Friday, 19 June. After breakfast at the hotel, we drove into Antwerp and found the old city center surprisingly quiet. We visited the Grote Markt with its beautiful Town Hall, guild houses, and the Brabo Fountain. We walked to the nearby Cathedral of Notre Dame (14th-16th century) which had three large paintings by Rubens. Next we visited the Steen (13th century but renovated often), a small castle at the entrance to the city center. (It is now a maritime museum.) The castle was the first thing in Antwerp that the boys actually wanted to see. It gave them a chance to let off a little steam as they explored every nook and cranny at top speed.
On leaving Antwerp, we drove through the sleepy town of Sint Niklaas and into Ghent, a fascinating city. We parked in the Groentenmarkt, the former vegetable market and once the site of the town pillory. The long square was surrounded by old buildings. We started our tour at the tall Belfry (1300), originally built to protect crucial documents but which now houses a carillon.
We walked to the east end of the square to St. Bavo Cathedral, with its mix of architectural styles. The church contains many masterpieces, including Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb” (1432). Walking back to the west toward St. Nicholas Church, we passed the Renaissance-style Stadhuis. We had so much to see that we only took a quick look inside St. Nicholas Church (13th century). (Because they can be seen in a row when viewed from a certain spot, the towers of the Belfry, St Nicholas, and St Bavo comprise the “three towers” that constitute a city landmark.)
Leaving the square, we continued west to the Leie River to see the old guild houses along the facing Korenlei and Graslei Quays.
Further along the river, we toured the Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen) (orig. 1180). This was for the boys as well as for us. Not only could they run around the walls, but there were dungeons, cells and torture rooms. There also was a fantastic view of the old city from the tower. Another historic sight we encountered, just opposite the castle, was the world’s oldest carwash.
As we walked back toward the Groentenmarkt, the boys got another thrill when we passed the huge cannon known as “Mad Meg” (Dulle Griet), 17 feet long and weighing 16 tons. According to one story, when this cannon was fired for the first time (15th century), the barrel cracked and the cannon ball plopped into the water a few feet away.
Returning to the car, we drove to Bruges and checked into the St. George Hotel, right on the Burg. The Burg is a square in the center of the old city, surrounded by the Stadhuis (1376-1420), the Court of Justice, the Basilica of the Holy Blood (1149), and other important old buildings. It was just before 17:00 when we checked in, and the proprietor told us that we had just missed the veneration of the Relic of the Holy Blood, held only on Fridays. We felt very bad because we easily could have been there an hour earlier if we had known.
But there was no sense wasting any more daylight, so we immediately set out to explore the city center. The Burg was right in front of us, so we started there. We rushed over to the Basilica of the Holy Blood just in case. There were several people outside, but the veneration was over, the relic had been put away, and the church door was locked.
Next we took a close look at the Stadhuis. It is said to be the most beautiful town hall in Belgium. Immediately to its left stands the Old Civil Registry in renaissance style (1537). To the left of that, on the site of the long-gone Brugse Vrije (Free Bruges) building (1531), is the former Court of Justice (1727), now a tourist office. Inside is a famous 16th century chimney piece in wood, alabaster and marble, to commemorate the victory of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V over the French.
Bruges is unusual in that it has two central squares. Just a few steps from the Burg is the Markt, a larger square and almost as old. It, too, is surrounded by centuries-old buildings. The historical difference between them is that the Burg was the administrative center of the city, while the Markt was the commercial center. At one end of the Markt was a tall (260 feet) Belfry with a commanding view of the old city.
About this time Dennis started feeling sick. It was getting late, too, and we hadn’t eaten dinner. We took Dennis back to the hotel so he could rest, and the rest of us went to the Louvre Restaurant. We brought something back for him and by then he was feeling better.
Saturday, 20 June. After an early breakfast at the hotel, we thought we’d see if the Basilica of the Holy Blood was open. It was, so we looked through the church. It was originally built in the 12th century to house the Relic of the Holy Blood brought back by crusaders, but it has seen major changes through the centuries. The Chapel of the Holy Blood is on the first floor (i.e., one flight up).
The blood is contained in a bottle made of rock crystal which has been scientifically dated to the 11th or 12th century, about the time it was brought to Bruges. Since its arrival in Bruges it has never been opened. The blood apparently is congealed, but is said to liquefy on special occasions. (We are a bit skeptical about all of the relics the Crusaders brought back from the Holy Land.)
We visited the Markt again, now that the open air market was open, and bought a few things. Then we walked a few blocks through the narrow lanes to the Church of Notre Dame, built in various architectural styles (13th-15th century). Its tower is the highest in the city (375 feet), but the church’s principal attraction is a beautiful marble statue of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. We had seen his Pieta in Rome (our favorite sculpture), and this Madonna probably did not measure up to that. Nevertheless, though, it was breathtaking. The tombstones of Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold, also in the church, were impressive as well.
We continued on to the Minnewater (Lake of Love), a spot so lovely and peaceful that it is difficult to believe that it was once the inner dock for Bruges. Nearby we visited a Beguinage. Originally that meant a community of beguines (woman belonging to a religious or charitable association whose members wore habits, but were not bound by perpetual vows). But this Beguinage was occupied by Benedictine nuns who wore the 15th century costumes. They apparently supported themselves by making fine lace. It was so beautiful and delicate that we had to buy one piece in spite of the price.
We walked back to the hotel to get the car, then were on the autobahn to Brussels by 10:00. The traffic in the city was terrible, and it was difficult to find our way around. We had intended to take a hotel here and stay overnight, but I soon realized that it could take us hours just to find a hotel. We decided to start our touring and see how far we got.
To our surprise in view of the traffic, we were able to park easily in the Grand Place (Main Square). Like the squares in Ghent, this one was surrounded by lovely old buildings. But the scale was much grander by comparison. It must be the most magnificent town square in Europe. The buildings include the City Hall (Hotel de Ville)(1405), the King’s House (1405), and several guild houses.
Even the boys were impressed, but that doesn’t mean they were interested. So we took them to see Mannequin Pis (1619), only a short walk away. On the walk there, we bought some more pieces of handmade lace. On the way back to Grand Place, we bought some tapestry pieces and also ate lunch at Le Snack Bar.
By the time we got back to the car, we had decided that we’d head for home. Even though we had seen very little of Brussels, we’d had all the sightseeing we could take. It was just 15:00 and we were roughly five hours from home. We were in no mood to start looking for a hotel again.
We had to drive east for about an hour (through Louvain and Tongeren) before we picked up an autobahn near Liege. After that it was clear sailing. However, we nearly had a mishap at the German border. There appeared to be nothing but open autobahn in front of us as we drove along at 140 kph (87 mph), the natural autobahn cruising speed for our Mercedes. Suddenly, we spotted a small barricade across the road ahead, just as we passed a small sign directing traffic into a one-lane exit leading to a border station. The sign was at the exit, not before it. Darrell hit the breaks hard and was able to stop short of the barricade, but it added a bit of excitement to the ride. We arrived home in Heidelberg around 19:45 without further incident.
Altogether we drove 2030 kilometers (1260 miles) on the trip. We spent $310 on hotels, meals, gas, and other travel expenses (about $6.50 a day per person). We spent another $156 on purchases.