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Belgium: A Winter Weekend in Antwerp
A rainy day in Antwerp just makes you pray that the next day will be sunny because it's such a beautiful place for strolling, and you find yourself gazing wistfully at all the dripping wet cafe chairs stacked up outside bistros facing little squares.
The historic center of the town has been filled with designer shops built into old houses, those narrow brick buildings with stepped facades at the top. It's a town that likes its statues, and every little cobble stoned square and corner seems to contain a statue commemorating a historic person or religious scene. There are cafes and bars everywhere, Belgians like to sample many types of beer and some places serve nothing but beer – and a few snacks. Every block seems to have a chocolatier, with store windows as beautifully set up as if the chocolates and pastries were jewelry.
Between the historical sites, the cozy squares and window shopping, Antwerp is a very good city for wandering about on foot. Let's put it this way, if you give into the chocolates and pastries, you have to walk it off.
Getting Around Antwerp
The historic center of the town, which lies between the river to the west and a pseudo-ring road called the Frankrijklei ("lei" meaning "way"), is compact and concentrated inside about 2 square kilometers. Outside the circle of the Frankrijklei is the main train station and a shopping street called De Keyserlei, which leads from the train station into the historic center of town, crossing the trolley tracks that run the length of the Frankrijklei as it does so. Once upon a time, the shops along De Keyserlei were probably classier, but now it's all fast food and chain stores. But as you get closer to the older part of town, the street is re-named Meir (Meirstraat) and becomes a wider street bordered by wonderful Baroque buildings (and modern ones) with classier stores, all the way into the old town. There is a trolley bus system and underground trains, but for what I wanted to see, exploring by foot was very enjoyable.
The cobblestone paving is largely intact in the old part of town, so wear good walking shoes even though the stylish locals seem to have no problems in spike heeled boots. Also, there are designated bike lanes on the roads and sidewalks, indicated by red paving. You may see brick red paint marking the lane or paving blocks in a redder colour than the other part of the sidewalk. Watch out, bikes have right of way on the red paths! And always check for cars before crossing. The pedestrian areas are sometimes just paved in a different stone than the vehicle part of the street, with no raised sidewalks. It can be confusing to have cars driving on cobblestones on a narrow street that you think is pedestrian-only.
Antwerp is under construction. There was a huge crane parked on Meirstraat lifting something off the facade of the Royal Palace. The main train station is under scaffolding for renovations. Residential areas are being spruced up. The cab driver nodded wisely when I commented on this and said, "Yes, we have enough building work until 2025". So entrance to the Cathedral is confined to a small side door for now and some streets have temporary boardwalks and covered walkways to protect pedestrians from construction above (but not always the mud below).
Beware the tourist map handed out at hotels! Friends always tease me about being an incompetent navigator and map-reader. On driving holidays, the first day is always a bit tense until I get the hang of the map and can direct my husband in an intelligent way. I have no sense of direction and have no shame when it comes to asking for directions. But in this case, IT WAS NOT MY FAULT!! The standard-issue hotel tourist map is obviously still from a 2005 or 2006 inventory, and my Guide Bleu from the library was from 2003. Well, in 2006, the Diamond Museum moved to new premises and I only discovered this when I purchased a cheap copy of "Antwerp on Foot" at the Cathedral shop. The day before I really was feeling map-reading challenged.
In terms of language – English works just fine and so does French. I was there during the week with colleagues and clients from the US, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and they all standardized on English, assuring us that they were not speaking English to be polite to the North Americans but that although they each speak a few languages, English is the default in a mixed-language group.
Antwerp Sightseeing – not in any particular order
The house and gardens were reconstructed from artwork and drawings of the house as it looked in Ruben's time, so although it is as authentic as possible, it is not totally original. The furnishings are all from the right era, but except for a couple of pieces, none of them actually belonged to Rubens. But there are many works of art by Rubens and also pieces from his private collection. He was very successful and wealthy, and as well as being an artist he was a patron of the arts. Even in winter, the courtyard and gardens are nice to look at, very formally laid out but somehow domestic rather than grandiose.
Although we tend to associate Rubens with paintings of "rubenesque" women, the house and the range of art there bring home the fact that most of his commissions were religious works, and that one of the reasons for his success was his portrayal of biblical and martyrdom scenes at a time when the Catholics and Protestant churches were battling it out. Thus, the Catholic church was very fond of Rubens, because his paintings conveyed Catholic messages in a strong and dramatic way to the common people.
Rubens House in Antwerp
Mayer van den Bergh Museum
This was my favorite by far and apparently it is not very well known. The museum is based on the private collection of a wealthy young gentleman, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (FMB). Although the museum looks like a townhouse, it was actually built as a museum by FMB's mother after his early death. There is a little of everything, all of it in exquisite taste, an absolutely stunning collection.
Towards the end of his life, FMB gravitated towards the Gothic and early medieval and although I've always liked the iconographical aspects of that rather stiff era, in this collection the carved figures are displayed at eye level and you can get very close. Thus with some of the pieces, I was unexpectedly moved by the sweetness and tenderness of the expressions on the saints and madonnas. The highlight is a truly astonishing carving of Jesus with St. John leaning against him – both young men, both beautiful and complete trust between them. Their faces are so fresh and idealized; the statue was carved for a convent in Germany and one can imagine young nuns developing a crush on the figures, they are the equivalent of 14th century Versace models.
There are tapestries, statues, paintings, porcelain, portraits, architectural fragments, books, miniatures – FMB packed a lot of collecting into a short life. The American equivalent for me would be the Frick, but with more variety.
Museum Maagdenhuis or, House of Maidens
A former girl's orphanage located beside the St. Elizabeth's Hospice and chapel. I had high hopes for this museum, which displays art and also daily life of the orphanage. However, when I was there, there was also an exhibit of the history of playing cards. The card exhibit was scattered throughout every room of the orphanage in tall cylindrical cases that interfered with the permanent exhibits, and so although the cards on their own would have been quite interesting, they ended up detracting from the orphanage.
The exhibit in the chapel was quite poignant – mothers would leave their babies in a 2-way drawer built into the wall of the orphanage and then ring the bell, which told the staff to go welcome another abandoned baby. In case the mother wanted to collect the child at a later time, she would leave a token, usually a playing card cut in half; she would bring the other half with her if she went to reclaim the child.
This is a former guildhall/meat market that now contains a history of music and musical instruments. There are instruments from the 14th century and sheets and books of musical scores from as far back as the 9th century. There are multimedia stations scattered throughout and I really enjoyed the one of men and women in 18th century costumes dancing. There is an unreal collection of harpsichords, including a "glass harp" which I had read of but never seen before. Literally, in place of strings there are glasses (which kind of look like IKEA footed dessert bowls) of different sizes. Also quite interesting is a display of carillon bells which shows how tunes are played in church towers. No hunchbacks though. I have to say that the hall itself is wonderful – all red and white brick, vaulted ceilings and pillars. From the Vleehuis it is only a short walk to the national Maritime Museum.
National Maritime Museum
Located on the banks of the Schelde River, this harks back to a time when Antwerp was a leading port city with a great naval tradition. The building used to be a fortress, then a prison, then a council hall for the waterfront authorities. Being married to an avid yachtsman, it is a reflex action to head for the maritime museum, even if the husband isn't there. But even if you know nothing about ship building or rigging or navigation, it's easy to admire the beautiful antique models of ships, the archaeological finds (bits of Viking ships, a stone column that Portuguese explorers used to mark new territories, narwhal whale horns), the workmanship of ancient bronze compasses and sextants. Plus there are some really gorgeous paintings of Antwerp waterfront scenes.
A unique museum in that it is located in the house and gardens of a wealthy family, showing both the commercial and private lives of six generations of the Plantin-Moretus clan. Shortly after Gutenberg invented the printing press, Antwerp became one of the centers of printing. The Plantin-Moretus family home included offices, libraries, rooms for proof-reading, typesetting, printing and even a small bookstore that was accessible from the street. This one is really worth the audio guide. The second generation of the family was good friends with Rubens and as a result, some of the cover plates and illustrations for books were designed by Rubens, who also painted many of the family portraits hanging on the walls.
The treasures of the family were passed on to whoever was chosen to run the family business, so this had the positive effect of leaving the inheritance in the hands of the most competent member of the family. There are rare books, both printed and written manuscripts, including a three-volume Gutenberg bible; there is a collection of more than 900 type fonts, fonts in different languages, woodblock prints for illustrations, copperplate engravings, as well as a collection of the books that the firm printed of course. This is where the first atlas was printed, this is where typefaces were designed by Bodoni, Baskerville and Garamond, names we all know today if we use word processing. It is the most comprehensive collection of printing technology throughout the ages and even if you didn't think you cared much about printing, this is such a fascinating museum that you are grateful the Plantin-Moretus never threw anything away.
For me one of the joys of travel is to discover smaller, specialized museums that teach you something new. While the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museum are incredible places, museums such as the Plantin-Moretus can give you just as much pleasure.
Our Lady of Anvers (Antwerp) Cathedral
The obligatory cathedral visit, and worth the trip just to see the huge painting "Descent from the Cross" by Rubens. Although I had an image of Antwerp being rather austere in the northern European manner, it's really a Gothic-cum-Baroque place due to the influence of the Counter Reformation and this cathedral has chapels full of ornately framed saints. Here and there the walls still bear traces of the decorative paintwork that used to cover the stone walls, a reminder that the plain or whitewashed stone we see these days is not the way the churches used to be.
Isabella of Bourbon's effigy lies in the cathedral, an unexpected bonus, and the heavily carved wooden choir stalls are wonderful. The view from the square of the tall and graceful gothic spire, with the clock outlined in gold paint however, is in my humble opinion the best thing about this cathedral. This may be due to the fact that many areas inside the Cathedral were covered in scaffolding.
There was easily another day of touring in Antwerp – never made it to the Museum of Fine Arts or Rockox Huis (home of Nikolas Rockox, friend to Rubens), or the Folklore Museum or the Town Hall. Most of the churches and the town hall are only open to tourists during the summer months.
This is a town, and probably a country, that takes their chocolate seriously. I was a bit surprised that Valentine's Day decorations were up, because I think of this as a Hallmark holiday. However, given that it's an occasion to give chocolate as gifts, no wonder the Belgians have adopted it in a big way.
Every cup of coffee I ordered came with a square of complimentary chocolate. Every cup of hot chocolate I ordered was a minor event. At the Guylian Cafe, the chocolate milk came hot, pre-flavored in a metal jug, and you poured it into a huge cup that had a big square of dark chocolate in it. Stir, stir, stir. At the Horta Cafe, the chocolate milk came as plain hot milk in a clear glass that was in a silver filigree holder - with a cube of dark chocolate on a lollipop stick that you put in the milk to stir, stir, stir. In both places, just in case that wasn't enough chocolate, you also got a complimentary cookie and a chocolate candy. Something told me that asking for "skinny" or "non-fat" milk would get me nowhere.
Strolling and Shopping in Antwerp
Parallel to the river and not far to the south of the Plantin-Moretus are the streets of Oever and Kloosterstraat. Every store seems to feature either antiques, brocante, furniture or interior decor and on a mid-afternoon Sunday the sidewalks are packed with shoppers doing intense bargain-hunting. It was great.
In the wintertime, many of the churches are closed to the public and on a Sunday, you do want to respect the fact that there are services in session. But there is nothing to stop you from admiring them from the outside, and one of the truly eye-popping churches is St. Carolus Boromeus with a stunning Baroque front designed by Rubens. It is located in Hendrik Conscienceplein, a small square containing some very classy looking restaurants and also the municipal library, complete with fountain and statue of Hendrik, a Flemish writer of the 19th century.
For window-shopping of the clothing and accessories variety, explore the little streets south of Meir. Not only do you find the Rubens House Museum along Wapper street, but around that area in the streets named Jodenstraat and Schutterhofstraat are beautiful, high-end boutiques set inside 16th – 18th century houses. There are local designers, shoes, chocolates, decor, chocolates, international designers, more clothing and accessories and more chocolates. On a cold winter weekend I was surprised to walk through the Graan Mark square to see stalls being set up here and there with fruit, vegetables, cheeses, olives, seafood, spices and plants. Also around the cathedral area were little stalls selling antiques and junk. Well, it was raining and the stall keepers didn't seem upset about their "antiques" getting rained on, so the stuff must have been closer to the "junk" end of the spectrum.
For diamonds, the blocks on either side of De Keyserlei near the train station are packed with jewelry stores, including the heavily-advertised Diamondland. Many of the stores are owned by Orthodox Jews, so very fortunately for my husband, much is closed on Sundays and closed early on Saturday. By the time I got there (after a futile search for the Diamond Museum on the wrong side of De Keyserlei), only a few stores were open but there were lots of couples peering in the windows and shopping.
Many apologies in advance on the sparseness of this section. Normally food is a big part of any trip for me but I was doing a slow recovery from bronchitis and had zero appetite. That plus jet lag meant that by four or five in the afternoon, I toppled over into bed. So my meals consisted of the hotel breakfast buffet and then a large snack in the mid-afternoon. However, this mid-afternoon snacking seems to be the way things go here, because the cafes all filled up around this time and people were either having coffee and dessert or eating late lunches.
Street food also got my attention and I will say that Belgian fries are really good and because I had lost about 7 lbs during bronchitis, felt perfectly justified in eating about half a cone of fries with tartar sauce. Belgian waffles from the Belgowafel stall, however, were a real disappointment.
In the Komedieplaats near the Bourla Theater.
I read about this place before the trip. Horta is a major designer in Belgium and this restaurant which is just at the end of the block from Ruben's House is all steel girders and glass with modern interpretations of classic dishes. Here I had a hot chocolate, and a seafood soup and then a duck salad. The soup was just excellent, a light broth with just a touch of cream, chunks of langoustine and shredded vegetables as thin as pine needles. The duck salad was actually spring rolls with comfit de canard and vermicelli noodles, but flavored with orange zest – a spectacular taste combination. This was served with little segments of mandarin oranges and apricot sauce, and a salad of mixed greens. Thanks to the hot chocolate (full fat milk), I only got through one spring roll. The bill came to 30 Euro.
So now for the bad news on the Horta Cafe: the staircase that descends into the restrooms is right beside the front entrance and I think they are having a problem with the drains. Until your nose gets used to it, there is a strong smell of toilet wafting up. And then it's OK for a while until someone gets up to fetch their coat from the coat rack and moves the air around for a fresh burst of smell. Sit at the back of the cafe.
This was a first night dinner where I had the classic moules and frites (18 Euro) plus a mixed salad, and my colleagues went for the heavier beef stews and copious amounts of beer. This is a sort of Italian restaurant close to Melkmarkt and Korte Nieuwstraat, near the cathedral. My German colleague resolutely pulled us away from the establishments directly facing the cathedral square and said that the restaurants in the small streets behind would be better value and less touristy food. And Bacino, which is rather tacky with fishing nets for a nautical theme and also some garden gnomes that looked very much like Sneezy and Bashful, was not very touristy. But the salad was excellent, with strips of grilled red and green peppers and shavings of fried onion to add fragrance. The mussels were delicious, provencale-style and my companions were very happy with their beef stews. They were even happier with their beers.
Get more information from the Wikitravel Antwerp Travel Guide.
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