There are many reasons I love Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Their chocolate is some of the finest in the world. Sweet waffles are available on every street corner…and then there is the art.
After reading about the Flemish Masters Project 2018-2020, a program of exhibits, virtual experiences, restorations, and festivals in Belgium, I decided it was time to visit this region of the small western European country.
Antwerp was my first stop and I met up with a local guide, Toon Livens (Toon is short for Antoon), who first showed me around the diamond district which was teaming with gemological centres, banks and traders. The security was serious.
My first taste of Flemish art was in the home and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the home in 1610, lived there with his family, and painted with colleagues such as Anthony van Dyck. A highlight was seeing Rubens’ self-portrait, a famous work I had only ever seen in photographs. Nearby was The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic Cathedral in Belgium that took 169 years to build. Toon pointed out four masterpieces by Rubens including Raising of the Cross, and Descent from the Cross. “These two works were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France, but they were returned in the 19th century,” he explained. Rubens’ magnificent Assumption of the Virgin Mary graced the altar at the front of the cathedral and to one side was his Resurrection of Christ.
In the fall, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens after extensive renovations and you’ll be able to see one of the finest Rubens collections in Belgium. I’ll just have to go back.
My last visit in the city was to the Chocolate Nation experience, conveniently located next door to my hotel. Led on a multi-media journey from beans to finished product, I learned that in the late 1800s, ships came to Antwerp carrying tons of cacao beans primarily from Congo and Ghana. Today they also come from other places in Africa, Central and South America. Local beanologists pick only the finest beans to be roasted. Watching the chocolate bonbon-making demonstration, I was thrilled when a plate of finely crafted chocolates was passed around. They were smooth, creamy, and rich, not at all like the waxy industrial chocolate prevalent in North America. This is due to the high cocoa butter content, quality ingredients and meticulous production practices.
After a one-hour train ride I was in the fairy tale-like city of Ghent, crammed with castles, churches and shops. It was also crawling with young people since Ghent University has an enrollment of more than 40,000 students. At the massive stone Castle of the Counts I learned of the original inhabitants – Philip the Good, Count of Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth, and second wife Isabella. Not merely a home, this stronghold was the location of many grisly executions. Local guide Patty Delanghe helped unravel many tangled tales. She told me that in the Middle Ages, Ghent was very wealthy, due to the wool trade. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry really took off and Ghent remained a leading, quality cloth producer right up until the 1980s.
As we walked, I felt as if I had been parachuted into a Flemish masterpiece. Small tour boats plied the Lys and Scheldt rivers, ancient homes and businesses lined the river banks, and church spires poked the clouds.
We stopped into St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest parish church, to see The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece), a world famous work painted in 1432 by Hubert van Eyck. “It is said that his brother Jan, a diplomat and artist, completed the work after Hubert died,” Patty explained, noting that the oak panels were first covered with an extremely fine layer of chalk and then van Eyck painted the figures on in layers. Close up, the fine details of the faces were exquisite. They had a translucence almost glowed. Patty noted that in 1934, two panels of the altarpiece, The Just Judges and John the Baptist, were stolen. “The diocese of Ghent received a number of ransom notes and one panel, John the Baptist, was returned to lend weight to the demands. But no ransom was ever paid, nor was the other panel returned. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.”
Another highpoint (literally!) was the 91-meter high belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where a huge alarm bell to protect the city’s citizens resides. We also checked out St. Nicholas’ Church from the early 12th century, and the 15th century Great Butcher’s Hall where locally cured Ganda hams hang from the ceiling.
The train to Brussels from Ghent was a quick 40-minutes and before I knew it I was checked into my hotel. First stop was the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium. The Old Masters Department was breathtaking. I started off in the Brueghel Box, a room where the 16th century artist’s works were projected, one at a time, on three walls. Standing in the centre of the room, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with his cavorting villagers in the painting Proverbs then surrounded by demons from The Fall of the Rebel Angels. The gallery had many of Brueghel’s paintings, as well as those of Jacque-Louis David, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck.
For something completely different I went next door to the Magritte Museum. René Magritte was a surrealist well known for his depictions of pipes and men in bowler hats.
Brussels is very walkable, much of the historic downtown is blocked off to traffic and everywhere there is something to look at, from the statue of Manneken Pis
(the little boy peeing), to The Grand Place, or central square with its commanding Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels and opulent guild halls, sparkling with touches of gold paint.
My Brussels guide was Paquita, and she walked me through the Cathedral (officially known as St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), a mammoth structure with an interior of white stone. Most impressive were the stained glass windows, some done by Bernard van Orley in 1537. “He was the master who came before Brueghel,” Paquita explained. The Brabant Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1226 with the choir and other areas coming later including the stained glassed windows from the 16th century, the pulpit (carved from one giant piece of oak) in the 17th century, and the carillon in 1975. Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor) and Napoleon Bonaparte were just two of the world renowned figures to have passed through its doors. “To prove they were humble before God, they both used a small side door,” said Paquita on our way out, pointing to a shabby brown wooden entrance now permanently locked.
Notre Dame de Chappell is where Brueghel the Elder (his son was also a noted painter) is buried. Getting in the spirit of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program, the church has hidden small figures, recognizable from Brueghel’s paintings throughout the church. It was so funny to see the sombre Catholic statures of saints bedecked with these funny characters, including a blowfish, and a little round frog-like imp scampering up a ladder. Taking the train later, I also saw some of the same figures plastered on the walls of the station.
Belgium far exceeded my expectations. The Flemish masters laid an impeccable cultural foundation that continues to resonate today. And then there is the chocolate.
For more information: Visitflanders.com
WHERE TO STAY
Antwerp: Radisson Blue Astrid, conveniently located across from the train station. A modern, centrally located hotel.
Ghent: Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. Once the home of wealthy poet Baron Olivier Reylof and originally built in 1712. Newly renovated, the 157-room accommodation had a unique library/lounge area atop a sweeping staircase.
Brussels: The Dominican. Originally built as a Dominican Abby in the 1500s, the building was also once home to the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David from 1816-1825. A soundtrack of chanting monks fills the air and a peacefulness prevails.
WHERE TO EAT
Antwerp: Grand Café Horta, an art Nouveau structure lodged within a glass enclosure near the fabulous indoor shopping area Stadsfeestzaal, once an elegant entertainment venue.
RAS, overlooking the Scheldt river, is known for delicious seafood.
Ghent: Souvenir, a tiny gem helmed by chef Vilhjalmur “Villy” Sigurdarson. The 9-course, small plate carte blanche menu is paired wines and the dishes are largely plant-based and locally sourced.
Mémé Gusta, a bustling spot filled with families and a funky, vintage décor. The menu is comfort food, based on the owners’ grandmother’s recipes.
Brussels: Bonsoir Clara is a popular spot with locals, with Belgian/French dishes such as terrine of duck foie gras, shrimp croquettes, salmon tartare, pan-fried baby sole, and rack of lamb.
Henri’s, a tiny chef-owned operation offers a kitchen window were you can watch the action. The steak frites here are exceptional.
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