Friday, July 19, 2013

On to Antwerp

Our original plan for this summer was to spend it biking along the Danube and Rhine Rivers. We got to do a bit of the former until floodwaters on both rivers forced the change of plan that brought us to Holland. Our entire experience with the Rhine, now, is to cross it twice by ferry boat, and to ride a dozen kilometers along its dikes.

Except that in the Netherlands, the Rhine is no longer the Rhine, or even "de Rijn," but rather the "Waal." Starting roughly where the Rhine enters Holland from Germany, it becomes a confused set of channels and canals, of which the Waal is the largest, carrying about 2/3 of what had been the Rhine. The Waal and its side channels intertwine with the Meuse (or "Maas" as the Dutch call it) and Scheldt Rivers further down, and also with canals that head north to Amsterdam and points in between. A drop of water coming in from Germany might end up in the North Sea 150 km later by heading pretty much due west, or it could emerge perhaps 100 km further to the south, and maybe even hit saltwater 250 km to the Northeast, by taking canals to the Ijselmeer. It's a jumble.

It's also a water management issue. We used to think that Holland mainly had dikes along the North Sea. No, they have them everywhere, since everything is interconnected, and almost any river or canal can flood from storms raising the sea to fury, or from floodwaters coming down the rivers that enter the Netherlands from Germany and Belgium. Biking along a river in Holland almost always means biking along its dike.  Sometimes, with wooly challenges.

The Waal of course has sizeable dikes, which make a good viewing platform to watch the equally sizeable amount of traffic heading up and down the river. If you stood where you could look 1km up or downriver, you would wait a very long time before there was no boat in sight!

The next day we rode to another ferry landing to cross the Maas. Running a ferry here means looking both ways before you cross the river!

We were on a 250-km course toward Antwerp to visit a new friend, Riet, courtesy of an introduction from our Wisconsin friends Cordelia and Jazz. Riet suggested we route ourselves through the small city of Heusden on the Maas, a place that is off the Lonely Planet radar and aso that of almost all non-Dutch tourists. It was charming. Coming into town we briefly explored the old town fortifications and moats, then the center of town where the old city gate still stands, then the harbor: quaint bridge; a windmill and a mill keeper who was winching it into the wind; a town square filled with bikes and surrounded by ancient buildings. Heusden is a thoroughly charming place, as throngs of Dutch tourists confirmed this Summer Sunday afternoon.

About a third of our 250 km from the Veluwe in Holland to Antwerp was in Belgium. About 5 km before truly getting into Belgium, however, we rode through a bizarre outlying section of Belgium that is completely surrounded by Holland. It's the world's most complicated border, thanks to a decision in 1843 to divide 5200+ parcels of land in this district between Holland and Belgium, depending on whether the owner at that time was Catholic or Protestant. There are now 27 islands of Belgium completely surrounded by Holland, and within the two largest chunks of outlying Belgium there are a half-dozen pieces of Holland, islands within islands as it were! Numerous attempts to make it all "normal" have failed, and the residents of Belgian Baarle-Hertog and Dutch Baarle-Nassau live with their geopolitical anomaly just fine.


Helping us along to Belgium was the only trail we have encountered in Holland that appears to be a rail trail. An amazingly tall wildlife observation tower alongside it gave us a chance to show you the trail and the surrounding countryside along the Dutch-Belgian border.

Our first city truly and firmly inside Belgium was Tournhout, where we were introduced to a fascinating aspect of Belgian history: the begijnhof. Spinsters and widows had limited options in the Middle Ages. One of those was entering a convent, but women of some means were loathe to surrender all their worldly possessions, as religious orders demanded. With a spurt of early widowhood thanks to the Crusades and other medieval mayhem, the begijnhof ( in French, "beguinage") was created as an alternative. A widow or spinster purchased her home there, in an enclosed community surrounding a church. Gates were closed and guarded at night. A certain amount of religious activity was expected, but less than in a convent, and the "beguine" could use her inheritance to make her home as comfortable as she chose. She was aso free to be courted and to marry -- only that she then had to leave the begijnhof for her new husband's home. Though it spread somewhat to south Holland, northern France and parts of Germany, it is Belgium where it most flourished. It lasted long after the Middle Ages, and a few begijnhoven still had beguines as recently as a decade ago.

Luckily, begijnhoven have been preserved in many Belgian cities. Turnhout's was still almost entirely enclosed, and peaceful. One older woman smiled at us and said something in Dutch as we walked by her home. We suspect there may still be rules about who can live there, but are pretty certain that religious service and celibacy are no longer part of the regimen.

We were told that Belgium in the past decade has been building bicycle paths alongside almost all its intercity roads other than superhighways, and we were able to make our way a little faster than in Holland, something we'll discuss further in an upcoming blog. Of course, Belgium also has its dike trails along canals, and we did some 25 km on those as well, a few on the very busy Albert Canal, the rest on much smaller and quieter ones.

Turnhout had been a thirty-minute mid-day visit; on the advice of the Lonely Planet guide to Belgium, which we recently downloaded to our iPad mini, we spent the night in Lier, a good choice. It too had a begijnhof, with part of the outer wall now facing the town basketball court. Some inner sections looked quite modernized and livable, though others were unoccupied and a glance through the windows showed why -- they need massive restoration. The town square was equally charming and, yes, the town hall tower was truly built in 1369!

We had dinner at an outdoor cafe on the market square and found that our table matched the location where an historic photo was taken in 1900. Many of those buildings were damaged by German shelling in World War I, then rebuilt in the 1920s. As in Holland, we found that old Belgian cities also invariably have a market square, almost always with the city hall on one side. Our friend Riet told us later that she could never find the center of an American city, because she could never find a market square. She thought it very odd that we would fail to have such a useful place.

Our lodging was the Hof van Aragon, and its breakfast room had been part of an orphanage in 1580. We got a better reception to our request for "more, please" during our breakfast than Oliver Twist did.

Nearby, the cathedral is receiving a much-needed cleaning and restoration, as the photo dramatically demonstrates. Inside, a stained glass window colorfully depicted something big that took place in September of 1475.

Our last leg was from Lier to Antwerp, a mere 25 km, so we swung out to see Mechelen first and doubled the distance. Mechelen has for centuries been the home of the Archbishop of Belgium, and thus of the Catholic Church there. St. Rombout Cathedral was suitably impressive. One window shows 7th century St. Rombout blessing 20th century King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, while the exuberantly carved base of the pulpit illustrates the conversion of St. Rombout, which occurred when he was thrown from his horse.

Of course such an important church also had a suitably impressive tower, this time with half-price for thse 65+ willing to climb its 500+ steps. There was much to see along the way: a view from above of the cathedral organ, the human treadmill used to winch building material up the tower, more than a few bells, the oversized music drum that plays pre-programmed tunes, and the carillon "keyboard" that one plays -- vigorously --  with hands and feet for extemporaneous bits of music. We were glad for the many excuses to stop and catch our breath.

From the top we had a fine view, including one down to the city hall and market square, filled with carnival rides that week for a "Kermis," or festival. We also got to preview a dike trail we found ourselves on thirty minutes later.

At last we found Riet's home in Antwerp and began a four-day visit that created a new friendship. One of those nights we biked a few kilometers down the cobbled streets to an outdoor cafe, where a waiter dutifully recorded the scene.

While Riet went off to work, we headed to the center of Antwerp with a list from Riet of "must-sees." The small botanical garden had some unusual things coming up out of the ground, and a totally new take on the idea of a "rock garden."

The main event was the home of Antwerp's most famous resident, Pieter Paul Rubens. He actually collected a lot of paintings by others, which the museum has, whereas his own work is now in leading museums worldwide, so only a few of the many paintings there are actually his. Two that are are an early work, "Adam and Eve," and a depiction of the Annunciation, when Mary is told she is to be Christ's mother. It was done after his visit to Italy, where he learned much about light, color and the depiction of movement. The home itself was also an attraction; Rubens worked hard to portray himself through his home as a successful and cultured artist.

Nearby is a small but excellent museum created for the collection of a wealthy early 20th century Antwerper, Mayer van den Bergh. These five portraits of the members of the Vekemans family were painted by Cornelis de Vos, a contemporary of Rubens. Perhaps the best paintings are "Mad Meg" by Pieter Breughel the Elder, and two others by his eponymous son.

We had one more destination to check off, Het Steen, an 800 year old castle that is the oldest building in Antwerp today. It also is home to one of its oddest statues, "Lange Wapper," a character from Belgian folklore. Along the way we admired the exuberant Belgian architecture and architectural ornament, especially the statues.

Since Riet did have that job to go to, we took off for a one-night visit to Ghent, taking the train from Antwerp's cathedral-like Central Station.

It was a low-key, low-expense visit, mainly walking about and taking in the Flemish architecture, similar to but a little more ornate than we've been seeing in the Netherlands.

We particularly admired the complex roof lines.

Ghent, too, has a 12th century castle close to the center of town. In the 19th century, Ghent became "the Manchester of the continent," and the castle became a cotton factory! It's now back in full "castle" mode, and we've seen plenty in the past few weeks, so we just took the photos from the outside and moved on.

Our visit with Riet was a great break in routine, a chance to connect with someone who could give us insight into life in Belgium. Riet is also a book-lover par excellence, and we had much to discuss, particularly Louise, who has been going through more than a book a week on this trip. It took very little to wind the two of them up for an hour-long discussion of great novels, new non-fiction, movies about books, book collecting, you name it! We must admit, Riet has quite the advantage, as she is equally at home reading in Dutch, French or English, and she doesn't do all that badly in German, either.

After we left, Riet sent us some photos she had taken, including a few candids we didn't know she was shooting. One night we stopped at a supermarket, picked up some food, and cooked dinner for the three of us. Riet was amazed -- she had never come home to her own apartment to a meal prepared by someone else. We got many thanks.
The day we left, a Sunday, Riet got a rare "feet off the ground" photo of us setting out, and we arranged to meet two hours later at an ancient fort on the outskirts of Antwerp that hosts an open air book fair once a month in the summer. One more chance to talk books over lunch, this time at an outdoor cafe. We weren't tempted, as there were rather few books there in English and nearly all our books these days are e-books, but we wondered if Riet would be rearranging her bookshelves that evening to make room for something new.

We are now on our way through the Dutch province of Zeeland to the Hook of Holland, where we catch a ferry to England in a week.

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