Most tourists in Belgium’s second largest city make a beeline to its historic heart, a cobweb of pedestrian lanes and squares sprinkled with cafes and shops. Among Old Town’s treasures are five monumental churches, most of them dating from the 16th and early 17th centuries, Antwerp’s Golden Age.
All are active houses of worship and have a connection to Antwerp’s most famous citizen, the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who dominated Flemish art in the early 1600s.
The Cathedral of Our Lady, the centerpiece of Old Town, punctuates the skyline with its 404-foot tower and is practically the symbol of Antwerp. Those willing to climb the tower’s 500 steps are rewarded with views that extend as far as Brussels, 30 miles to the south.
Built between 1352 and 1521, the Cathedral of Our Lady is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries. As you explore its seven aisles, feast your eyes on the architecture and art, which includes four masterpieces by Rubens − The Raising of the Cross, The Descent from the Cross, Assumption of the Virgin and The Resurrection of Christ. The Baroque master is known for his writhing, muscular figures that seem to tumble off the canvas.
The cathedral incorporates several architectural styles. It originally was pure Gothic, designed with five aisles. After the fall of Antwerp in 1585 it was redone in the Baroque style. After the French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, it was redesigned with neo-Gothic elements.
Behind the cathedral a statue of Rubens stands in the Groenplaats, a festive square filled with outdoor cafes. The Rubens House, a reconstruction of his home, studio and garden, is another popular Antwerp attraction.
Not far from the house is Rubens’s parish church, St. James’s Church, the site of his burial chapel. The Baroque furnishings in this late-Gothic church (built 1506-1656) are sumptuous and include 23 altars—a feast of marble. The art collection includes works by Rubens and fellow Flemish masters Jordaens and Van Balen. Pilgrims following the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela in Spain set off from this church, which is currently closed for renovation.
As a painter, decorator and architect, Rubens had a hand in the tower, facade, high altar, Mary Chapel and stucco-ornamented ceiling of St. Charles Borromeo’s Church (1615-1621), considered the most impressive Baroque church in the Low Countries. He produced 43 paintings for the church, 39 of which were lost in a fire in 1718. The imposing church was built at the height of the Counter-Reformation for and by the Jesuits.
Also marvel at the Baroque flourishes, including the magnificent organ and altars, in St. Paul’s Church, a museum in itself. The former monastery church of the Dominicans displays more than 200 sculptures and 50 paintings, including works by Rubens, Jordaens, Van Balen and Van Dyck. The Calvary garden next to the church seems to have been lifted from the biblical description of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
St. Andrew’s Church, located in the fashion and antiques district, is the least known of Antwerp’s quintet of historic churches, but it’s a late-Gothic and Baroque gem. This was Rubens’s first parish church, and it’s graced by a painting by his mentor, Otto Van Veen. Note the beautiful pulpit, ancient statue of the Madonna and monument to Mary Queen of Scots.
Just steps from the Cathedral of Our Lady lies the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s expansive main square, a photogenic site flanked by gabled guildhalls and the palatial Town Hall, an ornate building decked out with the flags of many countries. One Grote Markt photo op is provided by the 1887 bronze statue of local hero Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier who, according to legend, slayed a giant and threw his hand into the Scheldt because the giant had demanded a toll from every ship. The hand is a symbol of Antwerp and a prominent feature of the city’s coat of arms, not to mention the shape of a sweet treat found in confectionery shops that sell Antwerp Hands, bite-size goodies that come as chocolates or shortbread cookies.
For more tastes of Belgium, save your appetite for a waffle, perhaps at Queen of Waffles, a tiny place between the cathedral and Grote Markt. Choose from a freshly made Brussels-style waffle (light and crispy) or the sugary, chewy Liege version. Strawberries and whipped cream are the most popular toppings, but raspberry jam, warm chocolate, bananas, honey, ice cream, and Nutella are other favorites.
Across from Queen of Waffles is Chateau Blanc, one of many Antwerp chocolatiers that uphold Belgium’s reputation for producing the finest chocolates in the world. Truffle fillings range from mango, ginger, and chili pepper to champagne, amaretto, and cappuccino. It’s not considered bad form to go into a chocolate shop and ask for just one piece.
The city’s newest attraction − the Red Star Line Museum −just opened in the up-and-coming Eilandje district, a redeveloped dockyard area about 15 minutes from the historic center. Housed in three original Red Star Line Museums, the immigration museum sheds light on the overlooked history of the transatlantic shipping company that carried more than two million passengers − most of them poor emigrants from Eastern Europe − to America from 1873 to 1934. One wall features Red Star Line passengers who made names for themselves, including Golda Meir, Israel’s first woman prime minister; Missourian Sam Fox, former U.S. ambassador to Belgium; and Admiral Hyman Rickover, “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
Perhaps the most famous of all was Irving Berlin, who, at the age of 5, traveled with his family from Russia and went on to become one of America’s most beloved songwriters (“God Bless America,” White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the list goes on). A prized artifact is one of Berlin’s pianos, on loan to the museum from Linda Emmet, his second daughter. It is the centerpiece of an exhibit on the celebrated composer, born Israel Baline in 1888 in a Jewish town in what today is Belarus. (About 25 percent of Red Star emigrants were Jewish.)
−By Randy Mink