Category: Going out

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.

Meir: a swamp turned into a shopping center

Meir Shopping Street
Source: Alles over Antwerpen

Today the Meir is the shopping heart of Antwerp, visited by millions of people each year. Around 300.000 people a week visit the Meir, so be sure you’ll never feel alone. Most of the buildings you see there date from the 20th century. Two notable exceptions you will find in the middle part. Both are works of Jan-Pieter van Baurscheidt, the most important architect of the 18th century. He built the Osterriethhouse (currently under restauration) and the so-called Royal Palace, both for the van Susteren family in the middle of the 18th century.

There are many other remarkable buildings a bit further east. For instance the former Tilquin store (nowadays a Massimo Dutti shop) which is a remarkable example of art deco. This is worth a story of its own. So is the ‘Stadsfeestzaal’ (the City Festive Hall) and the buildings Innovation now occupies, that once belonged to Leonard Tietz.

Meir = Moor

Hand sculpture

The name Meir is like the word moor in English: a wetland, and indeed the most western part of Meir lay lower than the surrounding places, so water gathered there. Until the 12th century the city walls were situated just west of the Meir. When the city started growing in the 13th century, the Meir was turned into a canal with walking space on both sides.

Important people started to settle around the Meir. Among them the Pijpelinckxfamily, traders in tapestry. A grandson of theirs would turn out to be a genial painter: P.P. Rubens.

Gradually the waterway was covered and the city grew further east. In the 19th century the council decided to demolish the old defensive wall. At that moment they also decided to create a new axis of avenues to greet arriving visitors. The first part of the axis was the Leysstraat, the second part the Meir. Until the late ’80s of the 20th century the Meir was full of traffic. After the underground tramway was built the council turned it into a pedestrian area. A real success, taking into account the 300.000 visitors that walk the Meir every week.

Conscienceplein: start of a new era (2)

The library

Last Thursday I ended by talking about the building on the west side of the Conscienceplein: the sodalities. After the pope had abolished the jesuits in 1773 the buildings and everything in them were publicly sold. The building the sodalities had occupied in the previous years got different functions. It was a workshop, warehouse, dancing hall, public bar (a brewer’s advertisement can still be noticed) and so on. In 1879 the City Council bought the building to house the town’s library.

map Conscienceplein
Map Conscienceplein (source Googlemaps)

In fact there were two: a library of old, valuable books and manuscripts and a library where people could rent the more current type of books. That is why at the end of the 19th century a statue of Hendrik Conscience was placed in the niche of the sodality. Hendrik Conscience at that time was the most important author in Flemish literature, as popular in Flanders as Victor Hugo was in France.

From about 1622 till the French revolutionaries demolished it, a statue of the Holy Virgin has stood in the same niche.

You can find the entrance to the library now in Korte Nieuwstraat. Guided visits are organised and the 19th century ‘Nottebohmzaal’ certainly is worth a visit. These visits start from the green door in the south-west corner of the square. []

The church

The building opposite the sodalities/library is the old jesuits’ church devoted to Saint Carl-Borromeus. It is generally accepted that Rubens had a hand in the decorations of the façade and of the bell-tower which you can find at the back-side along Sint-Kathelijnevest.

It is clear the church is built in the typical jesuitstyle as laid out by the Roman Il Gesù Church. Giving a detailed description here would lead us too far, so have a little patience.

The square

Young people at the iceblock blockades.
Young people at the iceblock blockades. (Source: Mhka).

In the 1960’s this square was the scene of an artistic uprising, joined by many young people in town to put an end to the reign of the Car. Using huge blocks of ice they blocked off the entrance to the square for cars. Musicians, artists, dancers and pedestrians took over the space. The uprising was a success and not only the square, but also the surrounding streets became the very first pedestrian zone in Antwerp. Of course for weddings and funerals car can still enter the square.

Short video fragment (Dutch commentary).

Parks in and around town (1)

A view from the bridge in City Park
Source: Joods Actueel

Like all cities worldwide, Antwerp too has its share of parks. We have a few nice parks in the city itself. Many more are situated in the bordering districts like Merksem, Deurne, Borgerhout, Wilrijk. Up till the end of the 20th century these districts used to be separate villages, but then they fused into Greater Antwerp and became districts.

City Park

One of the most interesting parks in the city itself is Stadspark (City Park) in a triangle bounded by Rubenslei, Quinten Matsijslei and Van Eycklei: three great painters from three different eras. Rubens is the giant of  baroque painting. Quinten Matsijs is a renaissance painter. He founded the Antwerp School and Jan and his brother Hubert Van Eyck are Flemish painters of the gothic period. People all over the world know them for the Ghent Altarpiece.

An overview of the botanical gardens

The area of the Stadspark also borders on the diamondquarter and the jewish quarters of Antwerp. Up till the end of the 19th century the park was part of the town’s defensive wall. We still call it the ‘Spaanse Vesten’. Water for the moat came via the Herentals Canal (now the Plantin-Moretus Avenue). Part of it was used for the moats. Another part was led into the city to furnish the brewers in the Kammenstraat with fresh water.

Typical for the park is the great many statues that decorate it.

Botanical Garden

Not so far from the Stadspark is the Botanical Garden. It belonged to the old Elisabeth Hospital and borders the Leopoldstraat. The present lay-out with balustrades and glass houses goes back to the early 19th century.

Visitors in the Antwerp Zoo


A third park, probably the most interesting one, is our Zoo. These zoological gardens are among the eldest in Europe. They house a great many different kinds of animals from all over the world. They also harbour some of the eldest trees in the city. The whole complex has been protected as a monument, trees included. At some other time I’ll certainly be back to tell you more about this shiny diamond in our city’s crown.

At a later occasion I’ll also tell you more about the parks in the different districts.

A store with a story

This facade in the Kipdorpvest now houses a branch of the America Today chain, and even if you are not really looking for a new pair of jeans you should really take a look inside.

The place used to be a theatre in the 1940’s and further on, until television became too popular in the 1960’s, and the place had to close its doors in the early 1970’s.

The theatre was known as the AB, short for Ancienne Belgique (Old Belgium) and it was run by the same management as the AB in Brussels and in Ghent. For some time Bruno Coquatrix, who was to lead the famous Olympia theatre in Paris, used to work as an assistant in the Brussels office of AB.

AB was a vaudeville theatre. Every night a show was performed that contained an orchestra, a ballet, some clowns or comedians, some acrobats, a show with poodles, some local singers, but the top of the bill usually were international stars from France, Germany, Great Britain or the USA. Gilbert Bécaud was here, so was Freddy Quinn, even Louis Armstrong performed in this theatre. Tickets were sold at a reasonable price: the management was confident visitors would spend more on food on drinks that were served throughout the evening.

The building itself dates back to 1902 and originally served as the offices of a newspaper called “La Métropole”. It is a nice example of neo-renaissance building, one of the many styles that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century in Flanders. It is a style that imitates the way houses were built in the 16th century, incorporating modern techniques. The result usually is much more sober than the eclectic styles and neo-baroque styles that were also popular in the same era.

The architect responsible for the original building is also responsible for the eclectic building on the corner of Leysstraat and Teniersplaats, which practically borders the AB building. A clearer examples of the differences between both styles is hard to find. When the offices were turned into a theater, this was done with respect for the facade and fortunately, when the theater was turned into a shop, the interior has also been respected. So be sure to have a look at this historical place that many older Antwerp people still think of with a lot of melancholy.

Something new to look out for

We may boast several hundreds different types of beer, more than any other country in the world probably, but still that doesn’t seem to be enough. Brewers of all types regularly create new tastes, try out different combinations of hops or herbs, or like Moortgat, experiment with barrels.

Duvel (literally Devil) is a strong blond beer which is very popular. In recent years the brewery has released a triple hop version, with a different combination of hops each year and a really unique taste for each of the beers. Some bars today offer up to four different types of triple hop Duvel, and later this year, in April or May, depending on the evolution of the maturation, a barrel aged variety will be released. The oak barrels which are used previously stored bourbon, so the new variety will have a completely new set of aromas and tastes.

A bar with a touch of comedy and drama

When you enter the ‘Duifkens’ on the Graanmarkt, one of the first things you’ll notice is the long line of black and white pictures that cover the wall. All of them actors of the neighbouring Bourla theater and all of them regular customer of the bar. And the actors still do come to the ‘Duifkens’. Everything in the bar breathes theater, drama and comedy. Even the statue in front has to do with drama, but that’s another story. Just like the story of the Graanmarkt.

The Duifkens on a typical Summer’s day.

The building the ‘Duifkens’ is situated in, is one of the three remaining original houses on the Graanmarkt, and they date back to mid 16th century. All of the other 16th century houses have been demolished and replaced by huge 19th century office buildings for banks and trading houses.

When it is hot enough almost half of the Graanmarkt is turned into a terrace, as can be seen in the picture. And when you’re there, don’t forget to taste some of the local beers like De Koninck (just ask for a ‘Bolleke’) or a Triple d’Anvers.

The bar opens at 11:00 am and is open till midnight, except Fridays and Saturdays when the official closing time is 3:00 am. On Sundays the bar remains closed, and bear in mind that on Saturdays the Graanmarkt will be crowded as a street market is going on until 4:00 pm, a market were fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, … from all over the world are sold. The locals call it ‘Vreemdelingenmarkt’ or Strangers’ Market.

Chocolate Secrets: free to discover

As an accompaniment to the exhibition which is held at the Groenplaats, the MAS-museum has taken a selection of its background collection, added some objects from private collection, and puts it all on display on the second floor of the building. A floor you can visit for free.

The exhibition shows ancient Maya cups that were used to drink cacao in, porcelain cacaopots from Europe and tin boxes and so on that were used by Antwerp chocolate factories. These factories started their activities in the 19th century and they turned the once exclusive delicacy of the rich into an everyman’s candy: the chocolate bar. And of course they also helped the distribution and spread the world-wide popularity of the typical Belgian chocolates. The factories like Meurisse and Martougin are no longer there, but the local chocolatiers still make great chocolates.

This exhibition opens March 3rd and closes Sept 3rd. And while you’re there: do not forget to visit the top floor, which is also free and offers a very nice panoramic view over the city.

The MAS-museum can be found at the Hanzestedenplein.

Antwerp and chocolate: an exhibition

An original poster for the Perette chocolate bar.

From Feb. 3rd till March 31st an exhibition on the role of Antwerp in the history of Belgian chocolate is organised on the top floor of Mercado at Groenplaats. The very first Belgian chocolate factory was active in Antwerp. It was led by the Meurissefamily and created chocolate bars that were popular all over the country and far beyond the borders. Anyone older than 35 or 40 will certainly remember Perette (milk chocolate bar) and Boy Scout (black chocolate bar). One of their inventions was a cold-feel filling that was used in the Zero bars, which are still sold although they are now produced by another factory as the Meurisse plant has closed down and now houses a furniture store at Damplein.

In between 1830 and 1960 over thirty chocolate stores and factories were active in the centre of Antwerp. The exhibition, which is organised by Antwerpen Koekenstad (Antwerp Cookietown, a nickname for the city given because of its great amount of bakery, chocolateries and candy stores) shows a great number of unique documents dating back to the roaring twenties and the golden era of the fifties and sixties, and to top it all: you’ll be able to taste Perette (again), from Wednesdag to Sunday from 1pm to 5pm.

Tickets are available at 8 €, groups of more than 10 pay 5 €.

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