We’re en route to our ship today, via a half day experience in Antwerp., once again in the form of a private tour. How very lucky we’ve been!
It’s technically a travel day from Bruges to our ship in Amsterdam but because we’re only about four hours away, Viking arranged a stopover in Antwerp with a morning walking tour, lunch, and then our drive to Amsterdam. Once again, we are the only two people in a luxurious van, driving out of the city .
Most of the highway route from Bruges to Antwerp is lined with lush, green farmers’ fields, grazing cows, and windmill after windmill (of the modern kind) – hundreds of them along the route.
On reaching Antwerp, we were introduced to our city guide Ari and then joined by a Canadian couple who were doing Bruges as a post cruise extension, having just come off the same ship that we will be boarding.
Ari was a true jokester, in addition to being very well informed. Among other things he told us that Nederlandish/Flemish, the language spoken in Flanders (northern Belgium) is exactly the same language that is spoken in the Netherlands, except that “the Dutch speak it with a weird accent”.
Ari told us that Antwerp is about 1000 years old, having started as just a few buildings within a wooden wall, but the people soon discovered that wood did not repel Vikings. A stone city wall was their next priority.
He also explained that the 16th century was the golden age in Antwerp, when business and art flourished, but that progress was arrested by the religious wars between the Protestant and Catholic churches during the reformation and iconoclasm (the destruction of “icons”).
We started our tour at The Steen (the stone), which is the city’s old Fort, dating as far back as the 10th century, but mostly built during the 15th and 16th . Only a small section of its outer wall is still original. Everything else was reconstructed in the 19th century with some even more modern portions now being used as a museum and cruise ship port welcome center.
We walked to the top of The Steen for a panoramic view of the old town area.
Outside The Steen is the first of two very strange statues we’d see on our tour: the evil giant Lange Wapper, who caused drunkards to behave badly.
The many Mary statues on buildings in Antwerp are said to counteract the giant’s power.
By the 16th century Antwerp had attained status as an important port and guild city, and reached what is now called its golden age. Today it remains the second largest northern port in Europe.
The large castle-like structure below is the butcher‘s guild house. Our guide commented that the building’s brick work looks like strips of bacon, which is appropriate for a butchers’ guild.
The hill on which the butchers guild is located was called the mountain of blood, since this was also where animals were slaughtered.
We learned that there are about 800 km of canals in Antwerp, but they are all now invisible underground. The tall chimney above the building below is actually a vent for the underground canals and tunnels.
Thomas More wrote his famous book Utopia here in Antwerp, in a house that no longer exists, during a plague pandemic. Our guide joked that during that pandemic, people were unreasonably expected to stay at home and not travel, so Thomas More had nothing better to do than write a book.
St. Charles Borromeo Jesuit Church (Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk) is located on the Hendrik Conscience Square, built in the baroque style just after the period called the contra-reformation, which is when Catholic churches returned to a more ornate style. It was originally home to 43 Rubens paintings, 39 of which were destroyed in a fire, including nine ceiling paintings. Of the remaining four altar paintings, 3 were taken by the empress Maria Theresa of Hapsburg during that dynasty’s rule here, and are now in the Vienna art historic museum, leaving just one here in the church.
However, there are still four huge Rubens masterpieces in the cathedral, and around 50 in the wider city. The largest collection is in the Prada museum in Spain though, dating to when Spain ruled Belgium and many nobles bought Rubens paintings.
From the green square (Grone Platz), we had the “postcard” view of the Cathedral of Our Lady and the statue of Peter Paul Rubens.
This green square used to be the cemetery where the poor people were buried, not inside the cathedral as the rich people would be. Many poor people could not afford coffins, and were simply buried in the earth, creating a very fertile grassy, space, hence “green”.
The magnificent Grote Markt (large market) Square has a statue/ fountain in the centre where the figure at the top is throwing a hand. The legend of how Antwerp was named has to do with an evil giant, who lived on the river and exacted tolls from travellers and traders. Those who couldn’t pay had their hand cut off. The hero Simon Bravo was brought in to fight the giant, succeeded in killing him, and cut off his hand and threw it into the river. Hand in Dutch is Ant and to throw is Werpen, so Antwerp means hand throw.
After a lunch of tomato soup, a delicious beef stew served “en cassoulet”, big bowls of crisp beef-fat-fried fries, and rice pudding with crumbled Spekulaas cookie, we were given a very short tour of the Cathedral’s highlights.
The cathedral’s huge collection of paintings and sculpture were destroyed during iconoclasm. Now there is only 1 piece of gothic art on display here: a statue from the mid 14th century that was brought here from another church. Note the fluid lines and characteristic “S” body shape that identified Gothic sculptures.
Our guide pointed out this Renaissance triptych, and explained that Renaissance art was all about balance, less light and dark contrast, and idealized figures.
He next took us to a larger post-iconoclastic triptych by Rubens, which exemplifies the Baroque concept of a “preview of paradise”. There are much more vivid colours, lots of motion and light, and realistically depicted people.
A smaller Rubens “resurrection” triptych in a side chapel was commissioned for Martina Plantina by her father, the largest printer in Europe at the time.
We could have spent much more time here, but it was time to head to Amsterdam and board the Viking MAGNI for our second grand European river cruise. As it was, we were the last people to board, just as the safety drill was being performed.
I’ll be writing and Ted will be taking photos as always, but blogs may come at a slower pace than usual, not just because the internet is incredibly sporadic. We are travelling with friends and being more social means less time to write.
I’m not complaining. It’s a wonderful problem to have.