The 'Golden Age' of Flanders
Even today, it's clear to see that Flanders was a flourishing place - both economically, politically and culturally - in the sixteenth century. It’s the remarkably captivating architecture and art of the time that makes any visit to Brussels or the cities of Flanders so memorable.
Flanders is truly a treasure-trove of wonders. With numerous fascinating cities just a short trip away from one another, it's easy to experience the region's many delights. What's more, its cities are each packed full of impressive historical monuments and museums. No surprise, then, that so many visitors from across the globe descend upon Flanders each year. One of the main points of interest is the dazzling architecture and exemplary paintings of the late Middle Ages, a period when the economic world and the art world had both reached a peak.
All of Flanders' cities are home to an extraordinary amount of authentic architecture, but Bruges remains the most famous example. It's not without reason that UNESCO has placed a large portion of the city centre – marbled with picturesque canals – on its World Heritage list. On the Oude Beursplein it is still possible to admire the Saaihalle, the Huis Ter Beurze and the House of the Florentines. Here these buildings have stood since the late Middle Ages, when this square was the financial heart of the city. Also be sure to visit Bruges' splendid Béguinage (in Flemish: Begijnhof), a place of unparalleled serenity.
Another pocket of fine architecture, renowned the world over, is Brussels’ central square, the 'Grote Markt' (Flemish) or 'Grand Place' (French). Aside from its unique guild houses, it is the city hall that leaves the greatest impression. The French writer Victor Hugo once described this square as one of the most beautiful in the world. Truly a must-see!
In the nearby city of Leuven you will find another magnificent city hall in the Gothic style. Its construction began in 1439 and lasted approximately 30 years. It was in the same period – 1475 to be precise – that the city's university also came into being. Over the centuries, this university has grown to become one of the most prestigious in the world. If you walk through Leuven today, it becomes clear how far the university has come to shape the cityscape.
The architectural jewel of Mechelen has to be the cathedral, with its St. Rumbold's Tower, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you're not afraid of heights, a visit to the Skywalk of this 97-meter-tall tower is highly recommended. The belfries of Ghent and Bruges also offer spectacular views. If in Mechelen, you should also visit the palace of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the Court of Savoy. The first Renaissance building of the Low Countries, its construction signified the start of the spread of the Renaissance.
Terrace with a view
The paintings made in this period also enjoy world renown today. The works of Rubens and the Van Eyck brothers are now on display in some of the world's most respected museums. Thankfully, many of them have been kept in their original context. For example, the home of the Ghent Altarpiece – a masterwork by the Van Eyck brothers – remains at Ghent's St. Bavo Cathedral. This work is currently being restored but can be viewed in a specially designed restoration studio at Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts (MSK). If you're visiting Ghent, you'll find that the Graslei and Korenlei – streets along the river Scheldt in the historic city centre – offer the perfect ambience as you sit at one of their many restaurant or bar terraces.
The cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp is home to a number of masterpieces by Pieter Paul Rubens, including the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross. In Antwerp's St. Augustine Church it is possible to view his most extensive altarpiece, Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints. The artist's own studio, an annex to his house, has now been transformed into a museum in the heart of the city – definitely worth a visit!
The same goes for the Plantin-Moretus Museum, not only for its permanent collections and UNESCO-listed archives, but also for the building itself with its splendid, authentic courtyard. At the heart of this Plantin house are the two oldest printing presses in the world, dating back to circa 1600. This is a place where history was written, quite literally!
Story created on February 11, 2015