H and I missed our winter break this year and were both champing at the bit for a weekend away by the time March arrived. Malaga sprang to mind, recommended by a friend as somewhere to explore or to sit in cafes and watch the world go by but the flight times didn’t work for us. Instead we plumped for Antwerp, anticipating gloomy skies but interesting things to see. What we got was a gloriously sunny, warm weekend plus a trip to one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. After the success of last year’s railway adventures, we decided to travel by train. Not very different from flying in terms of time but so much less painful and if you’re going to Antwerp you arrive at one of the city’s finest sights: the stunning Centraal Station, a veritable cathedral of train travel. As usual we walked our socks off exploring the city but I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account, just the highlights.
Regular readers may remember that I have a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture. I have no idea why – it doesn’t sit well with my taste for most other things, free of frills and fuss. Perhaps it’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and there was plenty of that on show in Zurenborg, a short, sunny Saturday morning walk out of the centre with a pit stop for pancakes. Some of the original residents had shown restraint but others had gone for flat-out competitiveness of the ‘if you insist on having an outlandishly tall tulip on top of your gable I’m going to have an astrolabe on my roof’ variety. Not so mad as in Riga, but close. Interestingly, someone recently decided to slot a starkly modernist building amongst all those twiddly bits, just the kind of house I’d choose to live in. There’s a lovely little square in Waterloostraat, a street over from the more flamboyant designs, with a four seasons theme echoed in motifs in each of the houses. We spent the rest of Saturday exploring the medieval centre whose brick buildings with their stepped gables reminded me of Amsterdam, not so far away.
Sunday was museum day. We trotted off dutifully to Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), housed in an impressive, large modern building, which is all about Antwerp and its way of life. Opened in 2011, it has several permanent exhibits including one on food which, unsurprisingly given our mutual devotion to our stomachs, was the one we enjoyed most. After spending lunch listening to some great R&B, soul and blues tracks at a nicely laid-back cafe on our square we headed over to the Museum Plantin-Moretus which is one of those ‘if you only do one thing…’ places. It’s the house of the sixteenth-century printer Christophe Plantin, bang next door to the apartment we’d rented. The house, and its lovely courtyard garden, is well worth visiting for its own sake but the displays devoted to Plantin’s life and work are fascinating. A shrewd business man, he was also a humanist, printing, publishing and selling books which disseminated the ideas of this extraordinarily exciting time including – very riskily for him – bibles in the vernacular. The company he founded printed its last book in Antwerp in 1876, nine generations later reminding me of our own John Murray. There are many beautiful, crisply printed manuscripts to admire but the most moving exhibit for us both was the two printing presses thought to be the oldest in the world. Without those and people like Plantin, the Renaissance ideas on which the foundations of the modern world were built could never have reached a wider audience, influencing readers who in turn developed new ideas. I’ve visited many excellent museums but this one tops the list; worth travelling to Antwerp just to stand in front of those printing presses.
Yet more sunshine for our last morning. After a final stroll around the Grote Markt, lined with gorgeously decorated guild houses, we finished the holiday with a leisurely lunch in a sunny square, marvelling at our luck with the weather. A great weekend: not what we’d originally planned but it’s hard to imagine that a few days in Malaga would have been more enjoyable.
And the book? It’s Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, in which Iza whisks her recently widowed mother off to the capital. There’s a terrible disconnect between these two: Ettie is lost in the city, always doing the wrong thing and missing her beloved Vince terribly while Iza, busy with her job as a doctor, seems to want to tidy messy emotions away. It’s a quiet, subtle book which, I’m sure, would repay prolonged concentration, not something which suits a city weekend with lots of travelling. I finished it shortly after we got back and was left feeling I hadn’t done it justice. Short stories next time, maybe.