OK, let’s make a beer-touristic trip trough the old town of Antwerp (first part)

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19/03/2013 di movimentobirra

The Bolleke, Antwerp's beer symbol

The Bolleke, Antwerp’s beer symbol

We start – for obvious reasons, at the station Antwerpen-Centraal. Recently totally renewed, the old historical part remains a truly superb building, and no place better to observe it as in the central ticket hall. For the little history, part of the funds used are supposed to have come from the international refunds China had to pay after the end of the Boxer-rising, but I have some doubt about the veracity of this urban legend. If you come from the tracks, and face the ticket-boots, the main entrance is behind the ticket-salespoint, but the square behind it, Astridplein, is still an eyesore, even after its recent “refurbishment”. For your info, on the other side of the square begins the “Chinese quarter” – to an American a huge word for a couple of Chinese and Thai supermarkets and restaurants – whilst on your right hand, a dead end is furnished by a great gate, the entrance of the world-famous Zoo. Unfortunately, when it was build, both station and zoo were in the middle of nowhere. Today, they’re cramped in a seriously busy town…

Better to take the exit on your left hand, which gives on the central Antwerpen road, connecting the “new centre” to the old town. Called De Keyserlei, it was once a showcase, but the years have taken their toll, and I find it rather sad. Again worthy of interest, to your left there, starts the Jewish quarter – in Antwerpen better known as the diamond quarter. Antwerpen is still a world centre for diamond trade, and “Jewish quarter” is not an Antwerpener exaggeration, as the Chassidim (strictly religious Jews) community in Antwerpen is only bested by that of New York, anywhere outside Israel. Oh, and in the little shops in & around the station and beyond, you find everything golden and diamond you can imagine. Beware, some of the streets are under permanent surveillance with machinegun-armed coppers and CCTV galore…

The right hand side of De Keyserlei is of lesser interest, unless you’re hungry. In the streets behind the movie halls, there’s a truly amazing selection of ethnic restaurants, a bit from all over the globe. Some of them indeed very good, others… more basic. There’s also a Russian shop, Matrjoshka, where sometimes beers from Lithuania, Georgia or Armenia have been found, as well as the classical Baltika’s from St. Petersburg.

click to enlargeBut we go on, until, at the end of Keyserlei, we cross the “Leien“, actually a ringway avant-la-lettre. Underneath, there’s a metrostation, and it might be interesting to cross underground, only to come up via the escalator at Leysstraat (more a square in reality, than a street) and have a literally mounting look at the buildings on both corners of Leysstraat, showing best how Antwerpen must have looked at the turn of the 19th century, as they are more or less contemporary with the station, and everything in between was then plain field. They look great, IMO, even if it can be called kitsch.

You go straight on, walking on a pedestrian road to a round point, where Antoon van Dijck (in England “sir Anthony van Dyck“) is on a huge pedestal. You go on, following the main Antwerpener shopping street, called Meir. It makes a gentle curve, with in the “armpit” of the curve the former city exhibit hall, now a grandiose shopping mall. Well, grandiose, opinions are divided, but I must confess to take to it. The second opening on your left, is called Wapper. This street is rather broad, with a fountain and greenery behind. You turn into Wapper, and halfway, on your left, is the Rubenshuis. IMO, if you visit nothing else, visit this. It is the former house and workshop of the famous baroque painter Pieter Pauwel Rubens, and nothing compares to it, to get an impression from Antwerpens’ Golden Age, the 17th century. Unless you’re there on Monday, because the only thing of interest opened on Mondays in Antwerpen are pubs. Rest is shut.

Buy your tickets in the permanent, hyper-modern stall in the middle of Wapper, BTW. After your visit, you’re thirsty. Exit Rubenshuis going on, following the same direction you came (= turn left on exiting), and cross one small street (BTW, take a look at that street to your right. This is “Schuttershofstraat“, and the groundprices there are nowhere higher in Antwerpen. Exclusive shops come and go – but even for the main producers of foie gras in France, this street was too expensive. Apart from a Mediterranean delicatessen, all foodshops are gone.) But you want a beer, and you’ll find it at Oud-Arsenaal, a couple of bars past the corner on your right hand side. NOT open on Thursdays! Excellent beerchoice, let your choice be determined by one of the blackboards. Beware, if you’re averse to cigarettesmoke (*), however.  If you’re really hungry, an option is on the left hand-side corner of Maria Pijpelincksstraat, Grand Café Horta. Owned by Palm Breweries, this restaurant often has unfiltered Palm or Boon lambic on handpump, but its main interest is food. Expensive food…

Horta designed this as the Volkshuis for Brussels. Brussels destroyed it, but parts were recovered by a consortium, aided by Palm, and now enrich this superb place, showcase of Art Nouveau. But I first wanted to point you to Oud Arsenaal, as, if you have to look at Horta’s piece, you cannot avoid to look at the Theater building behind it. “Designed” (if that word could be used…) in the sixties-seventies, this must rank amongst Europe’s most insanely ugly buildings. Less important, but good to know, if you would follow your steps from Oud Arsenaal onwards, a couple of decametres to the right is a small square. At the end of the square, the old opera – a jewel… for contrast. Oh, and on the right side of this square are a couple of restaurants and one special pub: De Duifkens (the Pigeons), where you’ll find the beau-monde of artists, actors, operasingers from Antwerpen… And the “bollekens” De Koninck on draught are always top. The square behind the horrible theatre, left, houses on Saturday the “strangers- market”: the best place to buy fresh coriander, hot Vietnamese springrolls, handmade pasta, halal mutton or olives on 100 different ways. Only Saturday, unfortunately.

So, we’ve had our drink @Pijpelincksstraat/Graanmarkt, and we retrace our steps to the Rubenshuis, and further until we reach Meir again. I suggest you halt for a moment, and contemplate the building on your left hand side. The building itself is right on the corner from Meir (where the entrance is), behind (on Wapper), there’s a garden and finally a backpart. The main building is the former royal residence. Inside, not much is left, but the building itself is a nice classical building. The former Be king (Baudouin) left it to the town of Antwerpen, but the probable next king took the furniture with him. Since thinking is not his forte, I wouldn’t be surprised he thought it normal – but that’s only my opinion.

Saint George and the Dragon, by Anthony van Dyck, Church of St. Jacobs

Saint George and the Dragon, by Anthony van Dyck, Church of St. Jacobs

Turn to your right and diagonally across Meir, there’s a small street. The cornerhouse is in the same style as the royal residence, but even nicer. This is called Osterrieth-house, and was a project from the former director of the bank “van Parijs en de Nederlanden“, now a part of the BNP group. He furbished it with art and extraordinary paintings; including two originals by Rubens. Where they are now, is anybody’s guess. The little street just in front of it, Eikenstraat, is the one you need. You go to its end, and arrive this way on the side entrance of the St. Jacobschurch This is the first one of the five main historic churches. It is pure gothic, and hence, it never was ended as intended. It ought to have become the largest gothic church in the world, but by the time the money ran out, Renaissance had come and gone, and other churches were already Baroque! It is still a beautiful building, anyway, and it contains the tomb of Rubens, some painting by him, and it’s a heaven of peace. You have to exit the church via the same way, and then turn right, and right again, so you’re in St. Jacobsstraat. This one ends perpendicular on St. Jacobsmarkt. The pub on the corner, under the church and with the same name, is one of Antwerpens’ oldest. In fact, when the megalomanic St. Jacobschurch was started, the town ended just to the other side, and the pub had already that name, probably because here started the pilgrimagetrack to Santiago (= St. Jacob) de Compostela in Mediaeval times. The pub, owned by De Koninck, was totally rebuild in the eighties. Stephen D’Arcy, main British critic on all things Belgian, loved it, and made it an example for British architects. I’m less over the moon, seen that they put the new bar in the length of the building, instead of perpendicular, which is the way the pub has been conceived. Oh well.

click to enlargeIf you haven’t had a “bolleke” by now, this might be the moment. Otherwise, you cross St. Jacobsmarkt, and follow through Prinsesstraat. Pass one small street on your right (take a peek, couple of blocks away is a beautiful tower and building, which, until the day of now, I haven’t been able to penetrate. Which makes it all the more tantalizing). Go on to the next corner, where you’ll find “The Highlander“. You’ve guessed it, Antwerpens’ Scottish pub. Great choice of malts, some good beers, very good atmosphere. When it is too crowded ground floor, the cellar (a former butchers’) opens.

Opposite, left hand side, is part of the University of Antwerpen, with their most magnificent buildings of “Het Hof van Liere“. Take a look inside, and you’ll have your first glimpse of what makes Antwerpen’s inner town so special: the inner courtyards. Hof van Liere has at least two. They have a beautiful chapel too. Once somebody chases you out (they won’t, probably), go to the entrance gate again, and before you turn right, take a look at the beautiful old houses on the other side of the street. On the next corner, turn right again, into Venusstraat. Go until the first street on your left, and there, you’ll come up yet another inviting square – the Stadswaag. In translation, that gives “city scales”. Once, that was exactly what was done there. Now, it’s a quiet (well, until Friday night…) spot, and in the opposite left corner, you find yet another archway, and, of course, an inner courtyard. You’ve found ‘t Waagstuk. The name is, of course, a wordplay: Babelfish would probably translate it as ‘a piece of the scales’, but really it means ‘risky business’. Seen its long list of landlords, one would start to think that name an omen. The last change terribly frightened me, but it would seem it is still a good beerpub; then again, the two owners of the buildings are big beerlovers, so…

click to enlargeAn idea here might be “Zeppelin“, brewed expressly for this bar. But it was better once, change of brewer willing. The buildings are very old, and if you happen to chance upon one of the two owners (not: landlord), Pieter and Hans Bombeke, ask for a tour, with my compliments. Once you’ve risked enough, go onto Stadswaag again, and follow the same direction you had been taking before (meaning: turn left, left again), and you’re in Mutsaartstraat. This one ends on a kind of square, formed by a couple of streets meeting. On your left hand side, there’s a garden. If weather is nice, and schools are on, maybe hop in through the portal, and find out that the Antwerpener Academy has a true little arboretum: most trees are specially searched. Retrace your steps outside, cross the square in still the same direction (Ambtmanstraat), which ends in a T on Keizerstraat. Probably no street in Antwerpen has so many beautifully preserved, and yet unknown buildings. The absolute top is just in front of your eyes, left hand: the Rockockxhuis. Today a private museum (well worth visiting), it used to be the house of a friend of…. Rubens, but also former Lord Mayor of Antwerpen.

Out of Rockockxmuseum (nice courtyard, made a drawing of it, long ago), turn left in Keizerstraat, then immediately left again, on Minderbroedersrui (“rui” means it used to be open water, once – same word as “rei” in Brugge, where they still are open, mostly).  At the trafficlights, right onto a pedestrian zone. Go on the little square with fountain, and on your left hand side, admire the Baroque facade of the Carolus Borromeuschurch, designed by… Rubens (yes, there’s a lot of Rubens in Antwerpen…). The guy behind the fountain is a romantic writer, more or less our Flemish Byron. The back of the square is the city library. Cross the square, and go under the archway and turn right. If you would go straight on, on your left would be Molly Blooms – once the first and true Irish pub in Antwerpen. Had ceilí’s there with 20+ musicians – all gone. Beer forgettable. So walk up a bit (in fact, here you see that Antwerpen isn’t all flat. Antwerpen, according to the Antwerpeners (or Sinjoren, as we’re known affectionately) is built upon 7 hills – just as, surprise, surprise, mighty Roma. In reality those ‘hills’ were some dunes…)

Go left, cross, right – in 10 metres. Oh yes, by this time you know better than to think Antwerpen has no small cobblestone roads… On corner of Moriaanstraat and Leeuw van Vlaanderenstraat, there’s “the” Quinten Matsys”, Antwerpens’ oldest pub, staunch property of De Koninck. Here you might choose a De Koninck beer on draught, that is NOT an amber “bolleke” – maybe a Tripel, a Blonde, a Winterkoninkske… Whatever, avoid the fruity summerconcoctions!

Next corner (up) used to be a very basic pub, with a superb counter and bar, and very friendly to strangers – but I fear this one has gone to the big sky for pubs… If it’s still there… again a bolleke, I’m afraid. Cross Wolstraat onto yet another pedestrian street, Coppernolstraat, and follow it until you reach Minderbroedersrui again. Now you follow this in opposite direction, going straight on to the stream. Minderbroedersrui changes into St. Paulusstraat, indicating we’re nearing yet another of the big churches; it’s at the end, near a… YES! GUESSED! square, but the entrance is before that, on your left hand. Magnificent entrance, with a Calvary. St. Pauluschurch is, with St. Andries, the least well-known of the five major churches, and therefore, usually very quiet. Go out again, and now – decisions, decisions. Either you turn back into St. Paulusstraat, retracing your steps. In fact, if this is late hour, I vividly recommend aborting your mission, and turn onto the St. Paulusplein (the square), and head for the very town centre and bars. Or, turn back into St. Paulusstraat, until the next corner, and turn left or right (get yourself a map, now). But if it’s broad daylight, and you’re adventurous… go out the church left, and turn right into Oudemanssstraat, then right Leguit. Best take your wife with you, because you’ve just entered the seediest red lights district you’ll ever witness. Knocking means not just friendly invitation, but paying dearly… I haven’t tried, so far. Leguit broadens and leads onto Falconplein. A couple of decennia ago, this was Russian maffiaterritory, but it has calmed (died?) down seriously. Turn left on Falcon, and, at the lights, cross Brouwersvliet, and turn right into Giststraat (yeaststreet…). In front of you dooms up a beautiful pub, but the main interest is immediately on your left at Adriaan Brouwersstraat (no – that guy was a painter…), were the Brouwershuis is. Don’t take the meaning wrong: rather than a guildhouse, this featured a pumping mechanism (horsepower), for getting clean water for brewing from the north of Antwerpen into the town, in the 17th century – an imaginative tour-de-force from a project developer avant-la-lettre, Gilbert van Schoonhoven. He had no official status, but virtually owned the town, lord mayor included… Even in those times! Brouwershuis, however, is a sadly neglected building, in dire need of repair. There’s group of people, beerlovers included, that are trying to save it – maybe give a ring, and tell them tourists would love to visit (if somebody pointed it out to them).

Now you have to make a decision – do you want to see everything, or are you getting tired?

Joris Pattyn – end of part one

(photos by Rosalba Gelardi)

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