Dan, Elizabeth, Charlie, and Laura exploring Ghent
We’re traveling for week in Belgium with our friends Dan & Laura and their kids Charlie & Elizabeth. Our first stop is Antwerp which I learned to my surprise is the largest city in Belgium though Brussels has a larger metropolitan area. It’s prominence is a result of the port, which to this day is the second biggest in Europe (behind Rotterdam, neither of which would I have guessed would be so high on the list).
During Antwerp’s golden age in the 16th century it was even more prominent. For a time it was the second largest city in Europe north of the Alps and one of the major financial centers of the Western world; an enormous share of the wealth from the Age of Exploration at that time flowed through the city’s banks. The result today is some wonderful architecture that’s still standing as well as a history of artistic excellence; it was, after all, the home of no less than Peter Paul Rubens. Thus the major attraction for us at least was Cathedral of our Lady which holds four Rubens paintings. Another church worth seeing was St. James, where Rubens and his second wife Helena Fourment.
Peter Paul Rubens’ home in Antwerp includes many paintings by artists he admired but also some of his own works. This one, titled Moses and his Ethiopian Wife, really caught our eye. Wait, Moses had a black wife? Yes indeed and the artist here, Jacob Jordaens, wanted you to know it.
We had but three nights in Antwerp and one of the days we left the city to take a train southwest to Ghent. If I thought Antwerp was a beautiful city – and I did – we all thought Ghent was a seriously beautiful city. Ghent was also once a rich and important city, center of what was then Flanders’ wool industry. And as we saw in Antwerp when those old Dutch merchants got rich they built some nice pads.
The artistic masterpiece in Ghent is the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert & Jan Van Eyck. The 15th century piece – which spent much of WW II buried in a salt mine for protection – is kept in a somewhat claustrophobic room in St. Bavo’s Cathedral where a weird guy comes in at 1:00 PM every day to close the outer panels so one can see the backs as well. He comes in and loudly hushes everyone (who have become impatient because he’s at least 10 minutes late) before muttering “Jesus” not at all under his breath. Strange experience.
Beyond the lovely old cities and some great art the real reason for going to Belgium was to hang out with the Germains. This is the third time we’ve traveled with them, after spending two weeks in Greece together in 2015 and two weeks in Italy in 2016. We missed last year but hopefully we won’t miss many more summer vacations.
As I said, much of the reason we’re in Belgium is to visit the Germains. Our visits have become more fun as Charlie & Elizabeth have become young adults and old enough to share our favorite pastime. If you’re wondering, Laura is there too; that’s her arm you see in the foreground.
Fortunately, they’re not too old to still have fun
Mark & I in Ghent
Me & Laura
Charlie demonstrating how tiny a doorway and whole house really was in Ghent
Mark, Laura, and Elizabeth
A castle in Ghent
An ethereal Jesus on marble
A portrait of Nicolaas Rockox painted by Rubens’ last and most important teacher, Otto van Veen. Mark liked the display of that thing below that creates the ruffled collar you see in all these Dutch paintings.
Another Rubens painting in St. James Church. In this one he has painted himself as St. George over on the left. Get it, Rubens as St. George? And in St. James church no less??
A statue in St. James
Here is one of my favorites – pages from the first atlas ever published, a 1570 collection of every map then known in the western world. I remember even when I was young just staring at atlases imagining all the amazing places in the world. And they all started with this one.
European train stations are usually fabulous, but the station in Antwerp seemed notably so
And finally, Mark & Laura, still besties after meeting at the University of Michigan back in the early 1980s