Au revoir, Antwerp

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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.

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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 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.

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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:

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My last waffle and coffee at the train station.  Bye-bye, I’ll be back!

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:ANTWERP Dec 2013 067Rundholz 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.  ANTWERP Dec 2013 062

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.

ANTWERP Dec 2013 064Back to the flat, which was 5 minutes away.  I passed the Gunther Watté Chocolate Café at number 30 Steenhouwersvest.ANTWERP Dec 2013 072

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?

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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:

Antwerp, fashion mecca

This weekend I’m off to the Belgian city of Antwerp, historical riverport located in the northern (Flemish) region of Flanders.  I’ll be spending Christmas Eve there because I want to experience Midnight Mass in the famous Cathedral of Our Lady, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  Here’s a brief description:

The cathedral has seven aisles and 125 pillars.  Its tower is the tallest church spire in the Low Countries.  Its impressive interior has sweeping Gothic lines and soaring vaults, all in gleaming white. The furnishings are a mix of Baroque and Neoclasssical styles. The cathedral houses four Rubens altarpieces. 

Peter Paul Rubens (28 June 1577–30 May 1640), Flemish Baroque painter, lived and worked in Antwerp.  You can view his work in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.

In 2003 I attended Midnight Mass on the 24th of December inside the famous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church of Florence, Italy.  Better known as Il Duomo.  It was memorable.  And I’m neither Catholic nor a regular church-goer.  I’m looking to relive the experience.

I love old cathedrals, train travel in Europe, and art.  I also love shopping.

Travel time to Antwerp is exactly two hours from Paris and because I booked in advance, I only paid 45 euros for a First Class train ticket. The train station, called Antwerpen-Centraal, was judged by Newsweek magazine as the world’s fourth greatest train station.

But I’m not going for the train station.  I’m going primarily for the shopping.  Because Antwerp, you see, is a fashion mecca and I need some winter boots, shoes and other items.

It all started with a man named Dries van Noten.  He was part of a group of designers known in the fashion world as the Antwerp Six.  They all graduated from the fashion department of the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980’s; their unusual designs, which combine exquisite fabrics with sculptural cuts and a touch of whimsy, have been hits on Paris runways and beyond.

The success of Mr. van Noten and the other group members (Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela, to name a few) has turned their hometown into a fashion mecca. Many of the designers have flagship boutiques in Antwerp, while other shops specializing in Belgian-designed clothing and accessories draw devotees from as far as Tokyo.

And that’s basically all I can tell you at the moment because I’m not there yet!  Stay tuned for photos and commentary.

Here’s a great travel guide entitled 12 Hours in Antwerp that I’ll be using.  It also features 12 Hours in London, Vancouver, Portland, Berlin, Copenhagen and other cities.