You might wonder how we arrived at our itinerary of the Benelux cities. Well, no rigorous thinking was involved, and there was no magic in the number 4. We simply read cursory descriptions of the towns and cities we had in mind and then relied on intuition guided by experience to determine how long to spend in each. Of course, we were somewhat constrained by the parameters of time, money, and physical endurance. Thus, we chose to spend an average of four days in each place. Our stay in Lisse was shorter since our only goal there was to experience the beauty of the seasonal flowers, while we spent an extra day in both Antwerp and Brussels because of their size and interest.
I’ve read somewhere that 80 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in this city, so what better place for us to stay than in the heart of the Diamond District. Our accommodation there was a short walk from Antwerp Central Station so we didn’t need a taxi to get to it. And before I write anything more about the Diamond District, I should tell you about the train station.
We love train travel and our arrivals and departures at great stations enhance our experience. Europe does have some great stations, but none, I think, is more impressive than Antwerp Central, whose atmosphere some have likened to a cathedral’s.
In size and beauty, it is unsurpassed.
It recalls the age when trains were new and important and when stations proudly glorified them.
The functions and amenities of Antwerp Central are as modern as can be, yet it guards the architectural beauties of its past. Because it was close to the apartment where we stayed, we returned several times, buying groceries in its supermarket, fresh bread and pastries at its bakery, and the New York Times at its newsstand. Antwerp Central is one of the city’s treasures.
In the past, the Diamond District was dominated by men of Antwerp’s sizable Orthodox Jewish Community. They still have a presence alongside Indians and men of other races and nationalities.
On walks through the district, I photographed several Jewish men dressed in the Hasidic manner. Some were on bicycles while others walked with their families.
Zurenborg is a residential neighborhood planned and built at the beginning of the 20th century by the visionary partnership of John Cogels and Josephine Osy.
Still very attractive and well maintained, it is a veritable museum of Art Nouveau architecture, the extent of which we had never seen in other European cities.
Compared to today’s impersonal and undecorated buildings, each building in Zurenborg is unique and fantastic. For us, Zurenborg was a rare find.
Groenplaats is a large square in the center of the city dominated by Antwerp Cathedral with its extremely tall tower.
This masterpiece of medieval architecture is a repository of important 17th-century Flemish painting, and since one of our goals in coming to Belgium was to have the opportunity to view these paintings, we were happy to spend a couple of hours in the cathedral’s serene interior.
Among the works on display, those of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) take pride of place. His triptych, whose central panel depicting the drama of Christ’s Descent from the Cross, is splendid.
Maerten De Vos (1532-1603) was an earlier Antwerp painter whose Wedding at Cana with its figures in Renaissance dress also lives in my memory. In all, the cathedral contains at least a couple dozen fine paintings that we had the leisure to study and admire. It was a highlight of our visit.
Another highlight was the interactive museum of the Red Star steamship line. Its context was the port of Antwerp that had been the embarkation point for hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking a better life in North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of those emigrating were Belgians; others came from Germany, Eastern Europe, and, in the case of Jews, from shtetls in Russia. The lives of these people had been hard and getting to Antwerp and aboard a ship was not easy either. We learned how on arriving in the city, they were required to have their clothing, their luggage, and their bodies disinfected. To board a ship they needed a passport, a visa, and, of course, a ticket. Some were able to buy this in their country of origin from unscrupulous agents who overcharged them.
The museum contained a lot of information about what life was like aboard Red Star Line ships.
First and second-class accommodations were luxurious compared to third class or steerage where the poor were confined. Typically, a steamship crossing took ten days. Then, the immigrants had to go through the examination process at Ellis Island or points in Canada.
We enjoyed our visit to the museum except for the hordes of school children invading the space on field trips. The noise they made got on our nerves.
Another day, our plan was to walk to the River Scheldt, take the free ferry across, and walk back under the river through the St. Anna pedestrian tunnel. We had done this in Hamburg, Germany under the Elbe a couple years before, and it was fun.
This time, the best part was riding the vintage wooden escalators underground to the tunnel and up again on the far side.
Peter Paul Rubens was the most financially and artistically successful Flemish artist of his day. His palatial home was changed and rebuilt greatly after his time so that only a couple of original elements remain.
One of these is a portico built like a Roman arch. The interior is a museum of Flemish art with an unusual approach to viewing the works. Instead of museum cards on the walls, booklets in several languages contain the titles and information about the paintings. I was easily able to find the pages corresponding to the works that interested me.
Brussels was the largest city we visited during our journey. Besides being the location of the European Union’s Parliament and Commission, it has been Belgium’s national capital since the country was formed from parts of the Netherlands and France in 1830. Located in the country’s Flemish region, Brussels is nevertheless a cosmopolitan, bilingual city where Flemish and French are spoken equally.
We had expected Benelux weather in April and May to be cold and rainy, and in Brussels that expectation came true. It was crazy weather, though. Some days rain and sunshine alternated unpredictably in short intervals. When sunny, we would warm up a bit, only to be chilled again when the rain and wind returned. How’s a strolling tourist to dress under these conditions?
No doubt, Brussels’ most striking architectural feature is its Grande Place reached through narrow streets containing small shops, cafes and restaurants. Exiting one of those streets onto the place itself is stunning because this large medieval square with its monumental city hall, and surrounding guildhalls must be one of the most astonishing sights in all of Europe.
We know we had seen it once before during our first visit nearly 40 years earlier, but now that we have experienced so much more of the world, we can appreciate the sight for being as marvelous as it is.
The only drawback, one that the Grande Place shares with other tourist magnets, is the excessive crowding that often fills the square to overflowing. Of course, Kay and I are part of the problem, and so it is hypocritical of us to complain. (I’ll say more about the negative effects of tourist excess when I write about our experience of Bruges.)
In Brussels we weren’t alone. Friends from Turkey have recently relocated to Belgium and were happy to see us. Bill is U.S. Army retired while his daughter, Christina, has a doctorate in International Relations. She write reports and speaks at conferences in Europe and the Middle East. Her seven-year-old daughter, Ella Nora, attends a private school and is working at becoming tri-lingual. Orienting ourselves in Brussels was challenging, and having Bill as a guide was a big help.
One chilly day, I left Kay on her own and satisfied a long-held desire by taking a bus to nearby Braine-l’Alleud to see the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
The calm green fields today have no trace of the horrific struggle that took place on Sunday, June 18, 1815 between Napoleon’s hastily gathered army and the combined troops of Britain’s General Wellington and the Prussians under Blücher. When the battle ended, more than 10,000 soldiers were dead along with hundreds of horses, and the Napoleonic era was at a definitive end.
My visit led me to climb the Butte du Lion for its panoramic view and to walk to the Hougoumont Farm where, on the day of the battle, Wellington’s soldiers fought furiously to save it from repeated attacks by the French, who, had they been successful, would have been free to get round the allies’ western flank and attack them from the rear.
In Brussels, we enjoyed some of our best meals of the trip. Al Piccolo Mondo is a superior Italian restaurant, where two black-suited captains supervise a large wait staff and whose extensive menu is a kind I hadn’t seen in years. When I asked about an item written as ‘danseuses’ (female dancers), I learned that they were frog legs, not a item we’re used to seeing these days. Anyway, my plate of Saltimbocca with a side of papperadelle sauced with tomato was delicious as was Kay’s cream of white asparagus soup and spaghetti alio-olio.
On another occasion, three of us in search of Lambic beer (a sour Belgian specialty) found ourselves at the cafe Le Cirio, a throwback to a bygone time whose interior was all lights and mirrors.
A highlight of our Brussels’ experience came on the last day when our wanderings took us past the impressive European Commission buildings of the EU area and into pretty Park Leopold that leads to the Cinquantenaire, an enormous triumphal arch flanked by twin, curving neo-classical wings, one of which houses a remarkably eclectic museum known as the Museum of Art and History.
The Cinquantenaire, literally ‘the fifty-year old” was built in 1880 to celebrate the country’s Golden Jubilee. Warned by our guidebook about the variety and extent of the museum’s collections, Bill, Kay, and I split up to pursue individual paths.
I wandered into a gallery displaying Roman artifacts and spotted a bronze figure with all its parts intact. It was a rare find, excavated from a Roman hillside, secured by the Belgium government, and added to the museum.
Another discovery was a series of mosaics from Syrian synagogues lettered in Greek.
After a while, I began to realize that the museum was mostly built around bequests. One that delighted both Kay and me is a gallery named for Philippe Wolfers, the founder of the jewelry and silver company Wolfer Frères. When its famous shop, designed by architect Victor Horta, closed in 1973, it was moved in its entirety into the museum filled with jewelry and decorative items from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Periods, many of them rare, all lovely to look at.
Brussels is so filled with treasures and points of general interest that we could have spent weeks exploring the city and perhaps we will one day.
I have to say that the lovely City of Ghent was one of our favorite stops of the entire tour.
Partly, this is due to Patershol, the neighborhood where we stayed in a formerly commercial building called The House of Trade. Our shotgun apartment was long and narrow with high ceilings and ornamental glass doors separating the bedroom from the rest of the living quarters. The king-size bed was made up with sheets and pillowcases of the finest quality. Large windows behind the round dining table were etched with scenes of boats and a desert island. It was an unusual accommodation.
Next door on the street was a coffee bar named Simon Says that quickly became a favorite. Its freshly made scones served with thick cream and strawberry jam were a delicious breakfast. As good as was the bill of fare, it was the young, energetic, and genial staff that made Simon Says such a pleasant place to be.
After a day or two, we met Simon, himself, an Englishman who took a shine to us.
Nearby in Patershol, we found Jiggers, a very special kind of cocktail bar, specializing in reinventions of classic drinks, as well as its own creations. The shop made its own Cassis and other syrups. On one occasion I had the very best whisky sour ever, made with bourbon, scotch, lemon, and a few drops of simple syrup. Kay’s favorite was The Pearl, consisting of London Dry Gin, Ratafia (a fortified wine made in the Champagne district), Orange Curaçao, a bit of scotch and a drop of olive oil.
Ghent is a university town with many students that contribute to its lively atmosphere.
It has an atmospheric medieval center with canals and several venerable Catholic churches beside its excellent cathedral with an altarpiece called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a Flemish Primitive master work made of 20 panels, one of which was stolen many years ago and never recovered. It was painted by the brothers Van Eyck in 1432 and is one of the earliest works of art using oil paints. Its history is dramatic: it narrowly survived the Calvinists, was taken by the French during the years of the Revolution, and stolen by the Germans during WWII. Discovered by the Americans after the war in an Austrian mine, it is now back where it belongs. It’s been restored and is in remarkably good condition considering all it has been through.
Ghent was a good-eating town for us. For a pre-fixe lunch I began with a bowl of thick leek soup with Camembert cheese and chili oil. Kay’s entrée was a cheese croquette that came with a green salad. We both chose the vol au vent, a favorite Belgian dish consisting of chicken, mushrooms, and puff pastry in a cream sauce. It was delicious. We were also each given portions of frites that we didn’t need. We drank a large bottle of sparkling water and each finished with coffee.
On another day, when I was off exploring two museums on my own, Kay stopped in the Ramen restaurant near where we were staying. It was after 3 p.m. and they would not be serving again until dinnertime. Even so, they made her a tasty portion of gyoza. She so enjoyed the food, and the lively conversation with the two chef/owners that we returned that evening. Our return did not disappoint.
I’ve only hinted at all the art and architecture we exposed ourselves to in Ghent. There was a lot and probably a lot more that we didn’t see. In the interest of time and space, I’ll end this here and resume with the tour in Part Three to come.