This is the world of Rubens, Van Dyck, Brueghel, Jordaens, Van Eyck and many other great Flemish Old Masters. Although much of their work is spread around the world, the museums, churches and artists' houses in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent hang some of their finest paintings. And so much of the old heart of these cities has been conserved or restored that the artists would still feel at home. Perhaps Antwerp's nomination as European City of Culture for 1993 will put Belgium on the cultural map.
My trip was dictated by museum opening days; they all differ and need careful checking. After a four-hour ferry crossing from Dover to Ostend, I headed for Ghent, a good base for a short stay, although Bruges or Antwerp would do just as well; all three (and Brussels) are within 45 minutes of one another. But beware local drivers. Proper driving tests were introduced in Belgium only about 20 years ago, so anyone over the age of 40 has not had one. It shows.
I started my actual art tour in Antwerp which, a 15th-century legend has it, gets its name from 'Hand Werpen' or 'throw the hand': a giant who guarded the river Schelde would cut off and toss away the right hand of any ship's captain who refused to pay his toll. Antwerp's modern equivalent is the traffic warden. 'They are very fierce,' a Belgian warned me.
Like all tourists, I was drawn first to Grote Markt, a beautiful sprawling square lined with former guild halls that have typical Flemish stepped gables, many topped with gleaming gilt statues. Some buildings are so narrow, you can almost touch opposite walls simultaneously: when they were built, there was a tax on the width but not the length of buildings. From the tourist office there I picked up a leaflet mapping out a 'Rubens Walk'. The 17th-century genius steals the limelight in Antwerp. He spent most of his life there, and many of the buildings from his day - including his house - still stand. At three hours, the walk sounds daunting but it is worth it, if only to get a feel for the city.
It begins in Grote Markt where, every 15 August, there is a market in Rubens's memory. Stallholders dress in 17th-century costume. I happened upon some local archery societies holding a colourful, costumed procession around the square. They proudly paraded past the imposing Renaissance town hall, the first stop on the itinerary: it was here that Rubens's father was alderman before his Calvinist sympathies forced him to leave Antwerp. Just off the square, at 22 Hofstraat, is a white-stuccoed building, the home of Adam van Noort, who taught Rubens and Jordaens. I imagined them eagerly popping in to show him their latest sketches.
I turned into Zirkstraat, looking out for No 17, the home of one G Wappers, a 19th-century director of the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts and 'an ardent admirer of Rubens'. A tenuous connection, I thought. In the window of the next-door 17th-century house, a prostitute was displaying herself like a bored painter's model (she was not part of the Rubens Walk).
The master really came to life for me once I reached Keizerstraat, which he regularly visited. He might have popped into No 8, the home of his friend Frans Snyders, who specialised in painting animals and still-lifes. And I could see Rubens knocking next door, at No 10, the Flemish Renaissance house of Nicholaas Rockox, a burgomaster and benefactor described by Rubens as 'my friend and patron'.
The Rockoxhuis, rebuilt in the Seventies by a bank (Belgian banks are well- known as benefactors), boasts works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Snyders and Jordaens. Restorers consulted contemporary documents, buying up original paintings and furniture to recreate a 'temple of art' listed in the house's 1640 inventory. Rubens apart, this sumptuously elegant house - with wood panelling, leaded windows and black-and-white chequered floor tiles - is a marvellous discovery for those wanting to see how rich burghers lived.
Not far away is the Wapper, Rubens's address, a millionaire's row both then and now. The Flemish Renaissance building, with its coffered ceilings and vast Italian Baroque galleried studio, is the house that Rubens built in the mid- 1610s; he lived there for almost 30 years. He certainly knew how to impress visitors, many of whom were royal guests. But the artist was also a diplomat: on the orders of Philip IV of Spain, he successfully conducted peace negotiations with Charles I of England.
The house has been faithfully reconstructed, in accordance with contemporary documents: it opened as a museum in 1946. Only the rock music blaring from the shop next door spoils the feel. In the studio, Rubens worked alongside Van Dyck and Snyders, among his many assistants and pupils. In almost assembly-line painting, as many as 2,500 works may have been produced here. Today, the studio contains his early painting of Adam and Eve and the unfinished Battle of Henry IV before Paris.
In the dining room, a self-portrait is displayed so that he seems to be at the head of the table. In his own art gallery, where he would hang Titians and Tintorettos from his princely collection, are three of his oil sketches. There are other artists' houses in Antwerp, including the birthplaces of Jordaens and Van Dyck, but none are as impressive as Rubens's.
The tour ends at the cathedral, one of Europe's largest Gothic churches. Napoleon is among many who have likened the spire's tracery to Belgian lacework.
Antwerp cannot be covered in one day, so I returned, mainly to see the collection at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. In two hours there, I saw hardly another visitor. I wondered why the picture labels are in Flemish only - though the paintings should, I suppose, speak for themselves. All the 'big' Flemish names are here, among more than 1,000 Old Masters. I was particularly taken with the peasant scenes full of frolicking figures by Brueghel the Elder. He used to disguise himself as a peasant so he could mingle at their fairs and feasts.
Elsewhere there are the religious pictures of Rubens and Van Dyck, and portraits by Pourbus and Cranach (including one of Harry Secombe - or a 16th-century lookalike, at least). One room has works by Quentin Metsys, a blacksmith. The story goes that he fell for a girl whose painter-father refused to let his only daughter marry a blacksmith. One day, Metsys visited her and impishly painted a fly on one of her father's paintings. When the father returned, he thought it was real and tried flicking it off the canvas. He was impressed enough to give the young couple his blessing.
Next, I visited the Plantin-Museum, home of the 16th-century printer Christopher Plantin. The ground floor has original presses, still in working order. Portraits by Rubens are here, too, and drafts of book frontispieces he designed for the firm, and an accounts book - thicker than a London telephone directory - recording all the transactions between Rubens and the print-house.
I devoted the next day to Bruges, the Venice of the North. On my way to the Fine Arts Museum, I passed the town hall, as ornate as a church. It was built to show off the city's wealth, earned from lace: from the 12th to the 16th century Bruges was the largest commercial centre in northern Europe. Today, every other shop sells lace.
The museum has a fine Flemish collection. Again, there were hardly any visitors. Yet the public is missing superb collections. Here they include Van Eyck's 1439 portrait of his wife, Margareta, on which he wrote that he had painted it 'to the best of my ability'.
Up the road is the Memling Museum, devoted to the 15th-century German-born Bruges master, in a wing of the 12th-century St John's Hospital. It is said that Memling, wounded at Nancy, was so grateful for being cured here that he painted for the Hospitallers. The most prized piece is the 'Shrine of St Ursula', 1480, a church-shaped reliquary with some incredibly detailed miniatures.
I could not visit Bruges without seeing one of the few Michelangelos outside Italy - in the Church of Our Lady. The contemplative Madonna and Child, in Carrara marble, was originally intended for the Sienna cathedral, but a Bruges family bought it and donated it to their local church.
Finally, Ghent. St Bavo's cathedral, a late Gothic building with a heavy exterior, must be seen for its 15th-century polyptych, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Its inscription reads, 'Hubert Van Eyck, the most famous painter ever known, started this work of art . . . his brother Jan, who was the second in art, finished the momentous commission . . . Admire now what they have done for you'. I did. I also tried to work out which bit of its 12 panels is a copy: in 1934, a sacristan stole one of them, revealing only on his deathbed that he had hidden it in a Brussels left-luggage office. Only one half has been found.
Curators at the Fine Arts Museum clearly do not expect any British tourists. Although they bring their superb Flemish collection to life with lively commentaries on perspex sheets, they are only written in Flemish, German and French. Among many great pictures is one of the best late works by Hieronymus Bosch, Carrying the Cross, in which monstrous caricatures contrast with the sensitive face of Christ.
At the end of each day, having feasted my eyes, I sought another kind of sustenance, though the typically enormous servings of food take some getting used to. A portion of watershooi, a delicious Flemish chicken stew, came in a big saucepan filled to the brim. But prices can be over the top, as well. Chips and moules come with everything. Among the nicest reasonably priced restaurants was the Auberge de Fonteyne in Ghent, opened a year ago but decorated in Twenties style.
During the day, I recharged my batteries at shops selling hand-made chocolates - you never have to walk far to find one. And I wondered how long it would take before I looked like one of the fuller figures in a Rubens painting.
Getting there: Dalya Alberge booked her trip through the Belgium Travel Service, which organises short breaks in Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ostend and Ghent. Prices start at about pounds 99 for two nights in Bruges, pounds 125 for Antwerp, pounds 118 for Ghent - travelling by rail and ship from London. Air packages are also available. Information and reservations: 0920 467345.
Further information: Belgian Tourist Office (081-861 3300).
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