Subject: Travels - Antwerp and Ghent
Ricardo's recounting of his travels in France was an encouragement to me to be sure to take time to share our latest trip. We returned Saturday from a wonderful 2 weeks in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, and benefited so much from good advice from Ziners - thanks! This will come little by little - but wanted to get started before we leave tomorrow to see Don and Linda in Florida. Here's a very unpolished accounting of our first days: Antwerp and Ghent

Departed on 26 Dec., Sabena#s new airbus 330 service from Dulles to Brussels. Good bulkhead seats. Full of gadgets # indiv. Screens with movies, games, music. Usually fly United, 777 or 767#s. Airbus seats are narrower and harder. Meals not as good as United, or Air France, which we flew most recently. The crackers and cheese were the best thing on the dinner tray.

Arrived early Monday, minus one bag. Picked up car at Alamo/National, reserved through Europe by Car. Got a double upgrade, which sure was nice as we have the car for 2 weeks, and lots of driving.

Quick and easy drive to Mechelen, one of Belgium#s little gems, and a center of carillon performance and study. A beautiful cathedral, with a fascinating intricately carved wooden pulpit winding around a huge pillar. It#s fun to search for the many and varied animals cleverly incorporated into the sculpted wood. VanDyck#s crucifixion, on the right side, is best seen from a distance, and beautifully highlights Christ in white light, with the thieves in darkness on either side.

Drove on to Antwerp, checked in to an IBIS hotel, which was very conveniently located in the historic district, with a parking garage right next door. Simple functional, and comfortable, for a room that we won#t be in much anyway!

Antwerp is a very likeable city # brimming with good restaurants, excellent shopping, smiling faces. Beautiful architecture # those distinctive stepped gables, ornate guild signs, many corners adorned with a madonna and child # sometimes crowned with a tasselled rooflet. The Grote Markt is surrounded by the splendid facades of the town hall and several guild houses. Gilded statues top several of the houses. A top one, a fully rigged sailing ship, on another, St George valiantly fighting a dragon, who tumbles beneath him. Ice skaters twirl around the centerpiece of the square # a fountain depicting Silvius Brabo, victoriously towering over the giant, whose hand he is throwing into the river, thus freeing trade on the river, so the story goes. Around the ice rink, booths selling ginever, beer, gluhwein, frites, and more are doing a brisk business on this chilly night. A warming cup of gluhwein, garnished with a clove-studded orange, takes off the chill as we walk around.

Street after street is strung with lights, often dripping like lace from window sills, or tracing the shape of a Christmas tree on the side of a house. We stop again, for frites (nowhere in the world are they as good as in Belgium) and chocolate, as we continue our taste-testing to decide which type of Belgian chocolate is the very best.

Kirk found a PERFECT restaurant # Het Vermoeide Model # a rustic Flemish restaurant, built right into the wall of the cathedral. We choose a table by a balcony next to the grand piano suspended over the foyer, and within a few minutes, a pianist seats himself on the platform and begins playing soothing and beautiful melodies. Dinner is superb: a rich curry scented broth with tiny north sea shrimp and white fish, then a beautifully plated salad of goat cheese, pear, nuts and more, with an unusual honey dressing. Kirk feasts on a stew of white fish, salmon, and shrimp, and says he feels decompressed as we slowly eat and enjoy the music. He finished a grueling 3 month consulting job just days before we left. We both have been greatly looking forward to time together and this getaway.

We#re happy to see that our missing bag made it to Belgium, and the hotel, when we return.

The next morning, we find our way through the winding cobbled streets to The Daily Bread # le Pain Quotidien in French-speaking Belgium, and an unremembered Flemish name here. We first discovered this gem a few years ago in Brussels, and now make a point of seeking it out where available. Our last visit was to the only US one in New York City. What first drew us there was the fragrance of fresh-baked bread, and we return for more # a basket of breads and croissants, a bowl of coffee, and a table-full of goodies to spread on the bread. There#s white chocolate, pear butter, raspberry preserves, fresh butter, chocolate-hazelnut, #you get the idea!

On to the cathedral # a soaring Gothic marvel of lightness inside and out, with it#s gleaming white 404 foot high spire. Masterpieces inside include Rubens Descent from the Cross triptych, and the glowing Assumption of the Virgin at the high altar.

We had searched unsuccessfully for the ancient street, Vlaeykensgang, last night, and happily stumble upon it this morning. It#s a twisty, narrow cobblestone lane that makes you feel as if you#ve stepped back into medieval times. The mood and style of the 16th century are perfectly preserved. Sir Anthony Van Djick, a dining spot famous for the owner#s turning down of 2 Michelin stars (he didn#t want to bother with the inspectors), is in one of the hidden corners of the old street.

In the afternoon we drive to Ghent, and the rain starts # not too good for exploring the town! It#s about a half hour drive, and then it took us almost as long to find parking. All street parking was packed, and by the time we got into the central garage, it was too late to see St. Bavo#s Mystic Lamb. So we contented ourselves with walking in the misty rain along beautiful Graslei and Kornlei streets, with their centuries of exquisite architecture, on either side of the river. One lovely tall building rambles upward, filled with fascinating home wares # it#s not often I get to shop and browse in a 13th century mansion! Crossing St. Michael#s Bridge, we enjoy the lovely view of the 3 unique and beautiful towers (I#ll have to look in a travel book to remember what they were, though), spotlighted at night.

Driving, south to France the next day, we plan a stop in Ghent to be sure to see the don#t-miss-it Mystic Lamb polyptych # and are glad we did. As was encouraged by Ziners who helped us plan, we listened to the story and explanation via headphones, along with a packed room of viewers. It#s a stunningly beautiful and intricate lesson in church, Biblical, and art history.