At this point in my tour, the pace of things has finally started to slow down again since I have left Paris. Riding days are getting shorter, and are tapering off to spend more time in each of the cities that I visit. The recovery is welcome at this point, not only because there is so much to see in Belgium, but also because the roads in Flanders warrant it. Although the heritage and aesthetic of cobblestones are welcome in the cities, the experience of riding on them is less than romantic. This awarded me some pitied looks as I first navigated my way into Brussels, with my bags immediately becoming unhooked at the bottom, and making my bike feel more like a dryer that had a cinder block thrown into it. That being said, I got pretty good at straddling the smooth strip right at the curb of sidewalks, plus, seeing an Art Nouveau villa by Victor Horta without a cobble street in front of it would be a shame.
Upon arriving at my Airbnb in Brussels, I quickly discovered that I would probably be giving the city bikes a try during my stay. With my room in what appeared to be one of the more modern apartment buildings in the city, I think it actually turned out to be one of the first modern buildings. The elevator was the size of code minimum closet with a hinged door that accessed it, and to my surprise, without an actual door I could to taunt death by touching the inside wall of the elevator shaft as it moved up to the fourth floor. With my bags in the room, I tackled the long, awkward process of squeezing my bike up the equally narrow stairwell that spiraled around the central elevator, with the automatic lights turning off multiple times to top it off. Now, I’m not complaining, but I am thankful for ADA compliance in the United States. Anyways, I decided to leave my bike in my room from that point and thought I would give the city bikes a try, which actually turned out pretty convenient since they had fenders, and you know, it was raining again.
After seeing some of the beautiful Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture in Brussels, I continued my loop through Belgium and began making my way towards Ghent and eventually Antwerp. Two cities, as I would come to find out, that are polar opposites, but intriguing in their own ways. So far on this tour, Ghent has the most stunning skyline. Known for it’s textiles, Ghent grew from its specialties through trade on the canal networks, and has retained much of its character over the years. Looking over the rooftops, cathedral bell towers and steeples pierce through a fabric of uniquely gabled canal house rooftops. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into any of the cathedrals, because Ghent was preparing for its 10-day “Feesten” that began just as I departed for Antwerp.
Antwerp is the Seattle, or Austin, of Europe. I was impressed by the amount of construction after crossing under the Scheldt through the St. Anna pedestrian tunnel. North of the historic city center, the skyline is replaced by cranes and new residential towers. In addition, the city is investing in some massive road development throughout the city. During my stay, I spent hours in the MAS Museum, and was more enamored by the building than the exhibitions themselves. Using the gallery space as a series of steps and cantilevers that enclose the circulation, you are treated to continuous panoramic views as you make your way up a series of escalators. The museum puts the city as the primary exhibition through a playful, undulating, curtain wall that is pretty much irresistible to anyone walking through the spaces.
After the museum, I finished off my time in Belgium by visiting the magnificent Antwerp Port House addition by Zaha Hadid. Seeing it in person was pretty special, and its context made sense in how the form reflected the “Diamond City” of Antwerp. Although it positioned prominently on the water, it is also surrounded almost entirely by industrial buildings, and isolated compared to the rest of the city. With all of the tours of the interior booked for the next few months, walking the exterior would have to suffice, so I spent my last evening in Belgium watching the sun set over the Port House.