From Heaven to Hell

Starting December 2018 Zanzibar is offering a completely new walking experience that takes you from the heavenly Carolus Borromeüs church in no time to the dark vaults of the “ruien”.

You start off with an exploration of the magnificent jesuits’ church, including a visit to the highly decorated baroque Houtappel chapel. Then you go down to the crypts of the church and then the guide takes you to the sacristy from where you reach the cellar. And this cellar, for centuries has had a passage to the “ruien”, the old canals of the city, that at the onset served as a defensive moat, later as a means of transportation and afterwards as a sewage system.

Once a door was installed. To what purpose, is still a mystery. Many a strong tale is told, but not once of them stands up to a bit of scrutiny, not even the one that says that the priests took that road to go on a mission to ‘convert’ the girls working in the nearby red light quarter. As time went on and more and more canals were covered, and more and more stench built up in the canals, it was once decided to remove the door and brick up the passageway.

Nowadays all sewage water, wether it be household water or rainwater, is held in tubes. Stench within the canal system therefore is very low, so the idea grew to open up the door again and allow visitors, in the company of a guide, to visit a part of the Antwerp underground. Just like the standard ruien walks, this tour also ends in the Keistraat, at the entrance to the red light quarter.

More practical information can be found on the website of the Ruihuis.



Most tourists concentrate on the historical city centre. I’m not saying that this area isn’t worth visiting, on the contrary, but in that way they miss a great number of interesting places, like e.g. the Middelheimpark. This park is situated on the south side of the city. There’s plenty of parking space in the area and lines 21 and 32 have a stop at the nearby Middelheim clinic.

In the sixteenth century well-to-do merchants of Antwerp started to build summer residences in the area around the town. The fields and meadows were quickly transformed into gardens and parks. When the city population exploded at the end of the nineteenth century, the city succeeded in buying a large area south of the city and decided to save it from the building craze that was happening in the rest of the city outskirts. In that way they created a majestic surrounding where people from the city could and can still find a little bit of rest in nature.

Tony Craigg – Envelope

In 1950 mayor Lode Craeybeckx decided to organise an exhibition of present-day sculptures in his town, and it was decided the exhibition would take place in open air, in the park called Middelheim. One of the artists he had invited, Zadkine, came with the idea to organise such an exhibition every two years, 20 editions of this ‘Middelheim Biënnale’ were held in the odd years, to complement the Venetian biannual that was held in the even years. The last one was organised in 1990, not in the least because the success was rapidly declining. After that all energy went into the 1993 project: in that year Antwerp became the Cultural Capital of Europe, and of course the open air museum also took part in the events. Ever since then thematic exhibitions were held on the Middelheim grounds, practically every year. As part of the Rubens Inspires project in 2018, the Middelheim museum organised a successful exhibition under the title Experience Traps.

In the mean time the permanent collection of sculptures had grown to over 60 works of art spread over some 30 ha. The sculptures cover the era from Rodin up to the present day.

This park and the museum can be visited for free every day but Monday. Opening times depend on the time of year, so be sure to check the website.

Long time no see

You may have noticed I have been very quiet on this medium which all has to do with a project I started with 5 of my friends: Antwerpen à la Carte. Feel free to visit our site, and if you want to book a walk in Antwerp for a group, don’t look any further. Besides that I have been studying to become a city guide in the city of Mechelen as well.

As things are slowly calming down, I’ll try to pick up the routine again and make sure there’s something new to read here, at least every fortnight. So early October I’ll release a new post, and as I love Mechelen too, every now and then a topic on that town will be covered as well.

Het Steen: the oldest building gets a new function

The oldest building in the city is ‘Het Steen’, the only remnant, along with a piece of wall, from the old town center on the ‘Werf’. Many inhabitants still remember that in ‘Het Steen’ the National Shipping Museum was located, but before that the building had had a lot of other functions, such as castle of the ‘markgraaf’ (the original function) and the prison from which convicted persons started their last trip to the Market Place.

‘Het Steen’ version x.0

A simulation of what 'Het Steen' will look like.
Foto: Opera Amsterdam en Studio Louter

Pretty soon, the building, which is now largely vacant, will look completely different and alive again and function as a gateway to the city for any tourist who wants to know more about the city he’s vesiting.

There will be a free section where the tourist can get all the information he or she wants to get about the city and its offerings, and a paying section in which he can acquaint himself with what the city has to offer, both culturally and culinary.

‘0ld meets new’

The project makes use of the most modern technologies available, thus there will be a lot of projections on walls, ceiling and even floors. Through a historical window you will be able to have a look at the city in the Middle Ages, but of course, there is also attention to the Antwerp today, including the shopping offer and the extensive gourmet panorama that the city has to offer. But, be a little patient: works on the project will start early next year and the new ‘Het Steen’ will re-open its door in 2020.

Suikerrui: gate to the underworld

Round 1200 the Suikerrui formed the Southern border of the town, but pretty soon the city started to grow and the Suikerrui only held its function as an inner harbour. If you see a streetname that ends on rui, vliet, vest or brug, it means that there used to be water in the neighbourhood in former times. Unfortunately all this water has disappeared from the city, or maybe it is better to say that it is kept from sight, because under street level the complete canal system is still present.


A view of the Ruihuis

Through the Ruihuis you can explore this underworld city: together with a guide you stroll from Grote Markt to the Keistraat, which is situated right next to the river, in the neighbourhood of the red light district. In the Ruihuis you get a pair of boots, an overall and a backpack to carry your personal shoes and coat in. At the end of the walk you turn in boots, overall and backpack and you can continue to explore the city in bright daylight.

A walk through the Antwerp underworld is sure to give you a completely new look on town.


The former police station is being restored. Later this year a completely new museum will open its doors here. A museum devoted to silver and diamonds. The collection is largely based on the collections of the former Sterckshof and Diamond Museums, but it will offer more than a traditional museum. There will be demonstrations and interactive displays that show all aspects of silver and diamond. Undoubtedly Diva will be one more reason to come and visit our town.


The building on the corner of Suikerrui and Jordaenskaai was built by a German banker, Mallinckrot and designed by Joseph Hertogs, who drew plans for a great many buildings for members of the German colony in Antwerp. The statues that adorn the façade were made by Jef Lambeaux, who is also responsible for the Brabofountain on Grote Markt.

City Hall: a miraculous rebirth

Since a few years the City Hall, situated in the middle of the Meir, has revived. This time not as a festive hall, but as a shopping centre. Shopping times two, one could say, as the complex lies within the main shopping boulevard of the town.

The Hall was built in 1908 based on plans made by Alexis Van Mechelen. Van Mechelen found inspiration in classic architecture, but used the different elements freely in an eclectic style. Which is typical of the epoch. The monumental facade is situated at the point where the Meir slightly changes direction. Van Mechelen turned this difficulty into an opportunity. He designed a concave facade, so that the City Hall gets all attention from all walkers-by. Not only those heading for Central Station, but just as well from strollers heading for the historical city center.

For the facade Van Mechelen used both light coloured sandstone and darker chalkstone. Remarkable is the central entrance, highly ornamented in a more baroque style. It is crowned with a gilded niche. Many stories exist as to why the niche remained empty, and what the developers wanted to put there. So far I haven’t found a satisfactory answer.

In the first part of its history, the building served as a host to a number of events. The very first Antwerp Car Show took place there. In the 1950’s and 1960’s people went there to see the latest trends in radio and tv. Millions of people visited the traditional Antwerp Book Fair. The Mayor invited the town’s inhabitants to his balls. Santaclaus visited the town’s kids,…

Lightning strikes

In 2000 a Christmas Gifts Fair took place in the building. Local companies of all kind had put up small stands in the inner square. Probably one of the stands caused a short-circuit and the whole place burned down. The result was indeed a very sorry sight to see. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

After a few years City Hall opened its doors again, in all its splendour. Only now we do not go there for the Mayor’s Ball anymore, but it has become one of the most flashy shopping malls in towns.

You can visit City Hall virtually on the Interbuild-site.

More on shopping on the City Hall website.

Could I have a Tietz, please?

German traders played a major role in the development of Antwerp in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the names that still rings a bell with some of the elder locals is Leonard Tietz. Where one can now find “A l’Innovation”, next to the Van Dyck statue along the Meir, Leonard Tietz opened his Grands Magasins.

The Grands Magasins Tietz, Meir
The Grands Magasins Tietz, Meir

As the name implies, he found inspiration in the large department stores that had arisen in late 19th century Paris. One of the products that he created a name with for himself was a type of straw hat. People like Maurice Chevalier usually wore that type of hat. People in Antwerp referred to these hats as a ‘Tietz’.

The richly ornamented façade functions as a kind of prelude. It gives the public a foretaste of the riches that await them inside. It is a design of the Antwerp architect Joseph Hertoghs. Hertoghs acted as a kind of house architect for the German colony around the turn of the century.

After World War I, Tietz and many other German families got under fire in the anti-German climate of those days.

All of Tietz’ shops, including the one in Antwerp and the one in Brussels in the Nieuwstraat, were confiscated. The Belgian government sold them publicly. It was the Bernheim family, who originated from Alsace, and had started their own chain of department stores under the name “A l’Innovation”, who bought the Tietz shops for their own use. Interestingly enough, the Inno chain later fused with Galleria Kaufhof, which is a descendant of … the Tietz shops in Germany.

Recently Inno restored the façade to its original condition. A few less successful changes from the 60’s and 70’s have disappeared. The project cost over 4 mio euro, but the result shows the decision was right.

Popular sculptor has died

Pas' portrait of Marnix Gysen
Photo: Carlo Van Sant

Saturday May 13th, Antwerp sculptor Wilfried Pas (1940-2017) unexpectedly passed away. Pas studied sculpture at the Antwerp Academy and after his studies he decided to come and live in this town.

Adriaan Raemdonck, leader of the Zwarte Panter Galery introduced Pas in 1973. In those years Pas and Fred Bervoets, another Zwarte Panter artist, worked closely together and influenced one another. But most people will certainly remember Wilfried Pas as the man who succeeded in creating beautiful, lively bronze statues of some of his contemporaries. Writers such as Marnix Gysen [Maarschalk Gérardstraat], Willem Elsschot [Mechelse Plein] and Paul van Ostayen [Minderbroedersrui], the actor Julien Schoenaerts [Kerkstraat], even King Bauduin [Thonetlaan Linkeroever] each and everyone a proof not only of Pas’ artistic qualities, but at the same time a proof of his insight in the personality of the people he portrayed.

By the way, also Bauduin’s brother, King Albert II, was strikingly cast in bronze by Wilfried Pas only a few years ago.

World centre of diamond trade

Almost any diamond, at one time or another in its lifetime, passes through the Antwerp diamond quarter. In the nineteenth century it were jewish people who traded in diamonds. They used to travel by train from Antwerp to Amsterdam and back. So it is only natural that you can find the diamond quarter right next to Central Station.

Part of the diamond quarter is sealed off for traffic, but as a pedestrian you can freely walk there. Take notice: Big Brother is watching you while walking in the district. The number of cctv camera’s in the area is really extraordinarily high.

Jeweller’s shops are open to the public of course, but the diamond markets are only accessible to professionals or as part of a guided tour. Practically all of the buildings in Hoveniersstraat, Rijfstraat and so on date from the period after WW II. All of them aim at efficiency and security.

The Portuguese Synagogue

The only artistically interesting building you will see in the area is the sephardic synagogue. The synagogue, locals call it the Portuguese synagogue, was built in 1913, destroyed in WW II, rebuilt, fell victim to a terroristic attack in the early eighties and was rebuilt again.

The name Portuguese synagogue derives from the fact that the Sephardic Jews originatied in Spain and Portugal. The ‘Catholic’ kings of Spain drove them out and eventually they landed in Antwerp. When Antwerp fell under the reign of the very catholic Filip II again, many of them fled to Amsterdam.

The synagogue is a nice example of neo-romanesque architecture. It might stand a little forlorn between all this modern architectural brutality, but that only adds to its charm.

MAS: a Museum at the Stream

The Mas Building

In between the two oldest docks of the Antwerp harbour a remarkable building stands, built in a striking red colour: the MAS. Collections of more than three separate musea have been gathered here to tell the story of our town and its harbour.

Each floor of the museum tells a part of this fascinating story. The 2nd floor allows you to have a peek at how a museum works. Here you can see part of the depot: the objects that are not (yet) on display, but form a reserve. Floor 3 has temporary exhibitions.

The permanent exhibition

Floors 4 to 8 have more or less permanent exhibitions. At least: the aspect they try to tell remains the same. Floor 4 is about wealth, power, prestige and its symbols. The next floor is called ‘Antwerp à la Carte’ and shows you how towns are responsible for feeding huge masses of people. Follows a floor devoted to the harbour. Floor 7 is about death and the afterlife and how the different religions that are present in the city deal with these questions. Floor 8 has a very rich collection of pre-Columbian art from South-America.

Another view of the MAS
Another view of the MAS

On floor 9 you can enjoy a delicious meal in “‘t Zilte” a two-star restaurant lead by Vikki Geunes. From floor 10 you have a fantastic view over the city and its harbour.

Floors 2 and 10 can be visited for free, for the other floors there is an entrance fee.

The different floors 4 to 8 all have the same lay-out which starts with a short introduction to the theme in question. Then you enter the exhibition space as such. After that there is a section where you can find some more information, where kids can enjoy an interactive game, …

Another attraction is the hallways. As you travel from floor 1 to floor 10 you will pass a series of photographs that again tell a story about town. At this moment the theme is ‘Koekenstad’ (Cookietown). This was the nickname people from the country gave to Antwerp. Antwerp had many industrial bakeries, candy and chocolate factories. About twice a year the theme of these photographs changes.

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