Cities / Towns Visited: 10
Countries Visited: 5
Steps Taken Today: 16,254
Steps Taken Around the World: 628,365
It was quite a transition to go back from giant, plush, super king sized bed, to a bunk bed, but after a decent night’s sleep and a quick hostel breakfast we were ready to face the world once more. Knowing it was unlikely Antwerp would exceed the standard set by Bruges, we tried to keep an open mind.
Our first stop certainly did not disappoint, ‘where was that?’ you ask: The Plantin-Mortus Museum. The former residence of the Plantin-Mortus family, and the location of their famous printing company; the massive mansion, with attached printing rooms, library, and book shop, was quite the spectacle. The first part of the museum takes you through their portrait filled front rooms, explaining the history of the family, and how the printing company passed through the lineage for over 300 years. Next we stepped out into the beautifully manicured courtyard garden, before moving through into what used to be the old book shop; complete with scales for weighing coins, and a list of books forbidden from being printed, such was the influence of the church. That being said it never stopped anyone, they simply printed them under different company names, as it was always the most risque and best selling books that they banned.
The following few rooms were where the manuscripts were edited and proofread prior to mass printing, before we finally stepped into one of the old printing rooms, equipped on one side with desks full of all of the different alphabets and symbols in different fonts and sizes (they have over 90 fonts here), and on the other side the presses. A brief video in one of the previous rooms explains how the printing process works, as meticulous and time consuming as it is. And there, standing proudly at the end of the room stand, what are believed to be, the two oldest printing presses still in existence in the world. There’s something magic about seeing them, imagining all the work it took just to print one page, and the joy it brought to all those who were lucky enough to be literate and wealthy enough to read back in the 17th century.
Moving along we passed through the workshop where they used to forge their own letters for the printers, and in doing this, allowed them to offer fonts that their competition could not. Then into the rooms housing the large selection of rare books printed by the house, including many versions of the bible, medical and anatomy books, and the very first atlases, in which Australia is either not present or only small portions of the northern coastline can be seen. Passing through two massive libraries full of floor to ceiling bookcases the bibliophile in me came out, and I had to refrain from jumping over the cordon, tearing open the doors of the cases and reading every one from cover to cover. Finally, we passed through the bedroom where the last of the Moretus men passed away, ending a centuries old legacy, just in time for more advanced printing methods to come into being. Reluctantly we left the museum, to continue on our adventure.
From here we made our way past Our Lady’s Cathedral, with its towering spires; onwards past the Brabo Fountain, a strange piece topped with a man seeming poised to throw a severed hand; and lastly arriving at the Het Steen Castle, an old castle on the outskirts of the city which is currently closed for renovations but you can still see the outside. The ramp up to the castle is flanked on the left side by a bizarre statue of a giant, seemingly showing his genitals to a couple of townspeople (although apparently at some point in history his penis was removed by some conservative Jesuits). Seriously Belgium what’s up with your art?
We decided at this point that we should probably grab some lunch before heading on to our next destination, and thus we had our last serve of Belgian fries with storverij sauce. Once more I was craving vegetables, after our foray into just living off fries and waffles, thus we stopped at a restaurant for something a little more substantial, and a little more interesting; falafel waffles. Yep you read that right, someone decided that putting falafel mix into a waffle iron was a good idea, and to be honest, it kind of was. Along with a shawarma, we had our fix of vaguely nutritious food and thus scurried back to grab our bags.
After the train, tram, bus combo once more, we arrived at our next stop, Rotterdam, a city in the south of the Netherlands. We were staying in an AirBNB private room in a house a little way out of the city centre with a friendly Dutch man named Peet. After having done none in Belgium, we quickly did a little life admin, throwing on a load of washing and scrounging enough food to cook a meal from the tiny supermarket on the corner, which was luckily open, especially given it was a Sunday.
As we collapsed exhausted into bed, and agreed that tomorrow would be best left alarmless, I thought back over our whirlwind day in Antwerp. In doing so it was hard not to be grateful for the availability of books nowadays. We take for granted how cheap and accessible, reading and education is to us. I remember, even as a child, being annoyed at the other kids in my class who would complain about having to read. We are so lucky, and yet we treat it as a chore. We can learn almost anything with the click of a button or the turn of a page, and we forget that this is a rather new development. Books were for the wealthy, for the religious, for the educated. Even now there are millions of people in 2nd and 3rd world countries who are denied the right to education and literacy. If this were merely a couple of hundred years ago I, with my social class and gender, would also be illiterate, unable to write my own name, yet here I sit able to purchase a book for a pittance and learn any language, or about any topic, I so wish. The printed word is one of the finest artforms we have, it can transport us to other worlds or other times, it can teach us how to save a life or where life comes from, and in doing so treats us all as equals. I only hope that when we publish our book, there are still a few bibliophiles like us to visit our world, to interact with our fictional selves, and, we hope more than anything, to enjoy and be inspired by our words.