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Ships forced to pay a giant’s fee?

That giant’s hand being chopped and thrown into the river Scheldt?

Gruesome? A kid’s tale? Both. Rock Fever’s destination this week? Antwerp, Belgium.

According to the city’s legend, a giant called Antigonus used to exact tolls from all ships passing the city along the Scheldt river. Tired of this toll, a Silvius Brabo tore off Antigonus’ hand and threw it into the river, thereby naming the city “hand-throw” or Antwerp.

There is now a statue to Brabo in the centre of Antwerp and though the giant may be of legend, Antwerp was, in fact, the city that managed to end taxes along the river.

It was just as tax-less to arrive in Antwerp from the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Why was I coming from the Schiphol Airport?

As you may or may not know, I am travelling through the Netherlands and Belgium for three weeks. After finishing one week divided between Haarlem and the Hague it was time to visit Belgium (don’t worry I wouldn’t dream of leaving without a visit to Amsterdam!) My travel buddy was arriving from Bermuda, so we met at Schiphol where we could jump on a train to Belgium. Easy.

Only have a week to travel? Enjoy speaking Dutch before crossing the border for all the chocolate and beer you can handle. What more can you ask for?

So why Antwerp? I had been to Brussels before. I wasn’t impressed. Logistically, Antwerp, which is Belgium’s “second” city and the de facto capital of Belgium’s Flemish North, was also 50km north of Brussels ie closer to Schiphol.

Two hours by train from Amsterdam and sitting on a river and prime trade spot, Antwerp attracted many of the well-known trading families, such as the Habsburgs in the 15th century. Antwerp, which was a Protestant city, also survived the onslaught of Catholic Philip II, who inherited Spain and the Low Countries, the rebuilding of the port by Napoleon and the Second World War where both sides bombed the city.

Now, the city is dripping in diamonds and decorated by the innovative fashion designers that inhabit the varied old and new houses. I’m not a fashionista nor do I care much for diamonds, but I had also heard it was a gritty and impressive city so I needed to check it out.

Still not buying my reasons for Rock Fever’s destination this week? Well I can give you another ten! And I will start with reason one: the Antwerp City Card, purchased from the tourist office (though it can be purchased online), cost us about €31 and gave us free access to museums and churches and great discounts to various attractions (including the zoo)! What could be better?

How about a discount on chocolate? Oh, yes the card does that too from various stores. Before I could consider indulging in the sweet that Belgians go through by the kilos every year, however, I have to give you reason two: a visit to the gothic Cathedral of our Lady (or Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal). The Cathedral, the spires of which can been seen from most places in Antwerp, was also right next to the tourist office in the centre. Inside, the seven-aisled nave offers enough room to house four paintings by Antwerp’s homeboy, Pieter Paul Rubens, so religious or not, the Cathedral offers a beautiful viewing.

Reason three: Antwerp’s Grote Markt, which has the Brabo Fountain, a pile of roughly sculpted rocks and surmounted by a bronze Silvius Brabo. Remember him from the intro? The Grote Markt is also home to the Stadhuis or city hall, which offers a counterpart to the Cathedral opposite.

Around the Grote Markt are also the restored Guild houses with 16th century reliefs with finely cast, gilded figures and cafes after cafes, where you can sit and enjoy an overpriced coffee while watching the crowds and carriages carrying fellow tourists. The view is worth the extra euros.

From the Grote Markt it is time for reason four and the journalist in me to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus. This is the mansion of the printer Christopher Plantin, who rose to fame during the 1500s when he was awarded the printing missals for the entire Spanish Empire by King Philip II. The mansion also includes some of the oldest printing presses and the famous 36-line Bible of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the moveable type printing. I’m a print geek.

Of course Antwerp is more than old buildings and printings, which is reason five: the four-day Bolleke de Konnick Beer Festival! This festival, held outside in front of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, honours Belgium’s well-known beer, while also offering cuisines from around the world to soak it up. The festival is an annual event in August that brings city dwellers out for one last, summer party!

After indulging in corn and not beer at the festival, (being a celiac in Belgium is not easy) it was time to find some food. Luckily, Antwerp is nothing if it’s not reason six: filled with lovely restaurants, cafes and bars (even for celiacs).

Of course you could take your pick in Groenplaats, the open square that is behind the Cathedral. It used to be the municipal graveyard (though hopefully all the bodies have been removed), but I found the history slightly off-putting.

Luckily reason seven is the twisting corridors of Antwerp’s tiny streets stretching from the Groenplaats to the river Schedlt that are filled with everything from expensive cafes to homey restaurants filled with Belgian specialties including beef cooked in beer and veg with mashed potatoes.

Reason eight to visit this lovely town is there is not enough time to visit everything! There is so much to do that the three days I spent in Antwerp were barely enough time to visit the zoo (so large and filled with everything from gorillas to elephants, I almost forgot I was in a city) to the Meir (a pedestrian street filled with shops) to Rubens’ house (the artist was actually successful during his living years and had a beautiful house/studio in the centre of Antwerp), this city is spilling over with things to do.

Which brings me to reason nine: the innovative edge of the city. It starts with the designers everywhere to the recently built Museum aan de Stroom (MAS). A modern, red-brick building with a facade that is interwoven with clear waved walls throughout to offer a stunning view of Antwerp, it also offers a historical tour of the city. The panoramic view of Antwerp from the top of the MAS, however, was the best part of the entire visit.

Finally, Antwerp is fantastic because it does not have tourists! Ok, it does have tourists and a great bed and breakfast offering if you want to go, but it is not Disneyland. People actually work and live in this thriving city as is clear by the designer clothing stores, the gourmet restaurants and innovative architecture. The locals are building things for themselves, and not to attract tourists!

After throwing off the “gritty” title usually afforded Antwerp, it was time to head to somewhere that does, unfortunately offer the tourist everything they want: Bruges. Enjoy photos on www.robynswanderings.com and until next week I say, Tot ziens.

Antwerp's Stadhuis or Town Hall
MAS- the modern museum of Antwerp with a beautiful panoramic view from the top
View from inside the MAS, Antwerp's Modern Museum
Printing Presses at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp
The Peace Palace in the Hague

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Published September 21, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 21, 2011 at 8:44 am)


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