Monday, July 2, 2012

Haarlem, Antwerpen, Bruges

Haarlem's windmill then and now
Not getting enough of smaller-scale Holland, we headed to Haarlem, home of the original globetrotters. Not really, but a wonderful 'little' town (it's actually 150,000 inhabitants strong). We arrived quite early, avoiding the throngs of tourists. It's a very picturesque town, but many of its streets look no different from Amsterdam. Unfortunately the town's main attraction - the Sint Bavo cathedral - was closed for service. I still managed to get a few shots of the interior before being ushered out, but keep that in mind if you're visiting on a Sunday. We walked around for perhaps an hour, but ultimately there was not much to do on a Sunday - all the locals were sleeping or in church and everything was closed. Plan accordingly.

After spending about an hour in Haarlem we headed to Antwerpen (I'll use its native name here). On short impression Antwerpen is a very busy city, almost unpleasantly so. It could just be that it was Sunday though. It is a very beautiful city, but it's in a somewhat greater state of disrepair than Amsterdam. Tremendous 18th century architecture and superb selection of shops for everyone on the central Lange Nieuwe Straat, but again - very thick crowds too. The big central attraction is the Cathedral of Our Lady. An amazing cathedral that took about 170 years to build and some of the most intricate Gothic stone work anywhere. No photography is allowed and the admission price is steep. It's quite something though. The Grote Markt (great market) square is very picturesque as well, the guild houses are very impressive (corporate skyscrapers of 15th-16th centuries). We headed down to the museum of fine arts but after some fruitless walking it turned out that it was closed indefinitely for renovations and most of its collection cannot be viewed. So we headed to the Rubenshuis - house of Rubens - it really should be included in every visit to Antwerp! First of all, the tickets get you admission to both Rubenshuis and the very interesting museum of Mayer van den Bergh for just 1 Euro extra. Rubenshuis is extremely intersting for seeing both how a very rich 17th century person lived, the paintings by Rubens you won't see anywhere else, and Rubens' own collection of Italian, Flemish and ancient Greek and Roman art. Plus it's a stunning building. The van den Bergh museum is likewise unusual (it's also in a multi-story mansioin), and houses very interesting collection of medieval art, modern art, and Breugel! Breugel's famous "Mad Mag" painting is here, as are his book illustrations - you won't see them anywhere else. Overall Antwerpen has a lot more to offer if you want to shop a lot, or if you are into modern art (the MUHKA museum of modern art is supposed to be great), but we only spent a few hours here.

The first stock exchange ever
Make a note right now: if you're driving in Belgium it is not good to be driving on fumes! Service stations are: a) closed on Sundays, b) non-existant outside of towns. After a nerve-wrecking drive around the (very picturesque) countryside we were able to locate a gas station in the nick of time and proceeded onward to Bruges. After being delayed by cows heading home and blocking the traffic we finally arrived. Bruges is well Bruges. It is like a dream you can't forget. It shares much architecturally with all the preceding cities but  there is something very unique about it. If you're staying in Bruges consider staying at Hotel Adornes. It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in. The best times to walk around in Bruges are in the evining and early morning, it is quiet, drowsy and devoid of tourist hordes. Walk around the entire city - it's really not that big, but packed with interesting spots to see. Avoid any restaurants or shops in the centre of the city like the Black Plague (it's not too soon to make this joke right?) - you can save up to 20 Euroes by taking a 15 minute walk to the outskirts of the town instead. Plus you can check out neat little streets, windmills and old city gates. Definitely come back to the centre of the city around 9. Start in the beautiful market square, and check out the Bruges Belfry. We couldn't make the climb, it was still closed, but the lineup to go up the stairs is usually huge by day, so make sure to be there around 10 to get in quickly. Instead we headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady, another amazing cathedral, this one made more so by Michelangelo's world-famous Madonna and Child, as well as really interesting medieval wall paintings, the painting by Caravagio, and resting places of Charles V (the bold) and his daughter Mary. Honestly though, this church has made the greatest impression, I've felt something close to a religious experience.

After exiting the church, definitely check out the most picturesque bridge in Bruges to the left of the exit (had to wait a while for other tourists to pass), the open-air market (some very good prints there), the beautiful old city hall and to its right the church of Holy Blood - which is supposed to literally have a drop of Jesus' blood. It's taken out once a day at 11:30 I think, but even if you aren't there to see the event visit the church anyway. It is very beautiful and more intimate than gothic cathedrals. Finally, if in the mood for shopping Bruges does offer very fine chocolatiers and of course the Belgian specialty - lace! The best place for price and quality (hand-made, not machine-made) is Paul Lauver's Maison Pickery. There was a lot more to see in Bruges, but we pressed on to Ghent. I will definitely come back to Bruges though!