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Cruise Diary ~ BALTIC CAPITALS

Bruges & Antwerp, Brussels
Chocolate, Beer & Diamonds 

Belgium seems somewhat schizophrenic from an American point of view. Three languages are all "official" and, depending on where you are, you'll hear Flemish, French, or German. However, everyone is hospitable and English is widely spoken.

Bruges

Our day began in Zeebrugge, the port for Bruges and one of the fastest-growing seaports in the region between La Havre and Hamburg. 

Known as the "Venice of the North," the perfectly maintained, walled medieval city of Bruges was our objective for the day. A walking tour took us past lush green parks with swans gliding across a lake formed by an ancient lock system. A motor boat ride through the city canals (no gondolas here) revealed typical Danish architecture--mostly brick with the distinctive stepped gables for which the area is noted.

The symbols of Bruges are the swan, lace, and the town's belfry. A mama swan and her four babies greeted us and we window shopped for exquisite laces after watching lace ladies sitting in doorways practicing their craft. However we decided not to climb up the 366 steps of the belfry, opting to enjoy the sounds of the carillon from the Grote Market, the huge market in the center of the city. Naturally, we had to try some Belgian fried potatoes (do NOT call them French fries here!) and they were delicious with a local beer. Belgian chocolate certainly is the best in the world. A confirmed choco-holic, I can't get enough of it.

A real treat in Bruges was viewing Michelangelo's beautiful sculpture Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady. Another of Bruges' religious treasures is a fragment of cloth said to be soaked in the blood of Jesus. During an annual festival it is carried through the city and is displayed only on Fridays in the church, the oldest Roman style building in Flanders.

Antwerp

Diamonds are indeed a girl's (and Antwerp's) best friend. It's here that 70% of the world's diamonds are sent for cutting, polishing, and setting. Antwerp's traditional brick buildings are interspersed with stark, modern skyscrapers, and beautifully detailed art nouveau and art deco structures. Heavily damaged in World War II, modern buildings replaced more traditional ones. That practice has stopped and the facades of historic buildings are now retained, although the interiors are updated with modern conveniences.

Broad squares and monuments are located throughout the city center. The 17th Century home and studio of Antwerp's favorite son, Peter Paul Rubens is as much a treasure of contrasts as is his birthplace and his artwork. The original house is typical of the architecture of the period; however, after spending time in Italy, Rubens returned to Antwerp and built a shocking Italianate studio right next door. His work reflects this change in style--staid and somber until his creativity was unleashed in Italy when he began creating flowing works with bright primary colors and a sense of movement. In the suburbs, well-to-do citizens seemed to follow his example, building mansions inspired by castles and Italian palazzos. Even a bank replicates a French castle.

Antwerp has a vibrancy that begs further inspection and a longer visit sometime in the future.

Back to the Baltic Capitals Cruise Diary index


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