The Seat of Flemish Painting Delicately Preserved
Little disturbs the impression that the clock stopped in Bruges some centuries ago. The quaint city famed for the flowering of Flemish painting in the 15th century is ideally explored by open-top boats that slip past gliding swans and through the meandering canals crossed by stone bridges (in Flemish, brugge means “bridges”), and you’ll see why Bruges is called the “Venice of the North.”
Stay at the romantic Die Swaene hotel (and restaurant) overlooking a canal, wander the tourist-free town at night, with many of its preserved gabled landmarks and canals evocatively floodlit, and have the remarkable Memling Museum to yourself first thing in the morning. Within the 12th-century’ walls of the vast St. John’s Hospice, there are six perfect paintings by the seminal Flemish master Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494), while other works by him and fellow Flemish artists make up the superb collection found at the city’s other important museum, the Groeninge.
In the Market Square, concerts are regularly played on the centuries-old carillon. Bruges can pack a lot of punch: the local Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) houses Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.
On the Rubens Trail
While Brussels and Bruges attract tourists, Antwerp carries on its business. If you bypass it, though, you will miss seeing what remains of the 16th- and 17th-century golden period, when Antwerp dominated the intellectual, commercial, and artistic life of the Low Countries. Antwerp’s defining cultural landmark is the soaring 404-foot white stone lacework tower atop the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal), with its famous carillon of forty-seven bells.
In summer, Monday evening concerts at eight shouldn’t be missed. The cathedral is the city’s largest public building and the largest church in the Benelux countries with seven aisles and 125 pillars. Four masterworks by Peter Paul Rubens hang in the transept and in the choir, and are among the most emotional biblical scenes ever rendered.
Although he was born in Germany, Rubens’s parents were from Antwerp and the artist returned here as court painter and diplomat. Follow the Rubens trail by visiting the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts), which holds one of the world’s largest collections of his work. Then drop by the more intimate Rubenshuis (Rubens House Museum), a patrician mansion where the artist lived and worked from 1610 to 1640.