Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port

AntwerpI’ve often wondered why Belgium is such a rich country. Its main claims to fame–chocolate, beer, Tintin, and a heroic fight against the Kaiser’s army in World War One–are all noteworthy but hardly the stuff to earn billions. Some background research for this series taught me that Antwerp has a lot to do with Belgium’s wealth.

It’s the second largest port in Europe, and one of the top ten in the world. It has a petrochemical works second only to Houston. The diamond industry is a major factor too. It’s strange, then, that Antwerp isn’t better known as an economic center the way London or Zurich is. It seems the Belgians just quietly get on with it, without making too much fuss.

Legend has it that the city gets its name from the antics of Antigoon, an evil giant who charged a toll on those crossing the River Scheldt. The toll was one hand, which he tossed into the river. One day a youth named Brabo fought the giant, cut off one of his hands, and threw it into the river, thus saving the city for us regular-sized folk. The Dutch name for the city, Antwerpen, means “throw a hand.”

Etymologists say the name actually comes from the old way to say “on the wharf” or “on the warp” (manmade hill), but any story with a giant gets my vote.

Like so many Western European cities, Antwerp can trace its origins to Roman times. It steadily grew until it enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century as a major port during the Age of Exploration. Overseas colonies sent their wealth through Antwerp, and this wealth is reflected in the glorious curches and fine homes built during this period. The city has had its ups and downs over the centuries and is currently enjoying an up.

Walking around Antwerp’s historic center you’ll see architecture reminiscent of Amsterdam without the canals. The Gothic spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady acts as a landmark. It was consecrated in 1521, when Antwerp was really getting going, and is adorned with some of the finest art of the Low Countries. Rubens has several works here, including his Descent from the Cross, included in the gallery in this article. As I was admiring it yesterday, two British boys came up beside me. The older one said in his best public school accent, “It’s quite good”, to which his younger brother replied “Not for Jesus.”

The Virgin Mary is important to the people of Antwerp and you can see statues of her on many streetcorners, looking down on the passersby.
Antwerp

%Gallery-137603%A lesser-visited but equally interesting church is the 17th century Saint Carolus Borromeus. There’s some fine art and an interesting relic. Just to the left as you enter, look up and you’ll see a headless statue of a boy holding a little silver sphere. Through the glass of the sphere you can see a skull. This is said to be the skull of Justus, a Roman boy whose family converted pagans to Christianity. Roman soldiers captured him and demanded to know where his family was. He refused to say and they cut off his head. Visiting this relic is said to cure headache and nerve pain.

Antwerp is a combination of winding little streets, a few broad avenues, and some stately squares. Many of these squares are lined with bars where you can sample some fine Belgian beer. The best bars have an immense variety to choose from, like Kulminator, which had literally hundreds of varieties on offer. A friend of mine recommended this place, saying, “They sell a beer bottled in 1984, consistancy of marmite. I didn’t remember anything for the next six hours.” I didn’t drink that one!

The city center is very walkable, and filled with museums, galleries, and palaces. I’ll be visiting some of them later in the series, but I did want to say that if you’re going to see just one museum, make it the Mas. This ultramodern high-rise along an old dock contains the collections of four previous museums. There’s everything here from video installation pieces to the Dutch Masters, all mingled together to give you a visual overload. It stays open until midnight (!) so it’s a great place to walk off some calories after a dinner of rich Flemish cuisine.

I’m not much of a shopper, but many travelers say Antwerp is great for fashion and jewelry, especially diamonds. I also noticed a large number of well-stocked bookstores. The Flemish region of Belgium is known for having a lively literary scene. If anyone out there can suggest some good Flemish authors who have been translated into English or Spanish, I’d like to hear about them.

The people of Antwerp are proud of their city, as I discovered on my first night as I was puzzling over my map trying to find my way back to the hotel. A guy came up and asked where I was going and pointed the way. A minute later he came running up to me to apologize. He’d sent me the wrong way. These medieval streets can even confound the locals! After he pointed out the correct route I thanked him and said, “You have a beautiul city.”

“We have the only beautiful city. You know what we say of the rest of the world?”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s the suburbs of Antwerp.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Visiting a German bunker from World War Two!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.