Sweetly and Colorfully Historic
A major historic seaport, Antwerp today ranks Europe's second busiest. Surprisingly after centuries of wars, Belgium's Antwerp retains its rich and fascinating heritage, a bonus for history buffs like us.
Het Steen, a 12th century fortress, still looms above the Scheld River, link to the North Sea. At its entry bridge, guide Stephen points out the huge statue of Lange Wapper, a legendary giant who terrorized citizens in medieval times. "And look above Het Steen's arched gate. You'll see the bas-relief of Semini, Scandinavian God of youth and fertility. Though prudish churchmen removed the phallus, brides still visit this site when desiring children. In fact, Antwerpians once referred to themselves as children of Semini," he tells us.
Crossing a busy boulevard and passing through remnants of the city wall, we sight an immense building. Lofty spires suggest a Cathedral, yet Stephen smiles and tells us this was the butchers' guildhall. "Its massive size and composition suggests their immense wealth! Layering red bricks with white stones, its builders created the fashionable bacon style." Walking onward, he translates several street names, all conveying medieval trades.
In the nearby cobblestone market square, gable-roofed guildhalls flank the huge city hall. Golden ornaments top these six-storied structures. Such opulence testifies to the fact that 16thcentury Antwerp accounted for 40% of world trade. One guildhall displays an emblematic crossbow and next door another a sheaf of arrows. We suspect these neighboring artisans worked together crafting armaments.
The sculpture amid the central fountain illustrates a tale explaining Antwerp's meaning. Here legendary Brabo slays giant Druon Antigoon, who's ready to throw the severed hand of one avoiding river tolls. In Flemish, Antwerpen means hand throw.
The baroque city hall has three statues surrounding its coat of arms. Stephen grins, "Goddess Prudence is typically portrayed, yet notice how Justitia lacks her traditional blindfold. I think citizens wanted her to keep an eye on local politicians! See that Madonna! She's too large for her alcove, thus clearly not the original. Our practical citizens replaced damaged sculptures in this manner."
Strolling onward, Stephen points out Madonnas hoisting lanterns adorning buildings. Rather than indicating religious fervor, we learn this early street lighting gave owners tax relief. Stephen points out his favorite, "Most medieval artifacts and buildings have lost their luster. This vibrantly painted Mary and Jesus shows us how the Dark Ages weren't really so dark."
Standing next amidst small residences in a narrow alleyway, Stephen tells us how foul slops were once dumped from windows above to be eventually washed away. "These thresholds kept the smelly muck out; their height indicated owners' wealth."
Replacing the original 9th century chapel of 1352, spectacular Our Lady Cathedral towers above us. Sculptures beside its entry depict the work of its fine masons. The ornate interior embraces three masterpieces by Peter Rubens.
Off the Meir, today's main shopping area, we find Rubens' residence and learn about his life there from1616. Influenced by his time in Venice, he'd remodeled the original buildings into an Italianesque villa with an airy courtyard opening onto a baroque garden. This villa became the meeting place for rich clientele such as merchants, diplomats and aristocrats. The studio's special viewing area allowed guests to watch him and his apprentices work. Over 2,500 paintings were created here, including Ruben's fashionably round, rosy Rubenesque figures.
An ornate portico connected his residence, where rooms display pupils' as well as his own famous artwork, including a self-portrait in the dining room. A few blocks north, gothic St. James contains Rubens' tomb and another of his masterpieces.
This rich city has long attracted and promoted artisans. Since the 1500's, Guild of St. Luke educated craftsmen and artists to guarantee quality. Rubens achieved the status of master serving an esteemed artist on a four-year apprenticeship. Near Antwerp's vast domed railway station, diamond experts have been continually schooled. These masters now cut 80% of the world's rough diamonds.
Considering Belgian chocolates as perfect souvenirs, we enter a candy shop. While sampling yummy chocolates, the owner recounts how Antwerp's traders discovering cocoa in the New World brought these exotic beans back. "When King Leopold II colonized the Congo, an unlimited cocoa supply was developed. Belgium became heart of the chocolate trade…" He smiles, "A Brussels pharmacist sold the first bars of bitter chocolate and sixty years later his grandson invented praline-filled chocolate shells." Of course, as sweet-toothed history nuts we buy several boxes.
Wary of becoming Rubenesque ourselves, we briskly walk the three-kilometers back to our cozy Scenic Cruise riverboat.
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PHOTOS by Rick & Chris Millkan
1. Butchers' Guildhall
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