Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lokeren again; or, Rookie errors

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.

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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!

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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.

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Not my photo – I’m pretty respectful of “No photography” signs

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. 

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Self-portrait in Behrens Electric Teakettle (in the permanent collection – you couldn’t take photos in the exhibitions)

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?

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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.

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Parting is such sweet sorrow

On our last morning in Antwerp, we took Mitchell back to the Chocolate Line in Het Paleis & bought a lot of chocolates though not the one marked “bacon” with the smiley pig face.  Honestly, do you think that pig would be smiling?  The boys decided they were done with Antwerp, so we went back to the hotel, gathered up our luggage, and went to the station.  We had lunch & I hung out with my family until putting them onto a very crowded train for Rotterdam, where they would transfer to the Schiphol train. 

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I went and checked into the very basic hotel near the station where I would spend one night, then I went to find the Mayer van den Bergh museum to see Pieter Breugel the Elder’s Dulle Griet, or Mad Meg as they call her in English.  This is not exactly a house museum though it feels like one because it was built to house the collection, not the collector, who died in his 40s; his indomitable mother dedicated the rest of her life to creating the museum.  The collection is kind of a mish-mash, with lots of interesting bits and pieces.  Mayer van den Bergh was a pioneering collector of Breugel, who was considered in somewhat poor taste in the 19th century, and the first person to tease apart the personalities of Pieter I and his sons Jan I and Pieter II.  He also collected some Dutch and Flemish still-lifes, some portraits, some Gothic sculpture, a little maiolica, a few manuscripts, a 15th-century shoe I made a drawing of, and so on. 

Each month the museum picks something to highlight – tulips, say, or Wise Men.  This month it was St. Anthony Abbot, whose emblem is, oh yes, the pig.  I finally learned why, or rather that no one really knows why.  In the middle ages, the Antonine order was allowed to let their pigs run free, in gratitude for their care of the sick.  Anthony was a saint invoked for protection against the plague, so one theory is that since pigs eat garbage and therefore control the vermin population, they help him protect against the plague.  Another theory is that the pig stands for gluttony, one of the temptations St. Anthony had to battle. 

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Follower of Marten de Vos, Landscape with the Temptation of St Anthony, detail, c 1600. Museum Mayer Van den Bergh

I had been planning to visit the Maagdenhuis afterwards, another small museum specializing in northern Renaissance painting, but I didn’t leave the Mayer van den Bergh until after 4, so there wasn’t enough time.  Instead, I went north to see St. Paul’s Church, which houses 3 Rubens.  A choir was rehearsing in the nave, which was a heavenly accompaniment to the paintings. 

I had to leave at 5 & then decided to go to the MAS, the new city museum reminiscent of a stack of shipping containers in the port area, even though the museum part was closed.  The panoramic walkway was open until late at night and I wanted to see it. So I checked my route and negotiated the most direct route from St. Paul’s church to the MAS.  Mistake!  My map did not see fit to inform me that the most direct route from St. Paul’s to MAS was right through the red light district.  Lots of women in lingerie standing in windows.  It was only a little after 5, but being gray and rainy it felt later.  Not unsafe, but a little creepy.  The MAS too felt a little desolate in the drizzle; no one was lingering on the rooftop to take in the spectacular view.  In most cities you would have to pay for a view like that, but the panorama was free. 

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View from the MAS – maybe about the 4th level of 10

I worked my way back to the historic center, carefully avoiding the red light district, and looked for a restaurant near my hotel.  I’m a little ashamed to say I went back to Wagamama, but I wanted protein, didn’t want cheese croquettes, and didn’t want to feel self-conscious about eating alone.  Then back to my room, where the free wi-fi refuse to penetrate – hence my delay in posting. 

Antwerp

Rick Steves doesn’t gush about Antwerp, so let me.  First of all, the very train station is a remarkable fin-de-siecle building of the type that usually got demolished somewhere in the 1950s.

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Secondly, although the Grote Markt or big square is just as beautiful and much older and more authentic than the Grand Place in Brussels, which was all rebuilt after Louis XIV flattened it in 1794, it is not shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists wearing Belgian beer t-shirts and buying reproductions of a stupid little peeing statue.

Sharon & Alan, Grote Markt (big square), Antwerp

Sharon & Alan, Grote Markt (big square), Antwerp

Thirdly, Antwerp has real artistic chops.  Rubens lived here, and Jacob Jordaens and the Brueghels. Van Dyck trained here before going on to glory in England.  And the city is proud of its artists, erects statues to them and names streets after them – Teniersplaats, Adriaan-Brouwer Straat, etc.  Sadly, the main art museum, KMSKA, home to a tremendous collection of Flemish painting from the Renaissance onward, is closed for restoration until 2017, but some of its pieces are scattered throughout the city.

On our first afternoon in Antwerp, after shoehorning all of our luggage into the closet of our lovely hotel and eating lunch near the Grote Markt, we visited the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Kathedraal.  The Cathedral of Our Lady is not just a big gothic building stripped of its altarpieces, as in Brussels, but still has several magnificent and very significant works by Rubens, especially the Raising of the Cross in his heroic style, the synthesis of the near decade he had just spent in Italy before returning home to Antwerp and painting it, and the Lowering of the Cross from a couple years later and less interesting to the boys as it does not contain a fluffy dog.

Rubens's Elevation of the Cross, with fluffy dog

Rubens’s Elevation of the Cross, with fluffy dog

These were hugely influential paintings for the history of Northern Baroque painting.  After seeing these, Alexander said, “Now we should see the Resurrection,” and I said, “Right over here!” but unfortunately that Rubens is under conservation and was not on view.  But there is a spectacular later altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin over the main altar.  And during the restoration of the NMSKA, the cathedral is housing an exhibit of some of its religious  works.

Then went to the Rockox House. KMSKA has installed an exhibit called the Golden Cabinet there, focusing on the collecting practices of Antwerp’s elite.  So Rockoxhuis works mingled with KMSKA works like the spectacular Jan van Eyck drawing of St. Barbara and the triptych Rubens painted of his friend Nicolaas Rockox and his wife, now back in their residence. The exhibit was very well done, including a film at least William paid attention to; he could tell us that some seashells cost as much as a car today.  After the museum we revived with coffee on the Grote Markt, checked into our hotel, and had dinner at an elegant Thai restaurant on the waterfront.  After dinner we strolled around the Steen, a fortress on the riverfront, and read about the Canadian troops who wrested the port from the Nazis and reestablished its connection to the North Sea, at great loss of life.

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The next morning Mitchell went out on his bike, and the rest of us headed on another Rick Steves walking tour from the cathedral to Rubens’s house, passing the statue of Rubens on the Groenplaats and ducking into what may be the most beautiful chocolate store in the world, in a rococo palace later owned by Napoleon and the Belgian crown.

Like kids in a candy store

Like kids in a candy store

This was just around the corner from the Rubenshuis, where we saw the palace Rubens built in Italianate style and furnished lavishly as he became the most successful artist in Europe.  For a small museum, they had an awful lot of works on loan, including something I would really have liked to have seen – from what I could gather, a device for starching those ridiculous collars.  The boys were not terribly engaged, but it was very interesting seeing where the master lived and worked.

Alexander & William stealing Rubens's grapes

Alexander & William stealing Rubens’s grapes

We met Mitchell at the station and had lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant before the kids & their grandparents headed for what is apparently one of the great zoos of Europe and Mitchell & I checked out the history of printing at the Plantin-Moretus Museum.  This highly reviewed attraction was the home of one of Antwerp’s great publishing families and contains the oldest existing printing presses in the world.  I thought I would geek out on it, but the espresso after lunch didn’t touch me at all, there was simply too much information, & I was having trouble staying awake.  But the zoo was proclaimed Saucesome by William.  Dinner was tapas on the Grote Markt – my last night with everyone.

Brussels non-museum day

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Monday dawned cloudy.  There would be no museums open today.  So we decided to do a walking tour of Brussels, starting in the Grand Place.  Alan narrated from Rick Steves’ Amsterdam et al., which fortunately included a fart joke to keep the boys engaged.  We learned about the buildings in the Grand Place – why do people insist on calling them medieval when they date to the later 1690s? We visited the original Belgian shopping mall, which originally charged admission.  We saw a beautiful Victor Horta monument to the fin de siècle mayor who saved the Grand Place, which Leopold II (Boo! Hiss!) wanted to pave over to make a nice straight road to his palace.  We ate chocolate. 

ImageImageFinally we saw the almost comically underwhelming Mannekin Pis, subject of innumerable crappy souvenirs and not much bigger than many of them. 

 

Meanwhile, Mitchell biked to Oudenaard.  You’ve probably never heard of Oudenaard, but it’s a hotspot of the spring biking season, the famed cobblestone classics.  You’ve probably never heard of those either.  But Oudenaard even has a museum devoted to the cobblestone classics.  Tragically, as it was Monday, the museum was closed. 

The rest of us had lunch at a creperie and pondered what to do next.  Our options: a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which had essentially nothing to do with Brussels, or the European Parliament.  Alan and I were interested in seeing that, and its interactive museum-like exhibition, miraculously open on Mondays, was supposed to be excellent.  So we started trucking east.  We crested the museum mount and passed the royal palace. 

ImageWe headed into the Eurozone part of town.  And there before us were the gleaming buildings of the European Parliament.  We followed the green arrows for the Parlamentarium, donned left earphones attached to fancy media guides, and began the tour.  Realistically, it would take hours to get through it all.  It started with utopian federal ideas generated in the 19th century and heated up by the devastation of World War I, then they followed the process of forming the EU after WWII, and then there were vignettes from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and so on until the present from every EU country.  Each of these had a text explanation and many had associated audio as well.  The next floor involved information about EU representatives and programs.  You could wheel a console around a map of Europe and pause it on a country of interest to get loads of data about that state.  You could access the biographies of all the parliamentarians.  You could sit in comfy, unmatched chairs and choose different stories to watch – I saw one on an Argentinian dancer who emigrated to Spain and opened a Pilates studio with EU microcredit, one on a Lithuanian park ranger who cares for storks, whose populations are healthy in eastern Europe, declining in the west, and one on an Irish dairy farmer who loves his cows.  Alan confessed that he could have stayed there a day or two, but eventually we had to emerge for coffee. 

Image We decided to walk all the way back to our hotel, detouring past the soaring cathedral where we heard the organist warming up for a concert.  Mitchell was already back – he had biked up to the Parlamentarium but missed us. 

It was Sharon and Alan’s 51st anniversary, so we went to a nice restaurant, Kom Bij Ma, drank bubbly, and celebrated their remarkable partnership.  Many happy returns!!

Brussels museum day

In Brussels, as in many cities, the museums are closed on Monday.  All of them.  So on Sunday, we were making a point to see museums.  It was raining pretty hard when we woke up, so we decided to take the metro.  I gave the boys a quick tutorial on metro map reading that should serve them well in any number of major cities if they heard a word I said.  Our destination was the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, particularly renowned for its Bruegels; at breakfast I got the Auden poem out.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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My sons were, let’s say, not really excited about another morning spent with the Flemish primitives.  We saw a lot of great paintings, including another gory justice diptych, this one by Dirck Bouts.  Not all of them were primitive – there were beautiful works by 17th century artists like Rubens (studies of the head of a moor, several enormous altarpieces), van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders.  Oh, and the Bruegels, of course . And not all were Flemish:  Rembrandt’s portrait of Agatha Bas’s husband was there (I never remember the poor man’s name), and so was the Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, probably the most significant painting in the museum.

When we were sated with art, we went to MIM, the musical instrument museum in a fantastic old Art Nouveau department store, and took the elevator to the top floor to enjoy their magnificent brunch buffet.  We had heard that the food was much better than in the Musee des Beaux Arts, and, well, this was the view:bELGIUM 067

Since the boys were not all that jazzed to see the comic strip museum, which Rick Steves said might be boring for kids, we decided instead to go to BelVue to learn about the history of Belgium, which would undoubtedly be boring for kids.  Having read King Leopold’s Ghost, about the brutal exploitation of the Congo, I knew more than the average American’s zero about Belgian history, but it was still nearly all new.  We learned that Belgium was formed in 1830 out of the same unrest that toppled King Charles X of France.  We learned that the Belgians had to recruit a king, not having one of their own handy, and ended up with Queen Victoria’s uncle, and her husband’s uncle.  Yes, the same person, Leopold I.  We learned some of the crimes of Leopold II, but you’d have to read the Ghost book for a fuller account.  And we learned about the glorious heyday of Belgian Socialism at the end of the 19th century.

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Having finally tortured my children enough, we went back to the hotel, had a cold drink at the bar next door, and went for a light dinner at a local Belgian restaurant, where we had to try the Grimberger Abbey Phoenix beer, both light and dark (and their definition of a small beer is huge!) and drink lots of wine as well.  The fries here were the best yet in Belgium, and that’s saying something.

Sick kid

Some of you have had the dubious pleasure of breakfasting with William on a bad day. He’s sullen, dictatorial, incapable of being pleased.  Well, yesterday was a very bad day.  He didn’t want to get out of bed, despite the fact that he had taken a bath and retired early the night before.  He complained every step of the way down to breakfast.  I gave him coffee with what might have been creamer – it was in the pitcher next to the coffeepot but looked a little more beige than milk.  He said it tasted horrible.  I switched my own coffee, made with what was definitely warm milk, with his, and that was acceptable.  He complained that he had a terrible headache, so I said he could have an ibuprofen as soon as he had some food in his stomach.  There were mini pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants), which have been a fairly safe bet so far, so I gave him one & he tried & lamented that it tasted horrific.  Hmm, pain au chocolat tastes horrific?  What’s wrong with this picture?  He whined that his head hurt.  He had a sore throat.  He needed to spit.  And the next thing we knew he was losing his breakfast on the patterned carpet of the Hotel Aragon.  I tried to shepherd him up to our hotel room; he got sick in the elevator as well.  Finally he lay down in bed and accepted a cold washcloth over his eyes.

By this time it was nearly 9:00, and checkout was at 11.  Alan had been planning to take the boys for a canal tour that morning while I checked out another museum, and then we were on to Brussels, an hour away by train.  But how were we going to transport a child this sick?  Would one of us have to stay behind with him in Bruges while everyone else went on to Brussels?. Alan asked the front desk clerk to extend our checkout time for that room, and she gave us until 12:30.  Alan and Sharon went out with Alexander, I headed for the Memling museum at Sint-Janshospitaal, and Mitchell stayed with William; I promised I would be back by 11 and we could switch off.

I was hoping to see three works by Memling at the Sint-Janshospitaal. I had structured a whole lecture around one of them, contrasting his St. Ursula Shrine with Carpaccio’s St. Ursula cycle in Venice.  But I had never seen the shrine in person..  And when I teach northern Renaissance, I also show his St. John Hospital Altarpiece and the stunning Maarten van Nieuwehove diptych.  Everything else was gravy.  And there was a lot of gravy.  There were cool medieval liturgical objects and a section devoted to medical history – lots of interesting objects to draw if one had the time & the inclination. The Memlings were beautiful, and there were four more than I was expecting, including a lovely portrait of an unknown woman and two small triptychs.  Unfortunately the reverse of the wings was not well enough illuminated for me to see if St. Wilgefortis was depicted with a beard (the miracle that kept her from having to marry and spoil her virginity).  The ticket also included admission to the hospital pharmacy, where you could imagine the sisters brewing up concoctions for their patients.  I wondered what they might give William.

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Out of time, I hurried back to the hotel to find William just waking up (I did bring him some mint tea) and Mitchell content to keep chilling in the hotel room with him, so I rushed off to see the cathedral and its treasury where I did a hasty drawing of a 13th C Limoges bishop’s crozier featuring a figure handing his or her head to an ecclesiastic.  I would have said St. Denis, but the head had long hair.  A mystery.  Back at the hotel, William had recovered enough to be poking his brother and extorting foot rubs.  But when he was asked to sit up & get ready to leave, I thought it was all over.  Tears.  “I can’t.”  “I’m not going to be able to walk.”  He’d kept the tea down & a cookie, though, & we  urged him into his shoes and out of the room.  We walked slowly down the street to a gorgeous square where we found a restaurant.  We told him he did not have to eat if he didn’t feel like it.  He did want one of our cheese croquettes, though, and two iced teas, and he poached fries off of everyone’s plates.  And that was it.  He was recovered.  He was fine.

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We taxied to the station (Mitchell biked), got all our bags out, & got tickets for Brussels.  Getting all our luggage onto the train was a challenge, but we managed, then arrived at the right station (of 3 possible Brussels choices) and took a cab to our hotel.  Mitchell’s directions to the hotel were from a different station, but he decided to bike anyway and figured it out just fine.

bELGIUM 041 I could chat with the cab driver.  We are in a unique small hotel – each room has an international theme instead of a  number.  Ours is Saigon, and the boys are in Istanbul.  It’s on a plaza that was once a fish market and that is now covered by open-air seafood restaurants.  Very Parisian and totally charming.  We ate out of doors at a restaurant our hotel manager recommended but where the only choice for vegetarians was exactly what we’d had for lunch, cheese croquettes & salad or cooked vegetables.  Oh, and french fries.  Alan had escargot; Alexander ordered fish soup.  Everything was very good, and we love the energy of all the outdoor restaurants.

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Good byes

Belgium biking 045The final day of a bike trip like this often involves very little biking, as people have trains to catch and places to go.  Today’s ride was 11 miles and the beginning looked very familiar as it was exactly what we had done yesterday with Evan.  We rode under the bridge with the mirrors, out past the deer pastured along the dirt bike path.  Instead of stopping at knotpoint 70, we kept on going (“That’s my nettle patch!” I told Mitchell) and eventually circled back into town. waiting at least ten minutes for a raised drawbridge to lowe so we could cross back into Bruges proper.

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We showered, gathered up our belongings, and went to lunch – soup, salad, fries, and waffles.  Then we all said our good byes, hoping that our paths will cross again in the future.Belgium biking 056

In the afternoon, Sharon, Alan & I went to the Groeninge Museum, almost right next to our hotel.  I knew Jan van Eyck’s Canon van der Paele Madonna was there, one of the great paintings, one I have taught every time I teach the Northern Renaissance but had never seen in person.  It was larger than I expected but no less beautiful.  As Suzanne says, no one has ever painted like Jan van Eyck, before or since.  The level of detail is so remarkable.  The gemstones along the hem of the Virgin’s gown:  pearls, lapis lazuli & what looked like agate, each painted with such verisimilitude you would have sworn you could touch them.  The sheen of armor, the glow of candle flames.  Amazing. But there were other masterpieces there as well – van Eyck’s portrait of his wife, Hugo van der Goes’ almost hallucinatory Death of the Virgin, and Gerard David’s Judgment of Cambyses, a textbook (meaning I teach it) example of northern realism in its gory depiction of a corrupt judge being flayed alive.  It too was larger – and harder to take – than I expected.  In addition to the Flemish not-so-primitives, there was also a haunting pastel/colored pencil work by the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff and a creepy early Magritte.

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Mitchell had taken the boys to the vintage bike shop, to see Viking artifacts at the Crown Plaza Hotel, and into a random cathedral to kill time before meeting us back at the hotel at 3:30.  We all went together to the church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna.  Our tour guide had touted this as Bruges’s most beautiful work of art; I was thinking at the time that the van Eyck might be stiff competition. Unfortunately, the Michelangelo lives in a chapel that you are not allowed to enter.  You have to look at it from several yards away.  We also saw the tombs of Philip the Bold and Mary of Burgundy.  Here is what that boys thought of the church:

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Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words of unremitting boredom.  Agh, they’re making us look at Burgundian tombs.  Brains leaking out ears!!! Afterwards we took a taxi to our new lodging, Hotel Aragon, which disappointed William by not being either Hotel Eragon or Hotel Aragorn.  Dinner was Italian – that’s always fun because Italian restaurants here always involve Italian waiters, so I get to speak some Italian.  Tomorrow we go to Brussels to see how I do with French.