On the last day of February 1221, the city of Antwerp received a charter giving it a number of privileges. The city could raise its own taxes, define its own rules and laws and enforce those laws, assisted by a representative of the central authorities. This charter acknowledged the growing importance of a settlement that had begun to play a role in interregional and even international trade.
The river Scheldt was the main route to transport goods on, although the river itself was quite different from today: it was not yet directly connected to the North Sea, but was a river that joined the massive delta of Rhine and Meuse in the North. It would take another two centuries before massive storms would create a smoother connection to the rest of the world. In the meantime, the city slowly, but steadily prepared to take over the central role of Bruges near the end of the 15th century.
This anniversary cannot go by unnoticed, so my friends and colleagues at Antwerpen à la Carte developed both a cycling tour and a walking tour to celebrate the event. Unfortunately, due to corona, you’ll have to wait unti we get a green light to really head off.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,…
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.
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.
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.
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.
The mansion that was once occupied by mayor Nicholaas Rockox now houses a museum.
In the early 17th century Nicholaas Rockox bought two houses in the Keizerstraat and had them rebuilt into one large mansion with an inner court. Over the years the building changed appearance. It’s got a completely new facade early 18th century as one can still see in an inscription on top today: 1702.
Late 19th century it was turned into an antique shop and each and every room was changed into the style of a particular period. Later on an artistic circle used the place for its activities, but these never really got off the ground. Except for one: the cellar that was used as a dancing. As the University was only a stone’s throw away, many student organisations used the cellar for their parties. But the overall building started to deteriorate and eventually Kredietbank, a financial institution bought the place with a dual purpose.
A Bank comes to the rescue
Kredietbank wanted to create a museum that restored the house to what it might have been like in Rockox’ time. Rockox was a fervent collector of art. Rubens was a personal friend of his, so in his collection featured a number of works of Rubens and his contemporaries. But also older artists were represented in the collection. This collection is now spread all over the world, so a new collection now adorns the walls of the museum.
Kredietbank also needed a place in Antwerp where it could receive guests and organise trainings for its personnel. So they not only bought Rockox’ house, but also the house of painter Snijders next to it.
The museum has a permanent collection, but while the museum of fine arts is still being restaurated, it also organises temporary exhibitions in which it uses works that belong to the collection of this museum of fine arts. Until July 2 an exhibition shows a nice set of landscapes from the Low Countries. The landscape as an art form really got shape in the 16th and 17th centuries, here in the Low Countries. The paintings in the exhibition come from the museum of fine arts, but also from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
In the neighbourhood of Hof van Liere and Saint-James’ Church (St-Jacob) you can find a very nice example of a ‘pagadder’ tower. The tower belonged to the mansion of mayor Gilbert Van Straelen. He lived in the 16th century. You can find the tower in the Korte St-Annastraat at the end of the Frans Halsplein.
The word pagadder is a bastardization of the Spanish pagador or paymaster. In the local dialect pagadder for some reason has become the name for a small boy. Maybe it is because the Spanish paymasters (soldiers whose responsibility it was to pay the other soldiers’ wages) were much smaller and weaker than their active colleagues.
It is said these young boys had to sit in the tower and look out for ships sailing into the harbour. As soon as they saw a ship, they had to inform their master of the arrival.
That should explain the existence of the towers. It may be clear from this example that this old story is just a tale. From here it is impossible to see the tiniest part of the river.
These city towers arose in the sixteenth century. They are based on Italian examples. It is no wonder that they appeared in this timeframe. Many artists from the North went to Italy to learn about renaissance art. They did not only bring along sketches of ancient sculptures and modern paintings. They also drew the places they had visited.
Very soon the major families and merchants started to outdo their competitors by building city towers that were higher and more impressive than their competitors’. Van Straelen’s must have been one of the best examples. We will never be really sure because at one time there must have been over 40 of these constructions. Only a handful have survived.
But they were functional nonetheless
Smart merchants do not only think of prestige, at least not all of the time. These towers are a nice example hereof. Inside the towers a staircase between the different storeys of the house could be built. That way more space remained available inside the rooms. Most towers are tucked away in a corner and are much smaller than Van Straelen’s.
The building is now used by Emmaus, an organization that takes care of young people who live in difficult circumstances.