When you hear the word “Belgium,” what comes to mind? Waffles? Chocolate? Maybe a good beer?
My first visit to Belgium was on that long-ago European trip with my family, when I first got hooked on travelling. I remember liking this wee country a lot. Yes, the waffles were pretty awesome, but so was the architecture. And the artwork. Everything I saw and tasted in Belgium instilled in me my lifelong interest in architecture, art, and regional cuisine.
But I haven’t been back to Belgium since. Because, truth be told, Belgium is one of those countries you fly over or travel through on your way to some more exciting place, like, um, Paris. (Guilty.)
Which is why, after spending two months in Amsterdam, I decided to finish my European summer with a return visit to Belgium.
But here was my dilemma when I started planning my trip to Belgium: I wanted to visit three different cities, but had only five days in which to do it.
Three cities in five days? Was I crazy? We North Americans are fond — at our peril — of overestimating how small European countries are, and even though Belgium is one of the smallest of Europe’s many small countries, it seemed a bit of a foolish plan to me.
What’s the point of travelling if you don’t challenge yourself? I decided to give it a go, and resolved to hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in the country.
Which I did. I skipped the overpriced hotel breakfasts and began each morning in a café. Over my latte and croissant each morning, I planned my attack. This was my only time to dawdle and got me up and out the door early since I can only wait so long for coffee. Which meant I was able to cram a lot into each day.
Brugge was my first stop. This small, medieval city of almost 120,000 people is located just a few miles from the North Sea. And before I go any further, let’s get something out of the way. Brugge (pronounced BRU-huh) is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. It’s become popular with English-speakers to call the city by its French name (Bruges), which makes no sense to either me or the Belgians — I can only assume it’s because of a certain Hollywood movie.
Brugge means “bridge,” of which there are lots in this medieval town. Canals, too.
Despite my strong memories of Brugge from my first visit, what surprised me this time was how medieval the place is. No idea why I was surprised by that, but it was delightful. And so this photographer spent a happy two days here, clicking away to her heart’s content.
I started off here, at the Markt, or market square, the centre of Brugge’s medieval centre.
The Markt is dominated by the Belfort. There are a lot of belfries in Belgium and northern France. (In fact, the Belfries of Belgium and France, more than 50 towers in total, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Originally built as watch towers, they all house bells. This one was built in the thirteenth century and has a 47-bell carillon.
Then I was off to the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love. Yeah, it’s romantic, but really, just so peaceful and beautiful. And you actually can’t avoid it as it’s right on the way from the train station to the centre of the Old Town. I could have easily spent an entire afternoon here, but I had to move on.
I had more canals to photograph.
Turn around from the above spot, and you see this, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady).
And this church was the main event for me during my visit to Brugge, because of this.
That would be Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. My lifelong love affair with Michelangelo’s work began when I first saw this piece, oh so many years ago. My second viewing was no less mesmerizing. It is the only artwork by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime.
Brugge is full of tiny alleys and medieval buildings. On the other side of the above alley is the Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry, below, at left). To its right is the Stadhuis or Town Hall. Built in the fourteenth century, it’s one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries. Both of these buildings are located in the Burg, another square in the Old Town that is just around the corner from the Markt. And with that, I had come full circle and it was time to move on.
My next stop was Gent. I’m still in Flanders, but I’ve travelled east and am now about midway between Brugge and Brussels. Gent is about double the size of Brugge and proof that there are other lovely medieval cities in Belgium besides Brugge. It too has a belfry.
Also many lovely canals.
And … a castle!
I didn’t have enough time to check out the Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) on the inside, because this is what I came to Gent to see.
It’s another stunning piece of art. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is located in the Sint-Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral), which is behind the Belfort in the photo up above.
Of all my stops in Europe last summer, Gent was where I spent the least amount of time, but did the most walking in one day. (Now that’s hitting the ground running.)
My last stop was Brussels. I had one goal here: to do some night photography in the Grand Place, one of the most impressive squares in all Europe. Sadly, my plans were thwarted by some miserable weather and dozens of market stalls in the centre of the square, which were empty, so I have no idea why they were there, but they certainly ruined any chance of a decent photo.
Brussels is an interesting mix of old and new. It’s the capital of the European Union and has shopping streets that wouldn’t be out of place in Canada. But then you turn a corner and see a street scene that reminds you of Paris. Also like Paris, security was noticeable but not obtrusive, and completely expected given recent events in both those cities.
Brussels also has a couple of iconic characters. First, there’s this guy.
That would be Mannekin Pis. He’s not very tall. A bronze statue and fountain have stood on this street corner for some 400 years, and there are all sorts of urban legends as to who he is and why he has been memorialized in this way.
And then there’s this fellow.
The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé first appeared in 1929 and has been translated into 100 languages. Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world? And Brussels has an entire trail of comic strip murals, which I did not get to see, thanks to the heavy rain that kept up for the entire day. As it was, I had to scurry from coffee shop to church to restaurant in an effort to keep somewhat dry, which only worked so well.
Eventually, though, it was time for me to head to the airport to fly back to Canada. If I could have, I would have added at least one more night to my stay in each city, but, even so, my whistle-stop tour through Belgium was so worth the effort.
Because, as far as I’m concerned, Belgium is highly overlooked and underrated.
And has far more to offer the world than just waffles and chocolate.
Given that I’ve ranted on this blog about my frustrations with the Vancouver Art Gallery, wrote about how I visited the best museums New York has to offer as an antidote, and started off this summer’s series of posts describing my week in Paris with two art-mad nieces, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Amsterdam’s # 1 rated attraction (according to Trip Advisor).
No, I’m not talking about the Sex Museum.
The Rijksmuseum is home to the national art collection of the Netherlands. If you didn’t know, you will after visiting this museum how much the Dutch revere their artists. Most of the second floor is taken up by what they’ve named the Gallery of Honour, with The Nightwatch by Rembrandt as its focal point.
And if you didn’t know, you will after visiting this museum that there is a bike path that runs through the centre of it. The Rijksmuseum went through a massive renovation (was supposed to take five years, but dragged on for ten), reopening to much fanfare in 2013. One of the hold-ups was the plan to alter the entrance and remove the bike path.
Turns out the Amsterdammers didn’t much like that idea and the architects were sent back to the drawing board. (It is fascinating to me how much power cyclists have in this city. But that’s a topic for another post.)
For the rest of this post, I’m going to let these images speak for themselves. And make a recommendation that if you only have time for one museum during your next visit to Amsterdam, make it this one.
Of course, if you truly are a fan of Rembrandt, you really need to go to Museum het Rembrandthuis, or the Rembrandt House Museum. Located in Amsterdam on Jodenbreestraat, it is where Rembrandt lived from 1639 until 1658.
The museum provides an excellent window into how Rembrandt lived and worked. It is able to do this because there exists a comprehensive inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions and furnishings.
Why does such an inventory exist?
Because the guy went bankrupt. His possessions and the house were sold in 1658, after which Rembrandt rented a smaller house in another part of the city. He lived there until his death in 1669.
The house on Jodenbreestraat was bought by the city of Amsterdam in the early 1900s, and opened as a museum in 1911.
I’ve written before how much I like smaller art museums dedicated to a single artist; this museum is one of my favourites and I visit it every time I come to Amsterdam. The building next door to the original house is now a gallery where Rembrandt’s etchings are displayed. As fascinating as the reconstructed living rooms and studio are, the experience of seeing a roomful of Rembrandt’s etchings is easily the highlight of a visit to the Rembrandt House Museum.
Vermeer gets a lot of attention in this country, but then, so does Rembrandt van Rijn. He was born in Leiden and The Night Watch is arguably the most famous of famous Dutch paintings.
And so, when I went to Leiden, I decided to follow the Rembrandt trail. It’s not much of a trail, but it provided a nice structure to my four-hour walk through Leiden.
First stop: Rembrandt’s birthplace. The house is no longer standing, but here’s a plaque to mark the spot. Rembrandt lived here until he was 25.
Turn around, and you see this tableau in a little square called Rembrandtpark.
The building in the centre of this next photo is the Latin School, which Rembrandt began attending at age 10. All classes and exams were conducted in Latin, and it was here that Rembrandt had his first drawing lessons.
And the mill in this last photo is located directly across the Rhine River from the house where Rembrandt grew up. Rembrandt’s father was a miller and although this was not his mill, it is a reconstruction of one that stood on this spot when Rembrandt was a boy.
Rembrandt was a tad more prolific than Vermeer — it is thought he made about 300 paintings and 400 etchings in all. When I look at the above photo, what I see in my mind’s eye are the many landscapes he did of the Dutch countryside.
You’re all wondering how I could write a post on Delft and not make a single mention of one of its most famous residents.
That would be Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft in 1632, died in Delft in 1675. Painted maybe 35 paintings (that we know of), three of which are in the Frick in New York. (I still can’t believe that one collector got his hands on 8 percent of Vermeer’s oeuvre.)
If you’re a fan of Vermeer’s work, you might want to start your day in Delft at the Vermeer Centrum. It’s a small museum dedicated to his life and work.
One particularly innovative display allows you to put yourself in his studio, as if you were the subject of one of his paintings.
Be sure to ask at the front entrance for a map of the Vermeer Trail. It’s a self-guided walking tour of all the places in Delft significant to the life of Vermeer.
Including this street scene, supposedly the setting of The Little Street. My friend and I concluded it was a bit of a stretch — if it was the setting, both of the houses on either side have been completely rebuilt. (On the other hand, not far from this street is the street where my friend’s father was born and where he claimed The Little Street had been painted.)
One site there is no argument about is where Vermeer was buried. That would be in the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Here’s the memorial stone.
The painting (and book and film) that has renewed interest in Vermeer and his work is The Girl With a Pearl Earring. The shops in Delft are not above exploiting the painting’s popularity.
None of Vermeer’s paintings are located in Delft, sadly. For that, you need to go to The Mauritshuis in Den Haag (some 10 kilometres west of Delft) or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Or the Frick in New York.
Every time I am in Paris, I make sure to stop by the Musée Rodin. It is, in my opinion, the most perfect of art museums.
I love the Musée Rodin because I love Rodin’s work, for one, but I also love it because it is located in such a beautiful setting and because it is the perfect size for an art gallery: it’s neither too big nor too small.
There are a number of similar, smaller museums in Paris — the Musée Picasso and the Musée Delacroix come to mind — and if you have a particular artist you want to explore in depth, you would do well to spend your time in one of these smaller museums and avoid the larger museums where the tourists tend to gravitate.
The Musée Rodin is housed in an eighteenth-century mansion known as the Hôtel Biron. At various points in its lifetime, the mansion was home to a Roman Catholic cardinal, the Russian ambassador to France, and three nuns who opened a boarding school for girls. In the twentieth century, the owners began to rent space in the building to artists, including Henri Matisse, and then, in 1908, Auguste Rodin. Rodin took over the entire building in 1911.
Also in 1911, the French government became the new owners of the Hôtel Biron, and after exacting a promise from the government that the building would be turned into a museum of his work, Rodin donated most of his sculptures. In 1919, two years after the death of Rodin, the Musée Rodin opened to the public.
In contrast to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou is a much more manageable art museum. For one thing, its permanent collection is displayed on two levels that are easily covered in one visit. And for another, its emphasis is much more focused: modern and contemporary art from 1905 to present day.
There are a couple of bonuses to the Centre Pompidou as well: the splendid view from the fifth floor, and the incredibly fascinating architecture of the building, which opened in 1977.
If the crowds of the Louvre prove to be too much for you, I recommend a visit to the Pompidou as the perfect antidote.
When you spend a week in Paris with a couple of art students, it’s inevitable that you end up spending much of that week in the city’s art museums.
And when you choose to visit the world’s largest and most-visited art museum, it’s inevitable that you end up spending a considerable amount of time in line waiting your turn to enter.
That art museum would be the Musée du Louvre.
The line was long. Very long. And here’s a pro tip: if you neglect to ensure you’re in the correct line before you begin your wait, you may well end up having to go to the back of yet another line, thus doubling your wait time.
Which is what happened to us.
Here’s another pro tip: do not try to see the entire museum in one go. It is physically impossible. The Louvre used to be a royal palace, and the result is a confusing layout that is more maze than museum. If you were to walk through every one of its 403 galleries and down every one of its corridors, you’d cover 14.5 km and 15 acres containing more than 38,000 objects and pieces of art dating from ancient civilizations to the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m exhausted just from typing out that last sentence.
My nieces and I started in the sculpture galleries and the girls were both awestruck by what they saw and overwhelmed by the crowds around pieces such as the Venus de Milo. Because we knew we had to pace ourselves, we stopped to have a bite to eat in one of the Louvre’s many cafés, intending to tackle the Italian Renaissance paintings after our break.
But fate intervened, and an announcement over the PA system in French and English that the Louvre had to be evacuated due to a “security incident” thwarted our plans. We never did find out what the incident was — I suspect it may have been due to the record-breaking rain storm earlier that morning — but when I told the story to a friend who had been in Paris a year earlier, she recounted her experience of being evacuated from Versailles for what they eventually discovered was a thermos inadvertently left unattended.
We had waited more than two hours to spend scarcely an hour inside the Louvre. But we also wanted to be safe, and these days, in Paris, you cannot blame the museum or the police for being overanxious and overcautious.
We never did go back to the Louvre — we had other museums to visit and the girls decided they had seen as much of the Louvre as they needed to see. For myself, I’m glad we didn’t make it as far as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That gallery is a bit of a gong show and unless you’re small enough to squeeze to the front of the crowd or tall enough to see over the selfie sticks, you will walk away disappointed. At least my nieces were spared that.
This photo shows some more of the art you can see in New York. At left is a photo by Richard Avedon and to the right is a painting by Guy Pène Du Bois. The sculpture in between is by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an American sculptor and art collector.
When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney offered her collection of work by American artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was refused. So she turned around and opened her own museum. The Whitney Museum of Art, which focuses on American art, opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village. It has had a number of homes since then, but its latest, a purpose-built building at the south end of the High Line, opened in 2015.
The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.
That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.
Or New York.
A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.
A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.
And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.
The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.
The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.
I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.
If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.
Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.
The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?
The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.
The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.
Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.