Three Days in Antwerp and Half a Book

Centraal Station, AntwerpH 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. Art Nouveau, Antwerp

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 Modernist building, AntwerpI’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 widerGrote Markt Antwerp 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 Cover imageenjoyable.

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.

20 thoughts on “Three Days in Antwerp and Half a Book”

    1. It was wonderful, Melissa, and the sun was the icing on the cake. I have The Door on my wish list but won’t be taking it on holiday when I do buy it!

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip, and you definitely lucked out with the weather. Antwerp is a nice city, the train station is gorgeous if confusing! I love those modernist buildings tucked in amongst the old ones and was very relieved to hear you enjoyed De Bomma though the food is generally pretty good in Antwerp. Belgium is a much under-rated country.

    1. Really enjoyed it, Belinda, and thanks for the recommendation. Travelling all day is never a recipe for eating well so a hearty meal at De Bomma was very welcome. I think you’re right about Belgium – we had a lovely break in Brussels a few years back. Lots of Art Nouveau to ogle there, too.

  2. After a city break in Budapest last Autumn I came over all ‘Hungarian Literature’ and read Iza’s Ballard. Loved it. Quiet and a little studied maybe, but it has stayed with me. As did my trip to Antwerp many moons ago – loved that too – although I spectacularly managed to miss all the highlights you mentioned. Still good excuse to go back I suppose!!!!

    1. You’ll have to go back just for the Plantin-Moretus, Kerry! I may have to reread Iza, although The Door is highly recommended so maybe I’ll try that next. Toying with the idea of another rail holiday from Budapest to Bucharest, this year or next.

  3. Very enjoyable to read your account of your visit to Antwerp. I am ashamed to say I had not heard of Iza’s Ballad despite including The Door in the older women in fiction series.
    Another one for the tbr pile. Thank you.
    Caroline (Bookword)

  4. Your weekend sounds wonderful! I love museums that are set up in buildings that used to be people’s houses – we have a lot of those around here, and I never get tired of them.

    1. It was a short but lovely break, Naomi. We have the wonderful American Museum housed in a mansion overlooking on a hill above Bath, should you ever be passing by.

  5. Expect the worst, get the best – glad you had a sunny break. Antwerp sounds wonderful – not a place I’ve visited but would like to. Interested to hear that the museum had a food exhibition – food is such an important part of any culture yet you rarely see it documented in a museum (although the Currywurst Museum in Berlin springs to mind!). Usually when I visit a foreign city I try to find a supermarket so that I can have a good browse at the kinds of things people eat!

    1. You’re a woman after my own heart, Kate! A trip to the market is a must for us on holiday, a particular joy if we’re self-catering. The best I’ve ever visited was in Riga where they have four old aircraft hangars given over entirely to fresh food. Sadly, we were were staying in a hotel.

  6. I’m catching up on all the blog posts (I only travelled with my mobile phone and hate reading longer things on it), so am getting to things a bit out of order. But I was looking forward to hearing about your trip to Antwerpen. I went once as a child but haven’t been back since and it looks wonderful, you’ve given me quite an appetite for it.

    1. I know what you mean, Marina. I take my tablet when traveling but keep Twitter and email to a minimum. Antwerp is the perfect size for a long weekend and I’m sure you’d love the Plantin-Moretus. Can’t guarantee the weather, though!

  7. Choosing books to accompany a short break is difficult, I recently went to the island of Porquerolles and took Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, which although set on Cape Cod, at least fit with the naturalistic environment I was in, though I hardly read any of it, far too relaxing just to be there and enjoy the moments of freedom. Will read Iza’s Ballad in August I think, for Women in Translation month.

    1. Despite my lack of attention I was able to judge it’s good enough to recommend, Claire. Quite a lot of the distraction was provided by the weather which wasn’t conducive to reading about the troubles of widows in chilly Budapest!

  8. Antwerp looks like a wonderful place to take a short break. I love a good culture-stuffed weekend away but my partner’s not so keen. I’m off to Hay soon, so having my own way this time.Then I’ll have to build up some more Brownie points by taking a couple of holidays in the sun!

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