Monday, August 9, 2010

Surprises pleasant and unpleasant

As I'm coming to the end of my time in Belgium, I've been trying to squeeze in a few last trips and experiences. Yesterday we went to spend the day in Antwerpen and the nearby commuter town of Lier. I have to say that Antwerpen disappointed me, or more specifically, the museums disappointed me.

The city itself was as busy as Brussels, and has an if anything more beautiful centre, with the advantage of a river and a ruined castle. It still didn't tug my heart-strings, though - not the way Prague or Riga or Paris did - and I didn't come away feeling like I wanted to go back. Budget limitations affecting choices of activity, two museums were duly visited. The first was the Rubenshuis, home of Antwerp's favourite painter. Overpriced, especially considering what was inside - the place couldn't decide if it was a reconstruction of his house, or a slightly more picturesque than usual gallery of his studio's artwork. There was no attempt to involve the visitor in the house itself - the rooms were there, there was some furniture, but it felt very very dead. And given the lack of evidence for the actual internal structure for the house in Rubens's day (most was rebuilt), there were some odd decisions made concerning, for example, the location of the kitchen. The paintings were mostly by Rubens's students and contemporaries, rather than the man himself, and while there was no shortage of supplementary texts praising his inspiring style etc etc etc, there was nothing at all informative or interesting. In short, very disappointing. I would have preferred either a close look at his work, maybe looking at some of his influences and his development as an artist, or a house carefully reconstructed based on contemporary building patterns with explanations of decisions taken, and some detail about his household and working environment, his daily life and family. The gardens were nice, but poorly maintained - weeds, and some plants in serious need of pruning. The only good thing: the museum provided a small sample of the cuir doree (gilt leather) used to decorate the walls, so you could have a feel without damaging the walls themselves. Maybe one and a half stars out of five?

With time and money constraints, the second museum visited was the Maagdenhuismuseum. Deeply, deeply disappointing. Really, don't bother. There was almost nothing about the abandoned girls who give the museum its name, despite the apparent similarity to the Foundling Museum in London. The signs were almost exclusively in Flemish, and the only things to see were a few uninspiring paintings on the usual subjects. There were three records of verbal agreements to take in girls, attached to their tokens (I think - my Flemish is extremely sketchy!) and that was it. Enquiry revealed that there were some relics from the girls' day, but they were in a second building and not open to the public. No stars. Can I give negative stars? It was a really unpleasant experience.

Moving on from Antwerpen, we spent a lovely evening pottering around Lier. The inhabitants are sometimes insultingly known as "sheepheads", meaning stubborn or stupid, which apparently comes from the occasion when the town was offered a choice between hosting the university or the sheepmarket. The sheepmarket was chosen as it offered greater financial rewards. However, the university went to Leuven, which seems to have got the better deal. Lier is a small commuter city serving Antwerp and Brussels, but it's an eight-century town with an astonisingly well-kept historic centre. The Begijnhof was so peaceful and even still had the names of old inhabitants on the doors. The bell-towers sounded lovely, and there's a really cute clock - the Jubelklok - in the Zimmertoren which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has figures who strike bells and things in the side, who actually move! And it shows things like the phase of the moon and sign of the zodiac. The whole thing moves fractionally every four seconds. Impressive for something built in 1931. The town felt a bit surreal - it was a bit Stepford-esque, just a bit too perfect and too clean. I would have said it had been designed that way, if it weren't for the history giving that the lie. Still, very beautiful, with the canals and weeping willows, bridges and churches, and flowers everywhere. I was expecting something much drearier, and was definitely pleasantly surprised.

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