Antwerp: From Birth to Near Death and Back
The Romans found Antwerp Belgium in the second century AD. Antwerp rapidly evolved into a major river port and the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Its sheltered, easy access to the North Sea made it a prized shipping port. By the 10th century, it was under Brabant control. It benefited handsomely when imports of raw sugar, spices, and metals from Spanish and Portuguese colonies flowed into the city and sugar refineries, textile plants, and manufacturing companies grew.
Its good fortune continued when Maximillian, King of Germany, transferred Bruges’ trading rights to Antwerp. Foreign trading houses moved to Antwerp and, almost simultaneously, Bruge’s river began to silt up (see our Bruges post). This resulted in a dramatic expansion of the Antwerp’s already large textile industry. On the back of these fortunes, Antwerp became the richest city in Europe and the second-largest in Northern Europe (after Paris).
As if this weren’t enough, it became the leading Northern European transit center for spices from Portuguese Spice Islands. The resultant influx of merchants and bankers that came to Antwerp from across Europe resulted in Antwerp becoming one of the most cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant cities in Europe. Jews were attracted by this tolerance. As money and bankers flowed into the city, the city created the world’s first stock exchange (in 1531). By the end of the century, it accounted for an estimated 40 percent of all world trade.
The good times, however, didn’t last. A series of booms and busts and rampaging inflation diminished the city’s luster. Numerous bankruptcies followed and merchants began to withdraw from the city. Amsterdam became the primary beneficiary of Antwerp’s decline in both shipping and finance. Things only got worse when the Protestant Reformation brought religious wars and alienated Catholic Portugal, Spain and Italy from the increasingly Protestant countries of Northern Europe.
The situation went from bad to worse when the Dutch capital revolted and lost. As a settlement, its Protestant and Jewish residents had two years to leave the city. Most, along with their money and businesses, went to Amsterdam, thereby helping to launch the Dutch Golden Age.
Its fate was sealed when another stipulation closed Antwerp’s river to navigation. By then Napoleon controlled the city and embarked on a program to rebuild the city’s port. Although he partially accomplished his goal, his defeat derailed the full plan. Moreover, it put the control of Antwerp and its port back into play. After a number of battles that further decimated the already suffering city, Antwerp was incorporated into the new country of Belgium. Belgium also recognized Antwerp’s importance as a port and global city—a role that was announced to the world when it hosted the 1894 World’s Fair.
A German siege in WWII cut short this coming out party. Britain captured Antwerp in 1944. Germany was unwilling to cede the port to the British, and attempted (but ultimately failed) to destroy it with a long missile barrage. The port eventually was completely rehabilitation by the mid-1960s. By this time, the city had become one of the fashion capitals of Europe and a tourist destination.
We managed to visit Antwerp on a public holiday by mistake. Since most museums were closed, we ended up cutting our visit short. But we still were able to tour the city both on our own and with Bart of Legends Tour. Not surprisingly, we began in the Grote Markt, the town square in the hear of the old city quarter and the commercial center of the city. The square is filled with an extravagant city hall, numerous elaborate 16th-century guildhalls, many restaurants, and cafés.
- Grote Markt square was built around the landmark Brado Fountain which commemorated a legend of a giant-killing Roman soldier, The fountain is flanked by the 16th century, Renaissance-style City Hall or Stadhaus (which is currently under renovation) and a number of gilded, 16th and 17th-century guild houses, which, of course, have cafes and shops on street level and residences above. Of these, the House of the Crossbowsmen, topped by a statue of St. George and the Dragon, is the tallest and most impressive;
- Cathedral of our Lady is the largest cathedral in the country. It was built between the 14th and 16th centuries. A single 404-foot spire tops it (a second one was planned, but eliminated due to cost). The cathedral is under wraps for a long-term restoration. Since our abbreviated stay didn’t allow us to enter the cathedral during opening hours, we contented ourselves with a view of the tented steeple and the monument to Nello and Pastasche. The monument is of a boy and a dog that were featured in a 19th-century novel. They froze to death when sleeping in front of two of the cathedrals Rubens’ triptychs (Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross triptychs) that we never got to see;
- Charles Borromea Church has a 17th-century Baroque façade built during the Catholic Reformation. It is actually part of the cathedral.
- Peter-Paul Ruben’s statue (see below for a brief discussion of his house and museum) where our guide explained how the painter studied across Europe, He adapted the emotional intensity and expressiveness of the then-emerging Italian Baroque style (that was being pioneered by Caravaggio) to Northern Europe, which focused on technical detail and proportions, rather than emotions. His approach was particularly powerful in portraying religious scenes in an era when few people read and relied on images—ideally powerful ones—to form deeply felt beliefs. Rubens, however, was much more than an artist. He was also a very good businessman. he built a studio that brought in not only talented students (especially Anthony Van Dyck), but also other master painters to collaborate on large-scale, multi-faceted paintings. He was also a polymath and possessed a deep understanding of and participating in fields including sculpture, architecture, politics and international diplomacy.
- Fashion District, an industry arising out of the course of study offered at the Royal Academy that produced Antwerp’s “Big Six”, a group of designers who are redefining a new form of avant-garde (especially relatively affordable, ready-to-wear) clothing design.
- St. Anne Tunnel is housed in a rationalist building. It houses an 85-year-old wooden escalator that takes walkers and bikers 90 feet beneath the surface to one of the tunnels (as an alternative to bridges) that cross the river.
- Vlaaikensgang is one of the smallest alleys in Antwerp that people often go right by without noticing it. It is a pretty narrow, meandering, medieval lane with courtyards that portray the ancient feel of the Old City. One of its oddball treasures is a drunk-proof lock that adorns one of its doors.
- Dozens and dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary (the city’s patron saint). Elaborate ones were a status symbol.
- Het Steen Castle was built in the 13th century and replaced an earlier 10th-century fortress that had been built at the same location. As its role as defensive structure declined in the 19th century, it was re-purposed as a prison and restored as something on an idealized castle in 1890. The site, in Pre-Roman times, was supposed to have been the lair of an evil giant who tormented river travelers and was eventually slain by the Roman soldier honored in Grote Markt. The castle is now graced by the statue of another giant, Lange Wapper, this one a benign trickster that supposedly has fun with those who drink too much of the city’s beer
- St.-Paul’s Church is a Baroque 16th-century church that is known for its spire, its ornate gate and Rubens’ pictures which we did not get in to see.
The area beyond the city’s center is home to historic sites including:
- Maiden’s House, a 16th-17th century orphanage and hospital for girls that operated till the end of the 19th century. Babies were left in a drawer with half a playing card, the other half of which was retained by the destitute mother who hoped to be able to care for it at a later date.
- St-Jacobs church, which houses Rubens’ tomb, family chapel and one of his paintings;
- The majestic, turn of the 20th century, Neo-Classical Central Station with its grand staircase, gold-laced decorations.
- The Meir, the city’s long, primary, pedestrian street that is lined with most of the city’s largest stores and about a dozen large, lovely and ornately decorated buildings.
While we did not see the actual building of one contemporary Antwerp site that is not on most tourist agendas, we did see a picture of the headquarters building of the city’s huge (the (second largest in Europe) port. This 2016 Port Authority Building turned an old fire station into a dazzling new gem (literally) by adding a glass dome that, appropriate to its function, is shaped like the hull of a ship. Yet it is also appropriate to the city’s role as the globe’s leading diamond trader (albeit no longer cutter), shimmers like the precious gemstone.
We also had an interest in a number of the city’s museums. Unfortunately, the Koninklijk art museum, which displays a number of paintings by Belgian masters including the “Antwerp Trio” (Rubens, van Dyck and Jordaens) and many others, was closed for renovations. We did, however, get to briefly visit two others that were on our list:
- Rubens House and Studio, a fittingly Baroque-style complex that demonstrates some of the artist’s architectural (in a complex and garden that he designed) as well as his artistic skills and his lifestyle. The fully restored complex, stocked with period furniture, begins with a walk through his narrow, but comfortable, but certainly not ostentatious living quarters. It proceeds through his studio which provides examples of sketches and paintings that he created himself (including a very unusual self-portrait). He produced some of the art in conjunction with other artists in his studio and others that he owned that were produced by his students (including van Dyck) and others. It also has a number of interactive terminals that allow you to explore selected works and their artists in greater detail. The self-guided tour ends in his lovely pavilions and gardens.
- Plantin-Moretus Museum includes the house and a historic printing museum in the home of a Platin family. This nine-generation family of printers led the erudite publishing business in Antwerp through the city’s Golden Age. It began with Christophe, a bookbinder and leather crafter who moved to Antwerp in the mid-16th century. It continued through his sons who published ornate bibles and whom the leading thinkers of the time approached to publish groundbreaking scientific, medical, mathematical books and literary works, not to speak of the first Dutch dictionary and world atlas. We had time to only briefly scan the museum. But it offers self-guided tours of the rapidly evolving printing craft and the lifestyle of the family of printers, philanthropists and art collectors, and of committed Rubens patron, Nicholas Rockox. It includes numerous examples of period printing presses and copies of some of the most important books and documents they published.
- Grand Cafe de Rooden Hoed is a long-established Belgium restaurant. Tom had a wonderful seafood stew –a bowl of white wine and garlic-based sauce with tomatoes, celery, onions, orange, lemon, and ham. It was overflowing with shellfish: three types of clams (razor, venus and amande), mussels, shrimp, whelks and more. Joyce had jumbo steamed mussels with vegetables, garlic cream and Antwerp’s own De Koninck beer—a recipe very similar to (except for the orange and lemon), but not as interestingly or intensively flavored as a similar recipe from Bruges’ De Koetse. Tom sampled a nice, hoppy, but not especially distinctive, glass of De Koninck Borllke.
- Huis De Colvenier initially confused us. Upon arrival, we were, without explanation, guided through the kitchen, downstairs into the medieval labyrinths of a basement, through wine cellars and sitting rooms, into an unfinished reception room whose walls and ceiling are covered in empty wine bottles. There we were offered a glass of champagne but still had no idea of what was going on. Do we eat in the basement? But soon, the chef/host/maître de/owner of the 30-year-old restaurant stopped at our table with a tall toque sitting atop his head. He sat on an empty seat at our table and asked us what we would like for dinner. Thrown back, we asked what is on the menu. As he explains, there is no menu. He instead tells us the fresh fish and protein for the day. We told him what sounded good to us and he asks how we would like it prepared. He then told us to enjoy ourselves and that we would be brought to our tables as our dishes are about to be served. When our food was ready, we were brought up into a lovely room for a classical French dinner experience. We very much enjoyed both our dishes: wild hare with an au jus cream sauce and pan-fried Scottish salmon with leeks—both accompanied by whipped potatoes and seasonable vegetables. We followed them with four selections from the cheese cart (a combination of goat, soft, runny cows milt and hard cheeses which, in the only fault of service, the chef could not name or describe). All in all, it a wonderful meal, a wonderful atmosphere and very good service, especially by Patrick Van Herck, the very personable chef/owner. We highly recommend this place.