In the Netherlands we lived 5 miles from the Belgium border. And crossing the border really meant crossing a frontier, despite that small distance.
As soon as you are in the neighborhood of the border you can see that the street is different (ask any professional cyclist – Belgian cobblestone roads are famous), the houses are built with materials we don’t use in Holland and on a back road it even shows that nature looks different. In Holland everything is clean cut, Belgium is cozier.
For Tom and me Antwerp was closer by than Amsterdam, so if we wanted to sniff some culture we usually went there. What to see in Antwerp? There is a lot of variety and the terraces are great!
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Folkloric origin of the name
A giant called Antigoon lived near the Scheldt river. He demanded a toll from passing boatmen, severed the hand of anyone who refused to pay, and threw it in the river. Eventually the giant was killed by a young hero named Silvius Brabo, who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river.
Throwing hands is hand werpen in Flemish. Altered to Antwerpen or Antwerp in English. The story of Brabo is depicted in the fountain across the Town Hall.
What to see in Antwerp?
Usually when you are in an unknown city, you will visit the center with the occasional church and museum, won’t you? Well, that’s what we do anyway. Nowadays we either Goggle for information or visit the tourist office for a sightseeing map.
In Antwerp most highlights can be visited on foot. The center is cozy and car-free for the bigger part. So you can stroll around at your leisure, marvel at the shops and grab a terrace chair for a Belgium beer.
The Gothic Cathedral is surrounded by authentic old houses. And yes, I know that real estate agents use that term if they in fact mean worn out and almost a ruin, but we are not visiting to search for a house to live there. We are sightseeing. 🙂 And I rather like the atmosphere over there.
Beautiful guild houses
The Grote Markt, the central square, has magnificent 16th century guild houses and the Baroque town hall. Antwerp is a harbor city, making trade an important source of income. And in those days a lot of craftsmen from Spain and Portugal fled here because in those days the low-lands were quite tolerant.
Close to the Grote Markt there is a guild house called the Vleeshuis. I don’t expect it to be in the top-10 of the tourist guides, but it is a museum well worth a visit. Especially if you like music. In addition to an overview of the old butchers’ guild (vlees means meat), there are many old instruments on display.
You should definitely visit my all-time favorite museum Plantin-Moretus. Plantin and Moretus were 16th century printers. The museum is housed in the original building where they lived and worked. The overview of the old craft of making books is magnificent.
When I was an art teacher at the start of my working life I always visited the museum with my students. So I can’t count the number of times I have been there and it never ever bored me. Did I already tell you to really go and see it?
The less familiar places
Open air museum Middelheim
The second spot I would go to on the field trips with my students either included the Vleeshuis or statue park Middelheim, depending on the weather. It’s a free accessible city park with 19th, 20th and 21st century statues and installations. Many of the works belong to the permanent collection, but there are also regularly temporary exhibitions.
When the sun is shining it’s great to sit on the grass. You’re not allowed to, but the Belgians are not that strict with rules. There are several cafes so you don’t have to be short on beverages or food. A lot of the Sinjoren – the nickname of the people of Antwerp – go there to spend a lazy Sunday.
The harbor area
One sunny summer morning Tom and I walked around through the Dokskes. This is a part of the harbor that is situated in Merksem, one of the suburbs. I really love industrial areas because they are so photogenic.
There are warehouses, bridges, rusty and shiny factories. A photographer’s paradise. And on weekends it’s quiet, so I could point and shoot without much hassle.
Zurenborg, an almost forgotten area
One day we were invited by a Belgian friend to join her on a tour in Zurenborg. I had never heard of the area, so I was intrigued. The place turned out to be a real pearl.
The district was meant to be an industrial place, but by lack of interest it was turned into a residential area in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s one of the few areas that is developed according to an urban plan with beautiful houses in Jugendstil, Art Nouveau and Neo Classicism style.
The maintenance of these kinds of houses is really expensive, but a lot of inhabitants are making an effort to restore them. As you can see in the picture below two of the three houses (the middle and the right one) are refurbished, while the left part is waiting for better times.
The best part of Belgium
Food, drinks and happy gatherings
We call it a Burgundy lifestyle. The Belgians know how to enjoy life much more than the Dutch, or so it seems to me. Being in the company of Belgians always involves a visit to a cafe or restaurant.
The Dutch and Belgians have a relationship that is comparable to the English and the Scots. They are very similar, but with enough differences to have the occasional animosity. The Dutch are notorious for being very direct. Belgians are less outspoken and either keep their opinion to themselves or are more careful when they express it.
Maybe because we were from ‘below the rivers’ (The Dutch are divided in Hollanders, from above the rivers and the soft G tongues from below the rivers), but we could always get along with our Belgian friends quite well. Making our visits across the border really enjoyable. 🙂
Have you ever visited Belgium? Tell me in the comment box.