Highlights were the boat trip on the canal, chocolate shops at every turning, the cobblestoned streets and lovely boutiques, the compact size of the inner city and the pedestrian zones, the horse and buggies clip-clopping by every 10 minutes, and the general tranquility of the place. We were only there for 24 hours. I’ll have to go back for more. Click on photos.
I had every intention of visiting The Royal Museum of Fine Arts to view the collection of Flemish paintings, but learned that it’s closed for renovation until the end of 2017. I then discovered another museum located in the very square where I was staying: The Plantin-Moretus Museum, a stately 16th-century townhouse that chronicles Christopher Plantin’s printing and publishing career as far back as 1555. The printing offices, workshop and library have all been preserved in their original state.
As the daughter of a publisher who served the printing industry, I was drawn to this place, but must admit that my visit was tinged with sadness. How my now-deceased father would have loved poking around the small, dimly-lit rooms scrutinizing the artefacts and gazing thoughtfully at the collection of antique printing presses. Alone, I wandered from room to room, the old wooden floors creaking under my feet, imagining my dear father, John Young, at my side. In one attic room there was a small mullioned window that overlooked the rooftops and courtyard and it struck me, as I peered out, that the view hasn’t changed since the 17th-century.
My remaining days in Antwerp were spent exploring, getting lost, battling high winds and rain (this is, after all, northern Europe in winter), taking refuge in shops, bookstores and cafés, listening to the guttural Dutch-Flemish language and noting how close its intonation and rhythmicality is to English (and how far from French), and generally soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely city. In closing, here are some random photos:
My last waffle and coffee at the train station. Bye-bye, I’ll be back!
As mentioned in my previous post, I had every intention of attending Midnight Mass at the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady on December 24th, but with rain lashing at the windows and gale force winds shaking the foundation of the building that sheltered me, I chose to stay indoors in my warm and cozy nest. The next morning I awoke to brilliant sunshine and a cold blue sky. I ran outside and headed to the cathedral. Here are two very short videos filmed on Christmas Day morning –
Note: Bear with me as I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to shooting video.
Freshly returned from Belgium (3 days, 3 nights) and my sentiment remains the same: I really like this country. Every time I go, I have a marvellous time. Antwerp: a compact, cosmopolitan city inhabited by friendly, low-key citizens. I do not speak a single word of Flemish (Belgian Dutch), however I did study German for a year in Grade 10 which helped me recognize some words. (Flemish is a Germanic language.) But everyone speaks English or French, so communicating with Antwerpians (??) is not a problem.
Upon arrival at the magnificent train station (above), I picked up a city map from the information desk, walked in a straight line to the Old Town and got hopelessly lost. I must have walked round and round the cathedral at least three times, dragging my small suitcase over the cobblestoned streets. The layout makes no sense at all in the Old Town. It took me an hour to find the square where my rental accommodation was located. Here’s the square below:
Karin, the bubbly young woman who services the flats (and who resembles a young Charlotte Rampling), greeted me and showed me around the place. I had rented a small furnished flat which turned out to be super-cozy, warm and quiet. And perfectly located. Most of what you want to visit is in the Old Town. I will return to that flat on my next trip to Antwerp because it was comfortable and because there’s an ILLY espresso machine in the small kitchen. There’s also a beautiful all-marble bathroom.
On that first day I ended up tossing the map and got lost instead. I never did get the hang of the confusing network of winding, maze-like streets. I stumbled across a recommended bistro that I was actually looking for called Chez Fred, located at number 83 Kloosterstraat. Taking refuge from a sudden downpour, I stepped inside its dim interior and enjoyed an early dinner of Belgian beef stew accompanied by a bowl of fries and washed down with a dark Leffe beer. As I ate the fries, I thought that maybe a side of mashed potatoes would have been preferable so as to soak up the delicious gravy from the stew. Small buns and slices of dark rye bread were distributed to each diner in a little paper bag. Observation: it seems to me that the Flemish like dimly-lit interiors. Everywhere I went (including my rental apartment) I felt that another lamp was needed. After dinner I scurried back to my lodgings, dodging raindrops, and helped myself to the DVD collection there. I chose The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine (1961). Stretched luxuriously across the bed in the dim, quiet bedroom, I ended my first day in Antwerp warm, fed and happy.
The next day I hit the boutiques and found this one at number 46 Steenhouwersvest:Rundholz is a German label. The saleswoman was so engaging that I ended up in the store for two hours, talking with her and trying on clothes. In all my years in Paris I have never encountered a super-friendly, warm and helpful saleswoman.
I ended up buying this coat that Anneke is modelling (below) along with a dress and a scarf, all at a 30% pre-Christmas discount. At a nearby store I purchased a pair of ankle-length, flat boots to go with my new outfit. This is the style that many women in Antwerp are wearing: mid-calf asymmetrical skirt, layered clothing on top, flat short boots and leather handbag resting on hip, strap worn diagonally across the chest. Stylish yet comfortable.
The clothes of Carsten and Lenka Rundholz are described as follows: unconventional cuts, whimsical details and a sculptural quality to make garments that are intelligently stylish and a pleasure to wear. For women who think for themselves and have no desire to follow set trends. If you like Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons or Miyake, you’ll love Rundholz. Their collections attract women over 35, women who are confident and individualistic in their choice of style. Yup, that’s me…confident and individualistic.
I went inside and ordered a divine cup of hot chocolate for 3 euros 50. You have a choice of dark, milk or white chocolate. I chose dark. Don’t you love these large, white porcelain cups?
I have more photos and tales to tell and even a short video to post (I have a new video feature now), but it’ll have to wait until this weekend. My friend, Rosemary from London, is arriving today and we’re going out.
Afscheid! (that’s au revoir in Dutch….I think.)
Oh, here’s the accommodation link below. I stayed in Suite 2/2 The Cabin:
The high-speed train sped across the flat, snow-shrouded fields of northern France. Travel time from Paris to Brussels normally takes an hour and a quarter, but due to abundant snow and ice on the tracks the trip was lengthened by 50 minutes. By the time we pulled into Bruxelles-Midi station it was pitch black and freezing cold outside. A taxi drove me the short distance to The Sweet Brussels B&B.
Pushing open a massive wooden door, I stepped into a dimly-lit entrance hall where several flights of stairs loomed before me. I climbed the first flight and was met on the landing by a friendly Dutchwoman named Sofie who, thankfully, lugged my suitcase up two more flights of narrow, wooden stairs. Room number 3 was a massive, high-ceilinged room with marble fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous art deco lamp hanging over the queen-sized bed. Light-hued wooden floorboards stretched into the equally spacious ensuite bathroom. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.
Sofie and I chatted until I realized that it was 7 pm and I was starving. I wanted only two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal. My hostess recommended just such a place up the road. I changed my shoes and within 5 minutes was outside again.
The thing about arriving at an unfamiliar address in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are. Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it seemed that the neighbourhood was not. Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank. Like all districts around train stations, it was kind of gritty. To be fair, I learned the next day that it borders the edgy, revitalized district of Marolles and is also within walking distance of both the Brussels Midi train station and the heart of the historic city center. (Brussels has three train stations.) Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I cautiously made my way up the road in the direction Sofie had indicated.
Shining like a beacon in the dark, I saw the lighted sign of the Houtsiplou diner located on the Place Rouppe. It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for: casual-cozy, funky music playing in the background, and a friendly waitstaff who greeted me upon entering. Unravelling my multilayers of outer clothing, I chose a table next to a radiator and told the menu-bearing young man that I’d like a beer which, I suppose, is as silly as saying that you want some cheese in France. “What kind?” he asked, “Belgium brews over 300 different varieties.” In France I occasionally enjoy a dark ale called Pelforth and told him so. He let me sample a few brews and, in the end, we mutually decided on Leffe. Incidentally, the three official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (also called Flemish) and German. And if I’m not mistaken, the two official languages in Brussels are French and English.
The next thing to sample was fries because this is another Belgian specialty. Belgian fries are a national institution. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re then served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise. To die for. I ordered a portion along with a gorgonzola cheeseburger. Happy and warm, I sipped my delicious malty ale and flipped through a magazine while waiting for my meal. The place was cozy…kinda like home….with a friendly, laid-back vibe. Paris is a lot of things, I mused, but cozy isn’t one of them. And “laid-back” isn’t exactly a word I’d use to describe the Parisians either. My meal came, I ate every delicious morsel and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie for dessert.
After a round of hearty goodbyes, I stepped back out into the cold night and skidded along the slippery sidewalk to the B&B. It was time for sweet dreams at the Sweet Brussels. It turned out that, being mid-January, I was the only guest there. Thank goodness Sofie and her family live in a flat on the ground floor because I would’ve felt awfully nervous being the sole occupant of a very tall, 19th-century building. My room was silent as a tomb.
The next day was sunny and minus 8 degrees centigrade. In the breakfast room, notes from a jazz soundtrack floated through the air and to my delight I spied a sophisticated-looking coffee machine that shared the counter with baskets of bread, croissants, cereal, cheese, fruit, juices and yogurts (all for me!). Sofie came in and showed me how the machine worked. It’s Swiss-made, I learned, and the brand name is Jura. If you must know, I’m a coffee aficionado hence my interest in all things java (or, to be more specific, arabica.) At home I have a capsule-based Nespresso machine, so was interested to see that the Jura uses fresh coffee beans that are placed in a reservoir and ground for each cup. It looked expensive. And it made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.
Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place. Ringed with splendiferous gabled, gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe. I learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it’s the most stunning square in Europe.
My photos don’t give it justice because it’s the panoramic sweep, the gold and grandeur – with you standing in the middle – which makes it so resplendent:
My next destination was the nearby 19th-century shopping mall called the Royal Galeries. Here are some random street shots that I took as I walked along, periodically popping into the ubiquitous chocolate shop to warm up and sample chocolates. Notice the absence of crowds; this is why I prefer to travel in the off-season. I hate crowds.
Royal Galeries of Saint-Hubert
This jewel of Brussels architecture was constructed in 1847. Wandering through the arcades, you can easily imagine men and women from a past era strolling under the glass-paned roof. I literally spent hours in this hushed, historical space browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again), taking photos, and stopping for lunch in a tea room:
Also inside the gallery (and at other locations) is a marvellous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgian’s Royal Family.
Back outside again, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. I know I keep harping on about the cold, but not only was I afraid my camera would seize up, my fingers were frozen stiff. In another shop I purchased a toasty-warm, hand-knitted lambswool Tibetan hat. I accosted a stranger in the Grand Place and asked him to take my photo. Here’s me and my woolly Himalayan hat:
As dusk fell over the city, I made my way back to the B&B to warm up and rest before going out again for an early dinner. I returned to the Houtsiplou at 6:30 pm and had practically the same meal as the night before, substituting the burger for a hearty, homemade beef stew. And then, tired but happy, I walked the ten minutes back to the Sweet Brussels, trudged up the three flights of stairs and settled into my vast, warm, quiet room for the night, tucking myself into bed and watching The Sopranos on DVD. It had been a great day.