturday the 6th of April spoke of temperatures reaching the low twenties, which had us shaking our heads in disbelief. But lo and behold, they got it right for once, so out came my first short-sleeved frock of the season.

I picked up this blue retro-style Who's That Girl dress with its green flower print and front zip in a charity shop back in November. Bare legs would have been more appropriate on a day like this, but as we'd planned a walk in the wilderness, I didn't want to tempt fate and have the local population of insects feast on them. So, I wore a pair of green opaques, matching both the flowers in my dress and the camisole I was wearing underneath. 

Not matching anything in particular but chosen as they caught my eye that day were a Bohemian beaded brooch, a chunky multi-coloured necklace and an orange plastic ring, all picked up at either flea markets or charity shops. 

My sage green crepe soled Mephisto ankle boots were charity shopped too and are just the perfect footwear for muddy Spring walks.

And muddy it was! Following a brainstorming session during lunch that day, we decided to risk it and drive down to Jos's old neck of the woods: the ex-clay pit based nature reserve in Terhagen.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while might remember that the mud here isn't exactly of the ordinary, run of the mill kind, but rather of the stick-to-your boots and try-to-suck-you-in variety. 

What's more, months of rain had made some of the areas quite unsurpassable. 

One of the makeshift little bridges, for instance, had been swallowed by the swollen brook it ineffectually tried to cross (above, bottom right). To give you an idea, this is what it looked like in May of last year.

Instead of a brilliant blue, though, the sky was almost colourless, veiled with a haze which unfortunately obscured the sun for the better part of the day. 

In fact, although the temperature had dropped to 19°C and it was a bit windy, Sunday was a much better day, the sky a clear blue canvas for the sun to play with.

No walking for us that day, however, at least not in the great outdoors. Instead, we would be trawling the aisles of this month's edition of the indoor flea market!

Obviously, I couldn't let the side down and needed to dress to impress my flea market fans.

My green and white plaid skirt, its fabric a polyester jersey knit, was an old Think Twice find, while the floral extravaganza of a blouse was picked up in a charity shop in March 2019.

My deer brooch - if you can spot it among the flowers - as well as the jauntily knotted scarf came from a long-gone vintage shop, while the mottled green beaded necklace was once again supplied by the charity shops. 

At my waist, I was wearing one of the stretchy belts I picked up at a bargain shop two days earlier. 

My feet were happy all day in the pale pink suede ankle boots, which I snaffled in the closing-down sale of the Belgian branch of New Look in 2019.

But what about the hat, I can hear you thinking. Well, it was that day's final flea market find!

Most of the hats I come across are far too large for my tiny head, so it was nothing short of a miracle that this one was a perfect fit. Here's a closer look at fabric flowers which trail all around its navy band.

On its left is the day's first find: a yellow pleated fabric belt, which cost me all of € 2.

Obviously, I also added to my burgeoning brooch collection.

The large jewelled lizard, the yellow resin umbrella and the climbing frog with its jewelled limbs are my favourites, and yes, that is a Christmas tree on the top right. It's so exquisitely made that - admittedly after a moment's hesitation - I decided it needed to come home with me!

There is, by the way, no need to curb my enthusiasm when it comes to buying brooches. I've been given no less than 8 more of those shallow wooden drawers by Jos's friend, and he's told us that he's got plenty more if need be as he is rearranging his collection of coins whose homes they used to be.

My final find of the day was this vintage 1940s/1950s hair clip display card, complete with its pairs of blue, pink and faux-tortoiseshell celluloid hair clips.

The weather in April's second week was yet another mixed bag, sunny and warm(ish) one day and dull, grey and stormy with a significant drop in temperature the next.

There's nothing of note to tell you about it, just your usual humdrum office week punctuated by the usual cappuccino catch-up with Inez, and a lunch break appointment at my hairdresser's.

Oh, and we were looking after our opposite neighbours' cats, Bobby and Billie, while they were on a city trip. They would return the favour and look after Bess while we were in Bruges!

Friday rolled along in no time, and what's more, the sun had decided to join us again. The day's highs of a mild 20°C were a bit of a wrench though, as the forecast for the week ahead - and thus for our Bruges break - was nothing short of horrific ...  

For a day of pottering and running a couple of errands, I wore a red floral Diolen skirt from Think Twice, combined with a navy blue Western style blouse by Who's That Girl, which was part of a haul from an outlet shop. To the latter, I pinned the bee brooch I found at the flea market on Sunday.

The stretchy belt with its multi-coloured round plastic buckle was an old high street find and - if I remember correctly - I picked up the necklace in a charity shop.

In spite, or perhaps because of our neglect, the garden isn't doing too bad, really. At this time of year, there's a sea of bluebells, and it is simply inundated with self-seeded honesty.

Two more varieties of the cheerful daffodil have joined the tête-à-têtes in their cones and pots: on the top left, Golden Carpet, and on the bottom right, the deliciously scented Bridal Crown. 

The sun remained with us on Saturday - we were the 13th of April by now - and at a delicious 24°C it was a glorious Spring day.

For our walk in Duffel park, I donned the vintage short-sleeved millefiori dress I plucked from our local charity shop's rails in February. The pale green diamond patterned cardigan by Zoë Loveborn was charity shopped around the same time. It was the very first outing for both items.

Another recent find was the Italian made tan leather shoulder bag, which has already been admired by many. The black stretchy belt was part of the previous week's bargain shop haul.

Although we'd only been here on Easter Sunday, it was well over a year since we laid eyes on Ter Elst castle, which lies at the park's far end amid a little park of its own.

The origins of the castle date back to the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, it regularly welcomed notable guests, such as Margaret of York and Philip the Fair.  From the 17th century onwards, it was used as a vicarage. In 1799, the castle was seized by the French occupiers and sold. Over seventy years later, the estate was given an industrial purpose: a brickworks operated here until World War I.  After it was heavily damaged 1914, the castle fell further and further into ruin.

The municipality of Duffel bought the castle domain from its private owner in 1972 and, after some well-needed restorations, the castle ruins and park were opened to the public in 1982.

However, it has been many a year since the public was allowed to cross the bridge over the moat and wander among the ruins, as due to stability problems they are once again in need of restoration. 

With the walls ready to crumble and the towers leaning ever more precariously, we were relieved to see that scaffolding had been erected on the inside a couple of years ago and that a start had been made to stabilize the building.

But although there has been talk of ambitious plans, which will include reconnecting the walls and adding a glass roof to the Great Hall, while in the courtyard the contours of the vanished castle will be made visible with variations in the floor pattern, it still looked suspiciously the same as it did on our last visit, in February 2023.

I'm leaving you now with this vision of Springtime, a clump of cheerful red and yellow tulips among the lush green vegetation of the park.

At barely 8°C, we would have needed our Winter coats, scarves, hats and perhaps even a pair of gloves to walk here today.

Hello Spring, where are you?

Sunday 14 April 2024

April fools

At the time of writing, the second of my official three-day weekends has come and gone. You'd think that with all that extra time at my disposal, I'd be upping my blogging frequency, but frankly speaking all I've been doing so far is honing my procrastination skills. Which is why I've still got to show you what I was wearing underneath that Desigual coat on Easter Sunday!

As Spring still didn't get the memo, it was up to me to jog the season's memory, which I did by wearing a dress whose pattern is a veritable tribute to Spring. Or rather, Tribute with a capital T, according to its label. I'm in two minds whether it was a charity shop or Think Twice find, but I'm leaning towards the latter. Whatever the case, it's been in my wardrobe forever, and it was long overdue an outing.

I made use of all its colours for my accessories, which were a mix of charity shop and high street purchases.

Here I am making my plea to the weather gods to send some sunshine our way on the final day of my Easter break. Perhaps foolishly so, as Easter Monday was the First of April, known to all and sundry as April Fools' Day!

And so it was that we could hardly believe our eyes to find our prayers answered. After a cloudy start, patches of blue soon dotted the sky and by midday the sun was out in full force, with the temperature climbing to a balmy 15°C once more.

Our initial plan had been to go for a stroll in Park Den Brandt. After parking our car, however, a glance towards Den Brandt's opposite neighbour, Middelheim Sculpture Park, made us notice an entrance  which we were sure hadn't been there before.

We decided to check it out, crossed the street and found ourselves exploring the part of the sculpture park called Middelheim-low instead. 

Clearly, a lot of work had been done here since our last visit, and it was a delight to come across the sculptures we've gotten to know so well over the years in their new settings.  It's definitely not finished yet and some areas were cordoned off by red and white tape where new grass was sown to repair the disruption caused by the machinery, but I'm sure it's going to look fabulous!

Almost inevitably, we ended up at Het Huis (The House), a half-open pavilion designed for temporary exhibitions and opened in 2012.

For a couple of years now, strange bird calls have been emanating from The House. These are part of a work of art, not surprisingly called Birdcalls, by the American artist Louise Lawler. Using her own voice, she has sounded out the names of twenty-nine well-known artists - a list of which is on one of the walls, above, bottom right - into bird calls.

Here's a sample in case you're intrigued. I can't for the life of me make out which artist's name this particular bird call represents, though.

The sculptures in the park come in all shapes and sizes, and there are some strange creatures among them indeed. 

Why does Strange Fruit always look so sweet? is the name of the mysterious overgrown figure on the top left. Created between 1998 and 2008, it was born from the fantasy of Flemish artist Johan Creten (°1963).

On the top right is Miss Television II (1979) by the Belgian sculptor Olivier Strebelle (1927-2017).

And yes, the chair is a work of art too. I couldn't find it in the museum's online catalogue, so hopefully by our next visit it has been labelled and I'll be able to properly identify it.

Like many of the sculptures, Three Standing Figures (1978) by the French artist Eugène Dodeigne (1923-2015) used to be in the other part of the park, but has found its perfect setting here, in a garden room of their own. The pink blossom in the background added another dimension.

Half-hidden by the green-sprouting branches we spotted the roof and turret of Villa La Chapelle over in Park Den Brandt. The fairy-tale like miniature castle was originally built in neo-Gothic style between 1880 and 1885 as the gardener's residence of Castle Den Brandt, commissioned by the then lord of the castle, Emile Augustin Joseph della Faille de Waerloos (1835-1890).

Always hoping for a glimpse of Flora, we recrossed the road and entered the park. It wasn't to be, though, as the villa's garden gate was firmly closed this time around.

Nevertheless, we extended our walk by a stroll around the park, as was our original intention.

On our way back, we passed the ornamental English-style cottage called De Peperkoek (which literally translates as The Gingerbread), currently under well-needed restoration. By the looks of it, it's going to be quite the transformation. Here's what it looked like when we last passed this way.

The weather reverted to its usual grey and rainy self in the first week of April which, what with Easter Monday and then my first official Friday off, thankfully was only a very short one, 

This is what I wore on Wednesday when for once we made to effort to take outfit photos after work.

I combined the funky InWear blouse I charity shopped in the weekend with a chevron patterned wrap skirt by the Belgian high street label JBC. This too was a charity shop find, about two years ago.

Apart from my boots and glass ring, which were both retail purchases, everything else was picked up second-hand from flea markets or charity shops.

A highlight of my short working week was the fact that everything was down to € 5 in the latest Think Twice sales. After only recently complaining about the lack of Diolen dresses, I was happy to come across not just one but two on the very same day!

The sturdy fabric bag on the left was found for € 4 later that week, while the genuine leather Italian made clutch-cum-shoulder bag was a € 1,50 charity shop find on the Friday.

A rare visit to the always busy Dutch bargain store Action at the edge of our village for some essentials yielded no less than 4 of my beloved stretchy belts. With their € 2,90 price tag, it would have been silly to leave any of the available designs behind.

The weather on the menu on my first official Friday off - I clearly can't mention this enough :-) - was cloudy and overcast with some light drizzle thrown in, which somewhat tempered the dizzy heights of 18°C shown on the thermometer.

My outfit consisted of two recently charity shopped items, the vintage skirt I scored back in March and the Who's That Girl blouse I found in February.

The cardigan I layered on top is from the line created for women's magazine Libelle, while the belt is from the Belgian CKS label. Both via the charity shop, obviously. My green and turquoise beaded necklace and green brooch were both second-hand finds too.

While we were out in the passageway, we marvelled over the rows of fully developed heart-shaped blooms in our Dicentra spectabilis. What a feast for the eye!

And finally, here's the latest installment in the life of our feline family member.

Lately she'd been spending a lot of time looking longingly through our kitchen window. We were quite hesitant to let her outside, though, particularly since we are living near a busy crossroads. Both her predecessors, Poesie and Phoebe, never made any attempts to venture outside our little walled garden, but we couldn't be sure that our lively, boisterous Bess wouldn't do so either. 

So, we bought her a harness! She wasn't (and still isn't) exactly a big fan of the thing, but her urge to go exploring outside was much stronger.

Here she is on her very first outing, which went very well indeed.

We had a bit of a scare during her second outing, though. After crawling under a shrub and getting stuck, she somehow managed to escape her harness. Much panic ensued from both sides, as you can imagine. Initially she seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Now where could she have got to? But then I spotted her: apparently she had run back to safety inside the house! Phew! 

To be continued, I'm sure.

We'll be going away on a short break in couple of days, so see you on the other side!