We arrived at our hotel in a cold night of January after an intensive day visiting Brussels. We were staying in the city only for the weekend but the Belgian charm had taken us and we wanted to see a bit more of the country before leaving. Our flight departed the following day in the afternoon, so we had sufficient time to go somewhere from Brussels. We thought about potential destinations and found out that Antwerp was quite well connected with the Zaventem airport. We had not planned to visit Antwerp in that trip, but Google told us that there were certain hotspots there. So the next day, under a light morning snow, we walked to the train station and bought our tickets to Antwerp, where we arrived shortly.
We did not even have to leave the train station to get impressed by Antwerp. We found so much beauty inside Antwerpen-Centraal, the main railway station in the city, built between 1895 and 1905 and mostly designed by the Bruges architect Louis Delacenserie. After our visit we knew that Antwerpen-Centraal was regarded as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. And we got there by chance!
Then, we left the station and start walking through the streets of Antwerp towards the city centre. And there we found it, like a giant ruling the typical Belgian buildings of the city: the impressive Cathedral of Our Lady.
The Cathedral was built between 1352 and 1521, in the Gothic style. The plan was to construct two towers of equal height. However, the construction of the second tower was postponed and therefore the Cathedral remains unfinished. But it doesn’t matter: the single tower is the highest church tower in the Benelux, with 123 metres high. The Cathedral itself is like a museum: it contains some works by the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, among other artists. We decided to visit the inside of the Cathedral first thing in the afternoon and continued our walk through the city.
Thus we moved to the Grote Markt, the square where Antwerp City Hall is located. This is a Renaissance building constructed between 1561 and 1565, with Flemish and Italian influences. Both the City Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady are registered in the UNESCO’s World Heritage list along with the Belfries of Belgium and France. This is a group of 56 historical buildings located in historic Flanders and the Duchy of Burgundy that were recognised as an architectural manifestation of emerging civic independence from feudal and religious influences. However, certain church towers (such as the one of the Antwerp Cathedral) were included in the list as they had served as watchtowers or alarm bell towers.
In the Grote Markt, as from 1887, you can also find the extraordinary Brabo Fountain, sculpted by the local artist Jef Lambeaux. This fountain is inspired by a legend on the etymology of the city’s name: they say that the name “Antwerpen” is derived from the act of Brabo throwing the hand (“handwerpen” in Flemish) of the Druon Antigoon giant. The legend tells that the giant guarded a bridge on the river Scheldt when Antwerp was a small settlement in the Roman Empire and exacted a toll from every ship crossing the river. If a sailor refused to pay the toll, he cut off one of his hands and threw it into the river. But once, a young Roman soldier named Brabo managed to cut off the giant’s own hand and throw it to the river Scheldt as the giant did. That’s the scene represented by the sculpture. The hand symbolizes the free waterway of Antwerp, which was essential for the city’s survival.
And we walked towards the scenery of Brabo’s achievement, the river Scheldt, where we found the Steen Castle (“Hetsteen”), the first stone fortress of Antwerp located in the east bank of the river. This medieval fortress was built in the early Middle Ages after the Viking incursions and used to be the oldest urban centre of Antwerp. It was rebuilt around 1520 and was used as a prison between 1303 and 1827. In front of the fortress visitors can see a giant statue of Lange Wapper, a Flemish folkloric character which terrified the inhabitants of the city.
We went back to the Cathedral’s area and, after lunch, we entered the church to enjoy some masterpieces by Rubens that attract lots of visitors to the temple: “The Elevation of the Cross”, “The Descent from the Cross”, “The Resurrection of Christ” and the “Assumption of the Virgin Mary”. But afterwards it was time to go back to the train station and finalize our improvised visit to the amazing Antwerp and a country, Belgium, to which we hope to return soon.