Monthly Archives: August 2019

Belgium – Mechelen, Lier and Bruges

One of the things I enjoy about staying in one area for a couple of weeks is having the time to visit the lesser known towns not just the obvious places. One of those was Mechelen – about 45 minutes by train from Antwerp. This town dates back to 1473 and has a traditional town square and a wondrous cathedral (St Rombouts). Once again a summer festival was about to start so they were getting the square set up for that – they do make the most of summer here.

The streets and square of Mechelen with St Rombouts Cathedral

The best bit was taking a cruise on the River Dilje through the town – no crowds – only six of us on the boat and within 5 minutes we were drifting quietly past some lovely apartments and converted warehouses and I could spend time deciding which one I would pick if I was buying one (the Art Deco style white one with the huge windows I expect!)

We also passed the three colorful houses known as “Houses of the Little Devils” as they are adorned with carved demons. Perfect day.

Cruising the River Dilje and the Houses of the Little Devils

The still waters of the River Dilje in Mechelen

Of course I had to visit Bruges (or Brugge as the Flemish speakers would call it). It takes about 90 minutes by train from Antwerp.

Walking into town from the station I stopped off at the newly renovated Gruuthusemuseum which has been newly renovated.This used to be a medieval mansion owned by a very rich brewer in the 15th century and all the floors (very creaky wooden ones) have survived intact. As you walk through you get to see a mix of art, tapestries, lace, sculpture and the private entry to the passage direct into the neighboring church. They have done an excellent job of this restoration and it was thankfully not busy at 10 am.

Exteriors of the Gruuthusemuseum and attached church

Bust of Charles V, stained glass windows, tapestry and inlaid wooden trinket holder inside The Gruuthusemuseum

The chapel with secret passageway into the church, local lace and crockery

Yes the Centre of Bruges is pretty but it is teeming with tourists – I visited on a Thursday and had to work hard to take these photos without millions of other people in them! I liked the town and can understand why it has become so popular but like Venice and Florence I think it would be better to visit outside of the summer season.

Main square in Bruges and waterways everywhere

Beautiful buildings along the waterways at every turn plus the narrow Alley of the blind Donkey

More love of comics and the Wall of Beer – which is very long indeed – this is just a snippet

Talking of preferred smaller towns, I jumped on the train once again for just 20 minutes to visit neighboring Lier. I suppose it could be argued that this is a suburb of Antwerp but it is definitely a town in its own right – where there are virtually no tourists – just locals enjoying the summer time with a few strong beers!

The main square in Lier plus examples of some of the houses when you head down a side street

Picture perfect and quiet waterways and lanes in Lier

Loved the hand carved wooden sign posts too.

The Zimmertoren – with its beautiful clock that tells the time, the zodiac, the stars, and probably makes a beer as well!

So in summary – it was the smaller towns in Belgium that I enjoyed the most – especially at this time of year. If you find yourself in this part of the world make sure to visit some of them.

The Netherlands, Rotterdam

I couldn’t resist a one hour train ride into the Netherlands to see Rotterdam – I think I may have visited her once when I was about 9 years old – so of course remembered nothing! Luckily I have a friend who knows this city very well and he was able to direct me on how to get maximum mileage from a day trip – which I think I did.

Even the arrival into Rotterdam Central is fun given its ultra modern and quite new station.

Rotterdam Centraal Station

It is very central so I started by walking up the road immediately in front of it which is leafy and pleasant – lots of cafes to stop at too.

A pedestrianised and tram section of one of the main arteries in Rotterdam

So many bars and cafes. So little time. Cafes and restaurants abound – I ate or drank in two of these. The third is famous but was closed!

I jumped on a tram and headed down to Delfhaven- this area used to be part of Delft and hence its name. It is delightful, peaceful and even though I was sweltering in 33 degree heat I walked all around it before some beer and bitterballen (a Dutch speciality – deep fried balls usually filled with a meat ragout or mashed potato and minced meat) served with mustard for dipping – they go down a treat with beer although can easily burn the inside of your mouth as they are served piping hot and just cooked. You have been warned….

The undiscovered Delfhaven and I’m sure the locals want to keep it that way!

Beer and bitterballen in Delfhaven, Rotterdam

I caught another tram to the waterside and took a one hour harbour cruise. This is not a scenic cruise in the usual sense but takes you around what is one of the biggest harbours in the world. It is huge and everything in it is too. It was like floating around in a real meccano set. We passed the SS Rotterdam – which was a cruise liner but is now permanently moored and a hotel, restaurant and conference centre and then a current day cruise ship was setting sail as we returned. Some interesting architecture too.

Cruising on Rotterdam Harbour

Architecture and activity in Rotterdam Harbour

Next stop was the giant MarktHalle which has every kind of food imaginable to both buy and eat on site. It is another quite new addition to the city.

Markthalle

Just beyond the Markthalle are the cubed houses! These were designed by Piet Blom as an innovative way of living where the living quarters are the roof and everyone shares the lower area. I looked at them from all directions and was still struggling to understand why people wouldn’t be falling over inside them – and they are lived in. Quite a curiosity.

The White House in the top right is across from the cubed houses and was built in 1898 as an art nouveau designed office building – it was the first official sky scraper in Europe!

Cubed houses and the Witte Huis

So a busy but fun packed day in Rotterdam – I think people often bypass it for Amsterdam and other Dutch towns – but if you’ve done those before Rotterdam is certainly worth seeing.

Belgium – Antwerp

While I have been bouncing around Belgium I have also been exploring my base town of Antwerp. I am renting an apartment in the area that was formerly where all the docks were. It is now full of apartments in converted warehouses – and is similar to the meatpacking district as it was 20 years ago – so not yet overrun or in any way touristy – yet. It is also close to the red light district which I stumbled into on my first day – all wares are in the windows (rather than the street) – lots of make-up; not much clothing – no photos allowed but I smiled and waved at a few of them and they waved back – it is all very jolly and not at all seedy – this was at 4pm though:). The police station is right in the middle of the two streets where most of these ladies are to be seen and it is considered the safest place in Antwerp!

Converted warehouse buildings – my apartment is somewhere down there!

The are is being regenerated and it also houses two of the cities museums – so nice easy walk for me. The first is MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom) which means Museum on the river apparently. This is a very interesting building in its own right and has a broad range of art – mostly temporary exhibits but also some permanent.

MAS in Antwerp

The section below was about festivals and celebrations – the camera is actually a designed coffin – there is a company in the Caribbean who make these in any shape or design – whatever was of interest to the deceased. The giant dolls are used in annual parades in Belgium and the wedding sofa is for a Moroccan bride – definitely eclectic.

Camera Coffin, giant dolls and bridal sofa

At the top are the giant dance machines – used in Belgium through to the early 60s – they played music and had lights and other effects. They were beautifully detailed but eventually DJs took over:(. Strange porcelain figures plus a sailing couple sculpture make for a fun visit.

More art in MAS

Then at the very top of the building I came across and excellent collection of pre Colombian art. A very rich lady (Dora Jannssen) collected these pieces over the years based on aesthetics ie. what she liked and then became fascinated by the culture and its art. They were subsequently gifted to the state. It is considered on of the best collections of its kind and I really liked the pieces from an artistic perspective – would have been great to have an expert to explain all the cultural links bearing in mind this era was about 700-900 years BC. Very cool

Jannssen pre Colombian art exhibits

Jannssen pre Colombian art exhibits

Jannssen pre Colombian art exhibits

And now for a view of the city buildings. A lot is under construction and renovation at the moment but I’ve focussed on the buildings that are scaffolding free whenever I can.

Grote Markt

Antwerp likes its sculptures – they are everywhere

As a regular day tripper I have spend a lot of time at the station which is very grand and very big. The zoo is right next door which is why the Ferris wheel has a few gorillas on it!

Antwerp Station and the Ferris wheel with gorillas!

The evening light shows off the sandstone of the buildings on a warm summer’s evening

Antwerp as the sun is going down

And of course there is some street art plus I was impressed with the imaginative and colourful hoarding for new town hall building.

Street Art in Antwerp

On Sunday it was the day of Kultur Markt in Antwerp. Every last Sunday of the summer months all forms of theatre, music and drama is taking place all over the downtown area. I even got a burst of Mamma Mia. This is all to encourage the locals sign up for various arts groups and it is very popular. They also drop all museum charges on this day so I had to make sure I took advantage of that!

First stop was the nearby Red Star Line museum. The Red Star Line (which included the Titanic) had about 15 ships at its peak and while it acted as a pleasure cruiser this museum is all about what it was like to emigrate from all over Europe to the US or Canada. It is full of great interviews and stories about families from Russia, the Ukraine, Germany etc who all found their way to Antwerp so they could get a ticket on the red star line and this museum is on the site where all the admin was done and where people checked onto the ship. Some of the migration experiences were more successful than others and some even came back as they missed home so much. I lost two hours in here.

Some old posters from the Red Star Line

The Vlees Huis below is typical of what are known as “speck” buildings in this part of the world. Speck means fat and they are so called because the colouring looks like butcher’s meat with alternating meat and fat streaks.

Speck design

After a burst of listening to ABBA songs I dived into another free entry museum – the Plantin-Moretus (such catchy names they have here!). This is the house where the printer Christophe Plantin spent his life – with his family, books, paintings and printing equipment.

The famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens left a lot of impressive art in this house – which shows how wealthy Mr Plantin was,

Four portraits by Peter Paul Rubens

The print shop and library in the Plantin-Moretus House

Cosimo de Medici by Rubens

And the best one of all – in my opinion – this Rubens portrait of Seneca.

That’s it for Antwerp for the time being.

Belgium – adventures in Ghent

Again easy train rides to Ghent (an hour) from Antwerp.

As I travel around Belgium many of its medieval towns have a similar set up – Central square, cathedral and numerous other grand churches, Old Market and the town Hall. I suppose this is because of the guild background both here and in the Netherlands and that was how they liked things. The other thing is that a lot of Belgium’s towns seem to be going through a giant restoration period so scaffolding is ubiquitous and as it is August every town appears to be preparing for the next festival it will be holding. In Mechelen it was a music weekend and tomorrow in Antwerp there is an art/dance/drama/music thing going on – more on that in a future blog.

So Ghent – well it does have the churches. I visited the St Baaf’s (or Bavo) cathedral and St Nicklauskerk.

The major places of worship in Ghent – one is a dead ringer for the back of the Notre Dame in Paris

They do like very fancy wood and marble carved pulpits in this part of the world

But take a look at these stained glass windows – surely FrankLloyd Wright snuck over and designed these. I loved them. Wish all church stained glass was like this!

Stained glass windows at St Baafs Cathedral

There is a little bit of street art in Ghent and also a Van Dyck in one of the churches. I know which piece will outlast the others!

Van Dyck and street art

As usual wandering along the embankments of the canals is the nicest way to enjoy these cities as you get a great view of the slightly differing sandstone facades of the buildings which are always jammed close to one another.

The pretty Graslei and Korenlei embankments

Ghent also has an impressive Castle of the Counts pretty much in the centre of town.

Castle of the Counts

I then went to an area in the old town called The Patershoi which is a maze of little streets that is now quite trendy with restaurants and food from all over the world. I?n this area is a small museum called the Huis from Alijn and is a “museum of daily things”. It is housed in the old almshouses (formerly a children’s hospital) and dates back to the 1300s. It is a fun museum taking you through life and practices and how these have changes – birth, puberty, marriage, death etc. Here are some of the things they had on display that reminded me of things we had when I grew up.(how my mother loved her electric carving knife!).

Huis van Alijn Museum

Finally I visited a quite new museum called Kazerne-Dossin Memorial. It is a ten minute walk out of town and is next to the old Dossin Barracks where the Jews of Antwerp in particular were deported initially before being sent on to concentration camps. It is a large site with a lot of stories to go through – but what is interesting about the way it is done is an open debate on the role of the Belgiums during this period. What is collaboration and why do some people resist and risk their lives for the greater good while so many do not? Definitely worth a visit but it doesn’t even get a mention in my guide book – found it online. It has been around for about 5 years.

My visit was a Friday and as I headed to the station to return to Antwerp it was good to see all the locals hanging out with their beers enjoying the early evening sunshine.

Belgium – Brussels (first day trip)

I am basing myself in Antwerp for a couple of weeks as a good base for exploring Belgium by train and I made the 40 minute journey to Brussels a couple of days ago. I will go back again before I leave so this was an exploratory visit – I think I was about 9 the last time I was here so don’t remember anything about it!

Brussels is an easy place to wander around and so I focussed mostly on the upper town – the sailors and Cloudenberg – which is the swankier part of town!

Everyone starts everything in Brussels at the magnificent Grote Markt or Grand Place with its stunning architecture and larger than life buildings. (For a small country Belgium has a plethora of languages and each region seems to have a different primary one, Flemish or French). For instance Antwerp is also Anvers. It makes following maps challenging at times!

The Grand Place

Aside from the grade style there is also quite a lot of art nouveau to enjoy too. And below you can see the famous Manneken Pis statue – although why this is such a draw is a mystery to me (I feel the same way about the Little Mermaid).

art nouveau in Brussels

While meandering between what must the largest number of chocolatiers per square foot in the world, I also came across a fair bit of comic and street art – bearing in mind that both Tintin (who I love) and the smurfs (least said the better) come from Belgium.

The smurfs and Tintin are everywhere in Brussels

I also found myself in the Marolles area where it was flex market day. This is a much grungier part of town but also an antiques shop lovers’ haven.

The flea market at Marolles

I stopped by the Notre Dame du Sablon church and the Petit Sablon gardens before indulging in a very tasty steak tartare (so called NOT because it was beaten against the saddles of the tartars as I had thought but because it used to be served with tartare sauce on the side!). Who knew? Nor do I know why the Belgiums call it steak Americane – but I do know it is very popular so I will be indulging in this some more for sure!

Notre Dame du Sablon Church

Great lunch and great people watching in the Sablon area

Time for some afternoon art so I visited the grand Musées Royaux de Beaux-Arts – which is in fact three museums for the price of one – the Old Masters, the Fin de Siècle and Magritte. I chose to visit Magritte because he was a local so it is a bit collection and he is rather eclectic and the old masters which was ok.

The interior of the main entrance to the Musées de Royaux de Beaux Arts

The weird René Magritte and his take on the world

I hadn’t seen such highly coloured works by Magritte before – and I liked these colours.

In the Old Masters section I really liked the Brueghel – so much going on in his paintings; much of it quite cheeky

Just past the museum is the Place Royale part of which is an official residence of the Belgium royal family. I think you can visit inside now so would like to do that – although maybe no time on this visit.

The Place Royale and some typical old houses that can be seen around Brussels plus a bit more art nouveau

Finally I headed back to the lower part of town and the train station to return to Antwerp. I thought the idea of free deck chairs for locals to enjoy the view looking downwards was a great idea and for those rainy days the Galéries St Hubert is another place to look at clothes and chocolate!

Deck chairs with a view and the Galéries St Hubert

A 21000 step day!!

Denmark, Copenhagen

This is a compilation of 3 days in Copenhagen before and after my recent cruise.

My friends Uschi and I did a walking tour – used the company Urban Adventures again – I do like their more offbeat tours.

We started at the statue of King Christian near the orange houses originally intended for the Danish navy. They are still lived in but these days privately given the mavy is now very small. The statue on the right is Hans Christian Anderson – by all accounts a miserable git who got on with no-one -least of all children. Apparently he visited the Dickens family in the UK at one point and they said his weekend stay felt like It was ten times longer and they couldn’t wait to see him go!

Old sailors’ houses and parks in Copenhagen

A walk around the side streets away from the crowds and around the canals shows what a lovely city this is. And I don’t know how they manage to get those wide boats through those narrow bridges -years of practice I suppose.

Walking tour of Copenhagen

On my return trip to Copenhagen the weather was far less inviting so I headed to the Glypothek Museum opposite the Tivoli Gardens which had a Bonnard exhibition going on.

In the ancient arts rooms I saw a creature from the Ishtar Wall (the main wall is in the museum in Berlin that I visited last month).

The Egyptian and Roman rooms. The busts are of Claudius and his horrible wife Agrippina (I loved the tv series I Claudius). The big guy is a barbarian and I’m not sure what the creature on the Ishtar Gate is?

Seems that Bonnard had a bit of a thing about women bathing. I found the legs in the bath well executed but creepy too.

Works of Pierre Bonnard

And one I liked by Berte Morisot (especially for my friend Sylvie.)

On exiting the museum I ran into the annual Pride Parade – the rain wasn’t putting anyone off marching and having a good time.

And on my last day I headed for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art – again recommended by Sylvie. Loved this place which is about 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen and set on the waterfront. For those that know it, Louisiana reminds me of a Danish version of MONA in Tasmania with a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright thrown in. (Emma, if you’re reading the blog this place is right up your street)

Sculptures in the gardens around the Louisiana Museum

I also came across Birgit Jürgenssen- who was a feminist painter before they became fashionable.

Art by Birgit Jürgenssen

There was also an exhibit on the role of new colours. I thought these flags were a great example – they look like they could be flags from countries but there is a disconnect with the colours used which are not what we consider to be “flag colours”. Challenges our mindsets a bit and colourful too.

Flags – but not as we know them

I was particularly keen to see the Pippilotti Rist exhibit – but it turned out to be the same one I saw in Sydney a few years ago which got me hooked on her. But I didn’t mind because it was just as interesting the second time around.

Pippilotti Rist apartment where nothing is quite as it seems. Videos are on sofas and beds and table and chairs.

Pippilotti Rist giant videos of coloured balls

Another repeat for me was the Yayoi Kusama permanent exhibit of a tiny room called Gleaming Lights of the Souls which I saw along with many other similar rooms (only max of 4 inside at a time) in Cleveland last year. But again I’m a big fan so no issues.

Kusama lights things up

In another wing of the museum I found their permanent collection of Giacometti sculptures – perfectly displayed in this modern wing with nature right outside.

So farewell Copenhagen- as usual it’s been a blast. Must stay longer next time.

Germany, Bremen and cruising the Kiel Canal

After leaving the Shetlands we had a sea day and then popped up in a very rainy Bremen. A medieval (although much rebuilt since WW2 bombings including the very and rather out of place state parliament – apparently it is once again a symbol of glass reflecting transparency of government as well as the images of the old buildings in the square – hmmmm) Hanseatic town famous for its craft guilds (I remember learning about those in history at school).

Bremen is also as the setting for the Brothers Grimm story – the four musicians of Bremen. A rather bizarre story about an old donkey, dog, cat and rooster who head for Bremen to earn some money as musicians. They stop at a house that is being robbed and not realising this (they are not very bright!) they start singing for food creating an awful cacophony that frightens off the robbers who think there is a ghost in the house. The animals end up living there permanently!

It was a very rainy day so not at its best but still nice to walk around and I would like to revisit at some point for a longer look.

The main square in Bremen including Roland the Soldier and the modern parliament building looking a bit out of place

The unusual church below that has a Star of David in the tower caught my eye too. No-one seems to know why as there is no known Jewish connection. Some say it was done as a symbol of the old and New Testament.

The four animal musicians of Bremen and the church with a Star of David in it. Plus lovely flower market.

My favourite part of the city was The Schnoor – a warren of narrow streets and cobblestones.

The Schnoor area of Bremen

And to end the cruise we had a full day cruising the 61 mile Kiel Canal. And I hadn’t even heard of it before although it is one of the longest and connects the Baltic with the North Sea. It was built originally as a means of enabling ships to defend both seas at short notice during the war time. It has been widened twice to cater for larger – mostly freight – ships.

So not only is this quite a feat of building it is also extremely scenic (much more so than the Panama Canal and used for recreation by the locals – we saw lots of small sailing boats, cyclists and walkers – everyone waved too – probably as it was a sunny day at last! We (well the captain) negotiated two locks at the start and finish – we all definitely breathed in as it was a tight fit.

Entering the Kiel Canal and the scenery along the way

More views along the Kiel Canal and getting ready to exit the final lock

And so this Seabourn Ovation cruise has ended and had a lovely last night reflecting on our 14 days of fun with Uschi, Tim and Jonathan.

My last cosmo for a while

The gang say farewell