Some 50km north of Brussels, ANTWERP, Belgium’s second city, lays claim to being the de facto capital of Flemish Belgium, boosting its credentials with an animated cultural scene, a burgeoning fashion industry, and more top-ranking cafés and restaurants than you could possibly sample alongside a spirited nightlife – quite enough to keep anyone busy for a few days, if not more. The city fans out carelessly from the east bank of the Scheldt, its centre a rough polygon formed and framed by its enclosing boulevards and the river. Recent efforts to clean and smarten the centre have been tremendously successful, revealing scores of beautiful buildings previously camouflaged by the accumulated grime. On the surface it’s not a wealthy city, and it’s rarely neat and tidy, but it is a hectic and immediately likeable place, with a dense concentration of things to see, not least some fine churches, including a simply wonderful cathedral, and a varied selection of excellent museums.
North of the centre lies Het Eilandje (the Little Isle), where the city’s old docks and wharves have been rejuvenated and deluxe apartments shoehorned into the former warehouses, the whole caboodle overseen by the soaring modernism of the Museum Aan de Stroom, Antwerp’s premier museum. To the east of the centre, the star turns are the Rubenshuis, one-time home and studio of Rubens, and the cathedral-like Centraal Station, which itself abuts the diamond district – the city has long been at the heart of the international diamond trade. The area to the south of the centre, Het Zuid, is of interest too, a long-neglected but now resurgent residential district whose wide boulevards, with their long vistas and geometrical roundabouts, were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. The obvious targets here are MuHKA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Art Museum), though this is currently closed for a thoroughgoing revamp.
Antwerp’s bustling centre is the most engaging part of the city, its mazy streets and cobbled lanes studded with fine old churches, mansions and museums. The logical place to start an exploration is the Grote Markt, still the centre of activities and flanked by the elegant Stadhuis. From here, it’s a couple of hundred metres south to the magnificent Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, home to a quartet of paintings by Rubens, with the intriguing old printing house of Christopher Plantin, now the Museum Plantin-Moretus, just beyond. Another short hop, this time to the north, brings up the striking medieval Vleeshuis, one-time headquarters of the guild of butchers, with the sinuous Baroque of St-Pauluskerk beckoning beyond. The city centre finishes off with two other excellent attractions, the charming Hendrik Conscienceplein and the Rockoxhuis, which holds a small but superb collection of paintings.
In the beginning Antwerp wasn’t much desired: it may have occupied a prime river site, but it was too far east to be important in the cloth trade and too far west to be on the major trade routes connecting Germany and Holland. However, in the late fifteenth century it benefited from both a general movement of trade to the west and the decline of the Anglo-Flemish cloth trade. Within the space of just 25 years, many of the great trading families of western Europe had relocated here, and the tiny old fortified settlement of yesteryear was transformed by a deluge of splendid new mansions and churches, docks and harbours. In addition, the new masters of the region, the Habsburgs, had become frustrated with the turbulent burghers of Flanders and both the emperor Maximilian and his successor Charles V patronized the city at the expense of its Flemish rivals, underwriting its success as the leading port of their expanding empire.
Antwerp’s golden age lasted for less than a hundred years, prematurely stifled by Charles V’s son Philip II, who inherited Spain and the Low Countries in 1555. Fanatically Catholic, Philip viewed the reformist stirrings of the Low Countries with horror, and his sustained attempt to bring his Protestant subjects to heel brought war and pestilence to the region for decades. Protestantism had taken root in Antwerp early on and the city seethed with discontent as Philip’s intentions became all too clear. The spark was the Ommegang of August 18, 1566, when priests carting the image of the Virgin through the city’s streets insisted that all should bend the knee as it passed. The parade itself was peaceful enough, but afterwards, with the battle cry of “Long live the beggars”, the city’s Protestant guildsmen and their apprentices smashed the inside of the cathedral to pieces – the most extreme example of the “iconoclastic fury” that then swept the region. Philip responded by sending in an army of occupation, which sought to overawe and intimidate the local citizenry from a brand-new citadel built on the south side of town. Nine years later, it was this same garrison that sat unpaid and underfed in its fortress, surrounded by the wealth of what the soldiers regarded as a “heretical” city. Philip’s mercenaries mutinied, and at dawn on November 4, 1576, they stormed Antwerp, running riot for three long days, plundering public buildings and private mansions, and slaughtering some eight thousand of its inhabitants in the “Spanish fury”, a catastrophe that finished the city’s commercial supremacy. More disasters were to follow. Philip’s soldiers were driven out after the massacre, but they were back in 1585 laying siege outside the city walls for seven months, their success leading to Antwerp’s ultimate incorporation within the Spanish Netherlands. Under the terms of the capitulation, Protestants had two years to leave town, and a flood of skilled workers poured north to the relative safety of Holland, further weakening the city’s economy.
In the early seventeenth century there was a modest recovery, but the Dutch, who were now free of Spain, controlled the waterways of the Scheldt and were determined that no neighbouring Catholic port would threaten their trade. Consequently, in 1648, under the Peace of Westphalia, which finally wrapped up the Thirty Years’ War, they forced the closure of the Scheldt to all non-Dutch shipping. This ruined Antwerp, and the city remained firmly in the doldrums until the French army arrived in 1797 – Napoleon declaring it to be “little better than a heap of ruins…scarcely like a European city at all”. The French rebuilt the docks and reopened the Scheldt to shipping, and the city revived to become independent Belgium’s largest port, a role that made it a prime target during both world wars. In 1914, the invading German army overran Antwerp’s outer defences with surprising ease, forcing the Belgian government – which had moved here from Brussels a few weeks before – into a second hasty evacuation along with Winston Churchill and the Royal Marines, who had only just arrived. During World War II, both sides bombed Antwerp, but the worst damage was inflicted after the Liberation when the city was hit by hundreds of Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets.
After the war, Antwerp quickly picked up the pieces, becoming one of Europe’s major seaports and, more recently, a focus for those Flemish-speakers looking for greater independence within (or without) a federal Belgium. It has also consolidated its position at the heart of the worldwide diamond trade and developed an international reputation for its innovative fashion designers, from the so-called “Antwerp Six” to new and upcoming talent such as Tim Vansteenbergen, A.F. Vandevorst and Stephan Schneider.
Antwerp has the range of hotels you’d expect of Belgium’s second city, an ever increasing supply of B&Bs and several hostels. Consequently, finding accommodation is rarely difficult, although there are surprisingly few places in the centre, which is by far the best spot to soak up the city’s atmosphere. Many medium-priced and budget places are clustered in the humdrum area around Centraal Station, where you should exercise caution at night, particularly if travelling alone.
The tourist office issues a free and comprehensive booklet detailing the city’s hotels, B&Bs and hostels – and excluding the seedier establishments.
Antwerp is an enjoyable place to eat, its busy centre liberally sprinkled with informal cafés and restaurants which excel at combining traditional Flemish dishes with Mediterranean, French and vegetarian cuisines. There is a good range of slightly more formal – and expensive – restaurants too, though generally the distinction between the city’s cafés and restaurants is blurred.
Antwerp is also a fine place to drink. There are lots of bars in the city centre, mostly dark and tiny affairs exuding a cheerful vitality. Some of them regularly feature live music, but most don’t, satisfying themselves – and their customers – with everything from taped chanson to house. Bar opening hours are elastic, with many places only closing when the last customers leave – say 2 or 3am – and, unless otherwise stated in our listings below, all are open daily. The favourite local tipple is De Koninck, a light ale drunk in a bolleke, or small, stemmed glass.
Antwerp has a vibrant and diverse cultural scene, and the best way to get a handle on it is to pick up the very useful, fortnightly Zone 03 (wwww.zone03.be), a free Dutch-language newssheet which details all up-and-coming events, exhibitions and concerts; it’s available from the tourist office and at newsstands all over the city centre. The city has its own orchestra and opera companies as well as several good Flemish theatre troupes, and there are occasional appearances by touring English-language theatre companies too. English-language films are almost always subtitled – as distinct from dubbed – and Antwerp has a reliable, city-centre art-house cinema.
Antwerp’s fluid club scene is in a rude state of health, with a handful of boisterous places dotted round the peripheries of the city centre. They get going at around midnight and admission fees are typically modest (€10 or so) except for big-name DJs. There’s a flourishing jazz scene too, with a couple of good places in the centre.
As regards festivals, the city hosts a goodly portion of the Festival van Vlaanderen (Flanders Festival; wwww.festival.be), which runs from May to November and features more than one hundred classical concerts performed in cities across the whole of Flemish-speaking Belgium. There’s also SFINKS (wwww.sfinks.be), Belgium’s best world music festival, held outdoors over the last weekend of July in the suburb of Boechout, about 10km southeast of downtown Antwerp.
Tickets for most concerts and events are on sale at Info Cultuur (t03 338 95 85, wwww.infocultuur.be), which shares its premises with the tourist office at Grote Markt 13. A comparable service is provided at the Fnac store, on the Groenplaats.
The success of Antwerp’s fashion designers has spawned dozens of excellent designer shops and stores. To help visitors get a grip on it all, the tourist office produces the Antwerp Fashion Map, which details several city walks that take you past all the most innovative shops. There is, however, a particular concentration of fashion shops around the ModeNatie complex. Recommended places hereabouts kick off with the men’s and women’s wear of Dries van Noten’s Modepaleis, Nationalestraat 16 – at the corner of Kammenstraat – and continue with the imported designer clothes of Alamode, Nationalestraat 25. Neighbouring Kammenstraat weighs in with the contemporary jewellery of Anne Zellien, at no. 47, and the club and streetwear of Fish & Chips, at no. 36, while Lombardenstraat, just to the east, is home to Maison Anna Heylen, at no.16, Original, at no. 10, and Louis, at no. 2, with the last two featuring the clothes of many designers, from Hilfiger to Junk de Luxe. There are a couple of secondhand/vintage clothes shop in the area too, with women’s stuff at Jutka & Riska, Nationalestraat 87, and all sorts of interesting gear at Episode, Steenhouwersvest 34, just west of Nationalestraat. If you’ve wandered over onto Steenhouwersvest, then also pop into the chichi premises of the Belgian-American Diane von Furstenberg, at no. 44.
Occupying an immense Neoclassical edifice dating from the 1880s, Antwerp’s prestigious Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (KMSKA; Royal Fine Art Museum), overlooking Leopold de Waelplaats, possesses a first-rate collection of Belgian art from the fifteenth century onwards, but it’s closed for a long-term refurbishment until at least 2014. In the meantime, plans are afoot to display highlights of the collection elsewhere in the city – the cathedral and the MAS museum are two likely locations – and the tourist office will have the latest news. Key paintings in the collection include two tiny but especially delicate works by Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), a Madonna at the Fountain and a St Barbara, and Quinten Matsys’ (1465–1530) triptych of the Lamentation, a profound and moving work portraying the Christ, his forehead flecked with blood, surrounded by grieving followers including Mary Magdalene, who tenderly wipes his feet with her hair as tears roll down her face. The museum also possesses several enormous canvases by Rubens (1577–1640), most notably an inventive Last Communion of St Francis (1619), showing a very sick-looking saint equipped with the marks of the stigmata, a faint halo and a half-smile: despite the sorrowful ministrations of his fellow monks, Francis can’t wait for salvation. Also from 1619 is Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves which, with its muscular thieves and belligerent Romans, possesses all the high drama you might expect, but is almost overwhelmed by its central image – you can virtually hear the tearing of Christ’s flesh as the soldier’s lance sinks into him.
The Spanish fury was a disaster for Antwerp, but although the savagery of the attack was unusual, mutinies in the Spanish army were not. The Habsburgs often neglected to pay their soldiers for years on end and this failure, combined with harsh conditions and seemingly interminable warfare, provoked at least a couple of mutinies every year. Indeed, mutinies became so commonplace that they began to develop their own rituals, with the tercio (army unit) concerned refusing orders but keeping military discipline and electing representatives to haggle a financial deal with the army authorities. A deal was usually reached, outstanding wages were paid (at least in part), normal military life was resumed and, remarkably enough, punishments were rare.
Spread over several floors at Nationalestraat 28, ModeNatie (www.modenatie.com) is a lavish and extraordinarily ambitious fashion complex, which incorporates both the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Flanders Fashion Institute. As such, it reflects the international success of local designers, beginning in the 1980s with the so-called “Antwerp Six” – including Dries van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Martin Margiela – and continuing with younger designers like A.F. Vandevorst, Stephan Schneider and Tim Vansteenbergen; all are graduates of the academy. Part of the building contains a fashion museum, MoMu (www.momu.be), whose adventurous and thought-provoking temporary displays cover a lot of ground – everything from the walking stick as fashion statement through to the evolution of the trench coat.
One of the finest Gothic churches in Belgium, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady; www.dekathedraal.be) is a forceful, self-confident structure that mostly dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. Its graceful, intricate spire dominated the skyline of the medieval city and was long a favourite with British travellers. William Beckford, for instance, fresh from spending millions on his own house in Wiltshire in the early 1800s, was particularly impressed, writing that he “longed to ascend it that instant, to stretch myself out upon its summit and calculate, from so sublime an elevation, the influence of the planets”. To help guide yourself around, pick up a free diagrammatic plan just beyond the entry desk.
Inside, the seven-aisled nave is breathtaking, if only because of its sense of space, an impression that’s reinforced by the bright, light stonework. The religious troubles of the sixteenth century – primarily the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566 – polished off the cathedral’s early furnishings and fittings, so what you see today are largely Baroque embellishments, most notably four early paintings by Pieter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Of these, the Descent from the Cross, a triptych painted after the artist’s return from Italy in 1612 and hung just to the right of the central crossing, is without doubt the most beautiful, displaying an uncharacteristically moving realism derived from Caravaggio. Christ languishes in the centre in glowing white, surrounded by mourners tenderly struggling to lower him. As was normal practice at the time, students in Rubens’ studio worked on the painting, among them the young van Dyck, who completed the face of the Virgin and the arm of Mary Magdalene. His work was so masterful that Rubens is supposed to have declared it an improvement on his own, though this story appears to originate from van Dyck himself. Oddly enough, the painting was commissioned by the guild of arquebusiers, who asked for a picture of St Christopher, their patron saint; Rubens’ painting was not at all what they had in mind, and they promptly threatened him with legal action unless he added a picture of the saint to the wings. Rubens obliged, painting in the muscular giant who now dominates the outside of the left panel.
Above the high altar is a second Rubens painting, the Assumption, a swirling Baroque scene painted in 1625, full of cherubs and luxuriant drapery, while on the left-hand side of the central crossing, the same artist’s The Raising of the Cross is a grandiloquent canvas full of straining, muscular soldiers and saints; this triptych was painted in 1610, which makes it the earliest of the four. On the right-hand side of the ambulatory in the second chapel along, there’s the cathedral’s fourth and final Rubens, the Resurrection, painted in 1612 for the tomb of his friend, the printer Jan Moretus, showing a strident, militaristic Christ carrying a red, furled banner. Among the cathedral’s many other paintings, the only other highlight is Maerten de Vos’ (1531–1603) Marriage at Cana, hung opposite the Descent from the Cross, a typically mannered work completed in 1597.
The Rubenshuis, at Wapper 9, attracts tourists in droves. Not so much a house as a mansion, this was where Rubens lived for most of his adult life, but it was only acquired by the city in 1937, by which time it was little more than a shell. Skilfully restored, it opened as a museum in 1946. On the right is the classical studio, where Rubens worked and taught; on the left is the gabled Flemish house where he lived, to which is attached his art gallery, an Italianate chamber where he entertained the artistic and cultural elite of Europe. Rubens had an enviably successful career, spending the first years of the seventeenth century studying the Renaissance masters in Italy, before settling in this house in 1608. Soon after, he painted two wonderful canvases for the cathedral and his fame spread, both as a painter and diplomat, working for Charles I in England and receiving commissions from all over Europe.
The Rubenshuis is a tad short of the great man’s paintings, but the reconstruction of his old home and studio is very convincing, and a clearly arrowed tour begins by twisting its way through the neatly panelled and attractively furnished domestic interiors of the Flemish half of the building. Beyond, and in contrast to the cramped living quarters, is the elegant art gallery, which, with its pocket-sized sculpture gallery, was where Rubens displayed his favourite pieces to a chosen few – and in a scene comparable to that portrayed in Willem van Haecht’s The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, which is displayed here. The arrows then direct you on into the great studio, which is overlooked by a narrow gallery and equipped with a special high door to allow the largest canvases to be brought in and out with ease. Several of Rubens’ paintings are displayed here, including a playful Adam and Eve, an early work in which the couple flirt while the serpent slithers back up the tree. Also in the studio is a more characteristic piece, the Annunciation, where you can sense the drama of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, who is shown in her living room complete with wicker basket and a sleeping cat.
Behind the house, the garden is laid out in the formal style of Rubens’ day – the Baroque portico might be familiar from the artist’s Medici series, on display in the Louvre.