A weekend in Antwerp? A whole weekend? Would there be enough to do, I wondered. Turns out that the answer is YES. Not only that there is far more to this City than Baroque Style. For a start there are diamonds and they are a girls best friend, then there is Art – with a capital A, Fashion and Europe’s first skyscraper.
WEEKEND IN ANTWERP
A weekend or 48 Hours in Antwerp …. style it how you will. In fact, I spent 24 hours in Antwerp and left wanting more, so would advise at two night stay. Antwerp has been an important port city since the Romans but it was in the sixteenth century when she really got into her stride. Her position at the mouth of the River Scheldt put her in a perfect position to dominate European trade in sugar, spice and textiles ….. as well as diamonds, of course. All that trade and diamonds made the city rich and her inhabitants spent lavishly on art and buildings, just at the time as the craze for Baroque was sweeping Europe.
WHAT IS BAROQUE?
First things first, what is Baroque? Baroque is a swaggering self confident kind of art. If you want gilding and curlicues than you can have them. Baroque was at its dizzying height in the seventeenth century and was the in house style of the Catholic Counter Reformation. In Architecture, think of Versailles, think of the churches of Sir Chistropher Wren (not that he was Catholic). For music think of the exquisite twiddly bits of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel. For painting the finest exponents was Sir Peter Paul Rubens and his pupil Sir Anthony van Dyck. Peter Paul Rubens, poster boy of the Baroque, was a local boy, to walk into Antwerp’s cathedral, churches or exiquisite small museums is like walking into a Rubens painting. Those airy soaring arches, those black and white floor tiles, those fancy wall coverings. For a weekend you can be a baroque heroine or hero. Even better in 2018 Antwerp is celebrating all things Baroque with a year long festival called Antwerp Baroque.
ANTWERP’S BAROQUE DOMESTIC INTERIORS
What I most loved about Antwerp was the invitation into the domestic interiors of Baroque homes, not palaces but homes of the well to do affluent. Those rooms that you see in all paintings of all those Flemish Masters.
Peter Paul Rubens bought this house and land in 1610, he extended it, built a garden and lived here until his death in 1640. Since then the building has passed through many hands but now the building has been restored and paintings by Rubens and his contemporaries are on show. Once you have finished wandering through Rubens rooms you can explore his garden.
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Adults €10, children under 12 free
SNIJDERS AND ROCKOX HOUSE
Who were Snijders and Rockox and why did they share a house? Well, they didn’t share a house they had adjoining houses and in a lavish restoration the two have been combined into one museum. Frans Snijders was a contemporary of Rubens, but painted animals and still lives. Nicolaas Rockox was Burgomaster of Antwerp at the time and collector of art. The houses are filled with their collection and many examples of Snidjers work. It is easy to imagine yourself as a priveleged guest been given the run of the place whilst your host is off on an errand.
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Adults €8, under 18 free
I confess that I have fallen in love with the Museum Plantin-Moretus. I visit many many museums and do fall a little bit in love with all them, but this was headlong head over heels stuff. Why? Well for a start it is both a museum and a UNESCO listed site (the only place in the world to combine the two), two of my favourite things in one entity. Second it is all about books and I love a book. Christoper Plantin and Jan Moretus set up a publishing company in the sixteenth century. The museum houses their printing presses and home. You see workshops where the books were printed, libraries of books, sitting rooms where clients would have been entertained. The walls are clad with embossed leather wallpaper or hung with lavish tapestries, the floors are black and white tiles. When I grow up I want to live in the Museum Plantin-Moretus.
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Adults €8, under 12 free
MUSEUM MAYER VAN DEN BERGH
The Museum Mayer van den Bergh is not the collection of a man for whom the Baroque was the latest thing but rather a man who rediscovered its worth an the end of the nineteenth century. Nor is it a home, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh lived next door, he died young and his mother built the museum after his death to house his collection. That doesn’t stop it from being eye popping. Rubens his here, there is stunning stained glass every where, but most of all there is Bruegel. At the time that Fritz Mayer van den Bergh was collecting when Bruegel was thought of at all, which wasn’t often, it was one person. Fritz was the first person to distinguish between Pieter the Elder and his sons Pieter the Younger and Jan.
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: €8, under 12 free
ANTWERP’S BAROQUE CHURCHES
Whilst Baroque style seeped into Palace and domestic design it started off a religious art form. The Catholic Church was resurgent and the flamboyance of Baroque was way to show it. Antwerp has five (I only managed to see three, two of the many reasons to return) stunning Baroque churches, many of them with works by Rubens still hanging in the place that it was painted for. Well we call them Baroque churches but in the main they are Gothic buildings that were in need of a facelift at the beginning of seventeenth century following the ‘Iconclastic Fury’ during the period of Calvinist rule in Antwerp. Time to refurbish in a lavish style.
CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY
Seven aisles, a mass of flying buttresses, soaring arches, light filled; the Cathedral of Our Lady made sense of the many paintings of church interiors that I have seen by Flemish Masters. You are standing in those paintings. Nicolaas Rockox was instrumental in getting Rubens the commission to paint altarpieces for the Cathedral. You’ve visited their homes and now you stand in front of the paintings that they would have seen hanging where they would have seen them hanging. If you visit before then end of 2018 you will be lucky enough to see the thirteen guild altarpieces that stood in the cathedral during Rubens life on loan from the Royal Museum as part of Antwerp Baroque 2018.
- Open: Monday – Friday 10am – 5pm
- Saturday 10am – 3pm
- Sunday 1pm – 4pm
- Admission: €6
Commissioning art didn’t stop in seventeenth century for the Cathedral. I love this bronze by Jan Farbe called The Man Who Bears the Cross. He is concentrating so hard and yet it seems effortless.
ST CHARLES BORREMOUS CHURCH
Rubens seeps from every pore of St Charles or St Carolus Borremous Church. He is rumoured to have helped design it. Certainly the square in which it sits is very Italianate and Rubens has just returned from Italy. He certainly created many paintings for it. Sadly the ceiling paintings were lost in an eighteenth century fire and two altarpieces removed by the Habsburgs and taken to Spain. The tiny Mariakapel or Lady Chapel on the right of the church remains as Rubens would have known it, as does the black and white floor.
- Open: Summer, Monday – Saturday 10am – 12.30pm and 2pm – 5pm
- Winter, Monday – Saturday 10am – 12.30pm and 2pm – 4.00pm
- Admission €2
St Jacobskerk or St James was Rubens parish church for most of the time that he lived in Antwerp, although for most of that time it was a work in progress. Work started on the church in 1491 and took 150 years to complete. It has a splendidly Baroque interior and is the burial place of Rubens. You will find the Rubens chapel at the back of the church but no paintings by the great man, just the view that he saw every Sunday.
- Open: Daily 2pm – 5pm
- Admission: €3
ANTWERP’S MODERN MUSEUMS
It is not only about the Baroque in Antwerp. Fashion plays a large part in the City’s economy and has the MoMu fashion museum which I didn’t get time to visit. Another place that I ran out of time to see but will return to see was the Red Star Line Museum which tells the story of the shipping line and the two million emigrants that it took to New York between 1873 and 1934. Back to what I did see MAS and DIVA.
Museum aan de Stroom or MAS is a rusty red cubist building that rises above the Bonapartdok and Willemdok. It is home to a museum that covers Antwerp’s history as a port and to temporary exhibitions. At present it has an excellent show featuring Michaelina Wautier, that rare thing a lady Baroque painter. Any visit to Antwerp should feature an assent of MAS. You can climb the up to the tenth floor via a series of escalators that has you circumnavigating the building enabling to take in the views of Antwerp from all sides, entry to top is free and open until midnight, should you want a picnic spot with a view this is place for you. If Michelin starred dining is more your scene, prime the credit card and book a table at ‘t Zilte on the 9th floor.
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Entry: €10 (Free last Wednesday of the month)
DIVA ANTWERP HOME OF DIAMONDS
DIVA tells the story of the diamonds and the diamond trade in Antwerp. You put on your audioguide and enter the world of Diva guided by her butler Jérome. He is an urbane host who takes you on a tour of treasures made of diamonds, the history of diamond trading in Antwerp and the world trade in diamonds via six sumptuous room sets. At the end you can either browse in a shop that will sell you real and fabulous diamond jewellery at a price or a more regular museum store.
- Open: Thursday – Tuesday 10am – 6pm (closed Wednesday)
- Admission: Adults €10, under 12 free
ANTWERP IS NOT JUST BAROQUE
Lots of people come to Antwerp to shop. Those with fashion knowledge will have heard of Dries van Noten (my mother wore Dries van Noten to my wedding), Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee – collectively known as the Antwerp Six who all graduated from Antwerp Univerisity and all have shops in the city. For those with fewer Euros in their wallets can shop in the magnificent Stadfeestzaal, which started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as an exhibition centre before becoming a temple to shopping.
Towering over the edge of the medieval city is the Art Deco Boerentoren designed by Jan Van Hoenacker. Not just any old tower block but the first skyscraper built in Europe. When it was completed in 1932 it was the tallest building on the continent and remained so for eight years.
Arriving at a big railway station is always exciting but arrival at Antwerp’s Centraal Station is jaw dropping. It is a palace of transport. Moasics crowd around. Even if you are not catching a train, do make time to visit the station.
When Antwerp Port Authority needed a new headquarters building they turned to Zaha Hadid to expand and convert an existing and listed Hanseatic house. Ever one to think outside the box, Zaha Hadid came up with the idea putting a shimmering diamond like construction on top of the original building. The result is a building the like of which I have never seen before, stunning. It is possible to go on tours of the building on Thursday evenings, Saturday and Sunday during the day for €10 but you need to pre book on the Port Authority website.
Antwerp, in common with many other cities, has a card. You pay and in return you get unlimited use of public transport, entry into 17 major museums (including all the ones that I visited) and a stash of vouchers giving discounts for bike hire, boat trips and coffee shops. You can buy the Antwerp card, valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours, from Visitor Centre on Grote Markt or the main train station or online.
- 24-hour Antwerp City Card costs €27
- 48-hour card costs €35
- 72-hour card costs €40
GETTING AROUND ANTWERP
If you are staying in a central hotel most places are within walking distance. I wore down quite a bit of shoe leather but did take a tram back from MAS to the centre and would cycle to see the Port Authority Building if I did it again.
If you plan on using the excellent tram system don’t rely on the tube style transport maps that come with most of the free city maps as you won’t know where to catch the lovely trams (or at least I didn’t). The Visitor Centre on Grote Markt has a map that shows exactly where the tram lines run, make sure you ask for it!
Everywhere you go in Antwerp you will see bicycles. If you whizzing along on two wheels there is city wide bike rental scheme Antwerpen Velo with lots of docking sites dotted around. You need to register first either online or at the Visitor Centre, access can be bought for one day (€4), one week (€10) or one year (€49), thereafter the first half hour use is included but you pay more after that. If you are doing lots of short hops and returning the bike to a docking site between each one it is is good option but if you plan a longer jaunt then a private hire bike might be a better option.
WHERE TO STAY IN ANTWERP
If you stay in the centre of Antwerp shopping, restaurants, bars and museums will all be within walking distance. I stayed in the Theater Hotel, just round the corner from the Rubens House and in the theatre district. Families might find the apartments at the Raddison Blu just opposite the train station attractive and if you have some extra Euros to splash the boutique hotel De Gulde Schoen has just opened up next to the Cathedral.
HOW TO GET TO ANTWERP
Catching the train from London to Antwerp is easy and takes about three hours. Hop on the Eurostar to Brussels, change trains at Brussels Midi for the one hour journey to Antwerp. Tickets cost from £34.50 one way.
You can fly direct to Antwerp from London City and London Southend. I confess that when I saw London Southend, I thought that is not a London airport but it turns out that it has a new rail link from Liverpool Street Station that takes about an hour, OK not so super fast but copious parking makes it an attractive East Anglian option. Buses run from the airport to the Centraal Station and take about 10 minutes.
PIN FOR LATER
My passion for Rubens was ignited in the Banqueting House in London where I reclined on beanbags whilst gazing up at Rubens Baroque Masterpiece. Meanwhile still in Belgium Bruges offers medieval art and architecture in abundance and the Belgian Coast has fine sculpture dotted all over.
Disclosure: My visit to Antwerp was funded by Visit Flanders, all opinions are my own.