Doing laundry always brings us into contact with unfamiliar equipment and people anxious to help us. Antwerp's old center The staff at the Atlas Hotel directed us down a street with some fashion and furniture showrooms, a rack of bicycles for rent by the city of Brussels (we think they can be picked up and deposited at various locations), some snack shops and apartment buildings, to the Lavo-Net. The laundry's owner was doing his morning chores and showed us how to change a five-Euro bill for a handful of Jetons (tokens) and small change. He was happy (and somewhat surprised) to see Americans. He has made several visits to the United States. We had a friendly French-language conversation (Elsa finds Belgian French easier A Rubens tryptich to cope with than French French -- it is slower, generally). If it weren't for the fact that, left on his own, Bob pushed the temperature too high on the dryer (one pair of Elsa's pants ruined) it would have been a smashing success. Still, we got the job done quickly and had time to spare, so we got to the train station (after panicking and taking the wrong stop on the tram) and hopped a train to Antwerp. In Belgium a train leaves Brussels for anywhere in Belgium about once an hour.
Canal scene, Ghent The diamond-cutting district Bob had remembered was not findable, and instead we were directed to the Diamond Museum where we spent a small amount of time, and to a street full of jewelry stores, which was wasted on us. We stopped at a pleasant Italian restaurant for pizza (a pretty fair likeness of what is served in Italy) and followed the shopping promenade to the old town centre, with its ornate town hall and beautiful churches which displayed the luminous paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. We walked back on a different street, deciding that Antwerp was not as interesting a city as Brussels (this may be partly due to the fact that in the railroad station Elsa sat in some bubble gum, thereby injuring, within hours, her second pair of pants).
The following day we were on the train again, this time to Ghent, a beautiful old city which boasts a university and a castle. At the tourist office we learned that most of the public buildings would be Huis van Alijn closed: there was a labor strike based on objections to low wages and inflation, especially the high price of gas (in Europe about 1.50 euros per liter, which works out to about $9.00 a gallon). But the lady at the information center had broken ranks and come to work (not because she was out of sync with her colleagues, she hastened to add, but because she cared for the tourists).
As a result, we got a brochure for a very nice walking tour that started out, unexpectedly, with an independent chocolatier who had just started in business. We kept a supply of Belgian chocolate to eat in our hotel, so of course we had to replenish! A young man appeared from a back room and told us that Art Nouveau design this shop is run by his father, himself and his brother, and when we looked down into the floor below we could see the other two men filling chocolate molds. The chocolate was, of course, delicious!
The tourist information lady pointed out two museums that were still open, despite the strike. The first, called Huis van Alijn, or Museum of Things That Never Pass, is a former home turned into a series of collections -- photos, kitchen utensils, furniture, linens, toys -- many of which, as far as we could tell, were owned by the Allijn family over several generations. We also decided that the couple running the museum were, in fact, members of the family. On one of the books they were selling was the man's Pretty, but unstable Volkswagen with sunroof, a picture taken at his sister's 1958 wedding.
Our Ghent luncheon was across the street from the old Neptune fish market (with a trident-holding statue on the roof), and next to the tram lines. The owner-chef-waiter-busboy-dishwasher served us a superb luncheon of mac-and-cheese, Flemish rabbit, scallop and prawn curry with salad, followed by mousse and coupe brasillienne - sinful ice cream, caramel and sugar crunchies.
Looked like a hard bench! The second museum was the Museum voor Vormgeving, or Design Museum. This large building contains furniture, glassware, china and porcelain, all kinds of decorative objects from footstools to a stainless steel sofa. We especially loved the art nouveau fireplace and dining room by Victor Horta, and admired much of the glass, but we did think some of the experimental works had gone too far -- for example, we wondered how it would feel to sit on a stainless steel sofa on a cold winter day! And we marveled at the mind which could design a manic sofa full of points and primary colors.
Despite the strike, which barred us from the Gravensteen Castle and some museums, we found Ghent to be a lovely destination, and one to which we all wish to return.