Visiting the Belgium Trifecta of Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen
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Trust me, it's not Lady Godiva chocolate or the amazing variety of beers that made me go to Belgium twice in the last five months. In January, I was invited to Brussels for the prestigious annual art and antiques fair known as BRAFA. Five days were hardly enough to see all the great art and architecture there, but still I was able to squeeze in a tour of a few dozen of the Art Nouveau buildings for which Brussels is especially famous. A visit to the home of the father of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta, is simply a must.
In May, I returned to Belgium, this time to see the new MAS museum in Antwerp, which I talked about in my previous program. My hosts knew about my interest in seeing and discovering more of Belgium, and generously offered to send me on a tour of three other important cities, Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen. The challenge was that every day I would arrive in a new city, fall in love with it and, heartbroken, have to leave it the next day to travel to yet another city, where I would fall in love once again.
So, here I am — in Bruges — for the first time, but it feels like I already know the city. I fell in love with it several years ago via the charming movie, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell. My hotel is conveniently close to the city's central square where much of the movie's action takes place. The Gothic architecture of the buildings surrounding the square is so theatrical, so spectacular that I can't help but return there every couple of hours to savor the splendor of the scenery in the different light of day, evening and night.
Bruges is full of great works of art, but definitely the most famous of them is the exquisitely detailed and shimmering-like-a-jewel triptych by Jan van Eyck, The Madonna with Canon van der Paele, of 1436. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call this painting, displayed at the Groeningemuseum, the Mona Lisa of Bruges.
Ghent, compared to Bruges, is a little bit less picturesque as a city, but at the same time a little bit more real, though it's still full of the great architecture and romantic canals that make you feel as if you're traveling back in time. A little way from the city center, in a beautiful park setting, there are two major art museums facing each other: the contemporary art museum known as S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst) and the Ghent Museum of Fine Art, with an impressive collection of Flemish art including works by Heironymus Bosch and Peter Paul Rubens.
In the city of Mechelen, one of my guides turned out to be a charming 20-something young woman who, believe it or not, spoke seven languages. She even promised that, next time I visit her city, she will be able to greet me in Russian. And, actually, I do believe her. It was a Sunday and this Medieval city was full of the sound of music, and music of a very particular kind. The famous bell tower of Mechelen, which has never been completed, nevertheless still majestically presides over the whole city, which the birth place of the wonderful carillon music.
Since the Middle Ages, this kind of music, played with hundreds of bells, has spread all over the world. I followed my guides to the top of the tower, up all 575 steps, trying my best not to drop dead in the middle of the journey. The celestial reward for my suffering was to observe, up close and personal, a musician playing on a keyboard connected to hundreds of bells, ranging from tiny to huge, producing the most mellifluous sound which is still ringing in my ears.
To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.
Banner image: Jan van Eyck, Madonna with Canon van der Paele, 1436. Courtesy of the Stedelijke Musea, Brugge