January 15, 2011


For the vacation, I made a goal for myself: to explore Belgium. I fulfilled that as best as I could--I visited some new places, looking beyond Linkebeek and Brussels. In the next few posts, I'll share three new cities I visited (all in Flanders): Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. First is Antwerp. 

 Called Antwerp in English, Anvers in French, and Antwerpen in Dutch, it is the second largest city in Belgium and a giant port-- the second largest in Europe. There have been people living in the area for over 1500 years, and the history of the city is colorful, complete with religious wars, riots, occupations, seiges, and plagues. Today it is the capital of the Belgian province of Antwerpen, the most populated province in the country, with around 1.7 million people. 

 I went to Antwerp with my host family-- we drove 45 or so minutes almost directly north from Linkebeek through the fields and over the canals of the Flemish region of Belgium.

The first thing we looked at as we got there was the train station. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the architecture is incredible.

Allegedly there are tourists who come to Antwerp and think the train station is a church.

After taking a look at that, we headed towards the center of town. On the way, we passed lots of bikes, both with riders and parked on the sidewalk like this. Because Flanders is almost completely flat, biking is really easy-- almost everyone owns a bike, it seems. It made me a little jealous-- it's not that easy to do in Brussels....because in Brussels not everyone owns a bike, there's a huge risk of your bike getting stolen.

We continued down the streets, passing old, Flemish-style buildings, built in the 15- and 1600s, when the artisans and traders in Antwerp were some of the richest in Europe.

Today the streets like this are still very chic, filled with clothing stores, waffle stands, and chocolateries.
One of the chocolateries caught our eye-- this one had chocolate sculptures:

They also had a flavors of chocolate pralines I hadn't seen before, including banana, mint (made with real mint leaves) and...wasabi. Weird. GaĆ«tan, who tried it, said it didn't taste very much like wasabi at all.  

We came into the center of Antwerp. The tower that you can see is that of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, the city's cathedral. 

Here it is from a closer view:

We came into the Grote-Markt (Grand Place in French), which was like a smaller version of Brussels'.

From there, we headed towards the river. My host mom Aude got a picture of me with the cathedral in the background:

And here's the Scheldt river, which connects Antwerp to the North Sea. This river is what has made Antwerp so important throughout the years-- it allows ships to reach the city, and from the city these ships have been unloaded and the cargo distributed all around Europe.

Like any old European city, the castle at Antwerp still stands. I didn't get a whole lot of history on it--it's all very complicated-- but it was an impressive building. 

Here's a view of an Antwerp street from the other side of the castle:

After seeing that side of the river, we went down two old wooden escalators 

into a 1/2-kilometer-long tunnel, that went underneath the river. 

From the other side, I got this panoramic view of the city--click on it to get a larger version. The bank isn't really curved like that, it's just because I didn't have a tripod, which made the angle kind of messed up.

After trip back through the tunnel, we passed a rommelmarkt, kind of like a flea market/giant yard sale. There was someone selling beer glasses--lots of beer glasses. It was quite a Belgian thing. 

After lunch, we visited the Museum Plantin-Moreus, the preserved estate of Christophe Plantin (pronounced plahn-TAN) , an influential 16th-century printer who lived in Antwerp. 

The museum had preserved the look of a 1500s mansion, full of Flemish tapestries and beautifully carved heavy wooden furniture. It showed the type of place a very well-off merchant at this time period had. 

Christophe Plantin was a French printer and bookmaker who moved to Antwerp and started his trade. At the time period, books were just becoming a big deal because with the invention of the printing press, books no longer had to be written one-at-a-time by monks. This made them marginally more common, and allowed printers like Plantin to get very rich. 

In this museum were thousands of books Plantin had printed--mostly bibles and books relating to religion. Below is a book with chants for mass: 

And an old bible, printed in Latin, as was the custom:

These books were printed with removable type-- something pretty impressive. Thousands of lead pieces (called "sorts") with every character imaginable were lined up--by hand-- to create the books' words.  


The workers would ink the letters, and press them onto the paper using these presses. 

This museum actually held the world's oldest surviving printing press: 

Maybe it was just because I was in journalism and got interested in typefaces, but this boggled my mind: you know the font "Garamond," that you can still find in Microsoft Word today? All seven sets of the original typefaces--the typefaces that Garamond himself made-- are at this museum. I know it's nerdy, but I found that pretty impressive.

And to look around at the books in the shelves and think that they contained thoughts and information from 500 years ago-- that was also pretty incredible. 

One of the things where this idea was really evident was looking at the maps. You can see how Brussels was laid out in the 16th-century-- the Grand Place is right in the center, and many of the streets around it look the same today. 

Also incredible was to look at the globe: 

It really showed how people here in Europe in the 1500s viewed the world. In the display case, the globe was tilted the wrong way (which resulted in a somewhat blurry picture), but the representation you can see below is what people in Europe knew of North America:

The strangely-formed country is what we know now as the United States and Canada. 

After a long time at that museum, we headed back onto the streets of Antwerp. We passed some pretty impressive architecture: 




Another thing that Antwerp is known for is its diamond trade. Each day, billions of dollars worth of diamonds are traded in the 1-kilometer-square "diamond district" in Antwerp. It amounts for about 7 percent of Belgium's GDP. 

As it got dark, we took a quick look into the some of the windows: 

And these weren't even the best-- it was too late for us to go all the way inside the district--most of the stores were already closed. I'll check it out another day....

 Finally, right before we left, we went to one of the two Starbucks in the country of Belgium. While I normally campaign against Starbucks in the U.S., this was the only place I've seen where I can get a cup of American-style drip coffee. It was a little bit of nostalgie.  

I ordered a very large coffee and felt the effects of the caffiene the entire ride home. Buzzzzzzzzzzz....


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