Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beginning and End – 29 January 2012

After spending the western New Year in China, we decided to go Trafalgar Square, to see the Chinese celebration of New Year in the West, especially as we discovered that one of us was born in the 'Year of the Dragon', which comes around once again this year.

The parade was disappointing, although colourful, but this year at least, the police bus was decorated appropriately!

We also planned to visit the Death Festival at the nearby Southbank Centre. Part of this was 'Boxed', an exhibition of coffins from UK and Ghana. These two companies make unusual custom-made coffins, often at the request of people for their own eventual death. Not on the same scale as fabulous tombs and mausoleums we have previously seen in the UK and Europe, but modern, novel final resting places nevertheless.

It was impossible to come to this part of London, without spending some time at the National Gallery. The amazing wealth of art there, is always an inspiration.

Coaching Inn to Chateau – 28 January 2012

Today we stepped back into the time of historical novels, and visited the Kings Head in Aylesbury, one of the oldest coaching inns in southern England, which still has its original coaching yard.

It is owned by the National Trust, and they have a history room in the stables, which dates the history of the inn. It started life in the 15th century, and has housed many notables in its history including Cromwell; Judge Jeffries; Anne Boelyn & Henry who VIII visited on their honeymoon; and in more recent times, Richard Burton.

We visited for lunch, and very much enjoyed the food and the ambience. We could almost hear the horses hooves on the cobbled courtyard, and hear the grooms etc. It really is a wonderful piece of history.

Not far from here is Waddesdon Manor, a very different slice of history. The Kings Head was once a hotel owned by the Rothschilds, but Waddesdon was the country home of Baron Rothschild, built in the style of a French chateau. We went to see their winter garden, but it was more interesting to admire the house in the winter sunshine.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Emperor's New Clothes – 22 January 2012

Of the many museums we had yet to visit, the one that seemed to get the most recommendations was the MoMu fashion museum and since Antwerp is famous for its fashion we decided that this would be worth a visit. Before that, since this was the first day for which there was no rain forecast, we decided to visit the sculpture park. It is a tram ride and then a 10-minute walk to what is probably a very pleasant destination in the summer. Today it was cold, damp, windy and bleak and the sculptures were thus not displayed to their best. After a fairly perfunctory wander around we headed back to the centre of town where the sun was finally putting in an appearance.

Sunshine and blue skies (between clouds): what could we possibly do but scamper around and get as many photos as possible? Having done the Cathedral and the square we caught a tram back to the harbour area to revisit MAS. The tram took us nearly there and we had to walk a short way to the harbour so set off in what seemed to be the correct direction.
The area looked a little sleazy and the first bar had a mural on the windows showing old men leering at young women; our comment “Nothing if not honest”. Turning the corner we were in the centre of the red-light district and although it was early afternoon the wares were already on display in the windows (or more correctly glass doors) all along the street. We thought we had wandered into Amsterdam except that in Amsterdam you do need to wait until after dark for the show.

After a quick, whistle-stop, photo visit to MAS we returned, like the Wise Men via a different route and caught the tram back to town to finally visit the fashion museum. Curiously, it has no permanent exhibits recalling how the Antwerp 6 broke into the international fashion scene, but instead has two special themed exhibitions per year.
The current main exhibition was works by a local designer which were definitely in the Emperor's New Clothes territory. Maybe, just maybe, it was not aimed at our demographic; it was not money well spent. There was a small side exhibition of clothes designed by Russian designer Nudie Cohn who, apparently,single-handedly created the whole “Rhinestone cowboy” country and western spangley costumes so loved by Dolly, Johnny, Elvis, Englebert and so forth – all of whom have worn Nudie designs. Not bad for a chap who started our designing G Strings!

There was time for one last nostalgic wander through what will be our last European town square before we wandered back to the station to catch a local train to connect with the Eurostar in Brussels.

Printing and Painting – 21 January 2012

One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Antwerp is the Plantin-Moretus Printing Museum. It is housed in the original printing works and residence of Mr Plantin, who began the business at the start of the printing revolution and two of the world's oldest printing presses are still in situ in the place where they were first used. The business was passed down through the family generations until it was turned into a museum and donated to the city in 1876.

Because nothing has ever moved out of these business premises and residence, the extensive archives are the most complete record of life and times and printing business history available. When one considers that a credit card receipt will have completely faded and disappeared in a few months these days, there is little chance of a similar historical paper trail being created these days.

An original Guttenberg Bible is in the collection along many other firsts and the walls of the residence are replete with paintings by Rubens on walls that are mainly covered in beautifully tooled gilded leather.

There are a number of libraries, the largest with the books arranged by size, rather than any logical method and the printing rooms are just the way they were when in use, the company simply walked away from the presses and racks of old type and the workshops where the type dies were made and the letters cast.

The second walk in our leaflet took us down to the old harbour where a brand new museum (opened 2011) now dominates the skyline. The Museum Aan de Stroom allows free access up the escalators which are on a different facing wall on each floor, all the way to the 10th floor roof which affords a wonderful panoramic view over the city, and probably as far as the Netherlands if you knew a suitable landmark. It is a stunning building with all the curtain wall glass being curved like waves rather than flat.

After admiring the view from here called in at the Port Authority building back at ground level for an entirely different view of the surroundings. On the floor is a large backlit aerial photograph of Antwerp and the surroundings up to and including the border with the Netherlands. It graphically shows just how large the port is and how large the petrochemical industry is here.

Back on the walk we came across Rockox Museum based in a ex-Mayor's residence and with a great selection of artworks including a Bruegel. The walk returned us to the square and we set off to find the Mayer van den Bergh Museum. This collection was along the same lines as the Wallace Collection in London where the collector simply acquired artworks, collectibles, interiors and so forth that he liked, not necessarily because they were by “big name” artists.

He died at only 43, so his mother built this house purely to display his collection. It is another feast of Dutch Masters and is famous for one particular Bruegel that looks more like a Bosch than a Brugel. The other Bruegels are simply wonderful and we could have happily spent much longer there but it was late in the afternoon and the museum was closing so it was time for us to find a meal and return to the hotel.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Diamond Day – 20 January 2012

Today had to be diamond day so we set off in good time for the 11a.m. tour of Diamond Land which, when we got there we discovered was not running, we could just browse around by ourselves. There are various displays and facts and figures about the diamond trade in Antwerp and through the windows you can watch the experts mounting the diamonds in special jigs to hold them against the polishing wheels.

Naturally, you had the opportunity to purchase the end product should you desire but since this was the first place we had looked at we browsed and moved on, heading for the Diamond Museum. Between the two is almost wall to wall diamond dealers with more bling in their windows than one could imagine.

Clearly being in the vicinity on a diamond anniversary we could not let the opportunity pass us by and eventually succumbed before heading to the museum which we discovered was closed until February. We consoled ourselves by window shopping at the many diamond shops in the central station.

Not too far away is the Rubens' House museum where a collection of artwork is displayed in the house that Rubens purchased. Although not much of his original house remained, it was painstakingly recreated from plans and sketches, but a portico that he had built in the garden is original. Unfortunately is was raining steadily so admiring his garden and portico was off the agenda and we went to the movies instead.

On the way to the movie theatre was a shopping centre called Stadsfeestzaal in a fabulously gracious old building. The cafe overlooking the atrium was a great place to fortify ourselves for the afternoon and we discovered where all the locals that were missing yesterday, shopped and lunched.

As French, Dutch, English and probably German are all spoken in the city, movies are simply played in their original language and since the one we wanted to see was an English movie we were well catered for and the locals had to be content with subtitles in French and Dutch.

Having successfully filled in a rainy afternoon we went back to the old town to find another cute atmospheric restaurant for dinner.

Central Antwerp – 19 January 2012

Unfortunately, but true to expectations, it was raining steadily when we awoke so we made a very leisurely start to the day and then rode the tram into the centre of town. First stop, to get out of the rain was the Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the Low Countries. It has four huge canvases by Peter Paul Rubens as this was his home town. Currently showing is an exhibition entitled “Reunion” which has assembled 16 altarpieces and other works that were originally painted for the Cathedral.
Over the years, especially under French rule, many were removed and dispersed to other collections or sold. Many have been returned to the Royal Collection and this exhibition has temporarily reunited works that have not been seen together for over 200 years. The temporary collection included another Rubens.

As it was still raining we decided that the next indoor activity should be the renowned Printing Museum so set of to find it. When we arrived the rain stopped and as the museum was on a walking tour we decided to continue the walking tour from that point. Guides like this are invaluable in that they lead you into courtyards you would not otherwise discover and in one case even through a door that you would not randomly walk down the street and open, without the information that you were free to do so and that there was something interesting on the other side.

The tour took us back past the Cathedral where we discovered a most intriguing cafe simply crammed full of religious statutory. Every available ledge and a few added shelves were lined with statues of saints and monks and so forth so we elected to dine with the saints for a most delicious lunch, if you are in Antwerp, head for the Kathedral Cafe for a distinctly different dining d├ęcor.

By the time we had completed the walk and returned to the Grote Markt the clouds were beginning to break up and there was the promise of some sunshine for photographs but unfortunately it was not fully delivered so we set off for the fashion district for a little window shopping. We have been surprised at how empty the shops and restaurants/cafes have been and the extent of the savings in the sales indicated that all is not well in the “high street”. Admittedly it is not prime tourist season but we would have expected some locals out at lunchtime eating somewhere.

Wandering back across town we headed for the Quinten Matsijs restaurant where we enjoyed a good hearty warming meal for a cold night for about a quarter of the cost of the previous night's meal.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Antwerp – 18 January 2012

One of the interesting features of Eurostar travel is that a ticket to Brussels actually allows you to travel to any station in Belgium. So since it was someone's Diamond Anniversary of their birth, we decided to have a long weekend in the diamond capital of the world. Apparently 70% of all cut diamonds pass through Antwerp.

With the new high-speed link from St Pancras, it takes only a hour before the train emerges above ground in France and just over two hours to Brussels. Unfortunately the connecting intercity train to Antwerp was cancelled and we had a bit of a delay before finally catching a scruffy, old, local train to Antwerp's Grand Central Station, the first we have ever visited with train platforms on three levels; one above the main concourse and two below.

It was a lot easier to find a vending machine to purchase a Metro pass than it was to find the Metro, but eventually we located the correct platform and got to our art deco hotel just as the rain began to fall.

The hotel website implied they had a restaurant and since it was late and raining and we had not had a chance to explore the options we asked the receptionist to book a table which she did and then informed us that it was actually an independent restaurant 50m down the road. The die being cast we wandered along at the allotted time to find that the restaurant was a tad classier than we had expected (and significantly more expensive). Maybe it would have been fine for the birthday night but this was just an ordinary night.

However, the “floor show” at the restaurant more than compensated: Every meal was “dressed” for the diner at a central table in the restaurant by the waiters. The meat, for example would be cooked in the kitchen and then brought out with the vegetables and the production would begin. The meat would be carved, the vegetables dished up, the sauce heated and served and so forth and then the finished masterpiece would be delivered to the guest. It was all quite remarkable and great fun to watch. The meals were very nice and accompanied by a number of “free” unexpected extras before and after the ordered courses.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In the Footsteps of Royalty – 14,15 January 2012

A TV snippet regarding The Regent Hotel in the Royal Lemmington Spa, lead to a very enjoyable weekend away. The Regent claimed to be the largest hotel in the world, when it was opened in 1819, and one of the early visitors was the Prince Regent, who graciously allowed them to use his title as the name of the hotel. All things have their day, and The Regent is now owned by Travelodge, so we took the opportunity of one of their amazing offers, to book a huge family room for £12.

A heavy white frost blanketed the countryside as we drove to Warwick. We have previously visited the castle there, but have never properly explored the town. There are two other 'must see' sights in town, the Lord Leycester Hospital, and St Mary's Church.

The Hospital is not actually a hospital, but was set up as a retirement home for 12 soldiers by Robert Dudley, favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He converted a 150 year old building to do this, the oldest parts date from 1383. Today there are now eight retired soldiers who live there, and we were given an introduction to the building's history, by one of them. All the buildings are original, with few modern updates. The Chapel is still only lit by candlelight for example.

In the museum, we watched an interesting film regarding one of the soldiers involved in the El Alamen during WWII. The battle was desperate, but an interesting fact for us was the inspection of the battle-field by NZ VC holder General Freyburg, who added his weight to the decision made to pursue the Germans and win out. The NZ Army then allowed the 6th Hussars to incorporate the fern leaf symbol on the front of their tanks, where it still is today.

Behind the hospital, is a lovely small formal garden, where the box hedges mimic the Tudor framework in the building behind.

From here, we explored the town and climbed the tower of the cathedral. The climb is pretty torturous, but the view from the top is great. The cathedral itself is worth visiting for the elaborate side chapels and tombs. Robert Dudley and his brother Ambrose have magnificent marble tombs in the very handsome Beauchamp Chapel

Royal Lemington Spa appears to merge with Warwick, but was built in the 19th century, when the spa was made fashionable by the visits of the Prince Regent and Princess Victoria, The whole town has a Regency appearance, and the handsome white buildings are quite dazzling on a bright sunny day. There is no sign of the recession here, with a busy high street (The Parade) full of colour and busy shoppers.

Apart from being a Regency showplace, the original Pump Rooms are still open with a cafe and restored Hammam. This has been restored to how it was in its heyday in the 1840's.

Sunday was again fine and frosty, and we continued the circular driving tour, that had started in Warwick. The most appealing towns on the tour were Stretton-On-Dunsmore, with its tiny village green and equally tiny stream with miniature arched bridges. Even better was Stoneleigh, with its handsome brick homes around a somewhat larger green, which houses the Forge.

After lunch in Kenilworth, we set off for the heritage Motor Museum, only a short deviation on out route home. Murray found this very interesting, as it appeared to have a very strong MG bias, with many MG's on display, a recreation of Lord Nuffield's office and we watched a 45 minute film in the cinema on the history of MG sports-car manufacture in Abingdon. We have passed the turn off hundreds of times, so finally had time to visit, and found it very interesting.