26/03/2013 di movimentobirra
You could go back into Falconplein until its end, turn left, on Falconrui, and go to Hessenhuis – a 16th century warehouse for the then port, and the Hanze-traders – today a cultural centre. Or you could walk even more north, reach the St. Aldegondiskaai, go over the bridge to “‘t Eilandje” – the little isle. This is now yuppie territory, once the most derelict area in Antwerpen. But my gut feeling is, that it won’t last. It needs a real marina, and that won’t happen. I don’t like ‘t Eilandje, I confess.
For the die-hard searchers of hidden nooks; from Hessenhuis, turn your back to it, and go into the street opposite (Hessenbrug), and turn left on Paardenmarkt. Follow this until Rodestraat (third to the right). Nearly at its end, you’ll find yourself following a blind wall on your left hand side. At the far end, there’s an entrance with opening hours. Behind that gate, you’ll find Antwerpens’ beguinage. As to what that is, this needs more in-depth search than I can give here. Afterwards, if the time is for dinner, get yourself a treat, go on the square in front, Ossenmarkt, and find yourself Yamaya Santatsu, the first and truest sushi/sashimi restaurant in Antwerpen.
Oh no, you were tired already at Falconplein, and thirsty. In that case, you followed Adriaan Brouwersstraat to its end, at the quay on the river, the Schelde. If you’re inclined, you can have a look over the water (from here, the bend towards the west, as well the beginning of the international port is very visible), but there’s better opportunity later, so I suggest you walk upstream, until you reach “Koolkaai” on your left, turning into the town again. This street has become famous the last couple of years, because of a “soap”series on an imaginary pub there, situated around and during WWII. A bit like Eastenders, but less long, and more humoristic. Just before Koolkaai, you pass a yuppie bar, called Docks‘. Unless you insist on oysters and Champagne, don’t go in, whatever you might have heard about it. Even O&C can be had cheaper elsewhere, I daresay. At the end of Koolkaai, take a look at the northern cornerhouse. It has been restored with a lot of aid from the archaeological services of the town, and they are inordinately proud of it. To me, however, it has a feeling of “reinterpretation”, despite all its historical value. Don’t go that far, turn immediately right into Gorterstraat, whilst passing on your left, Mie Katoen. Once, this was a beerbar too, exploited by one of Antwerpens’ first and most colourful figures in the craftbeerworld, Louis Verhaeghen. As most of his ventures, it went down after some time. I fear that beerwise, not much of interest remains, but the courtyard is inviting, and the building itself – well, it’s completely out of place; in the very midst of the old town, here’s a barn, a huge cowshed from a century or two, three ago – and yet, it’s genuine. Amazing.
First corner, turn left, going straight on the side entrance of St. Pauluskerk, on Veemarkt (that’s a square for you), turn right, then left around the church, and go into Zwartzusterstraat. This name refers to the “Black Sisters” (their gowns, not their souls), who have their magnificent cloister there (left hand side). Beautiful, but you don’t enter – I got in, once, with the then N°1 official cityguide – something like thirty years ago. Since then, nada. Don’t go this to its very end, turn into Stoelstraat, more or opposite the cloister. If you see some flowers next to a house on the pavement of Zwartzusterstraat, don’t be bewildered. This place was the sad theatre of a murder, a couple of years ago, out of racist motives from a deranged young man. It was a true tragedy, all the more as it has since been exploited to death (unintended wordplay) by the righteous left and more correct-thinking opinion enforcerers for their own motives. Well, that’s modern life. Go into Stoelstraat, to your right. In its gentle bend, you’ll see what was long thought to be Antwerpens’ only remaining mediaeval wooden facade. Just when it became famous, and restored, the same man I mentioned above discovered two adjoining wooden fronts – backfronts, I ought to say – hidden somewhere (but I have to admit being clueless as to their whereabouts). Whatever, it is a special sight, even when its (restored) newness gives it a slight… Swiss chalet-like feeling, IMO.
Pass the house, and the street ends on a T, on Zirkstraat. Virtually in front of you is a true Antwerpener institution: the Spanish shop. And also the first example of two things as typically Antwerpens as the courtyards. Once, next to the normal and smaller streets, old Antwerpen was riddled with small alleyways, dead-ending slops etc. There’s several of those, and in fact, if you did the tour as written so far, you’ve passed a few. Alas, most of those are privately-owned these days, and for security reasons, kept closed. A loss, for everybody genuinely interested in the old town. This one, for a change, is only closed by a fence, so you can look inside. The second thing so typical is the… Spanish character. You can believe me, Antwerpen, for as Brabant-Flemish as it is, is a Spanish town. Despite the terrible misdeeds the Spanish occupants (in the 17th century) did (mass murdering, plundering, arson, persecution, etc…), the Spanish conquerors’ sophisticated ways appealed to the self-conscious, exuberant Antwerpeners; hence the nickname “Sinjoren” – nothing but a corruption of the word “señores“…! The Spanish shop has been there for as long as I remember, and any real Antwerpener will know it, most even will have purchased there something, some day.
With your face towards the Spanish shop, turn right, and next corner to the left. The restored house on the corner used to be the house of the famous cityguide I told you about earlier. You’re now in Hofstraat. On your right hand side, there’s some open space, and a refurbished old pub. This place (not the pub) is one of the other few places where you can see that there is some relief in town indeed. On your left hand side, however, at N° 15 – if you’re there during working hours (the place is the centre of the town education), you find yet another spectacular courtyard – but with an extra, a tower on the building, not quite correctly called Pagaddertoren. These towers are equally typical for Antwerpen as the courtyards – but much less in view. Historically, they were built by the rich merchants in Antwerpens’ Golden Age, to have a view over the river, in order to watch out for their ships coming in. The name, however, refers to one particular tower, which housed the pagador, the Spanish excise man, whom they had to pay… Go on, and turn right into Oude Beurs. On the other side of the street, there used (is? not sure any longer) one of Antwerpens’ best Italian restaurants (La Terrazza), and in fact, if you would have gone on instead of turning, the Japanese restaurant there serves the best teriyaki, but their classical sushi etc; leaves to be desired. If you’re in for a healthy snack, two houses further on Oude Beurs than the corner, there’s Sjalot & Schanul, a vegetable restaurant, which was done by a couple of sympa girls that used to be my opposite neighbours.
Keep going, until the next corner, and diagonally on your right, is one of Antwerpens true gems: the Vleeshuis (Butchers’ Guildhouse). It’s a marvel of Brabants’ speksteen, bricks and sandstone – and we’re talking 13th century, now! It has a number of museum collections, these days, including a musical instruments’ section. If you’ve got the time…
Facing Vleeshuis keep the building to your right, and descend the steps. You’re in Repenstraat, and I want to draw your attention to a little door on your left hand side, in a totally unassuming, nay, ugly cimented wall. Only the sign near the door might tell you that more lies behind it. This is the Poesje, arguably one of the oldest puppet theatres in the world. The puppets, still used today, and repaired a zillion times, are true antiques, and so are the plays. More’s the pity, but one cannot visit – the place is only open when the plays are going on, and, traditionally, they are only held ON COMMISSION. Their schedule, I’m told, is reserved for at least a year… Mind you, even with a little Dutch you might have taken up on your travels, attending would be a very strange experience, as you would only understand one word in three, not even mentioning the wordplays, dirty and political jokes… all told in the worst, commonest Antwerpener dialect. People not understanding are bewildered, whilst we Antwerpeners have problems staying on the benches – we’re rolling over the floor laughing (I know, I’ve had once the opportunity to attend a performance – experience of a lifetime).
At the back of the Vleeshuis you’ll remark a little archway. This gives you an idea about the level Antwerpen had in older times, since then, it has been heightened quite a lot. I’m not sure where (left or right), but you will easily see a piece of wall, made with truly big blocks, and very uneven-masoned. This is the only part left of the oldest townwall of Antwerpen, and in front of you, though the buildings are much newer, is the very oldest part of the town. What you see today, however, are very early 20th century buildings, one housing a truly great Thai restaurant (Sombat). Go past it, and you find yourself on the quay again. On your left hand side, opposite the road, is the Steen. A little part of the lower wall is genuine, the rest totally rebuilt. On the right of the Steen, you see, in the front, the waterprotection wall – for Northwestern storms at springtide – behind it the 19th century protected dockside hangars, and above that, the Noorderterras, a walkway alongst the riverbank. Very good to have a look there, but I suggest you keep that for its pendant, the Zuiderterras (I don’t think translations are needed). Despite being rebuilt, the Steen definitely is worth a visit. You go over the waterprotectionwall (mind the cyclists!), and turn left around the castle, to reach the steep ramp that leads to the archway. On your left, is the statue of Lange Wapper, the vicious fantasyfigure out of old Antwerpener legends, that played pretty sadistic pranks on his fellow citizens (the two small figures at his feet, are two drunks that went for the sound of a crying baby…). Go up the ramp, and halt just before entering, looking at the top of the arch: there is an indistinct little statue in bas-relief. This is Seminis, a truly ancient image of a pagan fertility God. It isn’t intact as – IIRC the 18th century – the Jezuits had him… castrated.
Go in, and on the cobblestones, you find yourself in a very cosy-looking part – on your right a Calvary, on your left the entrance to the courtyard of the castle itself. If you go any further in, they’ll ask you to pay – maybe worth it, as the castle houses a quite interesting Nautical museum. But look around outside as well, and try to set yourself back a couple of centuries. To my dismay, Antwerpeners have voted labour for the city council for as long as I know, but maybe this indicates some reason: this cobblestone street is the last vestige of the Steenwijk, aka de Burg, the oldest, once most derelict and densely populated area of Antwerpen. On the turn of the century (19-20th), the last time liberals reigned the city, the riverbank has been straightened, whilst before, it was a twirling bank, with little canals, open docks going in, amongst dirty, small, but utterly beautiful houses. All gone forever, in the name of “progress”. Idiots.
Retrace your steps downwards (unless you first want to take a peek up the Noorderterras), and go on the Steenplein. Nice walking area, and it gives, at its other end on the Zuiderterras. Climb on the ramp, take a look at Minerva, guarding the Schelde, turn 180° around, and take the best view on the Cathedral, and then start walking the terrace southwards. On your left, the Schelde is about 500m wide, on your right, in the bend at the distance, 1 km. Behind the bend, you can see the grainsilos of the port. Just on the other side of the river is the left bank, with the marina in front of the left bank quarter – utterly uninteresting to visit.
I suggest a leisurely stroll on the terrace, now. As it is raised above the hangars, you have a good panorama on the town. The southernmost end of the terrace ends on a spacious, windowy restaurant (pretty good, expensive), and a perpendicular bridge takes you over the quay onto the street again. The building you’re facing (on a square, of course) is the right bank entrance of the pedestrian tunnel under the river, opened in 1932. The escalators (if they’re still working…) are industrial archaelogy. But as I already indicated, the tunnel itself is more interesting than its destination, so instead of entering, we turn left, on the very next corner, marked by a nice old pub, called ‘t Zand. I spoke about Molly Blooms, as the original Irish pub, but in reality, this one predates it – just, it didn’t START as an Irish pub (or English-spoken, really). But somehow, it figured for years as the place where all visitors from the Isles, planning on extended stay, ended up for info. For ages, it was the only place in Antwerpen, featuring draught (Irish) Guinness. Then, when the UK and Eíre joined the EC, and regulations weakened, not only an influx of Irish migrant workers happened (this was BEFORE the Celtic Tiger renaissance), but also a bloom of Irish pubs; which lasted for about 1 1/2 year. Then Belgian Economic Inspection had made it clear, that ANYBODY working in Belgium falls under Belgian Social Protection, and has to be payed and taxed accordingly. Hence, dried-up influx of Irish… and a lot less Guinness around. It’s still available at ‘t Zand, as well as in the fake Irish pubs in the town, as there are anywhere in the world.
OK, the street left of the pub is also named “Zand“, and you follow it, turning back on the quays, but you don’t go that far. In fact, you cross one (very narrow) street, and then keep a very keen eye on your right. The street ends on a makeshift square, but just before you reach that, there’s a small passage, leading on a courtyard (of course). Just before reaching the courtyard itself, there’s a door at your right hand side… and now, there’s a snatch. If it’s broad daylight, you’ve nothing lost there. But, if the clock has passed 5PM, you might want to go inside. In fact, in the weekends, you still go in there at 3 AM!
I told you before: Antwerpen is a Spanish town. The best proof is here. When I visited this pub with Tim Webb, for (his) first time, he just raved about it, telling his fellow Brits: “You will find Spanish pubs in Britain. They’re obviously fake, the kind of “theme” pub you find everywhere. This is different. This is the real thing. The people eating tapas, are eating tapas because that’s the kind of thing they’ve always eaten. The vats on the wall, lending the pub its name De Negen Vaten (the Nine Barrels), contain the real drinks a Spaniard would like to see in his pub, Jerez, Tarragona, Madeira, etc. – as well as the tap providing pilsner, since that is what is available in any Spanish bodega. And De Koninck, since they’ve learned that has more taste.”
If you hit De Negen Vaten at the right moment, you’re in for an experience, an ambiance you’ll seldom have equalled. Some of the people are Antwerpeners, other are Spanish (just as in Antwerpens best Tapasbar, but we haven’t reached that yet).
In fact, this is the kind of thing to do on an extended visit, and choose your time accordingly. On our tour, we go out again, and turn with the street from Zand on Vlasmarkt. Only a couple of years ago, I’d pointed out two interesting pubs. Now, I don’t – gone glory. But, apart from a pleiade of superb historical houses, it houses one thing you have to peek in, as well. You’re walking UP again, and, just before you reach an intersection with a pedestrian street (Hoogstraat), you have a whitewashed building on your right, probably adorned with the white-on-blue Greek cross. This is the Greek house of Antwerpen. Not only the premises are nice, the back is even more spectacular. In clement weather (AND at night, too) this yard – one cannot call this a courtyard any more, this is a true garden – and the terrace is a heaven. Drink some Retsina, eat some horribly sweet Greek pie or just nibble some mezze, coming with the drink. I’ve done that, on a summer’s night, well past 3AM, believe it or not.
* Two new beerpubs have opened in Antwerpen: in Hoogstraat 14, an excellent beerpub, ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuiske has opened, with excellent choice, and a few exciting taps; as well as Bier Central, at de Keyserlei 25 – unvisited by me as yet, but with 300 beers, and support from the Antwerpener ABC beerclub, it can’t be that much wrong.
Joris Pattyn – end of part two
(photos by Rosalba Gelardi)