Travelers of little faith, heed my plea. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t underestimate the magical city of Antwerp.
Four hundred years ago that error would have been unthinkable. Antwerp was Europe’s main seaport and one of the world’s key commercial metropolises, the 16th century equivalent, it’s been said, of Manhattan. A flourishing center of Flemish culture, it was home to the great painter Peter Paul Rubens and other celebrated artists and architects.
Today, however, Antwerp has been relegated to the status of a subsidiary city of easy-to-ignore Belgium, one of the unfortunately named Low Countries. And, as Derek Blyth, author of “Flemish Cities Explored,” the best guidebook to the area, admits with typical British reserve, “This region of Europe does not excite many travel writers.”
So who could blame me for deciding, when a writing assignment took me to the city, that it wasn’t worth my time to build in an extra day or so for sightseeing. So what if Napoleon himself had been wild about its location, calling Antwerp “a pistol pointed at the heart of Britain.” I wasn’t planning any invasions any time soon.
Actually, it was Antwerp’s easy accessibility that first pleased me. Flying to Brussels, Belgium’s capital and headquarters for the European Union, is simple enough. And a sleek and convenient nonstop bus leaves hourly from just outside Zaventem airport’s baggage claim area directly to downtown Antwerp. The bus arrives an hour later around the corner from the city’s soaring and impressive turn-of-the-century Centraal Station, reverentially referred to by railway buffs as “the cathedral of trains.”
My hotel turned out to be a block or so from Grote Markt, the main city square that is the heart of Antwerp’s historic core. Though I’d been traveling for more than 24 hours by the time I checked in and am not by nature a nocturnal explorer, something impelled me to just take a peek. What I saw excited me beyond expectation.
It wasn’t just the buildings that surrounded Grote Markt, though those were certainly impressive. The circa 1561 Stadhuis, or Town Hall, dominates the square, fronted by flagpoles that fly flags of the dozens of countries whose ships dock in Antwerp’s harbor. And all around are guild houses built by particular craft and trade unions, also mostly dating from the 16th century and featuring elaborate facades and the distinctive “stepped” look that marks Flemish architecture.
Better even than the buildings was the unmistakable sense of life that filled the cobblestoned alleyways and ample pedestrian areas of the old town. Sightseers and local residents good-humoredly relaxed in cafes, listened to a group of energetic drummers parked in a corner of Grote Markt square, or partook of the area’s impressive variety of restaurants, with boi^tes like the Irish Times Caffe, Taverna Las Tapas and Kid’s Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Dans-Kaffe competing for customers.
As opposed to similar areas in more heavily touristed cities--London’s Soho, or Paris’ Latin Quarter--Antwerp’s center seemed to have just enough people to raise your spirits and create an air of urban excitement, but not so many to make you feel like you’re in the Rose Bowl parking lot on New Year’s Day. Walking its streets made me reexperience, for the first time in decades, the stimulation I’d felt when I first visited Europe and sensed a more sophisticated and user-friendly civilization.
At that moment the secret of Antwerp’s appeal came to me. Because it’s next to impossible to persuade nominally sophisticated travelers that any place in Belgium is a prime destination, Antwerp has never been and never will be discovered, never be overrun by hordes of trendoids.
So not only don’t you have to worry about getting there too late, you don’t have to fend off spoilsports eager to tell you, as people regularly do about cities such as Prague, Barcelona or even our own Santa Fe, what a shame it is that you didn’t have the foresight to show up 20 years earlier. As tourist areas go, there are few sweeter spots than forgotten destinations that have been mistakenly passed over.
Given my high state of excitement, I selflessly decided, even though I’d only a scant few hours to devote to it, that I would take advantage of my compulsive nature and investigate three of the city’s top tourist sights early the next day. If I had to rush my visit, maybe I could persuade others to take their time.
Helping me in my mission is the convenience of central Antwerp. Almost everything you’d want to visit is easily accessible by foot. And walking also enables you to experience one of the city’s quirkier aspects, the presence in street corner niches of numerous small statues of the Madonna and Child. The Virgin Mary is Antwerp’s patron saint, and not only did local sculptors frequently select her as their subject, but also, says one guidebook, when these outdoor statuettes “were lighted by votives, the district avoided the taxes that otherwise were levied on private street lights.”
I headed first to Rubenshuis at Wapper 9, the home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens, Antwerp’s most famous artist/citizen. He began work on the house in 1610 and moved in six years later (what a conversation we could have had on the perils of remodeling) and lived there until he died in 1640. Painstakingly reconstructed in 1946 and opened as a museum shortly thereafter, Rubens’ large and impressive house is actually two separate buildings connected by a stone portico.
In one building is the artist’s atelier, an elegant high-ceiling affair with high, glass windows where he and his associates worked and where clients were brought to admire--and hopefully purchase--the newest work of “the prince of painters and the painter of princes.”
Giving off the completely opposite feeling are the small and cozy rooms (heating was clearly a problem in the 17th century) that formed Rubens’ living quarters. Though the museum contains few pieces of furniture that the painter actually owned, the tiny but opulently done dining room and a kitchen with pleasant blue tiles so perfectly recapture the spirit of the period that we expect to see the great man burst through the doors at any moment, scattering confused tourists in his wake.
Another celebrated resident, barely remembered today, was Christophe Plantin, who founded one of Europe’s great publishing houses in 1555. Son-in-law Jan Moretus took over at his death, and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, centered in the structure that housed the business for 300 years, is richly appointed proof that not only artists got rich in Antwerp’s heyday.
The museum turned out to be a labyrinthine treasure house of print, with more than 30 rooms on several floors filled with everything connected to books and their manufacture, from vats for melting lead for type to venerable wooden presses and the blocks that illustrations were printed from.
Best of all were the three floor-to-ceiling libraries, chock-a-block with impressively bound, indisputably ancient books that looked unchanged from the 17th century. Visible in a display case is Plantin-Moretus’ most famous production, the 1568-'72 Polyglot Bible printed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaean. For those with the leisure to meditate on what they’ve seen, the museum is adjoined by its own wonderful cloistered garden.
Antwerp’s most visible tourist attraction is, of course, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekatedraal, which translates from Flemish to Our Lady Cathedral. Though its austere yet elevating spire is visible for blocks, the cathedral itself, unlike France’s Chartres or Notre Dame, can’t be seen whole because of the hoard of lesser buildings that crowd around its bulk.
Begun in 1352, both cathedral and spire have just come out from under a decades-long, multimillion dollar renovation that finally finished in 1993. The white-walled interior is filled with a wealth of art and stained glass, but everyone’s attention is naturally drawn to two famous Rubens triptychs, “Raising of the Cross” and “Descent from the Cross.” Despite its size and the waves of tourists, the cathedral remains a refreshing house of the spirit, a calming influence any time of the day.
Rushing around as I was to get all this in, I didn’t have a chance to do much shopping, which was a shame because Antwerp seemed to have an unusual richness and variety of small stores. On one block alone I passed the Tea Collector, a shop specializing in vintage phonograph records, and an establishment grandly called The Art & Science of Pure Flower and Plant Essences. Antwerp also has quite a reputation as a European fashion center.
The city is known for its connection with diamonds and and there is a diamond museum. The Cogels-Osylei section of town, “crammed with extravagant architecture” according to the guidebooks, sounded perfect for an afternoon’s walking tour. And should your energy flag and you feel in need of a snack, those crispy potatoes we revere as French fries are claimed by natives to be nothing less than a Belgian creation.
“It is a mistake to see everything in one brief visit,” author Derek Blyth sensibly cautions vis-a-vis Antwerp’s bounty in “Flemish Cities Explored.”
Now he tells me.
Turan is the Times’ film critic.
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GUIDEBOOK: Antwerp All the Way
Getting there: United and Amerioffer direct flights (one stop, but no plane change) from LAX to Brussels. Swissair, Lufthansa and KLM offer connecting service, with a change of planes. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $880, including tax. A nonstop bus operated by Sabena, the Belgian airline, leaves every hour from Brussels’ main airport to central Antwerp; about $9 one way. There is hourly train service between Brussels and Antwerp; first-class round-trip fares are $32.
Where to stay: Two of Antwerp’s most interesting hotels are in the Grote Markt area. The 36-room Rubens is on Oude Beurs 29 (telephone 011-32-3-222-4848, fax 011-32-3-225-1940). Rates: $143 per double room (breakfast included) on weekend rate; $207 per double room (breakfast included) on weeknight rate. More expensive is the 211-room Antwerp Hilton, From about $210 per double. Reservations: (800) HILTONS or 011-32-3-204-1212, fax 011-32-3-204-1213.
Where to eat: Two inexpensive choices in the Grote Markt area are Pelgrom, which serves snacks and beer in a 16th century cellar, and De Peerdestal, which specializes in Belgian dishes.
For more information: Belgian Tourist Office, 780 3rd Ave., Suite 1501, New York 10017, (212) 758-8130; fax (212) 355-7675. --K.T.