Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has been off on his travels once again. Having caught the travel bug on his trip to Amsterdam in 2018, Simeon could not wait to go on another trip abroad. This March, our fluffy little friend braved the Eurostar for his second holiday on foreign soil and he is eager to tell you all about it. So, here it is, Simeon’s review of a city like no other: Antwerp.
Antwerp is a city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. Also known as Anvers in French, it is the most populous city in the country and lies approximately 25 miles north of the capital city Brussels. Situated on the River Scheldt, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking second in Europe, Rotterdam in the Netherlands coming first.
Having travelled over 200 miles via Eurostar and train, Simeon got his first glimpse of Antwerp after emerging from the Premetro at the Groenplaats. The Groenplaats or ‘Green Place’ is one of Antwerp’s most prominent squares located in the heart of the city’s historic district. Ironically, there is nothing green about the cobblestoned square on top of an underground car park surrounded by cafes. The name stems from the cemetery that stood on the site until the 18th-century when Emperor Joseph II (1741-90) abolished cemeteries inside the city walls.
For Simeon, the first glimpse of Antwerp was rather overwhelming, having emerged from the underground to a world surrounded by Baroque buildings, an impressive cathedral and a Hilton hotel. In all the excitement, our little friend almost missed the bronze statue of Antwerp’s famous painter standing in the centre!
In 1843, a crucifix that once stood in the Groenplaats was replaced by a statue of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who lived in Antwerp from 1587 until his death in 1640. By far the most celebrated artist in the city, the statue was commissioned in 1840 in honour of the bicentennial of Rubens’ death. The sculptor, Willem Geefs (1805-83), depicted the bearded artist standing with his paint palette and distinguished hat at his feet. Although some critics complained that the statue appeared to be discarding his artistic emblems on the floor, Geefs’ intention was for Rubens to be remembered as a human being rather than the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition.
Rubens is not the only notable statue in the city; around the corner in the Grote Markt with its back to the Stadhuis van Antwerpen (city hall) is the Brabofontein, which tells a legendary tale from the Middle Ages. Simeon, a lover of fairytales, was enchanted to discover the story behind the intriguing statue.
Once upon a time, let’s say 2000 years ago, Antwerp was only a small settlement in the Roman empire, however, it was under threat from a huge giant of Russian descent. (Cue Simeon gasping) Druon Antigoon, as he was called, had built a large castle along the River Scheldt and was demanding a toll from every ship that wanted to pass by. Unfortunately, not everyone was rich enough or willing to hand over half of their cargo, which angered the giant. As a punishment, Druon Antigoon cut off the hands of sailors who refused to pay and threw them into the river. (Cue Simeon quaking in fear)
One day, a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo was sailing along the river when he came upon the giant’s fortress. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Italian man,” shouted Druon Antigoon. (Simeon added that bit) Just as he had done with all the previous sailors, the giant demanded Brabo to give him half of the ship’s cargo. Brabo refused but before the giant could chop off his hands, Brabo challenged him to duel. (Cue Simeon’s hair standing on end)
Brabo rushed at Druon Antigoon with his sword held high, (Cue Simeon covering his eyes) and just like in the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll the vorpal blade went snicker-snack! Brabo chopped off the giant’s head and hand and threw them both into the river for good measure. Thus, Antwerp was saved from the giant and they all lived happily ever after. (Cue Simeon cheering)
Regardless of the accuracy of this myth – who knows, there could be an element of truth – according to Dutch etymology, the city’s name Antwerpen was derived from this event. The name is made up of two Flemish words: (h)ant” (hand) and “werpen” (launch), which allude to Brabo throwing Druon Antigoon’s hand into the river. Other etymologists, or spoilsports as Simeon calls them, maintain that Antwerp is a combination of “anda” (at) and “werpum” (wharf), regarding its location on the River Scheldt.
The legend of Brabo is very symbolic in Antwerp, particularly after the temporary downfall of the city in the 18th-century. In 1585, Dutch authorities closed the River Scheldt, requiring a toll from any passing boat. As a result, the city began to diminish in size until it lost its status as one of the world’s largest and most powerful cities. Recalling the legend of Brabo and the giant, the Dutch finally stopped demanding tolls in 1863 and the city began to grow once more.
As a reminder of the near ruin of the city, local sculptor Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) presented the city council with a design for a new fountain celebrating the reopening of the river. The fountain portrays Brabo throwing the giant’s hand in the river. Brabo stands on top of a column decorated with water spouting sea animals, mermaids and a dragon-like monster. Druon Antigoon’s body and head lie at the bottom.
The fountain was inaugurated in 1887 and is turned on every summer with water spurting out from the various elements of the statue. Since it was March, the fountain was not in operation, which was just as well because Simeon had found a comfy place to sit on the rocks surrounding the base of the fountain!
Simeon’s favourite statue in Antwerp is a fairly recent addition. Titled Nello and Patrasche, a sculpture of a boy and a dog lying on the ground partially covered by a blanket of cobblestones can be found on Handschoenmarkt, in front of the cathedral. Designed by Batist Vermeulen (‘Tist’), the boy and dog appear to be sleeping, or at least that is what Simeon thinks. The characters come from the 1872 novel A Dog of Flanders by the English author Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908) under the pseudonym Ouida. The story, despite being popular in Antwerp at Christmas time, is rather sad and not for the likes of tender-hearted gibbons, so cover your ears, Simeon!
“One day, Nello and Jehan Daas find a dog who was almost beaten to death, and name him Patrasche. Due to the good care of Jehan Daas, the dog recovers, and from then on, Nello and Patrasche are inseparable. Since they are very poor, Nello has to help his grandfather by selling milk. Patrasche helps Nello pull their cart into town each morning.
Nello falls in love with Aloise, the daughter of Nicholas Cogez, a well-off man in the village, but Nicholas doesn’t want his daughter to have a poor sweetheart. Although Nello is illiterate, he is very talented in drawing. He enters a junior drawing contest in Antwerp, hoping to win the first prize, 200 francs per year. However, the jury selects somebody else.
Afterwards, he is accused of causing a fire by Nicholas (the fire occurred on his property) and his grandfather dies. His life becomes even more desperate. Having no place to stay, Nello wishes to go to the cathedral of Antwerp (to see Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent of the Cross), but the exhibition held inside the building is only for paying customers and he’s out of money. On the night of Christmas Eve, he and Patrasche go to Antwerp and, by chance, find the door to the church open. The next morning, the boy and his dog are found frozen to death in front of the triptych.”
On a happier note, the statue is popular with tourists and is a favourite destination for selfie-takers.
Simeon saw all three of these statues on his first tour of the city, however, during his four-night stay, he packed in so many of Antwerp’s other great attractions. Antwerp, particularly the Old Town, is full of museums that explore an extensive history of the city, culture and inhabitants. Of this large number of places to visit, Simeon would like to recommend three museums in particular. The first on his list is the home-turned-museum/gallery of Antwerp’s most famous resident, Rubens.
My dear friend Rubens,
Would you be so good as to admit the bearer of this letter to the wonders of your home: your paintings, the marble sculptures, and the other works of art in your house and studio? It will be a great delight for him.
Your dear friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresac, 16th August 1626
In a street named Wapper, Rubenshuis (The Rubens’ House) is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except on Monday, for a fee of €10 per adult. This is the house Peter Paul Rubens bought in 1610 with his first wife Isabella Brant (1591-1626), where he lived and worked until his death in 1640. Originally, the building was not as large as it is today, however, Rubens designed and enlarged sections, adding a studio, portico and a garden pavilion. Unfortunately, the garden and courtyard are undergoing restoration work and will not be open to the public until 2028.
Initially a typical Antwerpen house, Rubens developed it into a building that resembled an Italian palazzo. Not only was it an unparalleled home, but it was also the perfect location for Rubens’ internationally admired collection of paintings and classical sculpture. Despite the current renovations, the building retains its original mid-17th-century appearance, however, only a fraction of Rubens’ accumulation of art remains, the rest has been dispersed to museums and galleries throughout the world.
Disappointingly, very little is explained about Rubens’ day to day life in the house and the majority of artworks are by his contemporaries rather than himself. Nonetheless, there is a copy of the portrait Rubens produced of his second wife Helena Fourment (1614-73) whom he married when she was only sixteen. There is also one of Rubens’ four self-portraits, which he painted around the same time he married Helena, aged 53.
Simeon particularly enjoyed seeing Singerie, an oil painting by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). It shows a group of monkeys dressed in clothes mimicking human behaviour. Brueghel was a good friend of Rubens, which is probably how this painting came to be in his possession.
Simeon’s advice: Pick up a free guide book at the ticket desk, which provides you with detailed information about the highlights in each room.
Through labour and perseverance.
– Plantin’s motto
With rooms set out as they may have been 400 years ago, the Museum Plantin-Moretus reveals the lives of the Plantin-Moretus family and the printing press Christophe Plantin (1520-89) and Jan Moretus (1543-1610) set up in the mid-16th-century. Now a Unesco world heritage site, for €8 visitors can experience the building’s creaking oak planks and panels, see an impressive collection of books and art, and the oldest printing presses in the world.
Christophe Plantin was a bookbinder from France who published his first book in 1555. In 1576, Plantin relocated his family and printing works to the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, converting the house into a beautiful mansion. Here, he also set up his printing office, the Officina Plantiniana, which quickly became an international publishing firm and ranked among the top of Europe’s industrial leaders.
In the heart of the mansion is the old printing shop, which was first used in 1580 until its last owner, Edward Moretus, sold the house to the City of Antwerp in 1876. The museum contains the two oldest printing presses in the world, dating from around 1600 and six other presses that are still in working order. Thousands of tiny lead type can be seen in wooden type cases, which, as Simeon learnt, were assembled in reverse on a chase before being put on the press.
Simeon’s advice: The museum takes approximately two hours to see in full. For those in a rush, by following the highlights on the map provided, it is possible to limit your visit to one hour. The entry bracelet allows visitors to come in and out of the museum throughout the day, so feel free to take a coffee break.
“A surprising museum in the heart of Antwerp”
Rubens was not the only artist and art collector to live in Antwerp. On Keizerstraat sits the houses of two key figures during the Baroque era, which have been combined to create the Snijders&Rockoxhuis, a museum open to the public every day except Mondays. Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), the burgemeester (mayor), and Frans Snijders (1579-1657), a painter of still life and animals, were next door neighbours for twenty years. Carefully restored and containing a number of artworks by Snijder and his contemporaries, the museum provides an insight into domestic environments of the 17th-century.
Nicolaas Rockox and his wife Adriana Perez both lived on Keizerstraat before they were married and remained in Adriana’s family home for a short while after their wedding. Eventually, they jointly purchased their beautiful house, known as Den Gulden Rinck, where they remained for the rest of their lives. After Rockox’s death, his nephew Adriaan van Heetvelde inherited the house with the condition that when there were no further heirs, it was to be sold on behalf of the poor. After changing hands numerous times, it was purchased by the non-profit association Artiestenfonds and converted into a museum of ‘neo’ or revival styles of art. Today, the museum is owned by KBC who are endeavouring to preserve the Flemish cultural heritage and have restored both houses to their original interior.
Visitors are provided with an iPad to take with them around the museum, which provides both an audio and visual guide. The audio guide describes the lives of Rockox and Snijders whilst the iPad contributes additional information about every artwork and object in the house. Simeon enjoyed learning about his favourite paintings in more detail and looking at the musical instruments on the top floor.
Simeon’s advice: All the information found on the iPads can be downloaded from their website to read later.
A little known fact about Simeon is that he thinks he is an aficionado of beautiful buildings, particularly churches (really he’s just a fan). Antwerp during the 17th-century was shaped by a large number of churches, however, during French Revolutionary rule, all but five monumental churches were destroyed. Fortunately, this was plenty enough to satiate Simeon’s intense desire to explore and he was able to visit four plus one of the newer churches.
Unmissable from nearly every section of Antwerp’s Old Town is the enormous Roman Catholic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) whose 400 ft steeple towers over the surrounding buildings. It took labourers 169 years (1352-1521) to build the tallest cathedral in the Low Countries, comprising of a short and long tower, seven naves and numerous buttresses. The interior, however, is but a shadow of its 16th-century opulence having suffered a fire in 1533 and various destruction during the “Iconoclastic Fury” (1566) and Calvinist “purification” (1581-1585). Initially, on every pillar was a decorated altarpiece, however, only a handful survived.
Thanks to the aid of Archduke Albert (1559-1621), the Infanta Isabella (1566-1633) and the Counter-Reformation, glory was restored to the cathedral and Rubens was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox to paint a new altarpiece, Descent from the Cross (1611-14), which can still be seen in place today. The triptych depicts three Biblical scenes: the expectant Virgin Mary, Christ being lowered from the cross, and the elderly Simeon (not the gibbon) in the Temple.
Other works by Rubens can also be found in the cathedral, for instance, Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) and Assumption of the Virgin (1625-26). Statues are also prevalent in the building, including two life-size limestone statues of Saints Peter and Paul designed by Johannes van Mildert (1588-1638) and a contemporary statue of burnished bronze, The Man Who Bears the Cross, which Jan Fabre (b.1958) produced in 2015. For a fee of €6, all this and more can be admired by the public.
On the outskirts of the Old Town, just off the Mechelspleintje (Mechelen square) is the Neo-Gothic Sint-Joris Kerk (the Church of St George). Built in 1853, the church was a replacement for its 13th-century predecessor that had been destroyed by the French in 1798. Despite being tiny in comparison to the cathedral, the architect included two impressive towers approximately 50 metres in height, and a statue of Saint George on a triangular pediment.
The interior of the church was mostly the work of Godfried Guffens (1823-1901) and Jan Swert (1820-79) who spent thirty years or so lavishly decorating the church with mural paintings. Mostly images of Jesus suffering on the cross, these symbolically represent the fight and hardships of the churches in Antwerp during the French Revolution.
Simeon was most impressed with the large Merklin organ dated 1867, which has three keyboards and 1208 pipes. Although Simeon was not able to hear it played, it reportedly has beautiful acoustics and remains to be one of the best-preserved concert instruments in the city. The organ sits in front of a large stained glass window, looked down upon by two musical saints, Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians and Saint Gregory.
Located on the Hendrik Conscience square opposite the Erfgoedbibliotheek (Heritage Library) is the most important Baroque church in the Low Countries, Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk (St Charles Borromeo’s Church). Consecrated in 1621, the church is a result of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit Order, and Antwerp’s number one painter, Rubens. The artist made considerable contributions to the facade, including the coat of arms featuring the “IHS” emblem of the Jesuits, and filled the interior with 39 ceiling paintings and three altarpieces.
Alas, a fire in 1718 destroyed the original ceiling and the altarpieces were moved to the Habsburg imperial collection in Vienna. Today, a smaller altarpiece by Rubens, Return of the Holy Family, commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox is one of the highlights inside the church.
Simeon’s favourite part of the church was the balcony from which he could look down upon the main body and altar. Two small altars can be found at either end of the balcony and, in the middle, visitors get a close up look of the huge organ.
Sint-Jacobskerk (St James’s Church) on Lange Nieuwstraat is the place to go for fans of Rubens. Only a short walk from Rubens’ house, St James’s was his parish church, which he began attending before the building was completed. The first stone of the Gothic church was laid in 1491 and the last some 150 years later. Today, the church is undergoing renovations, so to Simeon, it still did not look complete!
As was the fate of all churches in the area, the interior of the church was destroyed by Calvinist iconoclasts in 1566 but, fortunately, Baroque decorations were found to replace the majority of the damaged altars. The high altar was sculpted in marble and wood by at least four artists and is thought to cost as much as 17,874 guilders, which was roughly seventy times the annual wage of a master craftsman.
Being Rubens’ parish church, Sint-Jacobskerk is home to his resting place. One of the small, fairly modest chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains Rubens’ remains which lie under an altarpiece produced by his own hand. Rubens, a rather modest man himself, was offered the chapel as his burial ground whilst he was on his death bed. Rather than accepting the generous offer, he replied that he would only be buried there if his family believed he was worthy of such an honour. Naturally, his grave is now the biggest attraction at St James’s and there is a small fee required to gain entry to the church.
The final church Simeon visited was Sint Pauluskerk (St Paul’s Church) a former Dominican church on the corner of Veemarkt and Zwartzustersstraat. Originally part of a large Dominican abbey, the church has a number of Baroque altars, over 200 statues and 50 paintings by artists such as Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).
Rubens was commissioned by the Dominicans to paint three large altarpieces and one of the fifteen paintings that make up the Rosary Cycle, Flagellation of Christ. Unfortunately, since the church building was not completed until 1634, Rubens never got to see his work in place because the altarpieces took many more years to finish and were, therefore, installed long after his death.
Visitors are welcome to view the treasures belonging to the church, including a number of reliquaries, chalices, ceremonial robes, sculptures and ornaments. One reliquary is said to contain a thorn from the crown Jesus wore at his crucifixion.
There are, of course, so many more places to visit in Antwerp but there is only so much a small gibbon can pack into a short trip. Buildings, such as Antwerpen-Centraal railway station, are worth admiring for their architecture. There is also the River Scheldt to walk along where you can see stunning sunsets in the evenings. Next to the station is Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world, established on 21st July 1843, which Simeon did not visit for fear they would not let him back out again!
Of course, you cannot go to Belgium without sampling some chocolate and Antwerp has a great number of chocolate shops. Simeon’s favourite was Elisa Pralines in the Grote Markt, which sells hundreds of handmade chocolates. They also sell Antwerpen specialities, such as Antwerpse Handjes, which are biscuits in the shape of little hands.
Another Antwerpen speciality is Tripel D’anvers, a Belgian beer made in Antwerp that is “bold, generous and [has] plenty of attitude.” Simeon suggests ordering this in Antwerp’s oldest pub Quinten Matsijs, which is 450 years old. Named after the Flemish painter (1466–1530), the building dates from 1565 and has been the hangout of many Flemish writers, painters and poets. As well as beer, they serve Gezoden worst, an Antwerp speciality of boiled pork sausages with fine herbs, served in bouillon.
While in Antwerp, Simeon was never far away from a cafe or restaurant. There is something to suit every person and mealtime. For cakes and chocolate products, Simeon suggests Sofie Sucrée and for a light bite while museum visiting, Rubens Inn, which is located next to Rubenshuis. For those wishing to be waited upon, there is the t’ Hof van Eden (literally the Garden of Eden) on the Groenplaats, which has an extensive menu. For quick bites or “fast food”, Simeon recommends JACK Premium Burgers established by Jilles “Jack” D’Hulster who wanted to “do a simple thing well, and do it properly.” Alternatively, pop into Panos, which launched its famous sausage roll in 1982. And, for those who are sceptical about trying “foreign” food, there’s always a McDonalds or Starbucks around the corner.
Having exhausted himself by sharing all his memories of Antwerp, Simeon bids you farewell and bon voyage or Goede reis, and leaves you with his top tips.
Simeon’s Top Tips
1. Check museum opening times before you visit. Most museums are not open on Mondays.
2. Be quiet in the churches. Some people have come to pray and do not wish to be disturbed by noisy tourists.
3. Save money and walk. Although there is a tram system, everything in the Old Town is within walking distance.
4. Take a raincoat. Particularly if you are travelling in March.
5. Pace yourself. There is so much to see and you need time to take it all in.
6. Try some Antwerp/Belgium delicacies. There’s more than chocolates, biscuits, waffles and beer.
7. Do not eat too much chocolate. Seriously, it will not make your tummy feel good.
8. Do not cross the road on a red light. They do not like you doing that over there.
9. Do not fall into the river. It is deep and you will get wet.
10. No need to learn French. They speak Flemish Dutch in Antwerp.