The afternoon drizzle had deserted the square in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. For a moment I was the lone tourist gazing at the magnificent 14th Century church, struck by its intricate art and architectural details, inside and out. But then a group of middle-aged Japanese tourists came with their colourful umbrellas and compact digital cameras. They huddled over an area in front of the gigantic structure and started taking photos – not of the Roman Catholic church listed in the World Heritage Site but of a small plank in front it.
I later find that the dramatic climax of the book A Dog of Flanders by British-French writer Marie-Louise de la Ramée, hugely popular in Japan, is set in this premise. The tale of Nello and his dog Patrasche draws hundreds of fans to this city, an Antwerp native told me.
While the pathos of a bestselling book’s plotline attracts many visitors, this Flanders city, also Belgium’s second largest, still lags behind the Belgian capital Brussels by miles considering that it is only about 45 minute train ride from the capital. But I would have never visited this port town too if it weren’t for my friend, Ian, who told me that his city will not disappoint, and in less than 36 hours that I had, I would like the city, if not fall in love with it.
It was already dark when my bus reached its destination in Plantinkai— it was a seven-hour comfortable bus ride from London— and it was freezing. But my friend insisted that I should see what he called “the heart and soul” of the city.
I shivered staring at the long stretch of the Scheldt River with lights reflecting on Europe’s second busiest port after Rotterdam, Netherlands. This port holds significant economic value for the city and also the region, which prompted French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to build Antwerp’s first dock.
The next day, I returned to the dock – it reminded me of a seaside pier in the US but without the Ferris wheel and a noisy amusement park. I liked the calmness. There I sat munching on frites, or Belgian fries with some spicy sauce, listening to the ship horns at a distant and admiring the crimson sunset from a wooden bench overlooking the river. On the other side was a stunning view of Antwerp’s old quarter, including the towering Cathedral.
The previous evening, Ian had whizzed me on a whirlwind tour though the town centre. In less than an hour, through narrow cobbled streets and some dark alleys, he guided me though his city’s churches, squares and streets narrating bits and pieces of their history. The next day I would be on my own.
I had a rough sketch of the city from that quick, guided tour along with some mental notes. My task, as it seemed, was to find all these places of interest in the daytime. Without a map, venturing into the unknown, following Dutch signs that sounded vaguely familiar, I explored the city. I found myself astray in the alleyways while bumping into beautiful courtyards and buildings that line up the streets.
The starting point to my sightseeing was the magnificent Antwerp Central train station, aptly known as the Railway Cathedral. Built between 1895 and 1905, the architectural design and details are awe-inspiring; it’s a classic mix between the traditional stone exterior with a dome— it could be mistaken for a church— and a futuristic iron and glass panel in the waiting area inside the main terminal. Compared to the other historic stations I’ve visited, including the ones in London, New York, Moscow and Mumbai, I was glad to pause and ponder the grandeur of Antwerp Central without being rammed by a sea of commuters.
Just out of the station and without realising I was at Diamantkwartier, the city’s Diamond District, navigating through Pelikaanstraat to Hovenierstraat. Though the streets aren’t dazzled as Dubai’s Gold Souk, don’t get undermined by this 550-year-old marketplace with an estimated $54 billion annual turnover. As I peeked
through the glass windows and admired the sparkling diamonds and their “cuts” — though I have no knowledge of that whatsoever — I smirked with the thought that I don’t have to invest in one of those shiny stones anytime soon, not for now at least.
About 45 minutes from here, meandering the bike-friendly city, I walked down a narrow cobbled street that opened to the courtyard of St. Charles Borromeo. This grand architectural masterpiece is modelled after the Jesuit’s’ church in Rome festooned with the works of Antwerp’s much-revered painter Pieter Paul Rubens.
Rubens’s self-designed house and studio from the 17th Century is now the Rubenshuis Museum at the Wapper Square, and his statue stands tall minutes away at the Groenplaats, a square with a cluster of outdoor cafes and restaurants in proximity to the Cathedral of Our Lady.
Another popular square nearby, and one of my favourites, is the Grote Markt. In the centre of this Square is the fountain with the 1887 statue of Brabo, hurling a piece of a cut hand; he is a heroic figure and locals talk passionately about his story.
According to folklore, a giant named Antigoon collected money from people crossing the bridge over the Scheldt and cut their hands when they failed to pay. So when Brabo killed the demon, he did the same – he cut his hand and threw it away. This is how the city’s name was derived: Antwerp, meaning throwing of the hand. A stone replica of the hand is on The Meir, Antwerp’s fashion and shopping conclave, akin to Oxford Circus in London but less crowded.
Standing in the Grote Markt amid the centuries old elaborate gildenhuis, or guild houses, and the Renaissance Town Hall, the place could easily be characterised as a set from a classic period movie. It is however an immaculate slice of the bygone era that has been well preserved for countless generations to see.
On that limited time frame, I had crammed in everything that I could possibly see, at least Antwerp’s major attractions, all by foot though there are trams and buses that run frequently. And in between, I didn’t miss out on stuffing myself with Belgian waffles and chocolates. And sometime during the day, I also managed to take a stroll around Antwerp’s Chinatown, a short stretch of street with restaurants, supermarkets and nail salons; it is apparently the only one in Belgium. With a large number of multi-ethnic population – Jewish, Indians and Moroccans – the city is also considered as a melting pot of cultures and cuisines.
When the daylight diminished, which is quite early this time of the year (around 4:30pm), it was certainly time to taste some of the best Belgian beers. The menus at the bars are elaborate and it was impossible to try a lot of them looking at the alcohol content – some were as high as 18 percent. So I settled over a glass of Winterbok, a strong dark beer, as I detailed my day to Ian.
“You’ve seen more than what I had expected,” he told me. “I hope you liked it.”
And in that short period, I not only liked the city, as he had claimed, but also started to fall in love. However, it was time for another city. But I know that my love affair with Antwerp is to be continued, preferably some time summertime.