Visit: 8th October 2016
The first foreign trip I ever took with friends was a 2008 visit to the World Heritage Site of Bruges. Of the five who were present on that trip, three (Ross, Chig and I) reprised the format of taking a car through the Channel Tunnel and driving to a historic Belgian city to for a weekend of eating, drinking and sightseeing.
This time, though, it was Ross – rather than me – at the wheel. We had two new lads along (Esteban and Nowell, pictured with Ross below) so it was a tight squeeze in the small hatchback as we sped down the E40 road towards Antwerp.
On arrival we met up with Stef and Michael – two of Ross’s friends from Luxembourg. Our hotel was right by the city’s cathedral, which has an entrance portal of statuettes, rather like the celebrated cathedral in Amiens. It also features one of the best belfries in Belgium and northern France, towering an impressive 400 feet into the air.
We spent the evening, predictably enough, enjoying the great variety of quality beers that Belgium has to offer. Old favourites making reappearances included Jupiler, Judas and Kwak. I found, however, that I seemed to have lost my taste for Belgian beer. They had begun to seem too strong and sweet to enjoy in the quantities that we were ordering them, so I switched with a heavy heart to asking for lagers or pilsners.
The next day, and following a hearty lunch (with beer pairings) at Grand Café De Rooden Hoed, we headed to the World Heritage Site of the trip. The Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum Complex is the site of a former printing press – one of the most important in Europe, in its day. Set up by Christophe Plantin and passed on to his son-in-law Jan Moretus in the 16th century, it helped secure Antwerp as one of the three major centres for the printing of early books – along with Paris and Venice.
The presses ran for the best part of three centuries, printing their last books in 1867, before the building was turned into a museum. Recently refurbished, it is chock full of works produced by the family. Their specialisms included translations of the Bible and scientific works, complete with copper-plate illustrations. Whilst printing wasn’t invented here, the prolific output of this facility enabled the dissemination of knowledge throughout the known world, and contributed to what we now call the Enlightenment.
I won’t pretend it was the most thrilling place I could have taken a group of lads (several of them snuck out early and were found in a nearby bar) – and I didn’t find it the most interesting World Heritage Site either. I’m not used to the idea of WHSs being out-and-out museums, as I like them to have an air of the natural or the historic about them. The Plantin-Moretus is indeed a historic building, but it just didn’t feel very much like that from the inside.
That evening we spent another night on the town, before bidding farewell to our Continental friends and setting off in the direction of home. I was able to persuade Ross, however, to make a couple of detours for WHS-bagging purposes. On the outskirts of Antwerp is a Modernist house by Le Corbusier, which is part of a 17-part cross-border WHS inscribed in 2016 (I saw another of his buildings – the Museum for Occidental Arts – in Tokyo earlier this year).
We then motored on to the small town of Dendermonde, known for its belfry. Like Antwerp, it sits on the River Scheldt, and was a quaint and picturesque place to have our Sunday lunch. Ross and Nowell treated themselves to a horse sausage, whilst I played it boringly safe with lasagne. As Chig hunted for shops selling mayonnaise to take back to his wife, the rest of us had a look around the town hall before heading back to Calais for the Channel Tunnel and home.