Getting on the Eurostar is fairly straightforward. You don’t need to worry about any liquids and the like, as the security check doesn’t appear to care. There is a relatively long queue, meaning you’ll want to leave a decent bit of time, especially as the gate will close thirty minutes before departure. You arrive into Brussels Midi: be aware that there are a lot of stations in Brussels with similar names, which can get confusing.
For the Eurostar, you want Brussels Midi, which for some reason is also Brussels Zuid. Brussels Nord and Brussels Centraal are different, so avoid getting mixed up with those. There are plenty of trains to Bruges, which depending on the one you select can take up to an hour and fifteen minutes. You will most likely have a second class ticket: 2nd class is further down the train with less plush seats (though 1st class doesn’t look all that swisher).
The only thing I knew as a child about Bruges was that I liked Club Brugge's attractive blue and black football kit on Sensible Soccer. Even that knowledge was tenuous, as I didn't realise until later that 'Bruges' and 'Brugge' were in fact the same place: for quite some time as a pre-teen, I thought 'Bruges' was another name for Brussels. Fortunately my knowledge of the town has increased since then, largely based on the interest I developed in Flemish art. ;)
If you’re in Bruges for at least three days, then it makes sense to get yourself a Musee Card for €20. That covers you for fourteen different museum sites around the city, all within walking distance. It isn’t a big place: you can walk from one end to the other in around forty minutes or less. The card is actually a ticket, which you can pick up from any of the fourteen places it covers, but be aware not all of them take card payments: the ones that do are the Belfry/Belfort, the Groeningemuseum, Our Lady Chuch/O.L.V-Kerk (OLV stands for Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) and the Old St John’s Hospital/Sint-Jans Hospitaal. The €20 is paid off after visiting three or four of them, though if you were pressed for time, the main places to see are the Belfry (€10 on its own), the Groeningemuseum (€8) and Sint-Jans Hospitaal (€8).
Unless you’re used to eating frugally, bring plenty of Euros with you, as Bruges is not cheap. It’s possible to get by on €2.50 cheese toasties and fries, but for a proper meal you’re looking at a good €20 to €40. Around lunchtime there are a number of deals, where you can get several courses for more like €16: we paid €15.90 for two cheese croquets, a beef stew and a flan dessert. Waffles and ice cream is also more expensive than a similar treat would be in Brussels, though it is very tasty. A bus to the station will set you back €2, though that may be worth it if you have a huge bag.
I went to Belgium last year for an art and training trip, focusing on Brussels. This time, I’m spending around the same time on the art side of things, but much longer on BJJ, with a full week camp rather than a day. In Bruges, there is less on offer compared to the capital, though it can boast some exceptional masterpieces. Back in the 15th century, Bruges was an international art centre, its most significant school now known as the Flemish Primitives. That misleading moniker does not refer to the style of their art, which is highly refined, particularly the most famous member of the group, Jan van Eyck. He revolutionised art throughout the whole of Europe with his innovations in oil painting. Up until van Eyck, egg tempera was the dominant material: that all changed after his fellow artists experienced the incredible works van Eyck could produce.
There is an illustrious history of art in Bruges, particularly during its most prosperous period over the 14th and 15th centuries, after which it went into decline (which got a whole lot worse when access to the sea silted up and business moved to Antwerp). The Flemish Primitives spent a good proportion of their careers in Bruges. Jan van Eyck earned himself a statue, while Hans Memling has his own museum. Memling was actually born in what is now Germany, but his masterpieces are to be found over at the Sint-Jans Hospitaal (St Johns Hospital), including a lavishly painted shrine to St Ursula and several triptychs. Aside from Memling there isn’t all that much to enjoy at Sint Jans Hospitaal, but he’s worth the price of entry.
Van Eyck's triptych with Joris Van der Paele is probably the best known work held by the Groeningemuseum, collected together with several other Flemish Primitives in room two. Directly across is Hugo van de Goes ‘Death of the Virgin’, while along another wall you’ll find Hans Memling again. The Groeningmuseum is less of a one-hit wonder, but the quality falls off considerably after you’ve been dazzled by Van Eyck and friends. I had hoped there would be more examples of Belgian Symbolism, but it's mostly just Ferdinand Khnopff and a couple of dreary cityscapes. The place to see the Symbolists is Brussels.
In the centre of Bruges, head up the Belfry for an excellent view of the town, slightly obscured by netting tightly strung across all the windows (meaning an In Bruges style finale is impossible without wire cutters ;D). If you are claustrophobic, note there are 366 narrow steps to reach that view, though there are also several landings where you can pause to catch your breath. I’d suggest climbing up towards the end of the day, between 16:00 and 17:00, as that marks the last time you can enter. You can therefore be sure you won’t meet anybody coming on the way up as you make you way back down the cramped spiral staircase. You’ll also want to steel yourself if you’re heading up the Sint-Jansmolen windmill, another site on the Musea Card. That isn’t especially high, but it’s quite steep with no handrail, so not one for those who don’t like heights.
The Arentshuis has a few interesting sketches upstairs by Frank Brangwyn, a follower of William Morris who was also a dab hand at designing patterns for chairs. He is best known for his propaganda posters during the First World War for Britain, where he spent most of his life after being born in Bruges. Downstairs hosts rotating exhibitions from the nearby Groeningemusem, which was a selection of prints during my visit. That included several from Goya, Bruegel and Hogarth, among several other recognisable names.
I doubt I would have gone if it hadn’t been part of the Musea Card, but it was suitably diverting. The same was true of the O.L.V Kerk, full of anonymous paintings. It is more exciting if you’re religious, as there are two ‘miraculous’ pilgrimage sites inside. Firstly is the statue after which the church is named, allegedly the source of various miracles. There is also the last resting place of a local saint, whose body supposedly showed no signs of decay or stench, despite lying inside a lead coffin for a few centuries.
It was then back to Brussels for my gf to head home, while I set off for my second visit to Leuven. Unlike last time, I wouldn’t be staying on my own. I also would be going to the full camp, rather than just one day. For 2016, three other people from Artemis BJJ were taking part: Simon, Oscar and Ben. We were booked into the Condo Gardens (thanks to Oscar's organisational skills), a short walk from the Sportoase that was hosting the camp itself. With my sense of direction it took me a while to work out the route, but once I had, it was a mere ten minutes or so door-to-door. Condo Gardens has an excellent location and it was cool how many other Globetrotters were staying there, but I got very little sleep (due to a combination of fiddling around on the internet too much and the light from the window hitting me directly in the face every morning).
The range of different teaching styles was fascinating. Some instructors took the opportunity to think through a technique with one or more follow ups, like a BJJ lecture. Others went for short chunks, breaking down a move into sections. Still others took a more conceptual approach, laying out their main principles, then following with multiple drills. My preference is the second of those, as I am easily confused if there is too much information, but all pedagogic approaches have their place. I guess the first option is essentially offering you the chance to pick out the details you need, especially if you’re a more advanced practitioner. I'll be writing up every class here, though it will take me a while to get fully up to date. Fortunately I took videos of everything I attended, a useful memory aid.
I also took three private lessons. I hadn't intended to do any before going to the camp, but then David 'Morcegao' George mentioned during his group class that he was offering private lessons for a mere €40 between two people. That was too good a deal for me to miss. After that, it meant that I started looking at group classes differently. During Kenny Polmans' class on side control, I wanted to go into more detail, so I asked him what his prices for privates were too. As that price was extremely affordable, I booked a private lesson with him too. Finally, the Nathan Adamson class on pressure passing was so good that I wanted to grab him for a private as well, my last class of the camp on Saturday.
It wasn't all training. Although it isn't Bruges, Leuven was still a centre for art during the Northern Renaissance, most famously in the form of Dieric Bouts. A number of fine altarpieces by him can be found in the Sint-Pieterskerk Schatkamer (St Peter's Church Treasury), in the centre of town by Oude Markt. It was much better than I expected. Along with the famous work by Bouts, there was quite a lot of other good quality 16th century Flemish art, as well as 18th century Rubenesque painter and Leuven local, Pieter-Joseph Verhaghen. My favourite was an anonymous 16th century 'Fall Of The Rebel Angels'. I find that the best Catholic art is invariably when it gets infernal. ;)
The audio guide was good too, filling in lots of detail on the various treasures owned by the church. Though the altarpieces were the highlights, you could also examine statues, sculptures, bas relief and the like, all for less than €6 (for both entrance and the audio guide). The guide is unusual in that you don't key in numbers. Instead, you hover the audioguide itself near little red boxes until you hear a beep, then the relevant narrative starts up in your headphones (if you have headphones: those aren't supplied, but you can listen to the speaker on the audioguide too. I much prefer headphones and had some with me).
There is a combined ticket that will cover you for all the sites in Leuven (similar to the ticket we got in Bruges), but I knew that I would only have time to see two. I therefore just got the combined ticket for St Peter's and the M Museum, which was €16 (including audio guides for both).
I wasn't sure what to expect from the M Museum Leuven, but I'm very glad I went: it was excellent. I'd suggest you need 2 to 3 hours for this eclectic, high quality collection, which also has a good audio guide. In the top left of my Instagram post (above) is another cool 16th century altarpiece. Next to that, you're looking at Isala Van Dienst, on the right of her sister. Her father Pierre Joseph Van Dienst was Leuven's municipal surgeon and an early feminist. He wanted his daughters to have the same opportunities as his son. Hence why in 1879, Isala graduated with a medical degree from Bern (it would be 1920 until Leuven accepted female students).
In 1884 she forced the authorities to let her practice as a doctor, thanks to a royal decree. She campaigned for women's rights, did a lot of work to prevent the exploitation of prostitutes (I think?) and the first ever female doctor in Belgium. Isala Van Dienst sounds like an impressive woman! The bottom left is apparently called 'The Kiss' (Dutch is a bit like German, so I understood some of the captions). However, I think it looks more like she is going to do an effortless takedown on some guy who's been bothering her. ;)
Finally, the bottom right is part of a massive alabaster altarpiece. The M Museum has a broad range of art, as well as sculpture. If you're in Leuven, I'd highly recommend it. I will most likely be back next year. It's a shame they don't have much in the way of English guidebooks, but that often happens with smaller museums (or even larger ones: I had that problem at the Prado last year). Perhaps a sign I should get in touch with my Belgian roots and learn Flemish? ;)
This was the perfect trip for me. I got to spend time with my girlfriend in a beautiful city, explore loads of magnificent Flemish art from the 15th and 16th centuries, train as much BJJ as I could want and make tonnes of new BJJ friends from across the world. If you have the chance to go a BJJ Globetrotters Camp, jump on it. For the price of a few seminars, you get six full days of training with a broad variety of instructors, including some extremely experienced teachers like Chris Haueter.
Socially, it feels like that first glorious week of university, when everything is still fresh. Everybody has similar goals in common, everybody is actively looking to make contacts and there is a potent sense of community. On top of all that, you get to learn awesome techniques, with easy access to as many black belts as you could want, offered private lessons at reduced rates. For a mere €199, you'd be crazy not to book Leuven next year. I'm planning to go again in 2017, as well as the US and hopefully a Germany camp too (once Christian gets that sorted). See you there! :D