Antwerp's Many Facets, From Diamonds to Rubens

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Reed Travel Features

ANTWERP, Belgium -- Belgium's largest city, steeped in history, center for the world's diamond trade and home to artist Peter Paul Rubens, has yet to capture the attention of visitors in the same way as Brussels, Bruges or Ghent. But after spending only one day getting acquainted with this city on the River Scheldt, it was apparent to me that Antwerp is as multifaceted as the gems that pass through it. image

For example, the city's Central Station, which dates to 1895, is called a railway cathedral because it looks so much like a church from the outside. A 20-minute walk from the station, past clothing store chains and fast-food restaurants, brings you to the heart of the old city, the Handschoenmarkt (Glove Market). Visitors who only have a day would do well to spend most of it in the old city.

Rising 400 feet above the market is the Cathedral of Our Lady, whose origin as a chapel traces to the 12th century. Work started on the cathedral early in the 14th century, and it was completed more than 150 years later. The cathedral houses works by Rubens, the city's most famous resident, and is also known for its stained-glass windows, some of which date to the 16th and 17th centuries. That the windows have survived is something of a miracle considering the structure was pillaged with the arrival of Protestantism in the 1500s and during the French occupation in the late 1700s.

During the summer, the cathedral provides a backdrop for various street performers.

Visitors can enjoy the entertainment or gaze at the delicate lines of the soaring 400-foot tower while dining on mussels, chips and local beer in one of the many cafes that hug Handschoenmarkt Square.

Although 60% of the population speaks Dutch, Belgium like Switzerland, is united (and sometimes divided) by three languages: Dutch, French and German, and that blend of cultures is not lost on Antwerp, which has a distinct cosmopolitan flavor that is best sampled in its cafes and bars.

Steps away from the cathedral is the Grote Markt (Market Square), where the stately marble facade of the Stadhuis (town hall) is flanked by other Renaissance guild houses. Many of these buildings, which were built around the mid-l6th century, were restored or reconstructed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The square is not as striking as Brussels' Grand Place or as majestic as the Gothic Burg Square in Bruges, but after spending a few days bumping into other camera-toting visitors in Grand Place and running up against crowds of tourists in Bruges, it was refreshing to be able to share the Grote Markt, and the rest of the city, with people who actually lived there.

In the center of the Grote Markt stands a fountain adorned with the statue of Brabo, the Roman soldier who slew the giant Druoon Antigoon. As the story goes, the giant stood guard at the bend in the Scheldt and levied a heavy toll on every passing ship. Any shipmaster who didn't pay had his hand cut off. Brabo came to the ships' defense, killed the giant and cut off one of his hands. The statue depicts Brabo throwing the hand into the river. As a result, the name "Antwerp" is said to derive from handwerpen or hand throwing.

According to historians, the origin of the name actually dates to the second or third centuries when a Gallo-Roman settlement developed on an alluvial deposit, or aanwerp, that protruded into the Scheldt.

A short walk from the Grote Markt takes visitors to one of the busiest ports in the world. Although Antwerp is home to many industries, it is best known as the center of the diamond industry, and city officials claim that more than 70% of the world's diamonds are cut, polished and traded here. Visitors interested in seeing diamonds or learning about their mining and processing will enjoy a visit to the Diamond Museum.

For those who prefer fine art, Antwerp's museums exhibit works by Van Dyck, Jordaens, Brueghel, Plantijn and, of course, Rubens. Although Rubens was born in Germany, his parents were from Antwerp and he spent most of his life in the city. A guide to exhibits of Rubens' paintings is available from the tourist office on the Grote Markt, and his house should be on any visitor's list. Built between 1611 and 1627, the home was in ruins when it underwent a major restoration and opened as a museum in 1946.

On display are several works by Rubens as well as paintings by other artists and furniture from the period. The house is reminiscent of an Italian palazzo -- an Italian Renaissance garden in the courtyard was designed by Rubens -- and is a wonderful example of the grandeur that characterized Antwerp during the 16th and 17th centuries.

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FAST FACTS

  • City: Antwerp.
  • Location: Province of Antwerp, 23 miles north of Brussels.
  • Population: 462,000.
  • Distance from Brussels by car: 30 minutes.
  • Distance from Brussels by train: 40 minutes.
  • Tourist offices: Antwerp Tourist Office, 15 Grote Markt.
  • Phone: (011) 32 32 320-103.
  • Fax: (011) 32 32 311-937.
  • The Belgian Tourist Office in New York.
  • Phone: (212) 758-8130.
  • Fax: (212) 355-7675.
  • Web site: www.visitbelgium.com.
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