After walking through the red light district last night, though I might have done one more church or one more museum, I decided I was done with Antwerp. So I got up relatively early and planned to be on the 9:00 train to Ghent. I thought I would eat breakfast at the train station, either in the Royal Café or at Panos, where I had a nice yogurt-granola thing for lunch yesterday. The royal café didn’t have any gluten free breakfast items. Neither did the little Panos near my track. So I ran downstairs to where we’d had lunch yesterday. No yogurt. I tried a couple of other cafes, but it seemed the yogurt distributors of Antwerp had yet to make it to the train station. By this time my departure was nearing, so I grabbed a koffie verkeert and some gorp and boarded my train for the 50-minute trip to Ghent.
I was seated near a nice older couple with a fluffy dog – Donna, an 11-year-old papillon. William would have adored her. The journey started off normally enough, but the train seemed to go slower and slower as we went on. When we got to the town of Lokeren, it stopped completely. On the next track, a taller train pulled up and stopped as well. We waited. And waited. The conductor came on and made an announcement in Dutch. Pretty much all I understood was something that sounded exactly like “We stand here still.” The dog lady translated that there was some kind of power failure and they didn’t know how much longer we would be there. It was forever. And when we started again, it was not at a normal pace. I could have biked faster than this train.
To make matters worse for myself, I made the stupidest of beginner’s mistakes: I had neglected to find out which of the Ghent train stations I was supposed to get out at. My guide book was silent on the subject (bringing to mind Bill Bryson’s remark that he had a guidebook so patently useless he wasn’t going to name it, except that it should have been called “Let’s Go Get Another Guidebook.” Mine was a Lonely Planet.) Neither station had a helpful name like “Ghent Central,” but I had Sint-Pieters in my head as the correct one. But I neglected to take my computer down to the lobby in the morning and check. Papillon lady asked me which was my stop, & I confessed I wasn’t sure. “I think Sint-Pieters,” she said. So I took the word of the lady with the lapdog, and as soon as we passed Gent-Dampoort and I saw the church spires receding into the distance, I knew I had made a bad decision. It turns out that neither Ghent station is all that close to the historic center, but Dampoort is closer. And it took another 15 minutes for our train to crawl on to Gent-Sint-Pieters. I got oriented with a signpost map and started trudging north.
Finally I reached my hotel, a converted convent, checked in, got a map, and headed for the Ghent altarpiece. But given the paucity of my breakfast, I was going to have to find something hearty for lunch before I could face Jan van Eyck. I crossed St. Michael’s bridge into the beautiful medieval heart of Ghent and the first restaurant I encountered was an Irish pub with a veggie burger, fries & a salad for 10.50 euros. Score!
And the waiter was a Limerick University student, so I didn’t have to feel guilty for speaking English to him, and “No bun, please,” did not get lost in translation. And they had cider on tap! Score! Thus fortified, I poked into the St. Nicholas Church and used the stinky but free bathroom in the belfry basement before confronting the Ghent Altarpiece, known locally as The Lamb of God.
This complex, multi-paneled altarpiece is the founding work of Northern Renaissance painting, its Beowulf or Divina Commedia. Adam and Eve and the rear panels are under restoration, and the whole thing is behind a wall of bulletproof glass, which definitely needed some Windex. Thus viewing conditions are far from ideal. But it still takes your breath away. First of all, and I know I keep saying this, it’s big. Really big. Christ and the Virgin and St. John are all massive. I don’t think there’s any kind of precedent for them in panel painting; I think they must have been inspired by sculpture. Then the details are just delicious. You can’t get nose to nose with the gems on the hems of the gowns like we did in Bruges, but you can still see that they’re amazing. The faces of the angels singing, the organ, the jeweled crown, the peacock feathers on the angel whose censer is frozen in motion, the landscape backgrounds – it all has a level of detail that is almost insane. And comparing the lower lefthand panel, a copy of the real thing which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered, with the genuine one next to it is revelatory in person in a way that doesn’t come through in reproduction. Probably the guy who painted it was a really good painter, but literally next to Jan van Eyck he looks like a clown.
I spent an hour with the Lamb of God, did some wandering around, and then realized I was passing the design museum. Since Amsterdam I’ve had a flyer for a Peter Behrens exhibit there in my notebook. It was nearly 4:30, so I went in and asked the man selling tickets if an hour & a half were enough time to see the museum. “Oh, yes, certainly,” he said. So I bought a ticket. Now, if any of you were concerned that I had lost my ability to geek out on things (like Renaissance printing) that have previously fascinated me, let me set your minds at rest: I enjoyed the hell out of the design museum.
The Peter Behrens exhibit was visually terrific. It set the stage nicely with examples of Jugenstil, a few of his early paintings & the famous Kiss woodcut. Then it got into the variety of his output – architecture, furniture, plates and glasses and cutlery, typefaces, logos, electric fans, and so on, comparing his tableware with place settings by Henry van de Velde and Richard Riemerschmid. Really interesting. There were lots of things crying out to be drawn, but I wanted to see more of the museum & didn’t have time to spare. I went through the period rooms quickly but spent more time in the Art Nouveau section. Glass by Daum Freres and Emile Galle. Fantastic neo-Rococo silver by the Belgian jeweler Philippe Wolfers. Wonderfully simple designs by Christopher Dresser. I got up close to a Louis Majorelle chair and the workmanship was just superb. One itinerary focused on ornament and led to Art Deco, the other on structure, simplicity of form, & led to mid-century modern. Then I had to decide – stop and draw, or see more? I decided to press on, and I was glad I did, for the top floor featured an absolutely hilarious display of postmodern design. Who ever thought this was a good idea?
I left the design museum when it closed, missing the whole bottom floor, an exhibit on a designer of pop album covers, I think. Wandering half a block, I made the impulse decision to take a boat tour. This would have been better had the guide not been translating everything into at least 4 languages (Dutch AND German? Really?) and if the noise of the engine hadn’t drowned out two thirds of what he said, but it was cool to see the city from the water, and it was a gorgeous day. We passed a terrace restaurant in the boat, & I decided I wanted to at least look at the menu. There was an eggplant & goat cheese entree; the waiter comped me some mashed potatoes because he was worried I wouldn’t get enough to eat. Lovely dinner, lovely day in Ghent – once I finally got there.