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Entries in festival (19)


The annual pumpkin carving

Yes, Hayden also chose this year's theme.


Hanswijk Cavalcade, Mechelen 

This was the highlight:

So, yeah, there is a reason why it is only held once every 25 years...


White-face Santa

Sitting in a pub drinking a beer, my bartender asks where I am from, and after I reply he says, "Today is a special day for you!". In honest mystification I ask why and he says, "It is Christmas Day. I am a good Muslim man, but I like to wish everyone a happy day on their special days". When I reply that all days are special and I hope he is happy on each of them he gives me an awkward high-five (as all high-fives invariably are), and I go back to my beer.

Actually, while I'd forgotten it was Christmas and the rest of Tunisia doesn't care, our hotel made a bit of an effort. In Belgium, the tradition of people dressing up in black-face to mimick Black Pete mystifies me with their cluelessness. In Tunisia, Hayden sat on the knee of the inverse of black-face Pete - white-face Santa:

While Hayden hates sitting on Santa's lap whether it is in Belgium or Tunisia, he'll do just about anything for gingerbread. I guess that is the way you convince children to like Christmas, since their first exposure seems to invariably be fear.


Praalstoet van de Gouden Boom

The Pageant of the Golden Tree, Brugge, a festival held every year based on the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468.

A sneak peek into the wicker structure worn by the actors carrying the Giant.

It appears that Flemings don't like Giants, killing them seems to be a pretty consistent theme in these parades

Lydia's favourite part of the parade


Because that is what Geraardsbergeners do

Last Sunday we spent the day in Geraardsbergen, a small city in the Flemish Ardennes, to see the Krakelingen and Tonnekensbrand festival. This is an ancient Flemish tradition, or as I would call it "throwing 10,000 bagels at a crowd and then setting something on fire".

It is quite a pretty little town in places, and famous not only for their bagel throwing but also for their claim to have the original Manneken Pis.

We were fortunate enough to have a spot in a cafe along the parade route, so I could drink a few Leffes while watching a parade based on eating and drinking throughout the ages (there is always a theme, a few years ago it was cigars throughout the ages, and before that organ manufacturing throughout the ages, which must have been a real thrill).

But the taste parade was really just an entrée to the main event, and we all rushed up the hill as soon as it was over. This is where the real tradition started, with the town council dressing up in the best "Lord of the Rings" outfits and drinking live fish out of a silver chalice.

Drinking live fish has become somewhat controversal over recent years, but they haven't the point of banning it like they did with throwing cats off a tower in Ypres. Then the town council threw 10,000 bagels into a crowd, who moshed to catch that one bagel which had a scroll inside, granting the bearer the Golden Bagel.

Finally, they lit some stuff on fire, and retired to the bar.

Why? Well I'm told that the town was seiged in 1381 and as the townsfolk starved they decided to throw all their herring and bagels at the enemy, to make them think that they had plenty left. That sounds like one of the stupidest plans possible, so instead I'll put it down to that is what Geraardsbergeners do.


The Hanswijkprocessie of Mechelen

Each time we catch the train between Brussels and Antwerp the tower of Sint Romboutskathedraal, the beacon that marks the halfway point between the two cities, reminds us of our need to visit Mechelen. The Cathedral itself was built around 1200, but construction of the tower started later, in 1452, when Mechelen had become the capital of the Austrian Netherlands. By hosting the Royal Court, Mechelen became one of the most important cities in the region, and many of the major buildings in Mechelen date from this period. When Margaret of Austria, Archduchess of the Netherlands, died in 1530 (from gangrene of the foot), the court moved to Brussels and the economy of Mechelen collapsed (Margaret's entrails were buried in Mechelen and her heart in Bruges in the odd "veneration by dismemberment" style of Christians). The tower of Sint Romboutskathedraal, like many other buildings, was left incomplete, with the spire once designed to be the tallest in the world cut off at a third of its intended height.

This weekend the Hanswijkprocessie was an excellent excuse for us to finally visit. We arrived on Saturday to spend a day exploring the streets and canals of the city and a night relaxing in a converted Church. Martin's Patershof was built as a Franciscan Church, Our Lady of the Angles, in 1867, but was deconscecrated in 1999 to be converted into a hotel. I love it any time a church is turned into something useful, and they really did an amazing job in integrating the modern hotel design into the Church architecture. After two weeks of having our home disrupted by builders, it was lovely to have a luxury get-away for the weekend.

With the glorious weather of our Belgian Spring, we spent much of our Mechelen weekend enjoying drinks in Den Beer, overlooking the Groot Markt. In the 16th century an inn on this site was called "Den Engel" ("the Angle"). One day when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Kaiser Karel) was visiting Mechelen he tried to enter the inn while still filthy from his military campaign. The innkeeper refused to let him in while in his state, with Charles V retorting that the inn was hardly "angelic" as it was. Finally a passing solider, horrified, told the innkeeper that the customer was Charles V. The Emperor's anonymity dissipated, he proclaimed to the innkeeper that from that day forth she was no longer be able to call her inn "Den Engel", and must refer to it as "Den Beer" ("the Bear"), which I am sure was very witty in 16th century Belgium. 

My beer of choice at Den Beer was the Maneblusser. As well as being a very nice beer, Maneblusser is the nickname for people from Mechelen. It dates back to a cloudy night in 1687, when lances of moonlight through the clouds made the tower of Sint Romboutskathedraal look like it was on fire. The townsfolk gathered to try to put out the blaze, and ever since have been gently mocked by their neighbours as "Maneblussers", ie "Moon extinguishers". Today the tower was occupied by an expert carillonneur (probably trained in the Royal Carillon School, located in Mechelen), who rang out charming melodies over the city.

Our Sunday in Mechelen was spent at the Hanswijkprocessie. The Hanswijkprocessie is said to be the oldest procession in Belgium, with a parade through the city on the Sunday before Ascension Day every year since 1272. The foundation myth of the event dates back even further, to 988, when a ship carrying merchandise down the River Dijle ran aground. The crew tried to get the vessel back into the river but was unable to until a statue of Mary was unloaded, which was deemed a message from God that the statue should remain where it was unloaded.

I can imagine the scene easily:

Crew: We are sorry Captain, but the ship is stuck fast in this mudbank and we cannot get it back into the water.

Captain: Well then you scum, unload all these very heavy items, push the ship back into the water, and then carry the very heavy items back through the mud banks and load them onto the ship again.

[ten hours of back-breaking labour]

Crew: Captain, we have unloaded the ship and pushed it back into the river.

Captain: Well reload the ship, scum! Another four or five hours of hard labour should get us back on course.

Crew: Ah... I think the statue likes it here... maybe we could just leave it? It must be... ah... a sign from God that... that Mary wants her statue to be here. Yeah, a sign from God... so we can leave it, right?

So now, every year, the people of Mechelen act out events from the founding of the cult of Our Lady of Hanswijk, together with miscellaneous scenes from the Bible, such as the one below which our program assures us is Mary Magdalene announcing the resurrection of Jesus. Until today I had been blissfully unaware that Carmen Miranda drew her headwear inspiration from the Bible:

Oddly enough, every time one of the floats stopped next to us we could smell a strong waft of smoked bacon. I guess the floats had been stored in a bacon warehouse or something.

A flock of sheep herded by a sheepdog are an obligatory part of every Belgian Ommengang, yet remain Lydia's firm favourite.

And with the arrival of Our Lady of Hanswijk the parade is complete and our sunny weekend in Mechelen at a close.


Winter holidays in Belgium

The winter celebrations are a prolonged affair in Belgium. They start in earnest on the eve of December 5th when Santa and his black slave bring presents to the good little children and abduct the bad ones, putting them in a sack, beating them and taking them off to Spain. Then there are the winter markets, which run until the start of January. Christmas is still on December 25th, but this time Santa is from the North Pole, not Spain. Finally January 6th is Three Kings Day.

Actually the thing about Santa and his black slave is quite complicated. Originally Saint Nicholas day (December 6th) was celebrated by Sinterklass (St Nicolaas), dressed as a Bishop, conquering a devil (Zwarte Piet) and forcing him to help him for a day. As the patron saint of children (and pawnbrokers), Sinterklass would put presents in the shoes of good children and would indeed abduct and beat the bad children, taking them back to his native Spain.

Later on, when it became less acceptable for Saints to beat children, Zwarte Piet took on the punisher role, and evolved from a black devil to a black slave from the Spanish Moors or Africans. Nowdays the whole myth has been considerably improved, with Zwarte Piet being more mischievous than mean-spirited, and variously described as an ex-slave freed by Sinterklass and now working as his (unpaid) servant, or just as a regular servant made black from chimney soot. Sinterklass is really a small children's thing, being largely ignored by families with young kids.

Christmas Day is quite different. For one it is a whole family affair, fairly close to the large get together and feasting in Anglo cultures. Small children never used to get gifts on Christmas (they got theirs on Sinterklass), but now it seems that most children get presents on both.

Belgium also appears to have reimported the modified Sinterklass created in America from the Dutch original. Quite confusingly to little children, Sinterklass and Santa Claus are kind of the same but also kind of different. Sinterklass wears the traditional bishop's outfit while Santa Claus wears the Anglo Santa suit, but both are in red and white with the large white beard (a legacy of the most effective publicity campaign ever by Coke). Sinterklass comes from Spain while Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, but both deliver presents to children down the chimney. Different families resolve this conflicts in different ways - for some they are two distinct people (convergent evolution?), for others they are the same individual playing different roles, for still more one is the real deal while the other is fake (I'd love to hear a parent trying to explain that Sinterklass is real, but that guy dressed up as Santa is just a gimmick and Christmas presents are from the family).

Finally the end of the winter holidays on the 6th of January presents a split between the Walloons and Flemish. The Walloons call the day Galette des Rois and celebrate it by baking a porcelain figurine of baby jesus into a cake. The person who gets the king in their slice becomes "king" for a day. The Flemish, by contrast, call it Drie Koningen, and children on this day go around in groups of three singing songs and collecting sweets.

Despite the fascinating winter festivals of Belgium, right now we are packing to fly south for the winter. The geese know what they are doing, it is cold. -10 degrees yesterday. The snow storm today was fantastic, but I hope the tarmac is clear for tomorrow...


Aachen Christmas Markets

We had a wonderful day exploring the Aachen Christmas Markets. To Lydia's joy, Aachen is Gingerbread City, with "Printen" (a biscuit like gingerbread originally imported from Dinant, but made sweeter and softer with recipes kept secret by every Aachen bakery) being sold everywhere and giant Gingerbread Men welcoming guests at the market gates. We sampled many different types of printen all day, bringing back a selection of our favourites, including the very last Reindeer Printen which Lydia declared to be the best example of gingerbread art she has ever seen.

Apart from the markets, we also explored the Aachen Town Hall. The town hall was built on the ruins of Charlemagne's palace in 1350. At the time it was called one of the "greatest and boldest achievements in secular architecture" and became a model for Flemish town halls in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent. The art inside was quite interesting, my favourite was a painting of John Montagu (1718-1792), third Earl of Sandwich, who was in Aachen as an envoy to the end of the Austrian War of Succession in 1748 but is better known for inventing the sandwich.


Facing the Town Hall is the Aachen Cathedral, the oldest in northern Europe having been started by Charlemagne in 792. The history of the Cathedral is so important that it was one of the original 12 places to be listed by UNESCO as world heritage sites, and one of only three in Europe (the other two were Krakow and the Wieliczka salt mines).

Finally, we visited the Couven Museum, a display of furniture and decor from the 18th and 19th century, including several rooms of very badly drawn Dutch tiles. To top everything off, the trains between Aachen and Brussels have just been upgraded from express to super-express, so it was only one hour from door to door.


Cologne Christmas markets

We had a wonderful weekend exploring the Christmas markets of Cologne and Aachen. Cologne is famous for its Christmas markets - it now has seven markets and two million visitors explore them every year. We spent the day shopping and grazing out way across the markets with Ellie. The first stop was the Cathedral Markets, under the soot encrusted towering peaks of the grand Dom. Hot chocolate and garlic bread fueled our walk to the Alter Markt, a themed market decorated with gnomes. It is so wonderful to  see crowds of people mingling and enjoying being outside in the cold, warmed only by thick coats and mulled wine. Winter could be such a dour time in Europe, instead there is laughter and joy. The cold keeps the ice skating rinks open and the dark just allows artificial stars to twinkle in the sky.

The next port of call were the Floating Markets, held on riverboats docked on the Rhine, where Lydia found a new scarf and gloves, including her latest toy the twinned glove for holding hands in the cold. The boat next to the markets was flying the Swiss flag, which made me wonder whether the boat owner was Swiss, or whether the Swiss flag was being used in solidarity for anti-Muslim intolerance. I wonder how the Swiss would feel about people attaching such a dual meaning to their flag? From the Floating Markets we ventured to the Medieval Christmas Market, where we drank Vikings Blood and played mouse roulette.

After Ellie had to return to Brussels we wandered through the markets a bit longer, and Lydia spoiled me rotten by buying me a new camera - the smooth and crystal clear Canon Eos 50. Hopefully the photos do the camera justice. We finished up the night with train to Aachen and a relaxing Sauna in our hotel room, the most relaxing end to a peaceful day.


The Citadel of Dinant and a very French pie-eating competition

We decided to take Lina out for the day to the small town of Dinant. A tiny town in the French part of Belgium, Dinant is famous for its Citadel, hanging high above the town on the cliffs, and for being the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. The site has such good natural defences that Dinant has existed since 800 BCE and there has been a major fortress above the town since 1040 CE. The Citadel has been destroyed multiple times since then, by Charles the Bold in 1466, by Louis XIV in 1675 and in 1818 by the Dutch. The current Citadel was rebuilt by the Dutch in 1821. The Citadel itself is fairly plain, the highlight was actually catching the cable-car up to the top to have a view over the beautiful little town. Nicer than the Citadel is the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame, built in 1227 and reaching up to nearly the base of the Citadel with its beautiful spire.

Our plan was just to come along to Dinant, see the Citadel and the statue of a saxophone and perhaps try the local biscuit couque (the hardest biscuit in Europe, which is moulded into interesting scenes before being baked. It is so hard that the bakeries just nailed examples of their biscuits onto the wall with regular nails to display them). Instead, by chance we had arrived on "Chapitre du Tournoi", a local festival.

We were happily sitting down to pizza when a giant puppet walked over the bridge into town. "Ahuh", we thought, "a Walloon festival!" Sure enough, another giant puppet and a giant horse came into town, parades started up and people were milling around wearing elaborate costumes. Best of all was the flamiche eating competition, which is a type of rich cream cheese quiche unique to the region. A fascinating event, it proved beyond a doubt why there will never be a European champion for a food eating competition. The record (not reached this year) for pie-eating was 14 in 45 minutes. I thought that was actually pretty impressive, but once the tournament began I saw that they actually meant 14 slices. I couldn't help laughing when the waiters, wearing white gloves, brought out the slices of pie to each contestant, who then casually picked up a knife and fork and started to slowly savour the rich pie. And of course a glass of vintage burgundy was served to each contestant, the traditional accompaniment to flaminche. The eaters slowly ate their pie, sipped the wine, chatted to each other and generally had a nice time. Most retired from the competition about halfway through, having only made it through two or three slices. The winner made it to around ten slices, which is really only one largish quiche. I just don't think Europeans have it in them to gorge and shove as much food as possible into their throats without vomiting (or tasting, for that matter).