Exploring Antwerp’s History

Train station

This was my first view of Antwerp on arrival, the great hall of the railway station.

As would be expected in a city with a long, important and colorful past, history is everywhere in Antwerp! On Saturday I experienced two of the most important pieces of the city’s history, but just walking around this city’s streets allows a visitor to find history everywhere.

For example, the central train station, built between 1895 and 1905, is an enormous structure crowned by a large dome. The walls of the grand entrance and lobby are covered in marble – the space is so rich that I was reminded of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I’ll use my picture here but clicking this link will show you several much better photos at Wikipedia.

The primary business and retail avenue of Antwerp begins at the station. A matched pair of elegant buildings stand proudly at the entrance to the Meir, as the street is called. They set the tone for the blocks ahead. Familiar names from the U.S. and Europe are found here but of much greater interest to me were the magnificent office buildings of the early 1900s.

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The building that I liked best featured this angel holding lightning bolts. I’m guessing – though it’s only my guess – that this must have been the headquarters of the electric, telegraph or telephone company. The building takes an entire block, is very rich and elegant and its entrance features a dome.

farmers-building

One of the most notable buildings on this street is Europe’s first skyscraper. Built between 1929 and 1932 in the “New York style,” the building is called Boerentoren which means the farmer’s tower. At 287 feet tall, it was the tallest building in Europe until 1940.

When I reached the center of the old town I went to one of the oldest museums in Antwerp, the Museum Plantin-Moretus. The buildings of this museum were the home and the workshop of an early printer, Christophe Plantin. He opened a shop here before 1568 when he printed a Bible in five languages. His is considered to be the world’s first “industrial” printing works. His company was inherited by his son-in-law, Jan Moretus. The publishing house and the home were continuously in the possession of the Moretus family until 1876 when they are sold to the City of Antwerp.

The museum is a perfectly preserved 16th century upper-class home that displays many very old books. More importantly it is a rare view of very old type-cutting, type-setting and printing techniques. I have created a separate page to give you a better description. Please click here to see it.

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Can you see all the golden statues that were shining in the sunlight?

As I was walking along the street on this very sunny day, a ray of pure gold caught my attention.  At the end of a short, narrow street there was a beautiful church with several golden statues adorning its façade. I wasn’t the only one to be caught by this lovely sight – every tourist passing by lined up in the alley to take a picture.  I’d found the church of St. Charles Borromeo. When I entered it I discovered a church much in the style of churches in Italy. It was very beautiful.

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The interior of St. Charles Borromeo church.

Finally I went to the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. My husband loved to visit old churches and cathedrals when we traveled and he taught me to love them to. We have been to most of the famous cathedrals of Europe and to many not-so-famous churches as well. I can say without exaggerating that this is truly one of the most beautiful I have seen. Again, there’s so much to show you that I created a separate page – click here.

By Sunday morning I was feeling the effects of a head cold and the temperature had dropped to the lowest point of my trip to date. Today it’s even colder but my cold is improved. I’ll venture out in a while to find something new to show you, but for now please click on the links above to see more of the two ancient sites I enjoyed.

Libbie

Antwerp is a very cool town!

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The 16th century street I found today in Antwerp.

I like this town! Here are some of the reasons I’ve discovered in the first two days:

  • The people are very friendly
  • Everyone speaks English
  • The ancient architecture of the town is beautiful
  • The 21st century architecture is exciting
  • There are a great many good restaurants, and the prices are great!
  • The city’s leadership is obviously forward-looking and has been for some time.

So, in case you’re wondering why I have written these things, let me explain the good day I had in the cold rain today.

The people are very friendly. While eating lunch today I noticed across the street a doorway in a very old building leading into what appeared to be a courtyard. When I asked a young man standing there if I could enter he very enthusiastically said, “Yes! This is a 16th century street.” The picture at the top of this post shows what I found.

Everyone speaks English. You may know that Belgium is a country of two languages: French and Dutch. Antwerp is in the Dutch-speaking region; in fact, it’s on the border of Holland. Dutch and English seem to have very similar roots and many words are the same. This is true of both old traditional words and modern American and English popular expressions. I’ve seen English words used on businesses of all types, and then there are “Dutch” words that seem familiar:

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Maybe I could learn to speak Dutch if it only involved “eten and drinken.”

The ancient architecture of the town is beautiful. Here’s another example:

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These old guild hall buildings surrounding the central market square in Antwerp are definitely not the only beautiful old buildings her.

The 21st century architecture is exciting. There’s a new 10 story museum in the revitalized port area. I think it illustrates my point very well but it’s certainly not the only creative modern architecture in town.

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There are a great many good restaurants, and the prices are great! Let me tell you about the lunch I had today! It was in an Italian restaurant employing only people from Italy. I ordered cannelloni and it was the best I’ve ever had. It was a large dish, about twice as much as I could eat. I also spontaneously ordered a glass of red wine. I almost never drink at lunch (especially when I’m alone) and I really don’t like red wine, but it seemed just right with the ambience and my choice of food. It was good and it cost $2.75. The total bill was under $13.

The city’s leadership is obviously forward-looking and has been for some time. I say this based on the two new museums I visited today and the great changes going on in this old port section of town. I’ll write about the museums on another day but I’m excited about what I found. I’ve shown you the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) building. The interior is just as cool and has a number of innovative programs. I also went to the Red Star Line Museum this morning. Its subject is emigration in general and the great wave of migration from Europe to North America, It’s focus is also as up-to-the-minute as the wave of people who fled floods in China last month.

More to come about my two museum days in Antwerp soon.

Libbie

I’m in Antwerp, Belgium now!

Grote-Market-2

I traveled from Paris yesterday on a high speed, non-stop train and arrived in two hours. I brought with me a cold. (Here’s something about trip that I want to record: for the first time ever I went through airport-style security screening before boarding the train. People taking trains within France were not screened but those on international trains were. I was glad to see it, especially since all our luggage was x-rayed.)

I’m staying for the next two weeks in an old apartment in the historic port area of Antwerp– up 48 narrow, ancient stairs! The apartment is spacious and has some water views as well as a view of the new city museum (about which I’ll write more on another day).

Today I walked to the historic center of town. Here’s a little history of Antwerp, from Wikipedia, heavily edited by me:

“In the late 1400s the city of Antwerp grew in importance. A writer of that period stated that Antwerp became ‘the centre of the entire international economy.’ Antwerp was the richest city in Europe in the first half of the 16th century. Its golden age is tightly linked to the “Age of Exploration” [the discovery of the Americas, etc.] Antwerp grew to become the second-largest European city north of the Alps. The Venetian envoy stated that hundreds of ships would pass in a day, and 2,000 carts entered the city each week. During this period the entire region that became Netherlands and Belgium was controlled by Spain. In the century after 1541 the city’s economy and population declined dramatically, while rival Amsterdam experienced massive growth.” Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antwerp

I’m telling you this to explain why this small city has a golden center that was built 500 years ago. Here are some photos of what I saw today, most of them taken under heavy gray skies but for a short while the sun was out and the sky was blue.

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This is the Antwerp City Hall. It is the centerpiece of the “Grote Market” — the great market square surrounded on all other sides by tall, elegant 16th century buildings.

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Here’s a view of a few of those fancy 16th century buildings, with a bit of the city hall on the left.

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Antwerp’s cathedral is one of the largest and grandest of the many gothic cathedrals I’ve seen. I doubt I’ll be able to photograph the entire building but here you see the enormous tower and the fancy top of a chapel on the right.

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This is the main entrance to the cathedral. Note the French-style carving of saints, angels, etc. with Jesus at the center top.

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Around the old town today I saw many of these Madonnas installed on the corners of buldings. This one, near the cathedral, was the prettiest and most colorful.

Brussels also has buildings of this magnitude and style, which I hope to show you within the next two weeks. Those were built at least in part by the “guilds” – that is, associations of the tradesmen such as butchers and carpenters who were rich and influential in many of the medieval cities of Europe. I haven’t learned about the origins of the beautiful old Antwerp buildings but I plan to.

Today Antwerp is a city of about a half-million people with a metropolitan area that’s home to 1.2 million people. It’s a modern, cosmopolitan, up-to-date city surrounding a 500 year old core. Walking around the town suggests that the economy here is doing well. There are many new buildings and much restoration happening on old buildings. It still has a very active port, one of the Europe’s largest.

Here are a few more scenes, showing both old and modern bits of Antwerp.

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Much of the housing in Antwerp is centuries old with modern buildings or modern facades interspersed. I liked this scene of cobblestone street, old buildings and lots of “resting” bikes.

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I really noticed today how the open borders of Europe have changed the restaurant scene. Shown here a Greek restaurant and it’s neighbor, a “Balkan Grill” with a name that suggests both Bosnia-Herzogovina and Croatia. My lunch today was in an Israeli falafel café called “Mama’s Place” advertised on the street by a picture like “Aunt Jemima.”

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Here’s another international eatery — I liked the looks of this one!

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Finally, for those in my family who have a fondness for beer, three pictures of a shop full of Belgian beers. The Belgians are justifiably proud of their brews which they claim to be the best in the world. (I have to agree!)

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Usually I hate window reflections in my photographs but this time I like it.

Abbey-Belgian-Beer-shop-Antwerp

Quite a selection!

In the next two weeks I’ll be telling you more about Antwerp and some other great cities of Belgium and Holland.  And sampling more beer.

Libbie