Category Archives: Belgium

Belgium, More Antwerp and final post from Belgium

In the days when I wasn’t getting a train to somewhere else I did more exploring in Antwerp and although two of the museums I really wanted to visit – the main art museum and the Fashion museum – were closed for renovations, I did manage to visit some other smaller places.

This is Rubenshuis – the actual home that the painter Rubens (who is the local great painter) lived. The house is also partly under renovation but a lot has been done and it is a lovely place slap bang in the Centre of the city.

Exterior and gardens of Rubenshuis

Ruben’s bed and his art and collections at Rubenshuis

More beautiful things in Rubenshuis – unlike most artists he made a lot of money while still alive

The area I was staying at for most of the time I was in Antwerp is called Het Eilandje and is where the old port used to be. One Sunday I downloaded a street art walking app and wandered around the docks and port – they have done an excellent job of restoring the area including building parks and a spectacular Port building.

MAS museum, cranes, marina and street art in Het Eilandje

More street art and one of the sluice gates

Antwerp port building (old and modern combined) , the new part and street art around every corner

Back to the old I visited some more churches on my last day in Antwerp. Firstly St Paul’s Church – which like many houses works of Rubens but for me it was especially cool because it’s garden has hundreds of stone carvings depicting the last days of Christ – it is all a bit spooky.

The exterior of St Paul’s church and the stone sculptures

The interior of St Paul’s Church plus a surprising simple modern sculpture of Mary and Jesus in front of all that gothic splendor! I like it.

Woodwork and stonework in St Paul’s church

Then to another house of the former mayor from the 16th century – the Rockoxhuis. He was a very wealthy mayor who made his money in brewing and also he liked his beautiful paintings and furniture too. He was also generous to the poor and bequeathed his house to the state after he died.

Interior courtyard and some of the art inside the Rockoxhuis

And final stop at St Jacob’s Church which is where Rubens is buried and where restoration is also happening and they are finding some fabulous murals as they are cleaning the walls – only visible on film at this stage but more to be displayed to the public in future.

Ruben’s tomb plus items from the Treasury of St Jacob’s church

For my last couple of days here I moved into a very funky hotel in the Centre of town – the DeWitte Lelie – my bedroom is the one with the Mohammed Ali screen prints in it.

Farewell to Belgium (and Rotterdam) – very much enjoyed staying in a place that is not overrun with tourists and that has a cool vibe to it.

Belgium, Food and drink

Someone asked me – “what about the food in Belgium” – so I have produced a compendium of some of the dishes I ate on this visit. Hopefully something for everyone!

Firstly – things I ate a lot of – moules, steak tartare and cakes!

Moules, steak tartare bistro style and creamy cakes

When I was only a bit peckish then it had to be beer (a meal in itself here) plus bitterballen – crispy very hot fried breadcrumbed balls filled with mashed potato and a meat ragu or bits of bacon. Irresistible – and cheap! The meal below also included some very large scampi in a rich creamy sauce – another popular dish over here.

Beer, bitterballen and creamy scampi.

In Bruges my friend Luisa and I found a place for lunch – Rock Fort – at the last minute which was excellent and very central but also off the beaten track. This time it was a shared burrata dish followed by more steak tartare – and very prettily presented and tasty on both counts. Definitely recommend

What we ate at Rock Fort, Bruges

One day in Antwerp I decided I wanted to try one of the Michelin starred restaurants here for lunch – always best to have lunch in expensive and popular places – easier to get in, more leisurely and often a Prix fixe menu. This one was called Kommilfoo and while a bit of a walk to get there (good excuse to enjoy your meal all the more) – it was well worth it. Decor, service and food were exemplary/

Kommilfoo decor, my downed G and T, an amuse bouche and another tartare!

Veal, berries, vino and petit fours – no room for dinner after that lot!

Back at the other end of the spectrum there is a lot of opportunity for chocolate and beer tasting. One of the famous small chocolate makers in Bruges is Dumon so we tried a few there and the Wall of Beer is a reminder how important this stuff is to everyone in this country!

Chocolate and beer – two words that always spring to mind when you think about Belgium

Extra special in both Bruges and Brussels was catching up with one of my cruise buddies Luisa – who happened to be visiting from the US at the same time as me. Really nice to get together and take the food tour in Brussels as well.

Enjoying food and beer with friends is always special

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.

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!!