Flanders

Brugge, Belgium: Volkskundemuseum (Folklore Museum)…(and some random cool things!)

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On our last morning in Brugge, the sun finally made an appearance, and I had no particular agenda other than going for a wander and cramming as many frites in my mouth as humanly possible whilst still in Belgium.  After a lengthy stroll through the Sunday antiques market (of which more later), my boyfriend and I decided to check out the Folklore Museum because it had a resident cat (as good a reason as any, and it was also significantly cheaper than the Historium (probably the only time you’ll ever see me declining to visit a museum with authentic smells) Side note within a side note, in Dutch, historian is historicus, which I think is awesome).

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The Volkskundemuseum is a good fifteen minute walk along the canal from the main tourist area, in a residential part of town, so it’s a little tricky to find without the aid of a map.  It is housed within a long row of 17th century cottages along one of the ankle-destroying cobblestone streets so commonplace in Brugge, and is part of the Musea Brugge group, so admission is free if you have a Brugge City Card.  Otherwise, it is a reasonable 4 euros.

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I think the term “folklore museum” is slightly misleading, as when I think of folklore, I picture trolls, or ogres, or Baba Yaga, you know, fairytale stuff, not handicrafts.  Folk or Craft Museum would probably be a more apt description of the contents.  The collection is divided up into about 20 rooms, each devoted to a different trade.  The signs are all in Flemish, but there are free English guidebooks at the front desk that at least give an overview of what’s going on in each room.

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We found the cat (he’s called Aristide after Aristide Bruant, singer of Le Chat Noir) fairly early on, as he kept wandering in and out of the first few rooms, and he permitted a small amount of petting before disappearing for good.  The very first room was a schoolroom, and we progressed through trades including cobbler, cooper, and storekeeper.  Every room had a waxen tradesman in it, and was set up to resemble the workspace or shop each man would have worked in. In addition, there were a few bonus objects in glass cases, including some religious artefacts, and a shoe collection.

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According to our guidebooks, the final room of the first section was supposed to be a tobacconist, but instead contained a curious mishmash of carnival rides and games.  As there was no English signage, I’m not entirely sure what happened there, but it did seem out of place next to the rest of the museum.

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We then passed through a courtyard, and re-entered the museum through a working pub, Zwarte Katze (the Black Cat).  Well, working in the sense that they sold drinks and food, but no alcohol.  As the place was totally deserted when we there, it would have been awkward to stop and demand service.  There was a room above the tavern done up like the publican’s family bedroom, with a rather impressive collection of chamberpots. I guess everyone must have had their own.  Hygienic that way, at least.

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Back downstairs, we stepped into the delightful premises of the local candymaker, and his fine collection of candy moulds.  Sadly, there was no actual candy for sale, except back at the empty pub. Fortunately, I can do without boiled sweets when scrumptious Belgian chocolate beckons from every other shop back in town (and those gummi grapefruit slices I’m quite partial to.  I don’t know why they don’t sell them in the UK).

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The candymaker wasn’t the only one of my favourite tradesmen represented, as there was also an apothecary, armed with his splendid jars (and a comical mustache).  Finally, the craftspeople were rounded out with a hatter and tailor, the latter of whom was listening to popular songs of the ’40s on his radio when we walked in. (I say “listening,” but obviously he was an inanimate wax figure.  I’m not like that weirdo who gets it on with Kim Cattrall in that awful Mannequin film).

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There was a final exhibition on lace held in an upstairs gallery, which I found rather engrossing, as it touched on working conditions in addition to the lace-making process, with a variety of bobbins, and of course, lacework on display.  Of all the crafts represented in the museum, this was the only one that would have been traditionally done by women, often under unpleasant conditions.

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The hallway leading towards the exit featured a sampling of traditional business signs, including an oversized cigar and glasses, and a strange carrot shaped object that I think was also used to advertise a cigar-maker (or was it a barber?  I didn’t get a picture, and now I can’t remember). Anyway, the Volkskundemuseum offered an overview of a good cross-section of traditional Belgian trades (and mannequins!) but didn’t really provide more than something to look at, as the cat was the only interactive thing inside!  I think it was ultimately a better way to pass an afternoon than fighting through crowds at the larger tourist attractions, as we had the place virtually to ourselves, but it would have been nice if it had gone beyond being a mere arrangement of life-size dioramas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  3/5

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Now, I’d be remiss in ending this post without mentioning some of the highlights of Brugge, so here we go.  As I mentioned at the start, Brugge hosts a massive antiques market on Sundays that encompasses most of the city, and a large park near the train station (good luck navigating your suitcases through!).  Being Belgian, and therefore wonderfully quirky, this is no humdrum antiques market; instead, it is the finest collection of extraordinary crap I’ve ever seen!  Above, we have a head that bears a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart hanging out next to a Christ Child and some random paintings.  And if there’s another thing that I love that was to be found in even greater abundance than mannequin heads, it was terrible taxidermy.  Yes, that is a gun-toting rabbit you see above, surrounded by other furry friends.  You have no idea how badly I wanted to buy him, but my boyfriend claimed I wouldn’t allowed to take it through British Customs (I still have to check on that, because I am hightailing it back to this market to stock up on home decor if EU taxidermy is permissible.  So there!)

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The derpiest fox of the many, many derpy foxes.

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This clown manages to be sad and evil simultaneously.

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If that portrait in the back is of Napoleon, I NEED to have it.

Another amazingly strange feature of Belgium is the wide variety of vending machines available, which is kind of perfect for someone who dreads human interaction as much as I do.  Below, we have bread and strawberry vending machines.  I mean, really, can a country be any more perfect?

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And finally, I’ll close this monster post by mentioning the frituur and gelateria that sustained me through much of my stay in Brugge (ok, actually I ate at them both every day I was there). Da Vinci gelato was amazing and creamy, and fairly inexpensive too, as Continental ice cream tends to be (stupid London prices), and ‘T Brugsch Friethuys delivered perfect crispy golden brown friten every time, (much better than the ones from the famous frituur stands in front of the church) served up by an adorable mustachioed old man, who told us to enjoy them with the sincerity that comes from taking pride in one’s craft.  Both are on Geldmuntstraat, which is one of the roads coming off the main Market Square. So really, what are you waiting for?  Get yourself to Brugge!

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Oostdunkerke, Belgium: NAVIGO-National Fisheries Museum

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I mentioned a few posts back that I still had a few places to write about from my Belgium trip, and this is one of them: The National Fisheries Museum.  In addition to keeping with my recent seaside theme, this is the second fishing heritage centre I’ve visited in the past month.  We arrived in Oostdunkerke in the late afternoon on the day of the annual Shrimp Festival, having spent the rest of the afternoon at the Dr. Guislain Museum, and missing the parade as a result (which is kind of a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing the Shrimp Queen receive her crown).  Fortunately, the National Fisheries Museum (Nationaal Visserijmuseum) was open until 6, and the giant shrimp statue and fisherman shrubbery in the centre of town weren’t going anywhere either.

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As far as I can make out, the National Fisheries Museum is based in Oostdunkerke due to their traditional method of shrimp-fishing on horseback, which was once commonly used all over the Belgian coast (and in England as well), but is now only in Oostdunkerke.  I was a bit confused as to how this actually worked, since we arrived too late in the day for the demonstrations, but I did find this video (for anyone else who is curious).  It appears they drag a net behind the horse, and go much further into the sea than I would have thought, aided by the massive draft horses they use (at least, I think they’re called draft horses.  I’m no Almanzo Wilder!). At any rate, the Oostdunkerkians are clearly proud of their tradition, which is reflected inside the museum.

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Since it was such a small town,  I was slightly worried that the museum wouldn’t have English translations, but as usual, my fears were unwarranted.  Paying the 5 euro admission fee gained us access to one of those ubiquitous Belgian museum turnstiles, which in turn opened up to a courtyard with a traditional fisherman’s hut plunked down in the middle, complete with a waxwork family and low door frames.

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Exiting through the hobbit-sized door at the rear of the hut took us into the museum proper.  There was a specific trail you were meant to follow through the museum, but being me, I ended up going backwards through some of the galleries (which was fine, it just meant the signage didn’t flow chronologically).  The galleries were all quite atmospheric, with the first one decked (ha!) out to resemble the seaside, complete with sand, and maritime paintings hung on the walls.

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The upstairs told the story of Belgian fisherman who fished in Icelandic waters, which was obviously chock-full of harrowing experiences, but I probably enjoyed the small display on superstitions the most (for reference, see the sea monster above), as well as the replica helm.

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Progressing through the museum, we entered a sort of harbour/ship-building area that had authentic dim lighting, but was sadly sans authentic smells.  Ah well, not everyone places as high of a priority on smelling foul odours as I do.

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The last room on the main floor was dominated by a ship called the Martha (an unsatisfying name if you ask me; if I had a boat it would be called something along the lines of the Salty Seaman), which was evidently caught in the middle of a storm (cue neat thunder and lightning effects every few minutes).  There was a computer set up in one corner where you could tap out a message in Morse code, and email it to your friends (obviously, being incredibly immature, I sent a message including the words “fart” and “poo”).  The Morse code thing was in addition to the number of interactive screens throughout the museum, including ones where you could try identifying different types of fish, and another that even offered seafood recipes (stewed dogfish, anyone?).

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In addition, there was an impressive display of fisherman’s clogs and other fishing related paraphernalia.  Above this gallery was one devoted to the actual eating of fish, with a mock fishmonger’s stall, and some vintage posters used to advertise fish.  It’s nice that they included it, because it’s quite easy to get swept away with the dramatic seafaring tales, and forget that the whole point of the fishing industry is catching, you know, food.  (Ironically, I don’t even like fish, and I have an actual phobia of crabs and lobsters and things, so I wouldn’t be caught dead at a seafood restaurant anyway, but that’s another story).

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The final section of the museum was downstairs, and had several large aquariums set up in the middle.  This area was clearly aimed at children, but there were only a couple gross crabs to avoid looking at, so I could enjoy it too, for the most part. The shrimp stained glass window was pretty cool, and I even thought the little stingray and crab mascots were cute, at least until I realised that the one was indeed a stingray, and not a kite.  (He does look very much like a kite though, doesn’t he?)

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Despite the focus on crustaceans, and the lack of authentic smells, I think I liked the National Fisheries Museum better than the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth.  The information was well-presented, the museum was devoted to recreating the feeling of being at sea, rather than in a odoriferous processing plant (which undeniably made it a more pleasant environment), it had a better overall flow, and the aquariums were a nice touch.  Also, I had a very delicious waffle down by the seaside, which certainly didn’t hurt matters, so 4/5. However, I am irked that I didn’t get to see “Zeerotica,” which I’ve only just discovered via their website, especially after reading the description: “It is an invitation to an intimate journey through nature, culture and the daily life of coastal residents, all dipped in a spicy erotic sauce.” We visited the week after this exhibition started, but no one mentioned it to us, unless it was the special exhibition with no English captions that one of the ladies at the desk briefly mentioned.  Had she told us the subject matter, there is no way I would have missed it, whether it was in English or not.  😦

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Gent, Belgium: Dr. Guislain Museum

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Oh, Dr. Guislain.  Not only did you revolutionise psychiatry in Belgium, but you also lent your name to one hell of a museum.  If only you’d looked a bit more like a young Joseph Banks (of Endeavour fame, and my historical crush of the moment.  Seriously, click the link, he was hot!), and a bit less like Benjamin Franklin with more hair and mutton chops crossed with the Quaker Oats guy, I think we could have really had something.  I suppose I’ll have to just content myself with your superb museum.

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I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of Gent (other than it was a cloth-making town, which I only know courtesy of the Wife of Bath and her “wandering by the way”) as we specifically came for Dr. Guislain, and left afterwards without so much as a friet (don’t worry, I had paprika Hula Hoops in the car).  The museum is located within a working mental hospital housed in an imposing Victorian edifice of masterful brickwork. We found the entrance down a long outdoor corridor that runs next to a courtyard, where some of the patients were enjoying the sunny afternoon.  Admission was a mere 6 euros, which was very fair considering the size of the place.

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When I saw pictures of it online, they were all of one room of the museum, so I imagined it would be quite small, when in fact, it was positively palatial, spread out over two floors on each side of the building.  We began with the contemporary art collection of the Foundation Frances, which was arranged in two huge rooms.  The collection essentially explored man and the body, and as such featured some rather intense pieces dealing with brutality and animalistic tendencies.  I know I bash modern art a lot on here, but this stuff wasn’t bad, save for Tracey Emin’s crappy piece which was literally just some words written on a wall. Oh, and some of her used tampons.  Frankly, I just don’t see her appeal.

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Fortunately, around the corner, I spotted a re-creation of an early psychiatric ward, and the interactive pod pictured above, which is far more my type of thing.  The pod was a prototype of a device that could take a DNA sample, perform a brain scan, and administer medical tests, all whilst you’re comfortably ensconced on a plush leather chair.  Obviously, this one didn’t actually do brain scans or DNA testing, but the chair still tipped back, and you could at least take some reaction time tests in it, so it was nonetheless good fun.  The pod was part of a display on modern medicine which segued back into a mysterious hallway that we weren’t entirely sure we were supposed to be walking down.

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All the lights were off, and the rooms to either side were probably used for some kind of learning activities, but as they were empty, gave off the air of a creepy funhouse.  In one room, we even found some funhouse style mirrors, and another just had a line of sinks and an antique wheelchair.  It was kind of spooky.  At the end of the hallway, there was another art display, this time quite playful, as the art was created by a man with mental disabilities, and made up of different toys arranged together.  I enjoyed it.

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The floor above finally saw us enter Dr. Guislain’s permanent collections on the history of psychiatry.  This not only told the story of the Guislain Hospice and Dr. Guislain himself, but offered a history of the mentally ill going back to medieval times, illustrated throughout with some pretty wonderful (and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously) objects.  For example, pictured above is a collection of chains, and a harness contraption for conveying patients into bed, and below is a dunking chair, and a padded, covered bed, because nothing calms people down like forcibly dunking them into freezing water and then making them sleep in a dark, claustrophobia-inducing bed.

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This section was almost unbelievably massive.  I kept thinking we’d gotten to the end, and lo and behold, there’d be another room awaiting us.  I must have said, “It just keeps going!” about fifty times (almost as much as my other catchphrase, “I need a wee!”  I’m like a five year old sometimes).  The Dr. Guislain collection, in addition to being fascinating, was also surprisingly moving, as it featured pictures of some of the patients, as well as telling their ultimate fate (which was sometimes horrible), and even a few early videos where visibly uncomfortable patients were made to demonstrate their conditions before a crowd of onlookers.  Dr. Guislain would have been long dead by this point, but regardless, whilst the Guislain Hospice was a big step above chaining people up, conditions here clearly weren’t ideal.

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When we at long last reached the end, we discovered a small radiology collection, and the two fine wax figures shown above.  I can’t even recall who they were meant to be, maybe Dr. Guislain and his wife?  Or Pierre and Marie Curie since it was radiology?  Or maybe even Roentgen and his wife (the one who posed for the famous X-ray of her hand with wedding ring)?  I guess I should really pay more attention to signs, and not be distracted by hilarious wigs.  (Note: consensus is that they’re probably the Curies).

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At any rate, the psychiatry collections were fabulous, and quite informative, and I would have declared myself satisfied if that was all there was to see.  However, there remained another half of the museum to explore across the courtyard.

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This part of the museum was devoted solely to art, encompassing two separate collections.  The first was a special exhibit on the work of Gideon Kiefer, “Science Conceals Madness.”  They were pieces with a real dystopian feel; stylishly attired men and women calmly watching or doing deeply disturbing things, like performing a lobotomy, or selecting a live fetus from a jarred collection.  I liked his style, though I didn’t get any pictures (the ones above are by other artists) of his art.  So, I may have given a somewhat backhanded compliment to modern art above, but Kiefer and the second exhibit of outsider art are going to force me to give a genuine one.  I really, honestly liked this stuff a lot.

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The upper floor, was, as I mentioned, full of outsider art, much of it done by mentally ill artists (which is perhaps why I liked it so much.  It wasn’t trying too hard).  Some of my favourite pieces were by Tim Brown (on left, above), Willem Van Genk (left, below), and Hans Langner (right, below).  Van Genk had an interesting back story; he was a mentally disabled man who was questioned by the Gestapo as a child about the whereabouts of his father (who was in hiding), and forever after had a simultaneous fascination and revulsion towards raincoats, like the ones the Gestapo wore.  Thus, he would often parade around town in one, which made him feel invincible (and aroused), but would wear each one only once. On the other hand, although it didn’t have much background information, Langner’s piece was neat because it was just a room crammed so full of knick-knacks that it felt overwhelming, and slightly creepy.

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I think there was plenty of art for all tastes here, from dioramas, to lawn ornaments taken from an Indian garden, to paintings and beyond.  If I thought it was cool, then I’m sure most other people would enjoy it as well.  The outsider art collection concluded our lengthy tour of Dr. Guislain Museum, save for a stop in the museum shop for a few of their swell (albeit pricy) postcards.

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Well, I may have already given this much away in the introduction to this post, but I loved Dr. Guislain Museum!  It was the perfect combination of medical history, awesome artwork, and the most appropriate setting imaginable for a psychiatry museum.  5/5, and one of the best (if not THE best) places I’ve seen in Belgium, so make the trip if you’re anywhere in Flanders (or even Wallonia, they have French signs in addition to the English and Flemish!).

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Diksmuide, Belgium: IJzer Tower (Ijzertoren)

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As this was the third time I’ve been to Belgium, but I hadn’t yet been to any war-related sites, it was clear this was something I needed to rectify on this trip.  Thus, we planned to spend a day in Ieper (Ypres), but on the way there made a pit-stop in Diksmuide, for a museum I’d read about online.  The Ijzer Tower is located in the outskirts of Diksmuide, along the Yser River.  However, as it is a 22-story building, you can’t miss it.

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The land around the tower looks rather war-torn, which is not entirely due to the trench. The original tower, built shortly after WWI by a group of Flemish veterans, was blown up in 1946, allegedly by rival French-speaking soldiers.  The current tower was built shortly after, and the remains of the original tower were used to build the Pax (Peace) Gate and the central monument, pictured above.  The central cross is surrounded by the graves of Flemish soldiers killed in WWI, giving the site a sombre air.

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Because the museum is currently undergoing construction, the entrance is a bit tricky to find.  There’s a small parking lot in front of the Pax Gate, from which we walked down the street, past a fenced-off industrial area until we found the shop entrance (where we were greeted by a ginger cat waiting for someone to activate the automatic doors so he could slip back inside).  There, we paid the admission fee (7 euros) and exited through the back of the building, where we finally found access to the museum complex via a reconstructed trench next to a field.

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The trench did come complete with authentic smells, though it’s difficult to say whether they were intentional or not.  Diksmuide is famed for its dairy industry, and the trench had a distinct manure odour which could have simply been the by-product of all the cows in the area.  No matter, only a raging case of trenchfoot could have enhanced the authenticity.  From the trench, we proceeded through the small circular cemetery which offered a recording in English explaining the significance of the site and of the soldiers buried there.

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Also outside the tower was a small hut of a type which was given to people whose homes had been destroyed due to the war.  Apparently some people were still living in these huts up until the 1990s.  The inside was done up to resemble a typical post-war interior, complete with wax figures, and I have to say, even though it only had four modest-sized rooms, it was probably bigger than my flat, so I can see why people carried on living in them for so long!  On the other side of the tower, there was a chicken coop with several intimidating roosters, so we hastily made our way into the tower.

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Once inside, we took a lift up to the top floor, and from there, climbed up several flights of stairs to reach the outdoor viewing platform at the top, where we were rewarded with a commanding view of Diksmuide and the surrounding countryside. There were exhibits on almost all of the museum’s floors, so from that point on, we worked our way down via the sometimes narrow staircases (though there did appear to be lift access to most floors).

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The museum was not solely about WWI; rather, it was a museum of Flemish history and independence, with the story of the war told from a Flemish perspective.  I honestly never knew that there was so much serious conflict between Flanders and the Walloon region, and I found the exhibits absorbing.  Almost everything had an English translation, so despite the Flemish bent of the material, we had no trouble understanding anything.

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Of course, had the museum only consisted of signage, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did.  Fortunately, every floor had a set of footprints on the ground, beckoning you to have a peek around the corner.  You’d be well-advised to do so, because that’s where the IJzer Tower hid its real gems.  The upper floors had re-created trenches (this time without the smells) with sound effects, so I spent most of the time pretending to duck and cover.  Even more frightening was the atomic bomb room in the WWII section, which featured strobe lights and and a huge explosion that only activated after you went too far inside to avoid it.

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I’m sure you all know by now that if there’s one thing I love as much as authentic smells, it is hilarious wax figures.  The gent shown above wins the award, hands down, for the best mannequin I have ever seen, anywhere.  Not only is he disturbingly cheerful for someone in a war zone, but his face looks as though it was painted by someone who had never seen a human, except for perhaps Michael Jackson.  I truly hope they don’t get rid of him in the renovation, as looking at his picture still makes my day.

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As we worked our way down through the museum levels, into more recent times, the displays did get slightly less enticing.  Try as I might, I found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm for modern Belgian politics.  In fact, there was a group of older people slightly ahead of us in the museum who abruptly disappeared, so I think even they must have gotten bored.  However, I urge you to persevere, as some of the best parts of the museum were on the lower levels.

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One of the main things that persuaded me to visit the IJzer Tower was reading online that they had an area where you could smell various poison gasses.  Indeed they did!  From a sort of urinal-shaped trough, the aromas of mustard and chlorine gasses wafted up.  Chlorine just smelled like bathroom cleaner (which is probably what they used to replicate it) but mustard gas was foul.  Not that you’d actually have time to analyse the nuances of the scent if you were caught in a gas attack, but still.  That little fellow on the right is either a flea or lice (it wasn’t clear which), and was surprisingly cute, in an ugly sort of way.  They also had some giant rats.

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One of my favourite sections was on the 2nd or 3rd floor, and was a recreation of an extensive British trench system that had been rediscovered in the 1990s.  It actually spanned several floors, right down to a poorly lit set of stairs with a rope handrail.  I nervously tiptoed through this area, as I was scared that there would be a sudden mock explosion at some point (like the atomic bomb earlier on), but thankfully that never happened, so feel free to enjoy the various dioramas in peace.  Well, in wartime, actually, as that’s the whole point, but you know what I mean.

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The 1st floor appeared to be under construction, as most of it was filled up with building materials.  There was a small shop on the ground floor, along with what I think were the only toilets in the building (so go when you first arrive, or you’ll be holding it for a while!).  Leaving the tower, we took another look around the graves, and exited through the turnstile at the bottom of Pax Gate.

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Although I’ve been a bit glib throughout, as is my nature, much of the museum was quite poignant, particularly the cemetery and the ruins of the first tower.  The ultimate message of the IJzer Tower is the price of war, and the need for peace.  It was also moving to read about the struggles of the Flemish people against a French-dominated government, and fascinating to have a different perspective on WWI, when all we usually hear about is the experience of the British or Americans, and not the people who were actually living inside a war zone.  I highly recommend the IJzer Tower if you’re visiting Belgium – the country isn’t all that large, so it’s within a two hour drive of almost any city, and only about a half hour outside of Brugge.  4/5.

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Brugge, Belgium: The Friet Museum and Choco-Story

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Apologies for the brief hiatus. As you can see, I was in Belgium for a few days, followed by a few more days without internet access thanks to an “upgrade” by Virgin. Fortunately, Belgium has provided me with a wealth of new places to post about in the coming weeks! Belgium is justifiably famous for many of its foodstuffs, among them frites and chocolate. In fact, Belgians are so keen on the latter two that they’ve devoted entire museums to them. There are quite a few chocolate themed museums in Belgium, but as far as I can tell, only one frites museum, located in lovely, quirky Brugge.

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My visit to the Friet Museum didn’t get off to the best start, as the woman at the admissions desk was at best distracted, or perhaps outright rude. She was jabbering on the phone when we walked in, and carried on talking for a good ten minutes, despite the fact that there was a small queue forming. If I wasn’t so intent on seeing the museum for blogging purposes, I probably would have walked out. When she finally got off the phone, she then began joking around with a coworker in Flemish, rather than helping customers. However, she finally deigned to sell us tickets, which we scanned on the turnstile for admission. I found this odd Tube-like feature at most of the museums in Belgium – I guess they really want to discourage free-loaders!

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The mascots of the Friet Museum, who were featured on colourful cartoons throughout, were a fry named Fiona, and Peter Potato. Signage was in Flemish, French, and English, which was handy, as there was quite a lot of it. Honestly, I think the museum did live up to its promise of teaching us all about the history of the potato, and “potato fries,” as the museum referred to them. Most of the lower floor of the museum was solely posters, filled with potato facts. Did you know that potato juice is meant to be an excellent cure for indigestion? Or that the largest potato ever grown weighed over 2 kilos? Fascinating.

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The upper floor was devoted to the history of frites (I’m referring to them by their French name here, even though Brugge is primarily Flemish-speaking, and the proper plural should thus be fritten, because I think frites is the more common term amongst English speakers), and contained more artefacts than the lower level. I suppose there’s a lot more tat associated with frites than with the humble potato. This included a display of frite slicing and frying equipment, and culminated in a large room with a reconstructed frite stand (frituur), designed to mimic the famous stands in the Market Square of Brugge. This last room had a fabulous collection of frites paraphernalia, from postcards to frite forks, and potato flutes to frite-themed artwork. I already knew that Belgian frites are fried in beef fat (which is probably why they’re so delicious), but I was slightly taken aback to learn that the tallow often has a bit of horse fat thrown in. I can’t say it actually put me off eating the frites though; whatever they’re doing, it works!

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There was a small display of photographs of frituur, and an actual frituur in the basement of the museum, from which an enticing smell drifted up into the museum. As I had just eaten a rather large portion of frites before visiting the museum, I (shockingly) didn’t have any there, so I can’t attest to their quality. The shop was quite good though, offering a charming range of Fiona and Peter printed t-shirts, frites aprons, and special personal frites forks. I only wish they had better postcards, like the ones featured in the actual museum.

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As the frites had taken care of lunch, it was time for a bit of pudding, which necessitated a trip to Choco-Story. The Friet Museum and Choco-Story have the same owners, so it’s cheapest to buy a combined pass if you plan to see them both (which we foolishly didn’t do). There’s also another museum which is part of the Choco-Story complex – Lumina Domestica, which is all about the history of lamps. From what I saw of the outside, it looked neat, so it might not be a bad idea to get a pass to all three at once. Anyway, the staff of Choco-Story were slightly friendlier, and they offered free chocolate buttons at the desk, so I had a better initial impression of them. That said, I do think the history of chocolate is more commonly known than that of frites, so the museum wasn’t quite as interesting.

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Like the Friet Museum, Choco-story has a mascot. He was known as Choclala (I think it was a he), and looked like a combination between a rotten tooth and some poo. I don’t think an amorphous blob ostensibly made of chocolate is ever going to be a good look. At any rate, Choclala (I refer to him in my head as Chocolala, as I think it rolls off the tongue better), escorted us through the history of chocolate, beginning with the Aztecs, which meant that we were treated to a delightful Cortes mannequin. It quickly progressed to hot chocolate drinking in Europe, with an accompanying collection of china and chocolate pots.

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The level above that had a room on the ethics and sustainability of chocolate production, of which the most memorable part was a jarred monkey clutching a cocoa bean. More dainty chocolate accessories followed in the next room (chocolate egg-shaped safe, anyone?) along with some superb chocolate moulds.

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On yet another floor, which seemed to be sponsored by a local chocolate company, we learned about Belgian history, which was essentially just the history of the chocolate industry in Belgium. Chocolate and biscuit tins abounded though, and you know how I love a good biscuit tin! One of the signs included the memorable advice that whilst chocolate doesn’t make you fat, if you are overweight, you should probably lose weight before eating it. Priceless.

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We ended our tour with the ground floor, and the chocolate demonstration. Wandering through a room lined with stoical chocolate cats, and other spectacular cocoa-craft led us to a small kitchen set up in the rear of the museum, where a woman showed us how to mould chocolate pralines. The most impressive part was her commentary, which seamlessly switched between Flemish, French, and English. At the end, we were given a tasty chocolate praline, which really made the trip worthwhile (notwithstanding the fact that the 14 euros we spent on admission for the two of us could have bought quite a large box of chocolates from an actual chocolate shop). Speaking of shops, the gift shop sold, as you might expect, a nice range of chocolates, including chocolate buttons from various regions, with differing cocoa contents. However, once again the postcards were kind of lame, so I think they need to step that aspect up a bit.

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I’d give both the Friet Museum and Choco-story 3/5. They were both larger and more informative than I was anticipating, but they did feel oddly commercial, and I felt like they could have done more to make the museums interactive, especially as they’re both relatively new attractions. However, if you’re just looking for an excuse to have some frites and chocolate (though really, you’re in Belgium, how much an excuse do you need?) these museums are a good way to whet your appetite whilst learning something new.

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