There are hundreds of cities you could visit on a 2 hour flight from Paris that will give you a feeling of really getting away, but fewer are accessible on a 2 hour train ride. Antwerp (or Anvers in French) is in Belgium, our neighbor to the north, is one that is just far enough away to be a complete change of scenery, yet close enough for a 3 day visit. First of all the language. They speak Flemish there and they are proud of it. They are also proud to be able to help you in English or French. We personally enjoy getting wrapped up in a different language and learning a few new words. We’ve got quite a repertoire now in Dutch including slagroom (whipped cream) and winkelwagen (shopping cart). Wouldn’t they’d be great names for cats?
So what’s to see in Antwerp?
A large variety of different things from different periods. Art and industry (this is the third largest port in Europe). A strong food culture.
There is of course a cathedral, but this one is worth visiting, even if you are thinking to yourself “really? another cathedral?”.
The cathedral of Our Lady is currently serving as an art gallery while the Royal gallery is renovated. We were pleased to find masterfully painted tryptics by Rubens and his contemporaries beautifully displayed between the aisles. This in an extra large cathedral with 5 aisles rather than the usual 3 so it lends itself to the displays. They are of course all christian paintings depicting biblical scenes and excellent of examples of counter reformation art (during the wars of religion Antwerp was right in the middle between the battling Catholics and Protestants). What is interesting the the gallery style display that you don’t often find in a cathedral. In addition the 19th century wood sculpted pulpit is a fascinating piece with leaves and birds of all sorts. We’d never seen anything like it. Then there was the contemporary sculpture by Antwerp artist Jan Fabre. I have never been so uplifted by church art! The shiny chrome man in street clothes and glasses holds a cross on his fingertips and follows it with his reverential gaze. Inspiring and thought provoking.
Keeping in the theme of local artists we visited the Peter Paul Rubens home and museum. There are few paintings by Rubens himself there. We are treated to what inspired him – his private collection of art and his Italian portico an garden. The house is also interesting, still decorated in 16th century style you can get a feel for Ruben’s lifestyle.
Antwerp is on the cusp of new things, the city is full of construction, renovation, new tramways, new galleries, new restaurants, innovations.
For example we came across the first Belgian cereal café. Opened in 2017, they serve hundreds of types of very sugary breakfast cereal. A steak restaurant was grilling steak on a Green Egg barbecue. We also found many more sophisticated places to dine.
Het Pomphuis is a renovated industrial site – a pump house that once was able to empty an ocean liner’s dry dock in just 2 hours. Now it is a very nice restaurant with creative food and excellent service. The best part though is the space. An enormous room with cast iron beams, chains still hanging and the pumps down below. The outside cocktail and dining space by the water is a great spot to watch the sunset.
Antwerp is very international and very mixed. It is said that there are 170 different nationalities living in the city. We had a lovely Indonesian rice table dinner at Kartini, cooked by Javanese and served by a Senegalese woman! The next day in the park orthodox Jews, Muslims and Sikh families were all out enjoying the spring air. Antwerp has been a crossroads for many years. The emigration museum of the Red Star Line gave a glimpse into the migratory route of Europeans to North American in the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum is well done and reminds us that our own ancestors were migrants, seeking a better life in a new place. They were not especially liked as they transited through Antwerp or when the arrived in the new world; they were even considered as undesirable because of the strange clothing, languages and customs. They were blamed for sickness and for economic down turn, but we know with hindsight that they did make good and built a new foundation for us, their children.
Of particular interest to us was the Unesco world heritage site and museum Plantin Moretus House. Christophe Plantin (another immigrant!) was a French man who set up the first industrial printing operation in Antwerp in 1555. He worked hard at his business, never resting and always investing back into it to build it for his family’s future. He is quoted in his journals and letters saying the same things about hard work, employees and quality that entrepreneurs still say today. The operations stayed in the family for 300 more years, and the house was kept intact as per Plantin’s will. His foresight leaves us with a jewel of 16th century art, books, instruments, ledgers and of course printing presses and lead type, hence this museum being the only museum registered with Unesco. It still smells like ink.
Contemporary architecture is another facet of Antwerp (speaking of facets, there is of course the diamond industry here also). We very much enjoyed Port House – a glass diamond or ship set upon the 19th century structure by renowned architect Zara Haddad. The MAS building of red sandstone and curvy glass is another contemporary wonder. It contains relics of world history brought in by the many ships that docked here. The MAS observation decks are open to the public for free until midnight each day. From there you have a splendid 360° view over the city and river. In between the 16th and 20 centuries you can visit the train station which has been named the 4th most beautiful station in the world, the tunnel under the river Schelde with it’s 1930s wooden escalators and the Boerentoren once the tallest building in Europe. You’ll even come across Napoleon Bonaparte. Oh and did I mention the famous Belgian fries? waffles? chocolate? beer?
As you can see Antwerp has much to offer and lots of variety. We stayed in the Docks neighborhood and found it to be a great location, an easy walk or tram ride to the old city and plenty of new, up and coming restaurants nearby.