Tuesday 17th April 2012, Antwerp, Belgium
This morning we gave ourselves a treat and slept in until driven out by the freezing cold and the needs of nature. Overnight the temperature outside dropped to zero. Inside we basked in the snug warmth of 4 degrees. We soon warm up though, once one of us has the courage to crawl out from under the duvet to turn on the fan heater.
We’ve done very little today – except drive right across Belgium but that’s nowhere near as exhausting as learning the history of the region and exploring cities on foot in the wind and the rain.
When I was a student I worked briefly at the Royal Library in The Hague to experience how libraries are managed in the Netherlands. I also arranged a personal guided visit to the Plantin-Moretus museum on the history of printing in Antwerp. It made a huge impression on me. Ian of course is fascinated in printing history so we could not pass so near without visiting it again.
This campsite is within walking distance of the city centre on the banks of the River Sheldt where we arrived mid afternoon. Unfortunately so too did the pouring rain and a strong wind that has been buffeting Modestine’s flanks all evening. So we’ve continued doing very little, shutting ourselves in with mugs of coffee and our books, waiting for things to calm down. By the time it did so it was getting dark and we were just too snug and comfortable to move. Hopefully tomorrow will be dry and a bit warmer.
We were not very impressed with the landscape of Flanders. The countryside is flat, open and unremarkable and the towns and villages are all rather boring with streets of drab suburban houses and blocks of flats. Several times we hoped to stop for a stroll round to explore places but nothing inspired us sufficiently to encourage us to leave the warmth of Modestine. Of course we are now well into the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. Here, unlike Wallonia, public signing is not bi-lingual so we are obliged to resurrect the few phrases of Dutch we’ve picked up in the past. Generally though, people are very good at English.
Wednesday 18th April 2012, Antwerp, Belgium
Well as hoped today has been a significant improvement weather-wise. The wind has dropped and although it was cold walking into town this morning, it was at least dry.
Our walk took us along beside the river with its marina of small boats. Antwerp lies on the opposite bank but we were told about a foot tunnel that passes beneath the riverbed and brings us up right inside the old town. Moored to the riverbank across the water was one of the largest cruise ships we’ve ever seen. Was even the Titanic that huge?
The tunnel is reached by a large lift that takes pedestrians and cyclists some 35 metres down a shaft and opens onto a white-tiled bare tunnel running under the river for over half a kilometre before reaching a similar lift on the far side. It seems a very long way on foot when you can see right the way along. It was constructed in the early 1930s.
Up in the town Ian was too excited about his forthcoming visit to the printing museum to pay more than a passing glance at the huge Congo building, presumably a relic from the days of Belgian colonialism. With unerring steps he headed straight for the museum and disappeared inside while I stopped to admire the attractive 16th and 17th century facades on the cobbled square. I reached the entrance just as Ian was thrown out, for the second time in Belgium, for trying to get into a museum when it was closed! As last time, he’d followed in behind a group of visitors who turned out to be there by special arrangement! The young lady curator spoke excellent English and was charming, sending us off to her favourite coffee shop for twenty minutes until the museum opened officially. When we returned she quickly recognised that Ian was a typographical geek with a penchant for cartography and led us off to see her favourite exhibit – an exquisitely coloured portolan map of the world dating from the 16th century.
There was actually a special exhibition concerning the cartographer Mercator and maps and early navigation but I’m leaving Ian to report all about that and also about the Plantin-Moretus museum of printing history. Never has there been a blog topic on which he is so aptly suited to report. Suffice for me to say we spent the entire day there, totally absorbed in every aspect of early printing, type casting, book illustration and binding. The walls were hung with family portraits, many painted by Rubens who also designed the frontispieces of numerous publications produced by the Plantin-Moretus dynasty. As well as being a printing office of word renown, the 16th to 18th century building was also the family home containing personal book collections, paintings, furnishings and ornaments. It is the largest, oldest and most complete collection of artifacts on the history of early printing anywhere in the world.
By the time we left it was nearly closing time and too late to do any sort of justice to the rest of Antwerp. So we’ve decided to stay another night and explore the rest of the town tomorrow.
We called off at a supermarket for shopping on the way home and chatted with the young lady at the checkout counter. She told us her French was completely hopeless but her English and Flemish were each as good as the other. This seems really odd! How can a country be so divided by its language that one half cannot even speak to the other half? What language do they use in their parliament? What language for TV, radio and national newspapers? What about teaching in schools? Do they learn the same history? How can they take the same exams? What happens when they go to university and all need to study together? It’s hard to get your head round but it must happen in so many countries - such as Switzerland and Canada. Belgium is smaller than England. Imagine if half of us spoke a different language from the other half! (Although sometimes young people do seem to speak very differently from oldies like us!)
Thursday 19th April 2012, Antwerp, Belgium
Today we returned through the tunnel to see what other treasures Antwerp had to show us, and we found quite a few. We started with a brisk walk along beside the River Schelde to the Steen. This is a restored fortification, one of seven originally but the only one still remaining, intended to protect the town and its docks.
Antwerp has a population of around 500,000 and one of the largest sea ports in Europe. The dock we visited today was originally set up by Napoleon as part of the blockade against Britain. Today we discovered the modern Museum aan de Strom at the centre of the dock. The building has glass sides and though the museums at the core of the building must be paid for it has a free panoramic observation platform on the roof offering views across the entire area of the docks and back across the town. So we used the ten levels of escalators to reach the roof and discovered the museum’s reserve collection on the third floor which was free to browse, providing a gallimaufry of unrelated objects all piled onto shelves together.
Returning to the old town Ian discovered - from his free children’s map! - that there was a brothel just around the corner in the dockland’s red light district. All the shop windows in the area had semi-naked ladies wearing the flimsiest of undies, just as we’d once seen in Amsterdam. The idea I suppose is that you window shop and then pop across the road with your selected purchase. We can only show you the brothel. I wouldn’t let him photograph the merchandise.
Back in the old town it was lunch time. We discovered yesterday that this is not a cheap place to eat so came prepared with our sandwiches which we ate sitting on benches around the great square opposite the town hall bedecked with its European flags. It has been warmer today and the magnificent buildings surrounding us made for an agreeable lunch break.
We’d been looking all morning for a letter box. Eventually we found the main post office but still couldn’t find anywhere to actually post a letter. One of the staff took our postcard to our grandchildren, promising to ensure its safe delivery (at a euro for the stamp I should hope so!) So we have still not seen where letters are posted in Belgium. It’s one of the nation’s mysteries.
We peeped in at the cathedral. It has four paintings by Rubens but we didn’t actually go around inside. It was overflowing with tour groups and we preferred to spend the entrance price on a hot coffee.
We’d not yet explored the modern part of Antwerp. It’s a very smart, lively place with all the international stores represented on its main street. Here we chanced on the imperial palace of Napoleon – Palais op de Meir. He made it his residence when in Antwerp. Originally built in the mid 18th century by a rich local merchant it is now occupied in part by a Belgian chocolaterie and coffee shop. We decided 6 Euros each was a little excessive for a filter coffee but were delighted to watch the chocolate being poured into moulds and to admire the ultimate accolade to the little emperor – a life-size bust of Napoleon in chocolate!
Around the corner we found the home of Rubens which we visited. Paintings by him and his contemporaries were displayed around the furnished rooms along with sculptures, ceramics, silver salvers and bronze statues. Each room had a wonderful Dutch-tiled fireplace with a heavy wooden over-mantle and brick hearth. There were paintings by Rubens of Christopher Plantin, and a very young Antony Van Dyck done when he was apprenticed to Rubens.
By the time we left it was beginning to rain. That did not prevent Ian for going for the full Belgian experience of waffle eating in the street! Standing in the rain with a hot waffle soaked in warm, runny chocolate that trickled over his fingers he looked the picture of sticky happiness. Fortunately I’d a good supply of tissues to wipe away the chocolate drips from his sleeves and smudges on his face!
Up around the central station is the diamond trading centre of Antwerp. Shop after shop had brightly lit windows of rings, bracelets and earrings encrusted with diamonds.
Of more interest to us however was the magnificent central station and its forecourt. Here are the headquarters of the Royal Zoological Society and the city zoo is right there in the heart of the town.
The station is like a magnificent palace. It’s incredible that so much money should be lavished on a railway station but must be indicative of the importance of the coming of the railway and the linking of cities across Europe. Antwerp’s station was designed by Louis Delacenserie and completed in 1905. It has a neo-baroque façade, a huge glass cupola, and inside it is heavily decorated with gilt and marble. The platforms themselves are in a huge shining glass and metal hanger.
Returning along the Meir we passed several Art Nouveau and turn-of-the-century buildings as well as statues to several of Antwerp’s 16th and 17th century painters. We also discovered a very modern shopping mall the centrepiece of which is the city’s beautifully restored Festsaal where the dazzling arcade has smart bars and restaurants offering an atmosphere of luxury.
Eventually we reached the entrance to the pedestrian tunnel beneath the river, said our farewells and thanks to Antwerp for a brilliant couple of days and disappeared down beneath the riverbed on a juddering old escalator dating from the 1930s. Tomorrow we move on.