Why I will not visit the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

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Every spring, the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken (Serres Royales de Laeken) are open to the public for 3 weeks – the only chance for ordinary folk to admire up close the pioneering architecture of Alphonse Balat, favoured architect of King Leopold II and mentor of one of Europe’s most celebrated Art Nouveau architects, Victor Horta.

The greenhouses are part of the royal palace complex which includes the castle-official residence of the royal family, and the vast lawns and flowerbeds of the Laeken park surrounding the lot.

Built entirely – and innovatively – of metal and glass, the greenhouses are monumental both in beauty and size. And with their extensive collection of exotic flowers and plants, their opening is at an ”unmissable” event for every architecture and plant enthusiast.

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Only, there’s a tiny detail that’s bugging me and seems to go unnoticed; at least, whenever I mention it, nobody seems to mind.

To visit the greenhouses, the royal family introduces a paying ticket of €2,5. A modest fee, granted, making it an excellent value-for-money excursion, but why put a price on it at all?

A fee charged by the family that costs the Belgian state a staggering €36 million (in 2015 figures) yearly endowment. Just king Philippe’s annual endowment reaches €10,5 million whereas his father, the retired king Albert II, still receives €923.000 for his services.

That’s the same state that charges citizens between 25% and 50% income tax depending on their annual earnings, part of which goes to finance said endowment. Taxation in Belgium at national level, is one of the highest in Europe, and that’s beside property tax and municipal tax, collected locally at  municipal level.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room: why impose a paying ticket to those royal subjects who already pay ”royal” fees through taxation?

The justification on the Belgian Monarchy website – in brief:

All proceeds will go to Œuvres de la Reine (a charity assisting the queen in her philanthropic work), and to the restoration and acquisition of works of art to enhance the royal collection. The royal collection belongs to the Belgian state and includes antique furniture, vintage crockery, paintings and other valuable objets d’art, which adorn the Royal Palace. New or restored works of art will be presented to the public during opening times of the Greenhouses and the Royal Palace.

Around 150.000 people manage to squeeze themselves in, within the limited period of 22 days. Counting, say, around 100.000 paying visitors (-18 get in free), the royals may expect to earn, at least, approx. €250.000.

Am I to understand that the queenly charity and restoration of royal art collection (which, whom are we kidding, is basically there to adorn the palace(s) and off-limits to the public 90% of the time), actually need public funding? It is preposterous.

Although, to their credit, someone had the common sense to drop the farce and delete from the 2015 web page the paragraph describing where the proceeds go (but it is still there on previous years’ pages – [in FR/NL]). If only they could also drop the ”symbolic” fee and let the public enjoy this magnificent monument for free – a much more sensible gesture, particularly in our difficult times of socio-economic crisis and painful cuts.

Until then, no visit to the Greenhouses of Laeken for me. After all, there is always the Botanic Garden in Meise; ticket may be slightly more expensive but earnings go to maintenance, research and plant conservation and, anyway, my objection has never been a matter of price. It is a matter of principle. 

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National Botanic Garden of Belgium, Meise

 

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National Botanic Garden of Belgium, Meise

 

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Babies on giant waterlilies at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, Meise

 

Images courtesy of the internet (top two of the Green houses of Laeken, by someone more relaxed about adding to the depth of the already bottomless royal pockets – and, judging by the crowds turning up every year, there are many)…

The Greenhouses of Laeken will remain open between 17/04/201508/05/2015.

The Botanic Garden of Brussels is open year-round.

 

Café Palermo

Along the old waterfront – the promenade closer to the docks – there is a line-up of cafés, eateries and bars, all of them evidently full all of the time, even more so (if that’s possible) with the first warm rays of sunshine that make sitting-in-a-comfy-armchair-on-the-terrace-sipping-coffee-all-day, an idleness most delicious.

I know this sounds exaggerated but Thessalonikians do love their coffee. It is no coincidence that café frappé – instant coffee, shaken in cold water to create a thick foam and drank in a tall glass on the rocks – was invented only a few hundred metres away, at the International Trade Fair of Thessaloniki.

It happened in 1957, when a fellow called Dimitris Vakondios, desperate for a coffee but unable to get hold of hot water, mixed coffee powder with cold water and ice in a shaker and created one of the most popular Greek beverages, the now ”traditional” café frappé – Greek: φραπές.

But to be honest, I love my warm caffè latte, or the occasional iced cappuccino when the temperatures are soaring. And, going against the flow, my favourite spot isn’t among the waterfront cafés, but on the main city square, Plateia Aristotelous – Πλατεία Αριστοτέλους. There, under the arcades and through a wrought iron gate, one leaves the city bustle and heat outside and enters into a quite, shady and cool courtyard with plant pots and wooden and marble tables that belong to Ouzeri Aristotelous, a convivial restaurant in operation since the mid ’80s, with mouth-watering meze and cooked dishes.

And right before the courtyard, through the left or the right door (they are identical twins) and one flight up the twin staircases that meet on the first floor, you will find the jazzy, art-nouveau influenced, stylish cafe Palermo with its rather amazing antiques and vintage items collection. The barista told me that at some point the owner, a dedicated antiques collector, had run out of space and instead of stacking everything in a warehouse, came up with the idea of a café-cum-showroom.

A marvelous idea, wouldn’t you agree?

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Café Palermo
Aristotelous 8, 1st floor
inside the magnificent ”Bosporion Megaron” – Βοσπόριον Μέγαρο, built in 1922 by Jacques Moshé, notable Greek-Jewish Architect of the time.

Shared photo credits (Konstantinos & Lia)

Thessaloniki, 8 – 15 September 2014

The White Tower of Thessaloniki

Beautiful as she may be, Thessaloniki wouldn’t be half as charming without her 5 km long waterfront promenade. This is where the city lives and breathes, works out and cools down, goes for a walk, falls in or out of love, wines and dines, gets inspired, goes fishing and pet walking, argues about politics and football (two absolute favourites among my compatriots).

And in the midst of all this vibrant energy stands prominently the city’s most recognizable and photographed landmark, the White Tower.

It is thought that the present tower was built in the 15th century on the ruins of an older 12th century Byzantine fortification, and was part of the walls – demolished in 1966 – of the old city of Thessaloniki.

During the Ottoman occupation, the tower was used as a fort, a garrison and a prison where numerous tortures and executions gave it the name ”Tower of Blood” or ”Red Tower” (Turkish: Kanli Kule, a name it kept until the end of the 19th century).

When Thessaloniki was annexed from the Ottoman Empire to the Hellenic State in 1912, the tower was whitewashed as a symbolic gesture of cleansing, hence becoming the ”White Tower” (Greek: Lefkos Pyrgos – Λευκός Πύργος).

I guess that was the only time it had ever been whitewashed, I have no recollection of it ever being actually white but rather an earthy light brown, a patina acquired naturally over time.

Neither had I any recollection – until my last visit in September – of its interior ever having been so well maintained, its features properly highlighted as befits a monument of such value.

I hadn’t realised how large its core rooms actually are, for in modern times – from the First World War onwards – the Tower was used to house successively, an operations centre of the Allied Forces, a storage space for antiquities, the city’s air defense centre, a University meteorological laboratory and a Sea Scout unit. This meant that the only part of the Tower open to public was the turret, reached via a gentle stone-step spiral ramp, offering some of the city’s most splendid views.

Today it is part of the Museum of Byzantine Culture and hosts a permanent exhibition on the history and culture of Thessaloniki. I was delighted to discover that multimedia and modern technology was applied with care, respecting the physiognomy of the monument. There are still a couple of shortcomings, notably the fact that there is no elevator, making it inaccessible to people with mobility difficulties, nor air-conditioning (although this is largely taken care of by the tower’s thick walls and natural ventilation).

A brief photo-essay to give you an idea:

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360° views of the city and Thermaikos Gulf from the turret:

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For a video tour please visit the White Tower website. For opening hours check here.

Shared photo credits (Konstantinos & Lia)

Thessaloniki, 8 – 15 September 2014

 

HOME

DSC04294iThessaloniki.

A city. A legend. A daughter. A wife. An original, idiosyncratic beauty.

Daughter of Philip II, powerful King of Macedonia from 359 BC until his assassination in 336 BC by Pausanias – one of his bodyguards. Philip II was the originator of the principle of ”divide and rule”, from the Greek ”διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε” – (diaírei kaì basíleue), a rule that has been consistently put to effect with great results, from the Roman Ceasar to the French Emperor Napoleon, then passed down through generations of European settlers, to be applied cunningly in their colonies all over the world.

Wife of Cassander, who married her thus securing his position into the Argead Dynasty, ruling House of Macedonia, a first step to becoming later a King himself. When, during his reign, Cassander decided to strengthen his Kingdom by founding a city, he named it in honour of his wife. It was to be his most significant and lasting deed.

Thus 315 BC marked the beginning of a long, turbulent but uninterrupted life of Thessaloniki, carrying her legacy through the centuries, growing to be a modern city that today expands from the foothills of Mount Chortiatis to the seemingly endless coastline that embraces the Gulf of Thermaikos.

A true crossroads where Europe meets Anatolia, the Balkans dip into the cool deep blue waters of the Aegean, still showing traces of her glorious multi -ethnic -religious  and -cultural past; a melting pot and a city of contrasts.

Major, yet always coming second: formely ”co-reigning” city of the Byzantine Empire, alongside Constantinople – συμβασιλεύουσα (Symvasilévousa), now “co-capital” alongside Athens – συμπρωτεύουσα (Symprotévousa).

A natural beauty, cultivated, cosmopolitan, her charm somewhat dampened by years of abuse, urbanization and total absence of city planning – so typical of modern Greece – yet still utterly alluring, forever young despite her 2.330 years of tempestuous history.

Balancing on a tightrope that connects East and West, flirting with the North but dependent on the South. A port city: stylish, relaxed and welcoming, with a quirky attitude, wild parties and nightlife, so typical of seabound cities.

A university city, home among others to Aristotle University, the largest of its kind in Greece and the Balkans, welcoming every year thousands of students – a constant flow of life, energy and fresh ideas, a regenerative infusion of youth.

The city I left thirty years ago aiming for northerner climates; first the golden cage that is called Switzerland, then the cooler and more convivial Belgium.

Going back always feels strange yet familiar; melancholy yet uplifting – I can’t be called a resident, neither am I a tourist. Walking, seeing, smelling, touching, brings back pieces of my childhood and memories of my rebellious adolescence and this is when I know; no matter how much it evolves and changes, Thessaloniki is still the place I was born and grew up in, the one place I will always call home.

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Views from the waterfront in all its colourful splendour and diversity, my extended neighbourhood and the city centre:

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From a trip in September, still very hot – enough to give me a sunburn – but mellower than the main summer months, which made walking really pleasant. More from home, coming up!

Photos (mostly) by Konstantinos Implikian

Thessaloniki,  8 – 15 September 2014