There are a number of reasons why people visit Belgium. For me, the main one was to see the works of Flemish artists that I studied in the first year Art History modules. I could not resist the temptation to see the original masterpieces of Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Van Eyck, Jean Fouquet, Jacob Joardens and Joachim Patinir. The plan was to visit four towns in five days: Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent and Bruges (mostly because of the brilliant black comedy crime film by Martin McDonagh “In Bruges”). Apart from fine art collections, there was a lot to be discovered in Belgium, such as diamond museums, great fashion and good food.
Staying in Antwerp was a great idea not only because there is so much to do and explore but also because of its location and the excellent train connections that make travelling to other tourist destinations very easy. You just have to get used to chocolate hands being sold everywhere! This is because of a legend that the name of the city “Antwerpen” originates from a folklore legend involving a giant, who cut and threw people’s hands, until he was slain by a young hero, called Bravo. The statue in front of the town hall informs visitors of the story.
Antwerp is a one of Europe’s busiest ports and it has been a centre of the diamond industry since the 15th century. The Diamond Museum located just outside the “diamond district” with its numerous diamond shops and traders, explains how to choose a good diamond. The key is to remember 4 Cs: Carat, Clarity, Colour, Cut. You get to see how diamonds are polished and transformed from a stone to a work of art.
Antwerp is the hometown of Peter Paul Rubens. The Cathedral of our Lady has four works by Peter Paul Rubens on display, including the world famous triptychs The Raising of the Cross (1609-1610) and The Descent from the Cross (1612). It is truly magical to see these large, impressive works in front of you and to marvel at the light effects, colours, dynamism and drama, created by the hand of a really talented man. For those fond of Rubens there is also the House of Rubens with a little garden. The house exhibits some of his less famous works, including his architectural developments.
The other Flemish masterpieces, normally exhibited in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (now closed for major renovation until 2017), can be admired at the newly opened MAS (Museum aan de Stroom). MAS is an impressive building with a great rooftop panorama and different exhibitions on each floor. The highlight of the museum is the famous work by Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child surrounded by Angels (c. 1450). Also impressive is Jan & Hubert Van Eyck’s masterpiece: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432) exhibited in the chapel the Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. It is one of the most famous artworks of the 15th century and one of the most renowned religious paintings of all time. And it’s huge! The amount of details, the complexity of the iconography, the richness of colours is indeed overwhelming.
Groeningemusum in Bruges also desserves a visit: it has some very interesting works, such as The Judgement of Cambyses by David Gerard. But Bruges itself is full of surprises. In the Church of Our Lady there is a marble sculpture, the Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. On the main square of this ancient town, inside the Belfry tower, there is a Salvador Dali museum: the Dali Xpo Gallery. The Tower itself is claimed to have 366 steps (although I counted 370), which you need to climb, in order to get a nice 360 degree view of the town. Those who have seen the film In Bruges (those who did not: go and watch it now!) will understand why I felt betrayed when I saw the cages on the windows of the Belry tower. They were probably put there for safety reasons.
Brouge is gorgeous. It is a very romantic place. Especially at night when the brick walls of the old buildings are lit by yellow lights, and the swans swim peacefully below the willows in the dark canals, and the horse carriages go past you just to complete setting of an ideal Medieval town. It has the aura of an old friend. The mills on the side of the canals and the little statues of Madonna on almost every building add to the effect of unexpectedness. The town tastes like an old bottle of wine.
It is equally impossible not to like food in Belgium- famous for its waffles, chocolates, French-fries and beer. Mussels are also worth a try, served in big buckets, along with French fries, a very typical and delicious Belgian dish (although seasonal from September to April). The Belgian waffles are sold on every corner of every street. Yet, after trying one at the oldest waffle house of Antwerp founded in 1905, called Van Hecke, you will become very sceptical of the ones sold in the places like train stations! Fresh, perfectly shaped, with plenty of toppings and cream. Yum! As for chocolate, there are so many different chocolatiers, and it is possible to find it in any shapes and any flavours. It occurred to me that the highest concentration of chocolate shops was in main streets of Bruges, where you had five chocolatiers in a row, a little lace shop, a night shop with a hundred different sorts of beers and then five more chocolatiers.
Art History made me go travel to Belgium and discover such a wonderful place that I did not want to leave. The next stop of my Art History trip was Madrid with its Museo Del Prado waiting for me. But that’s a different story…
Photography – Anna Devie