You immediately fall in love with this city. I don’t like autumn and big cities, but Antwerp was an exception. Early November twilight and drops of rain on the windows of cafes suit this city. In the rainy autumn evening in Belgian Antwerp, when the day and the year come to an end, you want to listen to a chorus of sisters of mercy, sit and drink wine by candlelight without any hurry.
However, in Antwerp, you must hurry, especially if you came here only for one day. It is not possible to visit all the interesting places of the city in one day, but at least, we tried.
Usually, tourists come to Antwerp by train, and the first thing they see is the Central Station. But today, we will start from the place on the Scheldt River where the city first appeared in the 7th century. With the map of Antwerp in our hands, we will pass the Houses of the Hanseatic League and the unique cathedral, then we’ll visit one of the most amazing Jesuit churches, and via the famous street of Meir with its numerous shops and cafes, we will arrive at the house where the great artist Rubens lived and worked.
I agree that a gloomy November day may not be the best time for a long walk because of snow, rain, and early sunset, but by touring Antwerp right here, in my travel blog, you will spend no more than ten minutes and won’t even soak your feet. However, if after reading, you want to see Antwerp with your own eyes, prepare for wind and bring waterproof clothes and shoes.
In this place, the Scheldt River is very wide. The Steen Castle was built here in the 10th century to collect tolls from passing ships. Yes, this stony fortress must have seemed enormous and towering over the wooden buildings during the Early Middle Ages, but today, the Steen Castle looks tiny.
In the 15th century, when the river in Bruges shoaled and my favorite city lost its exit to the sea, Antwerp came into its heyday. Bruges gradually turned into the tourist capital of Belgium, and Antwerp became the second largest European (and fourth in the world) seaport. Have you already imagined dirty docks smelling of rotten fish and mazut? No, that’s not Antwerp.
From the embankment, you enter right to the city center, where the famous Brabo Fontein adorns the square in front of City Hall, and the Grote Markt (Main Square) is surrounded by the richly decorated Houses of the Hanseatic League. Traders, and especially the large Jewish community of the city, brought financial prosperity to Antwerp in the past and present.
The central square of the city, Groenplaats (Green Square), can boast of the monument to Rubens located not so far from the luxurious Hilton Hotel. Here, you will find one of the most beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Cathedral of Our Lady. In my opinion, despite the fact that it is still not completed, the Antwerp Cathedral is an architectural masterpiece as outstanding as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
According to the original plan, the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp was supposed to have two identical towers, and viewed from the Green Square, it seems as if both are there. In fact, one tower is only one-third completed. The grandiose construction began in the middle of the 14th century, but due to lack of funds or because of wars, it was not finished. However, the cathedral is so beautiful even with one tower that you do not notice the absence of the second one. A stone lace of the Antwerp Cathedral is flawless. All in all, it’s understandable why the construction has continued for as long as 170 years such a work cannot be completed in a couple of years.
What is inside? According to contradictory data, the cathedral is adorned with four paintings of the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. As for me, I have found only two: The Descent from the Cross and The Elevation of the Cross, but I am not a specialist, and could have missed the other two. It was very interesting to look at the oil painting in marble of the face of Christ. On the whole, the architecture of the building impressed me much more than its interior.
The Green Square is surrounded by many pubs and cafes, and it is time to revive yourself with your favorite drink, whether it’s beer, wine, or coffee, to continue our leisurely stroll. Soon, we should see a church which is rarely visited by tourists. The Church of St. Charles Borromeo is hiding in the depths of the old part of the city. Its facade is very modest, and you probably would have passed it by, but we did not pass.
This is a Jesuit church whose interior is designed in Baroque. Some might say it is kitsch, but probably this is the most beautiful church of Antwerp. It seems to be permeated by sunlight. Guess who painted its ceilings? Yes, it was Peter Paul Rubens. Having lit candles in this wonderful temple, we went through a small lane to the main shopping street of the city, Meir.
This is a pedestrian street, but even on a rainy November day, it was filled with people carrying packets and bags. I like shopping. To wander from shop to shop staring pretty things is a pleasure for me similar to visiting museums, but unlike museums, I can buy something here. As for my wife, Irina, she prefers churches and castles and, even better, their ruins.
“Sweetheart, maybe you’d like to try on a diamond ring? No? Oh, yes, I remember, Rubens awaits us.” 🙂
Rubens House on the Wapper 9/11 is the house-museum where the famous artist lived for most of his life and died in 1640. The exterior of the building is very spartan, but inside, you will find something like a rich Italian palazzo.
Rubens completed an incredible number of paintings: more than six hundred. His artistic talent was recognized during his lifetime; something which does not happen often in history. Contemporaries called Rubens “the king of painting and the artist of kings.” He had an international list of customers headed by kings and princes. However, obviously, he had another talent: he was a good teacher. His studio on the Wapper street 9/10 was the place where famous artists, Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, and Pieter Bruegel Younger started their careers.
The second most important church of Antwerp, the Church of St. Jacob, is hidden in the silent Lange Nieuwstraat, 73, five minutes from the Rubens House. Peter Paul Rubens is buried here. This is a real museum with many rich tombs, paintings, statues, and steles. Visitors whisper, seeking the last refuge of the great artist. This is a hard task because the church has 23 altars, but the tomb of Rubens is located behind the main one, in the Chapel of Our Lady.
In the evening, we accidentally got to the Antwerp’s Beguinage. This is a “city inside a city,” kind of community of tribulation, or maybe faith. At one time, widows of crusaders settled somewhere here. They had hard times after the loss of their husbands, and they were doing well if they managed to build a tiny house which was a little bit taller than a man. The Beguinage was surrounded by a high wall behind which ladies lived in seclusion, often in a monastic lifestyle. Beguines cared for the sick and elderly, educated orphans, and wove the famous Flemish lace.
There is a small and cozy garden in the center. You wouldn’t think that even this modest unremarkable chapel has a beautiful painting, The Descent from the Cross by Jordaens. It is surprising that behind these high old walls, you don’t hear a noise of the modern city as if this place exists by itself and in another time.
I am afraid this is all you can see in Antwerp in a day, therefore I would suggest to stay there one more day. You have not seen the unique St. Pavel Church located far from the city center, you did not visit the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen (The Royal Museum of Fine Arts), and did not appreciate the Diamantmuseum collection.
Incidentally, in Antwerp, even the train station reminds one of a cathedral outside and a jewelry boutique inside. If in other railway stations, you can buy newspapers, magazines, sandwiches, and flowers, here among other things, they would offer you real diamonds. Sure thing, about 60% of the world’s diamonds pass through the diamond exchanges of the Belgian city of Antwerp, and the diamond district is located near the Central Station. It is a sin not to buy some beautiful little thing with five-carat stones.