Why You'll Love Antwerp
Posted by Mary-Frances Walsh
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Antwerp, Belgium, Museums, Travel
When Tauck’s riverboat docks alongside an Antwerp quay this spring, guests traveling on our Holland and Belgium in Spring cruise can take an easy stroll over to visit Antwerp’s historic district; if you are among them, you’re in for a Belgian treat.
This port city on the River Scheldt was shaped through time by its role as a mover of goods and people. As early as the 12th century, Antwerp flourished as a producer of fine woolens, cloth and art, shipped out over the River Scheldt to France, Spain, Portugal and England. In the late 1800s the city’s industrial and shipping might grew exponentially under Napoleon, who expanded Antwerp’s port facilities to create a center for long-haul trade with Asia and Africa. Antwerp today is a modern seaport, a central European hub that remains well-connected by rail to the disparate corners of Europe.
Nonetheless, Antwerp remains a city with an intimate feel. It’s said to be impossible to get lost here and that you can walk or bike from one side of the city to another. You’ll feel this intimacy as you walk the historic district; it’s a bit like stepping into a scene in a Flemish old master’s painting. Cobblestoned lanes lead to interesting turns and bends, past quiet squares and beneath corner carvings of religious figures or shipping-related images that date back to medieval times. The streets are lined with inviting restaurants, cafés and bier pubs, petite chocolateries and designer clothing shops.
All paths here seem to lead to the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s triangular-shaped central square. It’s surrounded by rows of ornate guild halls, a flamboyant Town Hall completed in 1564, and the Gothic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady). Nearly 170 years in the making, her delicately carved spire towers some 400 feet high above the square; you’ll see it peeking over the rooftops at many a turn in the historic district. En route to the cathedral, you may well pass by the Museum Plantin-Moretus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site housed in a medieval-era building; inside are the world’s oldest printing presses, many of the world’s oldest books, and 19 portraits by native-born Peter Paul Rubens.
Just north of the historic district is Eilandje, a riverside area of warehouses undergoing retransformation as restaurants, theatres and loft-style living spaces. Rising above them – not unlike the cathedral over the historic district – is the contemporary 10-story MAS museum, an architecturally acclaimed building designed as a series of vertical blocks. Each floor houses a themed-collection of works that tell the story of Antwerp, ranging from Flemish masters’ paintings to contemporary video installations.
Eilandje is also home to the new Red Star Line Museum – called one of the “hottest museums of 2014” by the Huffington Post – and an included experience for Tauck guests. Its focus is on the universal experience of migration; individual and family stories are touchingly told through photographs, historic videos, recorded interviews, and the personal belongings of emigrants who traveled with the Red Line shipping company between Europe and North America, 1873 -1934. In this time period, two million men, women and children made their way across the Atlantic – departing from the very quays of Antwerp where Tauck’s riverboat docks today.
Most had first traveled across Europe to Antwerp, made reachable by its excellent train connections; many sought an escape from poverty in Eastern Europe or from persecution in pre-Nazi Germany. Some were turned away after screening for medical reasons, as the shipping company was held responsible for returning any passengers rejected at ports across the Atlantic, like Ellis Island. Some traveled onboard in first-class style, enjoying fine dining, evening musical entertainment and silver-spoon service.
Illustrative exhibits tell the stories of those who steamed across the ocean in both first and second class and the heart-wrenching tales of families separated when loved ones (including children) were forced to stay behind for health reasons. Red Star Line passengers included a Russian five-year-old boy who grew up in America to become known as the composer, Irving Berlin – and Albert Einstein, a regular guest.
Two final experiences that should not be missed on a visit to Antwerp include a glimpse of the city’s splendid central railway station (its restored lobby and glass-topped train platforms were saved from demolition in 1975) and a sampling of Belgian beers and frites (“French” fries). As a Tauck guest, you can be certain to have an opportunity to try the pleasures of both.