02/04/2013 di movimentobirra
Out again, cross Hoogstraat, and find yourself in Reyndersstraat. On your right, after scant meters, is an alley onto a courtyard, of course, and on the left side of that courtyard, a nice facade of the former Jordaenshuis, once the home of another Baroque painter, Jacob Jordaens. Go out again, follow for a short while Reyndersstraat, until you see a small pedestrian street on your left. Take a look: left corner is a shop with a lot of bottles, right corner a pub, called Vagant, and your back is to a magnificent 16th century burgers’ house, known as De Groote Witte Arend, today pub, restaurant, concert hall, meeting point and much more besides. All three are linked together. They all were started by the same man, Ronald Ferket. Ferket is especially known as the man who started Vagant, the jeneverbar par excellence in Antwerpen, and that pub has always been an assembly-point for the intellectuals having a good (or drunken) time. The shop sells… jenever (Belgian gin), but also whisky, brandy, beer. He wrote the first book on jenever in Belgium, and is rightly consider THE expert. After Vagant, he started the superb Groote Witte Arend, featuring classical music in a house that has its own chapel (one can take a look), and more courtyards behind it (not visitable, usually). It’s unbelievably large and even when you don’t drink something in there, have a look. GWA was the first pub where Hoegaarden white was served in Antwerpen (talking about the very early seventies, mind you!), and one of the first outside Hoegaarden/Leuven. Ferket then sold the place, but bought it back a couple of years ago. The Vagant has an upstairs restaurant for cuisine with jenever. My honest opinion: to be avoided. The regular fare in GWA is (was) pretty good, but Ronald’s son, would have started now with cuisine à la bière there, and it is supposed to be pretty high-brow. Haven’t had the opportunity to try, so no opinion given… Go on, on Reyndersstraat, until the very next corner, to the right. On the other side of the street, there’s De Herk, not a bad pub either, and – as Vagant – a late opener – this is the area, you understand. However, the house on the corner you’re standing, is called ‘t Fornuis (the kitchen furnace), and is Antwerpens’ top-restaurant (2 Michelin stars, IIRC). If your wallet is up to this kind of thing, hotly recommended, but they take reservations MONTHS in advance…
So, we turn right around the Fornuis restaurant, into Leeuwenstraat, and follow its leisurely winding until we see a square on our right: the Vrijdagmarkt. Literally, this means Fridaymarket, but the name has a special ring: every Friday (indeed), there’s a public auction – of things seized, confisquated, etc.; this for the longest time. If you say about an Antwerpener that he’s gone to the Vrijdagmarkt, it means he’s at his financial wits’ end. But for us, tourists, Fridaymarket is much more important for the buildings, which are facing you opposite the square. The one on the right corner, is the Prentenkabinet, a museum of drawings, early prints, etc. Now, to my utter shame, I must confess never have entered it… Unlike the one, 25 metres to the left, which is the Plantijn-Moretusmuseum. With the Rubenshuis, this is the one to visit: I daresay it is UNIQUE in the world. It houses the virtually pristine, untouched (if restored) and genuine first quasi-industrial printing/editing house in the entire world, contemporary machinery included, which was run by Christoffel Plantijn and his descendants (Jan Moretus was, IIRC, his son-in-law). It is breathtaking. One little remark on the Prentenkabinet – though just for info, if you are lucky. If you walk up there, there’s a little alley next to it, and opposite, in that alley (Heilige Geeststraat), a rather big-looking entrance gate. Behind that gate is not only the umpteenth courtyard, but also the original Pagaddertoren. If you can get a peek – the portal is pretty obvious, but I do not know the exact house number.
Turn back, pass the Plantijn-Moretus entry, in a very narrow passageway, and look, coming out, on your left: the shop there is worth a closer look. It’s the Cognatheek, selling exclusively (and exclusive) cognacs and Pineau des Charentes from independent, small growers only. Pricey, of course. Opposite this, is another pedestrian street, Korte Ridderstraat, which I urge you to follow until just before the next crossing. On your left, is the entrance to another of those back, dead-ending alleys, with one difference: to the best of my knowledge, it is always visitable, always open. If you missed the others, now’s the moment. Cross, and enter Lange Ridderstraat, but only for a scant 10-15 metres, there, on your left, is a passage, and it gives out on the entrance of the smallest of the five main Antwerpen churches: the Sint Andries-church. That it is the smallest, is no wonder, as the St. Andriesquarter is historically the poorest of Antwerpens’ original quarters; but it is still a beautiful church. In fact, my wedding mass was in there.
Exit the church to your right, into Augustijnenstraat, turn left at Nationalestraat, and go all the way to the Groenplaats (whilst, around you, discover a lot of shops, selling exclusive clothing, as well as the museum of fashion – this is the area which placed Antwerpen on the map of international fashion. Not my forte, alas.) On Groenplaats, two things will draw your attention. Certainly the unequalled gothic Cathedral, and, in the midst of the square, the statue: Pieter-Pauwel Rubens, him again. BTW, the Antwerpeners have a saying: “he falls like Rubens” – by which they actually mean the statue, not the man. When they tried to erect this statue, they managed to make it tumble down twice, before he actually kept on his pedestal. Never, mind, go up to the cathedral. The entrance is actually further, at the back, on another, much smaller square. You reach it by walking around the church, keeping it to your right. Beware, the pubs all around you are to be forgotten. The smells, however are less easy to ignore. Mind again, most of them sell pretty uninteresting international snack fare, though some are definitely better. The square you reach is known as Handschoenmarkt, and apart from the entrance to the 123m high-spired church (third in the world, bested by Köln and Ulm, and equalled by Salisbury, just not by Brugge), you can find a very nice iron-wrought waterwell, attributed to Quinten Metsys, another famous (early) Antwerpener painter and craftsman. There’s also the Paters’ Vaetje, a pub that wins the palm of most interesting pub around the cathedral hands down.
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwen cathedral – well, enough is published about that. Two main paintings by Rubens (his most famous ones), two organs, several side-chapels with interesting murals and paintings, etc. That, I leave to the official guides.
Exit again on Handschoenmarkt, and turn right, just before the well, into the cobbled street, going up to the Grote Markt (why this would be more difficult to understand for Anglophones than Grand Place beats me, but there you are). The whole of the central square (triangular, as Handschoenmarkt, as any old Germanic market), is one breathtaking sight of burgher houses from Antwerpens’ golden age, especially the golden pinnacle statues striking the eye. Yet, they are all dwarfed by the imposing town hall, Stadhuis, locally aka ‘t Schoên Verdiep, a scathing translation of the French Belle-Etage. This has the particularity to be the first town hall in Renaissance style, built anywhere north of the Alps. Strange, as the middle section is already suspiciously Baroque-esque. For once, it wasn’t Rubens responsible, but Cornelis De Vriendt. If the striking façade wouldn’t be enough, they usually adorn it with hundreds of national flags from all over the world – colourful is the word.
For attention, the only thing to rival the town hall on this spot, is the towering statue of Brabo. OK, some explanation is needed. Legend will have it that, on the spot of the Steen, a giant named Antigoon, dominated the Schelde in ancient times. He exacted a cruel toll from the boats passing. He was than challenged and bested by a Roman centurion, going by the name of Brabo. The statue depicts a pretty nude Brabo throwing the hand of his victim in the River – which is the legendary explanation of the name “Antwerpen” as hand-werpen (= to throw a hand). Reality will have it different, but it’s a good tale.
In any guide to Antwerpen, AND in every beerguide, you will find the pub Den Engel, right next to the town hall, mentioned as probably the most typical café anywhere in Antwerpen to be found. I beg to differ. It is certainly quite pretty original, very ‘Antwerps’, and its claims on perfect bollekes, as well as on the fact that every Antwerpener has been in there once in his life, are probably founded.
But my problem with this place is, that everybody want to come in to gape, as well that during daytime, it is overwhelmed with the colleagues with political importance from the Stadhuis. And at any time of the day, busy or not, the pub is filled with cigarettesmoke, (*) thick enough to be cut. Whether you go in or not, make it dependent on your mood and thirst. Go past it, going anti-clockwise around the town hall (giving a peek to your right, into Braderijstraat. A former restaurant-traiteur housed there in a spectacularly beautiful building, known as In St. Jacob in Galicië. Turn left again, and you’re in Gildekamerstraat. In the midst of this street, there’s the former entrance of the Volkskunde Museum, later the Ethnographical museum. For reasons unbeknown to me, they have removed this museum somewhere south, and I’ve lost contact. At the back of this (former) museum, you can spot the buildings in Kaasstraat, which must be the 17th century equivalents of modern towerflats.
On the last (south)side of the Town Hall, you will find the statue of the Buildrager by Constantin Meunier (second only to Auguste Rodin) depicting a former worker in the port. You continue left, away from the river, onto Oude Koornmarkt. If you’re not hungry, the smells will make you, but I suggest you wait just that little bit. This street, which narrows more and more you go further away from the river, houses some spectacular buildings, including one of the eldest, De Cluyse, reproduced in the national outdoor museum of Bokrijk, and until a couple of years, housing a subterranean beerbar. Why, I do not know, but the bar’s gone, and replaced by a sushitavern – another one… Don’t fret – even before reaching this one, there’s already something else. Ever been in a snackbar, where they serve Haute Cuisine food? Well, try Popoff, with a very modern-looking window (though it is actually an old butchery), and see if it would fit your bill. Popoff makes a corner, with an entrance: here starts the Vlaeykensgang, one of Antwerpens’ least-known gems: a corridor (formerly considered streets!) through an amass of genuine old houses. The one you face, upon entering, houses the Sir Anthony Van Dyck restaurant. Once the first restaurant in town with a Michelin star, it has wilfully lowered its aspirations, but still offers top-cuisine for absolutely unbeatable prices. Recommended! Vlaeyenkensgang must have had several pendants in history, but most of them are levelled, turned into Godknowswhat. That very nearly was also the fate of Vlaeykensgang, which was to be turned into a… parking lot!! But it was saved by the effort of an antiquarian, Alex Vervoordt, who turned it into an exhibition place for his wares, and for Antwerpen. Don’t think he was ever thanked for it. Vlaeykensgang makes too many turns to be described, but I suggest you keep turning left, so you exit on Pelgrimstraat (if you find yourself in Hoogstraat, retrace your steps). In front, slightly to the right is, once more, one of those scandals any normal person wouldn’t deem possible. In the midst of a series of splendid old houses, restored, is a lukewarm would-be modern façade, in bathtub green, crying its misery over the place. Close your eyes, and look for the pub two houses to the right. De Pelgrom , in itself a small place, has a cellarbar downstairs, that defies imagination. Well, if you’re not used to them, as actually the whole lot of old Antwerpen is double-cellared, the lowest level partly being the former (open) sewers; very recently those have been completely restored, cleaned, and opened to the public. The Pelgrom once was one of the first beerbars (after Vagant and Kulminator) but today, is but a sad tourist trap. Whatever, take a look into the cellars (plural), and decide you don’t like what’s offered (or do…).On your further left, just before you’d reach Vagant again, , there’s Tapasbar – another real one. Evenings, flamencomusic is played, including cante jondo.
Retrace your steps into Pelgrimsstraat, turn right into Oude Koornmarkt again, towards its end (lots of restaurants, BTW), cross into the Drukkerijstraat. This gives onto a crossing with no less than 6 roads. Choose the one most straight in front of you, called Kammenstraat, since a couple of decennia the punk-newwave-gothic-whateverhypestreet of Antwerpen. About midway, you find the façade of a church (formerly St. Augustinus), today a centre for old music. Take a peek. Just left of it, restaurant da Mario vies for the best Italian food. But hang on, don’t go that far yet, and turn, just before Mario into Everdijstraat. Try not to look at the mastodon insecthive behind the church. Not only it’s an utter eyesore, it houses a nasty kind of insects, known as flikken. Everdijstraat, for nearly its entire length, is old and beautiful on the left side, and ugly on the other. You arrive on Korte Gasthuisstraat. Now’s a time for decisions. Are you thirsty – or hungry? In case of the latter, and feeling like buying your own stuff, rather than dining at the restaurant, turn left. Immediately on the right, Antwerpens’ most legendary bakery. Also the smallest, but great stuff. Go on, and arrive at a little square, known as the Wilde Zee. Yes, that’s right; Wild Sea! What’s so wild, I do not know, but the best biscuits and gingerbread, are to be had at Philips’ Biscuits, the best fish at Van Bladel, the best chocolates at Burie, the best tea at the Tea Collection (Wijngaardstraat). And the best Italian takeaway north of the Alps, is less than 100m further up Wiegstraat, at Pastaiolo.
NOW you’re thirsty, and retrace your steps through Korte Gasthuisstraat, until you reach where you entered it (or turned left already, if you where too thirsty above), persevere, and follow the tramlines, who come to meet you for a short while. On the other side of this street, Lange Gasthuisstraat, there’s, however, another stop: the Mayer van den Berghmuseum. Rather than Rubens, it’s Pieter Brueghel den Ouden here, and contemporaries. Stunning, as are the Maagdenhuis, and the hospital with the Elzenveld centre and chapel, a further bit away. The back of the hospital is bordered by Antwerpens’ Kruidtuin (a huge herbsgarden), quiet in the midst of town noise. But… – just before the hospital, you give in, turn right on Boogkeers, immediately right again into Vleminckveld. On the left, about 60metres, there’s Antwerpens candidate for best beerbar in the world, the Kulminator. Named after a super-strong German beer, owner Dirk used to import, it has found its way in the hearts of all beerlovers worldwide. And even better, since 01/01/2010, totally smoke free. (*) OK, I’m going to give you a couple of hours… days… nights???
For the die-hard beerlovers, turn right to go to reach Maarschalk Gerardstraat, Terninckstraat, Vrijheidsstraat, Karel Rogierstraat, go (and visit? the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (fine arts)), and on the diagonal corner, Verschansingsstraat, to turn left, and find, on Vlaamse Kaai, ‘t Pakhuis, Antwerpens’ sadly only brewpub. Food is OK, the beer… let’s say it varies. Look sharp, as it is hidden in an old warehouse, behind a portal entrance. This extremely large open space, at Vlaamse,and opposite, Waalse Kaai offers a good choice on decent restaurants as well.
Or, at Kulminator, keep more left, and go via St. Jorisstraat, Mechelse Steenweg (after crossing the Leien again), for a couple of kilometres, at the very end of former Antwerpen, the main brewery, De Koninck.
Don’t for a moment think I’ve given you but more than a scratch at the surface. It took me 50 years, and I’m still learning. And, if you aspire to drive the Tourist info (on Grote Markt) nuts, insists on viewing the Burgundian Chapel (Lange Nieuwstraat), as it is a unique remainder of early Antwerpen. It exists, it exists, even when they might try to deny it…
(*) all pubs are now smoke-free by law in Belgium
(photos by Rosalba Gelardi)