Van Eyck (not) in
Ghent and Bruges

March 2020
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Thursday 12th
The lockdown in Italy due to the coronavirus having so far lead to the cancellation of my trips to Florence this month and to Siena in April, my trip to Ghent also didn't exactly go to plan. It was to be a guided art history tour to take in the big Jan van Eyck: An Optical Revolution exhibition, organised by Travel Editions and led by by Clare with tour management by Jill.

Up early to catch the 8.55 Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels. On the tube there was rush-hour train fullness at 7.00, but no queuing for Eurostar at all. We were all given any seat in a particular carriage tickets to replace our actual seats, because of train replacement. After some gossip catch up and coronavirus stories we were in Brussels in no time and from the time we got off the train Belgium seemed like a panic-free zone - no masks, no posters, nothing. We were coached to Ghent to the Gravensteen Hotel and all went smooth. I got a nice red-walled double room, with weirdly separate toilet and shower rooms. The afternoon was free so I lunched on a MacDonald's veggie burger, which was unlike both the Italian and the English versions. I wandered, took photographs and found Ghent to be much prettier than the impression I got on my visit of 2014. I also found a tea shop selling cinnamon redbush tea loose and orange redbush teabags, the latter v. useful as I'd forgotten to bring any. A cake was found too (in a shop) but I saw nothing that could have been described as a Belgian bun. I hied me back to my room for sundry tablet-based activities of a prosaic and photographic nature, tea, cake and a snooze.

After some early-evening quaffing and an introductory lecture by Clare we strolled out a little way to a good and chummy first night meal, with unobvious veggie courses, ending with a creme brulee, which made a change.

Friday 13th
Overnight it seems that Ghent is now closed due to the virus and the van Eyck exhibition is closed until April. I'm not prone to profanity but…

A day in Bruges was planned for today, but it was thought wise to go see the Ghent Altarpiece while it was still open, but by the time we got there it wasn’t. We coached to Bruges, while decisions were made about getting us home. Our day was much disarranged by the Groeninge Museum and Sint Janshospital being closed, but we passed and admired the highlight buildings, ending up lunching in a restaurant in the Grote Markt, and finding out that Travel Editions was bringing us home tomorrow. A visit to the oddly-open Basilica of the Holy Blood after lunch (where the revered reliquary could not currently be kissed) and the Onze Lieuv Vrou, which was open but with benches and barriers arranged so that you couldn't get near, or even see, the Michelangelo Madonna statue, even if you asked nicely of the smiling female attendant by her heater. Her excuse was that it was a museum item, which is rubbish. I managed a mood-soothing marzipan purchase (a slice each of coconut and speculoos biscuit flavour) on the way back to the coach.

Lunch in Bruges today and a extra meal tonight back in Ghent, at the same restaurant as last night, were being paid for by Travel Editions, to make up a bit for what we were missing. We returned to last night's restaurant for more good food and chat. The group got along well, it's just a shame about the… situation.

Saturday 14th
The hotel is now forbidden the use of their breakfast room, so it was picnic breakfasts delivered to each room. The fruit and yoghurt, mini pastries, croissant and pot of speculoos spread were welcome and the dozen pots of cheese and spreads taken home, as they might be useful for the coming apocalypse, although I drew the line at swiping the spare toilet roll. Today we were to stay in Ghent, taking in the Ghent Altarpiece and the Museum of Fine Arts for an ‘exclusive nocturne viewing with walking dinner’ of the Van Eyck exhibition. But instead we went home. Whilst waiting for the coach to Brussels I belatedly met Aldo, the hotel ginger cat, having a wash in the bar.

Some final thoughts. We went to Ghent to see more of the works of Jan van Eyck than had been gathered together in decades. And in a cleaned state unprecedented since they were created. We saw not one painting. The group was left with many pleasant memories of some very tasty and sociable meals, some windswept memories of the architectural joys of Bruges, a story to share with shuddering listeners and grandchildren, and an admiration for the coping skills our tour guide and manager - they truly deserve medals.

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