Now I’m not stupid enough to think that the list of World Heritage sites is flawless, or that it’s not skewed by national politics. But it is normally a pretty good guide to interesting places to see when visiting somewhere new (and I don’t think you can blame UNESCO for making potentially interesting sitesas dull as ditchwater by ruining them with compulsory snoozesome guided tours).
Despite that, I was a little underwhelmed by reading about Antwerp’s main one, the Plantin-Moretus museum. The prospect of visiting a small museum based in and on the subject of an old publishing house hardly generated the excitement I got from the thought of, say, climbing a Mayan temple in a jungle.
But thanks to a personal recommendation, we figured we might as well give it a go. Now I know I said that Antwerp was virtually empty of tourists; what I didn’t expect to find was there to be so few that we had one of the city’s most famous museums entirely to ourselves. And I mean *entirely*. It was like having a private visit. Just like the city as a whole, people are seriously missing out.
The museum is in a collection of 16th century buildings, surrounding a central courtyard, that housed a publishing house founded by Christophe Plantijn in 1576. The museum today houses all the artifacts of the old printing process, including the oldest surviving printing presses in the world and workshops where the presses were made.
As well as the print works, the building was also the home of the owners, and houses their hugely valuable library, many of which were printed on-site and on display in cabinets, including volumes illustrated by the city’s most famous son, Rubens (elsewhere in the house you can find various portraits of family members by him too), and the world’s first illustration of the potato.
The interior of the house is fascinating too, with some of the walls bound with leather decorated with gold leaf, original tapestries, and more portraits. The courtyard itself contains a quiet little garden too.
Best of all, for a geography geek like me, was the room full of old globes and maps from what was described as the golden age of Flemish cartography (1540-1590 apparently), including an early edition of a pocket-sized edition of Mercator’s maps. I could have spent hours in there, and would have loved to have had the chance to go through those old atlases in more detail.
I suppose it’s always good to places with low expectations, but in this case it really paid off. It’s one of the most unusual and fascinating museums I’ve ever been to, and if you’re a book lover, a geography geek or just have any interest in history, I’d heartily recommend it.