Belgium - Cities of Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent - Orlando / Florida Guide
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With its mixed cultural communities and colourful history of political division, perhaps it should not surprise us that a closer look at quiet, unassuming Belgium reveals an impact of European and global art and culture of remarkable proportions. The artistic Flemish cities, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent illustrate perfectly the links between medieval glory days and a spirit of artistic innovation that is very much alive to this day.
Bruges was a medieval commercial hub, largely due to its location on the river Zwin providing easy access to the North Sea. Business boomed, reflecting and coinciding with the emergence of the innovative and vibrant Flemish school of Art. With the sitting up of the river in the 15th century coinciding with political upheaval, Bruges fell into oblivion before emerging in the 19th century as an almost perfectly preserved medieval town for the embryonic tourist industry. From the bustling Grote Markt, a picturesque central square lined with former ‘merchants’ houses to winding cobbled streets, labyrinthine canals and the romantic Minnerwater, the Venice of the North ooze charm. It is breathtakingly pretty, a photographers dream and not without reason does it enjoy UNESCO world heritage site status.
As Bruges fell out of flavour, so began a rise in Antwerp’s fortunes to become very much the global city it is today, having built on the cosmopolitan foundations created in the 16th century, when foreign merchants flocked to the city. Diamonds have been traded here for more than 550 years, indeed 85% of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through Antwerp. A trip to the Diamond museum provides a tantalizing insight into a sparkling world that is uniquely Antwerp. In the 1990’s the city reinvented itself as a Fashion city and a sense of style pervades the streets. This summer sees the Dries Van Noten exhibition at Momu, a must for all fashionistas. No visit would be complete without a visit to the Rubens house, the artists 17th century home and studio. The nearby Fine Arts museum houses more of Rubens work than anywhere else in the world. His legacy sits alongside pieces by Breughel, Van Eyck and Rembrandt, with Ensor and Magritte welcoming the visitor in on the ground floor. Though badly damaged in the Second World War, Antwerp has been and continues to be sympathetically developed, marrying the medieval charms of the Grote Markt with the provocative modern architecture of the Museum aan de Stroom via the splendour of the Gare Centrale to the simply wonderful Middlelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum. The importance of the city’s maritime heritage is embraced with the Red Star line Museum relating the story of the city’s role in the lives of the 2 million emigrants to the USA between 1873 and 1934.
Similarly, the juxtaposition of old and new is very much in evidence in dynamic Ghent. The Van Eyck brother’s masterpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, considered one of Europe’s greatest works of Art, is displayed in the beautiful 16th century St. Bavos cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the Pavilion, A prime example of contemporary architecture. Ghent is a festival city, from Light festivals, to film via Jazz and flamenco, the city’s pretty canals and medieval architecture provide the perfect backdrop.
As three former medieval maritime metro poles, stylish Antwerp, fairytale Bruges and creative Ghent all offer photogenic waterside vistas and myriad terraces for drinking in the atmosphere, accompanied by local moules frites and a glass of the local brew.
Gastronomy is an art in its own right in this Flemish triangle and whether your choice be chocolate lipstick from the Chocolate Line in Bruges, gooey raspberry noses from Ghent or the splendid sweet stickiness of a waffle whilst wandering the cobbled streets, your sensual satisfaction is guaranteed.
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