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.

Amsterdam art exhibit focuses on the Antwerp school

Amsterdam, Hermitage, Rubens
The Hermitage Amsterdam starts an important exhibition tomorrow focusing on the Antwerp school of Flemish art.

Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens: Flemish paintings from the Hermitage runs until 16 March 2012 and features almost a hundred paintings and drawings from some of the great names in Flemish art. Peter Paul Rubens is especially well covered, including his famous work Venus and Adonis, painted around 1614 and shown above. Rubens was hugely influential, teaching Anthony van Dyck and inspiring Jacob Jordaens. Both of these masters have several works in the exhibition, as do many lesser-known names.

Hermitage Amsterdam is a branch of the St. Petersburg Hermitage and the works all come from there. Since its opening two years ago, it has been one of the major art destinations in Amsterdam.

While Amsterdam attracts a lot of tourists for its legal pot and prostitution, it’s so much more than Sin City. Amsterdam one of the art capitals of the world and a good base for many daytrips to places like Delft and several Dutch castles. I will be exploring Amsterdam and hopefully Antwerp next month in a miniseries right here on Gadling.

The other Florida

Most people visit Florida for its theme parks and party beaches, but there is another side. The state is a place of incredible natural beauty and home to some of the most powerful and influential people of the 20th Century. If you’re looking for something beyond the “usual Florida vacation,” keep reading for some of our favorite outdoor spaces and hidden cultural treasures.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The Florida Keys have always been one of our favorite places, and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of the reasons. The coral reef encompasses 70 nautical square miles off the coast of Key Largo, and the park includes mangrove forests, tropical hammocks and numerous beach habitats. 100-feet offshore from Cannon Beach there are remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck, and with sailing, diving and snorkeling tours leaving several times a day, it is a great place to experience the magic of the Keys.

St. George Island State Park
In a state known for its white sand beaches, St. George Island State Park is one of the most pristine. A long barrier island between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, St. George is a place of sand dunes, sea oats and sunsets. It is tranquil and unspoiled. There’s also no shortage of activities, with boating, fishing, swimming and all the things you want from a beach minus the crowds and high-rise condominiums.

Keep reading below for three more Florida favorites…

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
It would be a shame not to see manatees while in Florida. The Homosassa Springs have always attracted them, and today the park is a key part of the state’s manatee rehabilitation program.

In addition, the park has many of Florida’s other native wildlife species. The rangers offer wildlife encounters and presentations throughout the day, and the freshwater springs and cypress swamps offer a beautiful environment for kayaking.

Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Located in Fort Myers, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates were the winter quarters of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The grounds, gardens and houses, including Edison’s workshop, are open to the public. This is a chance to go back in time and see how two influential men lived a simple yet elegant lifestyle in the days before air-conditioning.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Situated on the shores of Sarasota Bay, the grounds of this unique Florida attraction is much more than a circus sideshow. Though John Ringling was one of the seven siblings who created the Ringling Brothers Circus, his former Florida estate includes lavish gardens, an art museum with several large paintings by Rubens and yes, even a circus museum. Ringling had an opulent lifestyle. From the imported marble floors to the exquisite furnishings, this is the place to see just what money could buy.

From lavish estates and art to beautiful natural scenery, Florida has lots to offer the visitor sick of roller coasters and mouse ears. Chart a course for the “other Florida” on your next visit.

The secret garden of the Rubens’ House Museum, Antwerp

Burton could have shot 'Alice in Wonderland' here.Peter Paul Rubens bought a house on Wapper Street in Antwerp back in 1611. The beautiful residence served as his home and studio, and though it changed hands many times after his death in 1640 and eventually fell into disrepair, in 1937, it was fully restored to its original glory and glamor — including the astonishingly beautiful courtyard garden.

Even if you’re not big on museums, it’s worth visiting the Rubens’ House Museum just to stroll in the Italian palazzo-style garden. Images from The Secret Garden and even The Labyrinth will saturate your mind as you wander through, digesting the works of Rubens and the world’s largest collection of paintings by Jan Bruegel the Elder, including an entire subcollection of gallery paintings (example), all of which I would like to have in my house. If you would rather not see the collections, you can ask the guard to let you directly into the courtyard, as it comes at the end of the house tour. You’ll probably get a funny look, but it will be worth it.

Though I couldn’t photograph the rich, dark wooden interiors of the house, I was able to get some great shots of the courtyard. I can only imagine what it looks like now, as the flowers begin to bloom. Consider this your daily dose of romanticism:

%Gallery-89958%

My visit to Antwerp was sponsored by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.