- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

Once upon a time, a giant named Antigonius lived on the shore of the River Scheldt. He demanded a tribute from every ship passing his perch. If the boatman did not pay,Antigonius cut off his hands.

One day, a brave young Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo slew the giant and cut off both his head and his hands and threw the hands into the river. In Dutch, the words for hand and throw are “hand” and “werfen,” and that’s how the city became Antwerpen, or as we call it, Antwerp.

Hands have become the symbol of Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city and the world’s most important diamond-cutting center (hands down, you might say).

There’s a statue of the Roman soldier flinging the giant’s hands into the river in the center of the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s medieval triangular market square. The square is the starting point of the hourly town tours on a horse-drawn double-decker minibus. A statue of the ogre can be found outside the city’s Maritime Museum. Cookies cut in the shape of hands are staples in the pastry shops.

There has been a settlement here since the second century A.D., but it was destroyed by the vikings in 836. The 16th century was Antwerp’s golden age, when it was one of Europe’s important ports and a center of the cloth industry.

A tour of the art and architecture of Belgium began at the main railroad station, a jewel of late 19th century construction, a masterwork of steel and glass.

Antwerp’s Jewish neighborhood and its famed diamond district, with four diamond exchanges, surrounds the station. Everything for the diamond trade, including the gems themselves, is sold in this area. A small Portuguese synagogue, built in 1913 for the Sephardic Jewish community, is tucked into the center of the quarter.

The first diamond traders settled in Antwerp during the 16th century, when about 30,000 Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition. The Germans deported about 14,000 of Antwerp’s Jews during the World War II occupation of Belgium; most died in the concentration camps, and only about 1,000 returned. Today the trade is no longer limited to Jews.

Shop windows in the area are filled with gorgeous designer jewelry as well as sparkling jewels not yet set. A small diamond museum is near the railroad station.

Antwerp’s favorite native son is the painter Peter Paul Rubens, and his works can be seen all over town. Rubens’ house, where he spent the last 30 years of his life, from 1610 to 1640, is one of the city’s artistic highlights. The house has two parts. To the left of the entrance are Rubens’ family living quarters and the artist’s gallery, where he entertained friends and clients. Rubens’ large studio is to the right of the entrance. The house has been well-restored, including the formal gardens and the studio.

My favorite Rubens paintings are the portraits in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The museum is the house owned by the successful 16th-century printer Christopher Plantin — Antwerp was a center for printing in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the museum are a collection of ancient presses, woodcuts, copper plates, and Plantin’s collection of beautiful books, including a Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with movable type, as well as Bibles in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic. Rubens’ portraits of many of the family members line the walls of this elegant patrician house.

Rubens’ “Adoration of the Magi” hangs in Antwerp’s Royal Art Museum; three Rubens works are in the 14th-century Cathedral of Our Lady, including two triptychs, “Raising of the Cross” and “Descent From the Cross.”

Not far from the cathedral and the central square stands the Meat Hall, or Vleeshuis, an extraordinary structure built in 1504 for the butchers guild. The building, with tall towers with hexagonal turrets, is constructed of alternating stripes of red brick and white stone in a baconlike effect.

Animals were slaughtered in the streets, and the butchers sold the meat on the ground floor of the hall. The upper floors were used as meeting rooms, a chapel and venues for social activities. Weddings of the daughter of one guild member and the son of another took place in the Vleeshuis. Today the Meat Hall is a museum with a collection of medieval woodcarvings and old musical instruments.

BRUSSELS’ ART NOUVEAU

Art nouveau — also called modern style, metro style, Jugendstil and Secession — was a vibrant movement in art and architecture beginning in the 1890s and ending with World War I. It was based on England’s arts and crafts movement, and the term art nouveau is attributed to Siegfried Bing, a German-born French art dealer and collector of Japanese art who opened his gallery La Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris in 1885.

Influenced by Japanese, Celtic, Gothic and rococo art, the artists of the new movement refused to differentiate between “lower” decorative art and “higher” fine art. They sought to express a modern way of life, of free movement, by combining all the arts.

Art nouveau had social and utilitarian aspects as well as decorative; architecture had to be adapted to the well-being of the occupants of a building, be they middle-class or working-class. The style is characterized by sensuously curving lines, floral and animal frescoes, the use of stained glass and elaborately curling metalwork. After World War I, art nouveau faded into art deco: Curlicues were out, and geometric designs were in.

Victor Horta was the father of the art nouveau movement in Belgium. His extravagant style, in both design and material, is still very much in evidence in Brussels.

“If the house wasn’t built for you, you couldn’t live in it — the gentlemen, that is; Horta didn’t care about the women,” said our guide in the spectacular Solvay House in Brussels, one of Horta’s creations designed specifically for the client who hired him.

Horta became famous for his use of fine woods, glass and wrought iron. He loved lotus blossoms and the melding of design and decoration. He sought to bring the light and green of the outside into the interior of houses, shops and housing projects. Many of his architectural designs had winter gardens on the top floor as well as large windows and glass doors opening to the outside.

A fine example of Horta’s style can be seen in the Horta Museum, once the architect’s house and studio. As was his wont, furniture, fabrics, decorative items, lamps, china, glassware and silverware all were designed to fit only that house.

Brussels has hundreds of art nouveau buildings, including restaurants, museums and Central Station as well as private houses. The Tourist Bureau has brochures setting forth interesting walking tours in various districts of the city, organized around some of these houses.

An excellent decorative art exhibit, “Art Nouveau & Design, 1830 — 1958,” can be seen at the Museum of Art and History in Brussels, part of Belgium’s celebration of 175 years of independence. Furniture, objets d’art, paintings, posters, fabrics, practical household objects, kitchenware, glassware, china and jewelry are all part of the exhibition, which includes some gorgeous silver, textiles and furniture designed by Henry van de Velde.

The exhibition runs through December and highlights the art nouveau designs for middle-class bourgeois homes and for working-class housing projects.

BRUGGE AND MEMLING

Brugge, like Antwerp, is in Dutch-speaking Belgium. It is almost too perfect to be true: an unspoiled medieval town, crisscrossed with canals. It has little traffic, no billboards and no high-rise buildings. Nothing spoils this exquisite little town, unless it is the huge number of tourists who visit daily, weekly, yearly — but most of them are gone by dark. Brugge is famous for its lace, which is still made by hand, although not like it once was.

The sights may be seen during a horse-drawn carriage tour of the town or on a boat ride through the canals that pass between the lovely old brick buildings.

A Gallo-Roman settlement existed on the site of the present-day city in the second century A.D. Its name derives from the Norse word bryggia, which means jetty. During the Middle Ages, Brugge was one of the most important trading centers of northwestern Europe, its wealth based on the manufacture of high-quality cloth.

The large number of commercial transactions carried out by foreign traders led to the foundation of an exchange, operated by the Van der Beurse family. The production of luxury goods in the 15th century added to the city’s wealth. Brugge also attracted famous artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. The slow silting of the Zwin Channel, which connected Brugge to the open sea, gradually brought about the economic decline of the city.

Market Square is the center of the city, lined with 17th-century houses, many of which have restaurants on the ground floor. The square is dominated by a medieval octagonal belfry; concerts are played on the tower’s carillon of 47 bells three times a week.

Brugge is a city out of a fairy tale, with fascinating buildings, museums and churches, including the Groeninge Museum, the Memling House, the Lace Museum and the Beguinage, a walled complex founded in 1245 by the Beguines, members of a lay sisterhood who dressed as nuns but did not take vows. Today, Benedictine nuns live in the whitewashed houses surrounding a pretty park. The 17th-century church, the park and one of the houses are open to the public.

Brugges’ Groeninge Museum hosted an exhibit of about 30 portraits by Hans Memling, a joint project of the Groeninge, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid and the Frick Collection in New York City. The exhibit will be at the Frick through December.

Memling was born in Germany, worked in Brussels and then settled in Brugge as a successful artist in 1465, when the city was at the top of its prosperity. He was interested in spatial relationships and the combination of reality with illusion. He often painted his subjects against the perspective of a landscape or an interior. Memling was popular with Italians and influenced Bellini and Perugino.

Unlike Jan van Eyck, whose portraits create a contact between the eyes of his subjects and the onlooker, Memling never had his subjects look directly at the viewer. Rather, the viewer is brought into the portrait through the subject’s folded hands, which appear to be resting on a parapet in the front of the picture and sometimes appear as a trompe l’oeuil to be resting on the frame itself.

The Hans Memling Museum, in Brugges’ 13th-century St. John’s Hospital, houses several of Memling’s most important works, including a magnificent 1489 triptych and a reliquary with scenes from the life of St. Ursula.

GRAND-HORNU

Belgium’s famed coal fields are located in the eastern province of Hainaut. In the heart of the Mons coal field is an extraordinary art center, Grand-Hornu, once the 19th-century utopian village and colliery of industrialist Henri Degorge.

Grand-Hornu was to the coal mines of eastern Belgium what Saltaire was some years later to the mills of Bradford and Leeds in northern England. Degorge, like Sir Titus Salt, wished to create a more wholesome working and living environment for his employees.

The idea was to attract workers by offering them living conditions they would not find elsewhere. Degorge thought the presence of social and cultural structures would stimulate the work force and reinforce the workers’ feeling of belonging to a homogenous group. In other words, making life easier and more pleasant would make the employees want to work more productively.

The workers at Grand-Hornu lived in unusually comfortable houses for the period instead of the poverty experienced by most mine workers of the day: Paved roads fronted the 450 houses, and each had a drain, garden, well and bread oven. Residents even had hot water, thanks to a steam engine used for the collieries. Gas was installed in 1850 (so street lighting became possible), and electricity was introduced into the houses shortly before World War I.

The town had a dance hall, a library, a hospital and a place for sports events. Education was offered free to children to age 12.

In return, miners worked 10 to 15 hours per day, and two persons in each family were required to work. Salaries were modest. Until 1889, children pulled the coal carts.

Degorge died of cholera in 1831 while workers’ houses were still being built. The collieries continued in the hands of his heirs until 1954. The last coal mine in the area closed in 1956. Since 1989, the local government has owned the complex.

Today, the rows of neat houses are privately owned, and parts of the industrial complex, originally built in neoclassical style, and Degorge’s mansion have been renovated. A large modern addition serves as the Museum of Contemporary Art. The complex includes a museum shop (formerly the lamp room, where miners picked up their lanterns before going down into the mine) and cafeteria (once the room where miners left their outer garments upon returning from the mine shafts).

The museum is dedicated to painting, sculpture and multimedia exhibitions, outdoor theatrical productions and concerts. It does not have a collection of its own but serves exclusively as a temporary showcase for contemporary — and especially avant-garde — artists.

The buildings surround a huge central courtyard. On one side, the chimney and brick ruins of the workshops look like an antique Roman ruin. One of the entrances to the original 12 mines of the complex, now blocked with concrete, can be seen on the square outside the entrance to the complex.

Not far from Grand-Hornu is the delightful small town of Mons, the capital of French-speaking Hainaut. Once a fortified Roman camp, Mons is a provincial town of great charm. Its heart is Grande Place, where the cafes are filled with locals and tourists alike watching one another walk to and fro. The 15th-century Town Hall is on the square. On its outside wall perches a cast-iron monkey; it is said that whoever strokes the monkey’s head will have good luck. I did not hesitate.

Mons has several fine restaurants and no fewer than 15 museums, including one exhibiting ceramics and Delftware, and 12 churches. Several beautiful alabaster sculptures by 16th-century sculptor Jacques du Broeucq adorn the Gothic Church of St. Waudru.

Belgium’s art and architecture (and fine food) are not limited to what we saw and experienced on this trip. Works of fine art and splendid architecture are abundant, be it the elegant gabled 12th- to 17th-century houses on the Herb and Grain quais of Ghent or the magnificent Jan van Eyck triptych “The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb” in the Ghent cathedral; the Fondation Folon near Brussels, a museum dedicated to the works of graphic artist Jean-Michel Folon, known for his New Yorker covers; the farmhouse where Napoleon spent his last night before the battle of Waterloo; or the Bruegel room and the excellent collection of surrealist paintings in the Brussels Fine Arts Museum. And don’t forget the chocolate.

Restaurant, hotel choices in Belgium

United Airlines flies from Washington Dulles International Airport directly to Brussels; American Airlines flies to Brussels from all three local airports via New York, Chicago and/or Dallas/Fort Worth.

Hotel Amigo, rue de l’Amigo 1-3, Brussels; phone 32-2-547-47-47; fax, 32-2-513-52-77. The Amigo is a recently renovated Rocco Forte luxury hotel just steps from the beautiful Grand’Place in central Brussels. Rooms are elegant and comfortable, and the location is perfect. It’s a full-service hotel with a good restaurant.

Hotel de Orangerie, Kartuizerinnenstraat, Brugge; phone 32-50-34-16-49; fax, 32-50-33-30-16. Hotel de Orangerie is a delightful small hotel in the heart of Brugge. All rooms are different; some overlook the canal. The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant but serves a sumptuous breakfast buffet.

Comme Chez Soi, 23 Place Rouppe, Brussels; 32-2-312-29-21. This lovely art nouveau restaurant is one of Brussels’ best. There’s a long table in the kitchen beneath a brick wall where famous diners have signed their names. The food is superb.

Les Brigittines, Place de la Chapelle 5, Brussels; 32-2-512-68-91. A charming old-fashioned restaurant with traditional pub-style food and beer.

Le Chalet de la Foret, Dreve de la Lorraine 43, Brussels; 32-2-374-54-16. An elegant country restaurant in a large park on the outskirts of Brussels. Beautiful setting and fine food.

Kardinaalshof, Sint-Salvatorskerkhof 14, 8000 Bruges, Tel. 32-50-34-16-91. An intimate, first-class restaurant serving wonderful fish dishes.

La 5ieme Saison, rue de la Coupe 25, Mons; 32-65-72-82-62. Charming small restaurant in the heart of Mons with a first-class kitchen.

Tourist information: Belgian Tourist Office, 220 E. 42nd St., Suite 3402, New York, NY 10017; 212/758-8130; www.visitbelgium.com.

Tourism Antwerp, Grote Markt 13, Antwerp; www.visitantwerpen.be

Brussels Tourism, Grasmarkt 61, Brussels; www.visitbrussels.be

Grand-Hornu, rue Ste. Louise 82, Hornu; www.grand-hornu.be

Office du Tourisme, Grand-Place 22, Mons; www.mons.be

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