Cruise Diary ~
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.
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.
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
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