I spent about seven to eight days in Holland and from Den Bosch took the train to Antwerp. The B&B hosts I was staying with, Mabuhay Holdings, would not be home till about 8 that night so I stowed my luggage at the train station. The problem was that the luggage lockers were all full except for two rows that weren’t working. And here, the bottom stand that kept my suitcase upright decided to fall off. I managed to tape it back on but the cheapness of the suitcase was becoming apparent. At the other end of the Antwerp station was another set of luggage lockers. The other end was a very long walk that equaled about three city blocks, past covered shops and lots of gold and diamond stores. This was also one of the few places where I had to use a credit card to secure a locker, as most restaurants and B&Bs in Holland and Belgium do not accept anything but cash.
There was a helpful tourist information booth in Antwerp station where I was given directions and a map. I then headed toward the old city. Antwerp is a blend of old and new in a way the other cities weren’t. Often, centuries-old cities are more medieval and ancient at the center and as they expanded they became more modern. Of course, there will be a blend when old buildings disappear but maybe not that much when they’re historical. However, I suspect that Antwerp’s blend comes more from the aftermath of WWII than from a conscious effort to modernize. (Indeed, a quick google check confirms this.)
As I walked along I could smell the waffles, a famous Belgium food. Luckily, while Antwerp is open and modern, there are still many historical buildings. The square that holds the stadhuis or townhall also has a row of historical guildhalls, with gilded statuary at the top. One was under repairs but they are four-five centuries old, having experienced a fire in the 1500s.
The square, also called the grote markt, holds the Brabo fountain, where a Roman warrior named Brabo, standing on a dragon is throwing the hand of a giant into the Scheldt River. Antwerp’s name means something close to this (Brabant, hand throwing). As I walked through the square, the Cathedral of Our Lady’s bells began to chime. They chimed for 15 minutes and were just lovely. Mary is obviously a patron of the city and Marian statues can be found on various building corners. In fact, you can wander down different streets and come across large statues of Jesus and Mary, or other saints. The cathedral was stunning, airy and light, and very large. It had quite a range of triptychs throughout, including Rubens and Caravaggio.
In fact, by far one of the best museums on my trip was Rubenshuis, the studio and house that Rubens built and lived in. I had always known he was a painter but what I didn’t realize was that he was a renowned architect, so much so that his work influenced architects of his time and for those to come. Rubens in turn was influenced by Greek and Roman architecture and styled his house after a Roman villa. His use of marble, rectangular designs and angular openings gave a particularly vibrant appearance that seemed apparent in parts of the cathedral. One side was dedicated to his paintings; the other to his architectural studies and influences. Like many museums, taking pictures is not allowed. One of the rooms had the walls covered in about tw0-foot square panels of embossed and stained dark red leather. This would have warmed the room visually and as an insulating layer. Amazingly, most of these leather-covered walls are preserved. Because Rubens built his house opening into a courtyard, the windows all face one side. Truly beautiful and stunning centuries later. I spent most of the day just in Rubenshuis alone, and the rest in the cathedral.
I arrived on a Sunday and it turns out most museums are closed on Mondays, I decided to spend a second day in Antwerp and skip Brussels. There is definitely more than enough to see. Also, while Amsterdam seemed to be big on Argentinian steak houses, Antwerp’s most popular style of restaurant was pasta and pizza. These restaurants were everywhere.
While the guidebooks said that even in restaurants they would charge for toilet use, that wasn’t true though it was for every store I went in. You cannot get a glass of water at restaurant and must pay for it. In fact, water costs as much as a glass of wine. I ate in the old part of town that night and then with some confusion, managed to catch a tram to my lodging. It was unclear which tram stop I needed so I ended up waiting a long time and when I got down to the convergence of three streets, the bus driver said it was close but to ask the police and transit man who were standing there discussing something. Perhaps it was a small comfort as a directionally challenged tourist that when I asked them where Drakstraat was they had to look it up on the map and it turns out it was the street the tram had gone down and we were pretty much standing on it. Even the locals don’t know the names of their streets.
More in my next post on Antwerp, with the photo album of the trip.