Brugge and Antwerp, Belgium

Posted on January 20, 2010


This post has been guest written by the lovely Mrs. Kaizar.

I am honored to be the first “guest blogger” for the Kaizar Dispatch! After the long flight and short train ride, I joined Mike in Rotterdam last week. Mike had a “surprise” dinner planned for me, so I braved the icy streets to meet him about 20 blocks away. As Mike has mentioned before, the Netherlanders do not know how to deal with winter water. People had been walking on the snow for quite some time, and I imagine they were surprised when the resulting slush all turned to a fairly thick, but smooth and slick layer of ice. I had several close calls, but arrived at our rondevous point dry and on two feet. Unfortunately, it was so cold that Mike’s clever surprise — a cruise on the Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake boat) — was canceled. So we will have to try again in March, since the pancakes here are awesome. They are about half way between a pancake and a crepe. There is also something called Poffertjes, which are my new favorite food. They are made from pancake batter (spiced with cinnamon?), but cooked in a special pan so that they are a little bigger than an American quarter, but very puffy and moist. Sprinkle some powdered sugar on top, and I am in heaven.
Over the next couple of days I spent time beating the jet lag (read ‘sleeping in’) and exploring on my own. I saw lots of cool modern architecture that Mike has already written about, and ate lunch overlooking the old boats in the old harbor. It was lovely. In the end, I only saw the eastern part of the city, and I look forward to seeing the western part next time. I also plan to revisit some of the buildings that are closed for January. (Go figure — Rotterdam in January is not a major tourist destination!) One building that wasn’t closed, and was one of my favorite finds in the city is the main public library. Housed in an interesting modern shell, this is six floors of multipurpose wonder. In addition to the expected books, it includes a theater, a discotech, a cafe, an online school, a strictly enforced quiet study area, and a chess center. The latter was like nothing I have ever seen. There are several computers on which you can watch famous masters’ games, and then you can try your own hand at one of a number of small boards or the giant set in the first floor lobby. Not only was it interesting to watch two obvious chess masters go head-to-head, it was amusing to watch them try to wave off the two benches full of the peanut gallery that gave a steady stream of unsolicited advice.
Saturday was a day in Brugge, Belgium. When I travel, I tend to enjoy visiting churches. I have several motivations for doing so, one of which is that they tend to be the oldest and most well-preserved buildings in town. This is not so in Brugge. Here is a whole village that is preserved in time. While I did visit two of the many churches (including Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk — who can pass up a visit to an original Michelangelo statue?), my favorite part of our time there was simply wandering the streets, feeling like a citizen of the 16th century (thankfully minus the muck).
At the center of town is the bellfry — the tower-like building that currently sports the town clock and previously was used to house the town documents — very valuable items in a time when it was important to prove that the town had its own charter. Unfortunately, the documents were all destroyed in a fire anyhow. The bellfry was also apparently (and ironically) used to alert the townspeople to fire with a large trumpet alarm. 366 twisty steps later, we also viewed the town from above. We didn’t see any fires, though. We did see the amazing clock works that includes an automated 47-bell ringer that reminded me of a giant player piano.
I agree with Mike that if you are coming to Belgium, Brugge is a must. It certainly lives up to its UNESCO World Cultural Center status. If you do go, I highly recommend a small pub (whose name I unfortunately forget) located on Gevangenisstraat across from the park. Their specialty baked pasta (spaghetti and lasagnia) in a comfortable casual setting made me feel like a local.
My last full day here we spent in Antwerp. Like Brugge, this city also has preserved a lot of old architecture, but unlike Brugge this work is predominantly wealthy, with many buildings covered with gelt carvings and other details. The main figure in town is the artist Peter Paul Rubins (known for his “Rubinesque” women), who contributed several paintings to the main church (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal).

This cathedral dominates the city with the tallest tower in the “low lands”. One look at it, and you can see why the townspeople decided that one tower would be good enough and scrapped the other four in the original plans. As is, the building took nearly 200 years to complete. Unfortunately, several cultural upheavals have stripped almost all the original art from the cathedral. Fortunately, in recent years the cathedral has begun to re-acquire some of the original works (supplemented with pieces from the same period), and are undertaking an extensive restoration project. As a result, we saw many beautiful paintings and carvings within the amazing gothic architecture. I doubt that the stained glass was original, but the windows were also very nice. Knowing Dutch would have helped immensely with the interpretations.

We also saw the oldest buildings in town, which is a medieval castle that dated back to the early 13th century. Since the interior has been converted to a maritime museum, we weren’t too disappointed to find it closed on Sundays.
Tomorrow I hit the airport for the long trip home. But, before I go, I want to comment on the one constant in all three of the cities I’ve visited. This is the constant fear of collision with a wheeled vehicle. There are bicycles everywhere, and by law they have the right of way. Cars are more careful (since it’s always their fault if they hit you), but I am totally baffled by the road/not road distinction (or lack thereof). I had planned to finish my blog entry with a photo-quiz where you, the reader, would have to guess whether the pictured throughway is a road for cars or not. But, I scrapped the idea when I realized I would have a hard time finding places that looked like they might be roads but were not. Cars simply drive everywhere — even places that look all the world like sidewalks to unsuspecting Americans. So, when you are ambling, look out!

Traffic notwithstanding, my trip has been wonderful. Many thanks to Mike for putting up with me and my Pannenkoeken cravings, and agreeing to share my trip with you.

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