Antwerp, past lessons for Europe’s present

Antwerp is a fascinating place. I had a free day and wanted to explore the area and museums around the old docks that I’d missed during our first trip here. This is one of the most historic parts of the town and is going through a ‘regeneration’. Restaurants and bars have sprung up on the side of wharfs that Napoleon ordered built; a couple of truly great museums are also found down by the docks.

The new and dramatic MAS museum is a symbol of the changes sweeping the area, but the Red Star Line Museum was my destination. In these dark days of European intransigence in the face of the tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing war, terror and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, the history of Europe’s own mass migration struck a chord with me.

Antwerp's ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp’s ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp's ornate Central Station, Belgium

Antwerp’s ornate Central Station, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

The Red Star Line Museum is a microcosm of European history in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It offers a lesson to modern-day Europe about the plight of desperate people who want nothing more than the opportunity to improve their lives. The museum is, more than anything else, the story of how millions of Europeans fled the continent to seek opportunity elsewhere.

In the poisonous atmosphere of contemporary European politics, and the hate-filled anti-immigration mantras of the right, politicians should be compelled to confront the history told in the Red Star Line Museum. This was, after all, the place from which Albert Einstein departed Europe in 1933.

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Photo of Albert Einstein, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Photo of Albert Einstein, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

Old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

MAS in the old port area of Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium

The museum has a photograph of Einstein and the letter the wrote resigning from the Prussian Academy of Sciences when the Nazis came to power. A letter he wrote while on a Red Star Line ship sailing to Antwerp. Einstein fled anti-Semitic persecution, as did many Eastern Europeans who suffered pogroms long before the Nazis came to power; many others were simply seeking economic opportunities that Europe couldn’t offer.

Between 1873 and 1935, Red Star Line ships transported around 3 million Europeans to a new life for themselves and their families in the United States and Canada. Today over 30 million US citizens can trace their origins back to the Red Star Line buildings in Antwerp.

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Musicians, Antwerp, Belgium

Musicians, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

A visit to the museum is an emotional experience, and the details of life on board these giant ocean liners is intimately told. Trust me, you didn’t want to be travelling in 3rd Class, but that’s all most people could afford. After a sobering and thought-provoking time at the Red Star Line, I headed into Antwerp’s medieval centre for some lunch and to wander its busy and entertaining streets.

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Hen party in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Hen party in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Chess in Groenplaats, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp is most famous for being the world’s largest diamond trading centre. Around 84 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through here, but this is a city that is full of surprises. The last time I was in Groenplaats, one of the city’s buzzing squares, there was a food market. This time there was a chess competition and several Hen parties, which made for an interesting contrast.

Living statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Living statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Museum gallery, Antwerp, Belgium

Museum gallery, Antwerp, Belgium

Picture and reflection, Antwerp, Belgium

Picture and reflection, Antwerp, Belgium

There is so much history, culture and life in the city that a day or two really doesn’t do it justice. Walking Antwerp’s atmospheric cobbled streets, sitting in peaceful cafes in hidden squares and admiring the historic architecture, are just some of the pleasures of this ancient city. Throw in wonderful food and an endless variety of Belgium beers, and you’ve got a winning combination. I’ve started planning our next trip already.

Flemish street art

Street art seems pretty popular in Flemish Belgium. In Antwerp and Ghent I came across a wide variety, ranging from the stylish, to political, to the vulgar and obscene. One of the joys of viewing street art is the knowledge that tomorrow, or next week, it will be gone, replaced by something else. The lack of permanence makes seeing it exhilarating.

Sometimes this is just irritating. A building near where I lived in London had a really lovely Banksy, the girl releasing a red balloon into the air. The building was bought for redevelopment and, presumably without knowing what it was, they painted over it. A small piece of urban beauty vanished under a coat of emulsion.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

I like street art with purpose, whether biting social or political satire, or just making the place look a bit more pleasant. I’m less keen on the whole ‘tagging’ form of street art, which I always associate with graffiti. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to distinguish between the two, or if there’s anything to distinguish between.

Belgium has some internationally renowned street artists. Ghent is home to mysterious muralist ROA, whose work I stumbled upon down a side street just outside the centre of town. ROA seems to be something of a Belgium Banksy, shrouded in secrecy.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Elsewhere in Ghent there’s an alleyway devoted to street art not far from the medieval centre. Werregarenstraat is known as ‘Graffiti Street’ by the tourist board – less guerilla art than sanctioned by the state. Ever changing, it’s fun to stroll along and see stylish and amusing paintings. I also found some interesting pieces on my walk to and from Ghent’s train station.

I didn’t come across anything quite like Graffiti Street while in Antwerp, but at a skate park near the docks there is a treasure trove of street art. Some way out of the centre, a lot of skill, effort and paint has gone into turning an ugly multiple lane road bridge into a living, breathing canvas. Enjoy.

Antwerp, of saints and sinners

Walking around Antwerp you might find yourself feeling like you’re being watched. Look upwards as you wander the cobbled streets, and gazing down benignly (at least I think they’re benign) will be one of the many statues of saints that are found on buildings around the city. Perhaps they’re there to keep an eye on the people who’ve been drinking beer made in the local monasteries?

When monks are making the beer – and they make some spectacular and spectacularly strong beers – it’s hard to tell who’s saint and who’s sinner.

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Saint statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp’s the sort of town that invites you to partake of its hospitality. There are lots of wonderful little cafes, bars and restaurants with outside tables to idle away an hour or two, possibly a day or two, sampling the hard work of the monks. Add to this a rich history, wonderful culture and excellent food, and Antwerp makes for an energising destination.

This makes my next confession all the more surprising. I ‘misspoke’ (as idiot politicians might say) in my previous post on Antwerp. I do know someone who doesn’t like Belgium’s second city and cultural lodestone. One of my colleagues isn’t a fan, and this isn’t a Dutch-Belgium rivalry thing, he’s British. Strange but true.

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street art, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Settled in the 3rd Century by Germanic sailers, Antwerp’s location on the Scheldt River has been the driving force behind its long and often bloody history. The Romans settled here and, when the Scheldt was the boundary of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemange built a fortress here. The Vikings came up the river in the 9th Century and destroyed everything, as Vikings tend to do.

After that setback Antwerp went on to become an economic powerhouse, with a spectacular Golden Age in the mid-16th Century. The bloody religious wars unleashed by the Reformation, and the Protestant Dutch uprising against the fanatical Catholic rule of Spain’s Philipe II, brought this period of prosperity to a brutal end.

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian chocolate, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian chocolate, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Violence engulfed the city when Antwerp’s Protestants unleashed the Iconoclastic Fury in 1566, destroying many Catholic icons in Antwerp Cathedral. This was viciously put down by Spanish troops who, after a decade of war, unleashed the Spanish Fury on the city in 1576. For three days they ransacked the city and murdered over 8,000 people.

The Spanish were back laying siege to Antwerp in 1585. The city eventually surrendered after a year. The surviving Protestants fled the devastated city to the Netherlands, taking trade and skills with them. Antwerp was forced to remain under Spanish control as a Catholic city. Which probably explains all the saintly statues staring at you from on high.

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

Street performers, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

The legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo, Antwerp, Belgium

Restaurant menu, Antwerp, Belgium

Restaurant menu, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

The Protestant Dutch had the last laugh though. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, closed the Scheldt to all non-Dutch ships. The Dutch strangled Antwerp’s economy, and the city sank into relative obscurity, only reviving in the 19th Century.

It was badly bombed during World War II, but much of ancient Antwerp survived into the 21st Century. The glorious Grote Markt is surrounded by magnificent medieval Guild Halls, golden statues on their roofs glinting in the sun. In the middle of all this grandeur is a large statue-cum-fountain of a man throwing a severed hand – water gushing from it like blood. This is the legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo that gives Antwerp its name.

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral at night, Antwerp, Belgium

Antigoon was a giant who terrorised people wanting to cross the River Scheldt by forcing them to pay a toll. If you refused to pay he’d chop your hand off and throw it in the river. People were, naturally, unhappy about the whole ‘pay a toll or lose a hand’ thing. When a young Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, was offered the choice he killed Antigoon, chopped his hand off and threw it in the river.

This is what the statue commemorates and where Antwerp got its name, the Dutch hand werpen means to ‘throw a hand’. Pretty literal stuff for such an inventive myth.

Antwerp, the ancient and the modern

Northern Belgium feels a lot like the Netherlands. Antwerp is only an 80 minute train ride from The Hague and less than 10km from the Dutch border; although you hear people having conversations in French, mostly people speak Dutch; street and shop signs, which I’d assumed would be Dutch and French, are predominately Dutch; the buildings don’t look dissimilar to their Dutch counterparts; and there are cycles and cyclists everywhere.

What could be more Dutch than that? If there were a few more canals it would be the Netherlands.

I Love Antwerp, Belgium

I Love Antwerp, Belgium

The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium

The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium

Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium

Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium

You only really see a difference with food. With the exception of a few die-hard bitterballen fans, no one would claim that the Netherlands has a world beating cuisine. Belgium on the other hand benefits from a French influence that differentiates its food from its northerly neighbour, and comes as welcome relief to the taste buds of those who live over the border.

This was my first visit to Antwerp and it came with high expectations. Everyone I know told me it was wonderful; every travel article I read praised its history, restaurant scene, vibrancy and culture. That may all be true, but Belgium is also the greatest beer nation on the planet. I was keen to sample some of the finest beers available to humanity.

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium

Busker, Antwerp, Belgium

Busker, Antwerp, Belgium

Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

The reverential and excited way people talk about Antwerp, and the rash of gushing travel articles about the city, you’d almost think it was having a second Golden Age. The first Golden Age in the 16th Century was driven by trade in spices and precious metals, bequeathing the city a glorious medieval centre rammed full of beautiful buildings and atmospheric, cafe-filled streets. It’s a spectacularly attractive town.

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium

Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp’s modern revival has been driven by cutting-edge fashion and design, arts and and culture, and creative industries that include a huge clubbing scene (whatever that is). According to my guidebook, Antwerp is Belgium’s ‘capital of cool’.

Luckily Antwerp gives substance to the hype. It’s a fascinating city, full of life and energy. I already know I’ll be going back. When the sun shined, and it didn’t always, cafes in the pedestrianised centre were packed with people. The whole place seemed to have a happy buzz. There was a big food market when we were there, cue sampling lots of different specialities.

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium

Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium

Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium

We’d bought Antwerp City Cards for €32, giving us access to lots of museums and historic buildings, including the interior of the extraordinary cathedral. We were sorely tempted to spend our time outdoors while the weather was good; ‘luckily’ on Sunday morning it was raining, forcing us to find indoor entertainment and to make good use of the cards. We visited several historic buildings housing collections of art or museums, but the newish MAS museum was the must see highlight.

The MAS is a daring modern building, not as glamorous as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but still pretty wonderful. It’s the centrepiece of a redevelopment of the Eilandje, the old port area. This was Antwerp’s main port for hundreds of years and is full of history. Had it not been raining, we’d have spent much more time exploring the area.

Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium

Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium

Statue, Antwerp, Belgium

Statue, Antwerp, Belgium

The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium

The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium

The port regeneration is clearly ongoing, in the meantime it retains a rough edge. Walking to the museum on Sunday morning we found ourselves in the middle of Antwerp’s red light district. Strangely it was’t marked on my tourist map, but this is a port area after all. I can honestly say, there are few more dispiriting sights than a red light district on a wet Sunday morning.

*A bitterballen to anyone who can spot the hidden film reference (to one of my favourite British films) in this blog…