Rubenshuis

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The last day of Antwerp we talked about whether it was worth going to see this. It’s the home of the painter Rubens, built when he was already rich and successful as a base to trade paintings from and I’d been keen, but now I was feeling lazy, and there were biscuits to buy, naps to have. I wasn’t so bothered about seeing a lot of art.

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But it was five minutes from the flat, on the way to the station and actually this place – far bigger than expected, and showing a delightful mix of the art Rubens himself collected – was a charming mix of Italianate gardens, domestic rooms and fine art.

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Possibly my favourite thing after the Begijnhof and Mode Museum?

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All photos August 2017.

Sint Andreis

Wandering out of the Mode Museum, we got lost and decided to head for the streets that looked interesting. Trying to get into a garden with a lake that we’d spied through the gate, we ended up on a separate loop that took us down a side alley and to the door of this:

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More interesting, and probably more magnificent than Antwerp’s cathedral, this is the Sint Andreis church. Inside a music group were rehearsing, their voices bouncing off the columns, the pulpit and the art installations (a punching bag near the font, a column of shoes to the confessional, a tableau of refugees and journalists near the Lady Chapel – each re-enacting the pilgrimage the church’s structure is meant to show).

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High above, these modern windows told episodes of grace and mercy. The first is the return of the prodigal son, very close in mood to the famous Rembrandt painting, followed by Pentecost and a tender nativity.

August 2017.

Your email back, however

Synaesthete would like to meet

Other synaesthetes describe their experiences as pleasant whilst for me it is a constant sensory overload…. pick up any cheap paperback that uses too many mixed metaphors and that is my day to day, with all attempts at clarity squandered by confusing, muddled leaps of imagery. I see fireflies when a tyre screeches, smell fried onions when I step on an upturned plug…

Online dating marked a huge step. At first I found the profile I created absolutely disgusting. Reading through it, the paragraph smelt of tar and vinegar and was full of sticky, tooth-chewing words. I had no hope of response to such a squalid, acrid thing, and imagined that anyone to whom it might in any way appeal must have some kind of perversion I did not want to share. You must understand that it was not just that I did not have high hopes, I actively dreaded who would be interested in such a thing. I gave it to my doctor to edit, and he gave me two thumbs up, but I could tell by his tweedy, neoprenaged vowels, he was just being kind.

Your email back, however, smelt like a sea breeze: that was all it took. I didn’t have to read about the interests you listed, your hobbies or your star sign. It was that sea breeze smell, cutting through the snow and mown grass, that convinced me this was a chance I had to take. I organised a meeting.

You chose a spot at Piccadilly, within sight of Eros and the Criterion. I like Piccadilly Circus; the exhaust fumes and the chatter present me with a fresh inky blue, it’s almost precisely the colour of the line on the Tube map. To me the flashing neon adverts are a barbershop quartet suffering the giggles, which pleases me, and the tourists’ interbraiding accents cause a firework display of neurological responses. The taxi drivers’ swearing is accompanied by different shades of silver, squeaky and lickable.

As I waited, the rain made a pink overture against my jacket. And your colour, when you introduced yourself? You must not be insulted, but you were blank. A soundless, tasteless, brilliant blank.

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From “Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams”, a book I’m rushing to buy after hearing this extract read aloud on the Backlisted podcast.

Favourite place

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Probably my favourite place in all of Antwerp, where we went for a tranquil hour early in the morning after tea and birthday cake. Built for an order of women who’d withdrawn from the world but supported themselves by seeing or spinning, each cell is still occupied by secular inhabitants now, and the cobbled streets, lawn and hollyhocks reminded me of Oxford colleges.

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photos August 2017.

Variety

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I don’t think many people would think of Antwerp as a holiday destination, or that there’d be much to see there, but it’s a tremendously varied town.

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The port area is still working, and there’s a huge warehouse along with marinas, a shipping authority building, a giant red sandstone modern art gallery and shining point by Zaha Hadid. I got the impression when we visited that it’s a popular area for students to sit down and have a drink, for older couples to take a stroll round some art, and of course a stream of kayak lessons for kids.

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The centre is much more typical: cobbled streets, pretty church fronts and little courtyards. (Thanks to the waiter who brought us omelettes that first night, even though “the kitchens were shut and all the food finished” after we lost track of time wandering.)

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And in the south east is this, the Cogels-Oyslei neighbourhood, near Berchem station. Probably the Brooklyn of Antwerp, given the locals we saw playing in the street, and full of these incredibly over the top, vast houses.

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Photos August 2017.

Les Augustins

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Toulouse has two main art museums which are converted monasteries, now with peaceful cloisters, deck chairs for tourists and collections of religious art. The Musee des Augustins is the bigger – and if I were to guess, the wealthier, a huge red brick building that reminded me of London’s V&A.

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The cloisters and gothic architecture are certainly great, while the main staircase is totally throwing out the Harry Potter vibes, but for me the absolute coup was this downstairs hall which paired sci-fi-Essie lights with a great display of earthy and funny Romanesque capitols taken from the basilica of St Sernin.

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It was witty and striking without denigrating either the old or new, and done with a sense of humour that sadly most modern art galleries (Tate, I’m looking at you) lack entirely.

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Probably my favourite place to see in Toulouse?

August 2017.

 

St Sernin

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The basilica and de facto cathedral of Toulouse (although there’s also a 19th century cathedral building).

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I found this building completely charming. Incredibly peaceful, it was far less thuggish than the northern French (Norman) Romanesque, which is so obviously military in feel. Here the brick pillars were like a Roman aqueduct, or the vaulted roof like a Renaissance villa, and the light from the second storey of windows was something else. Try as I might to capture it in these photos, I’m just not skilled enough, so you’ll have to visit and see for yourself.

photos August 2017.