ANTWERP, Belgium – I am sitting at a small table with a big beer in a restaurant with a mystery name: Het Elfde Gebod. After five days here in Antwerp in the north of Belgium, where they speak relentless Dutch, I’m used to such mysteries.
I’m also getting used to surprises. Antwerp’s full of them. I am reminded of this once again as I sit here in Restaurant Whatever, with yet another Antwerp surprise. I get to drink and dine in the gaze through the bubbles still rising to the foamy top of my brew, to the slightly rippling figures of saints.
Saints, well, religious figures at least, gaze down upon me from every corner of this warm and noisy cafe. I am a little squeamish, at first, about drinking alcohol in their presence. I remind myself that this is, after all, Belgium, famous for its beermaking monks.
Besides, I ordered the St. Bernardus. This St. B. is apparently the king of beers. And now, to my somewhat marginally better critical eye, I can begin to appreciate it. The beer is dark, and I can smell the perfume of it from a foot away. The glass is beautiful, a serious and sturdy-looking cross between a wineglass and a classic Coca Cola bottom. In the background, past the saints, out the window, the sky has gone from all-day bright blue to the navy just before nightfall.
I take a sip.
You remember Snuffles, the cartoon dog? You know how when he finally got that cookie treat, he’d clutch his stomach, writhe in paroxysms of joy and float skyward?
I was, in that instant, Snuffles-ecstatic.
It was the beer, sure. It was the accompanying meal. It was the garrulous, friendly crowd, the babble of everything but English. And if the religious statues, paintings, icons and whatevers weren’t actually channeling a heavenly vibe, their very presence in this unlikely situation, and their abundance, too, fueled the good cheer.
Later, I learned that Het Elfde Gebod means The 11th Commandment in Dutch. The restaurant owners say that commandment is: “You shall enjoy,” a departure from the “shalt not” litany, and definitely an easy commandment to follow.
Not just at this restaurant, either. But all over Antwerp.
Belgium’s second-largest city after Brussels, Antwerp — with more than a half-million people — was a real revelation. Full of surprises, as I said, and the biggest surprise of all was how little I’d heard about Antwerp over my decades of traveling.
Until earlier this year, when I learned about the new Red Star Line Museum opening in September, I was only familiar with the name of the city.
The museum, housed in the original buildings of the steamship company that brought more than 2 million emigrants to the United States, would be telling the other side — the beginning, really — of the Ellis Island story. Antwerp, it turns out, was a crossroads of commerce and culture in Europe — had been for centuries. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Where to start? The beer? The architecture? The cutting edge arts and fashion scene? The diamond trade? The gorgeous train station?
Yes, let’s start there. Most visitors do. Antwerp does have its own airport, but international flights are much more plentiful into Brussels. From there, it’s 30 or so minutes by train to Antwerp’s Central Station.
For big cities in Europe, a central train station is the perfect place to establish a killer first impression. And Antwerp’s, designed by Belgian Louis Delacenserie in 1895 and opened in 1905, will most certainly slay you. It has not one but two gorgeous neo-baroque facades, so either approach seems like the most important one. There’s an enormous iron-and-glass dome over the train platforms, sweeping staircases and marble everywhere — along with gilded metalwork and sculptures. The building itself incorporated so many architectural styles that it was difficult to categorize as one period or another. In the end, it’s just endlessly grand.
Emerging from the station, you’re thrust into one of Antwerp’s busiest squares. Attempting to figure out where I was and get a grasp of the neighborhood, I guess I was subconsciously trying to figure out the local population. The only conclusion was that it was too diverse to neatly categorize.
Multiculturalism is, I soon learned, one of Antwerp’s strong suits. In fact, with 170 nationalities, Antwerp is the second-most multicultural city in the world, after Amsterdam. It’s an aspect of Antwerp that gives it energy, openness and a whole lot of food for thought. You can visit various communities — the Jewish district is the largest, but there are also Portuguese, African and other neighborhoods, too.
We spent two days learning about the new Red Star Line Museum, grabbing additional attractions and tours to fill in the rest of our scant time in the city.
Legend of the hand
On an overview tour of the city our first day, we got some background:
According to legend, our guide said, a mean giant named Antigoon used to guard a bridge over the Scheldt River and would force those wanting to cross it to pay a toll. If they refused, he would cut off one of their hands and throw it in the river. Finally, a young Roman soldier and soon-to-be hero name Brabo did unto Antigoon as he’d been doing to the now-one-handed. Whack went the blade and splash went Antigoon’s big hand, into the river. “Hantwerp” is Flemish for “hand-throwing.”
Even if it is just a myth, the hand-throwing story has become a tangible part of the city. Brabo, the hero, rises from the waters of a monumental fountain in front of City Hall, forever mid-hand throw. The hand has become a symbol of the city: it’s on the coat of arms, hand-charms fill the jewelry stores. But the most-loved hand is the “handje” sugar cookie sold in every bakery in town.
By the end of the tour, I had a whole list of places I just had to see: the fashion district with its many cutting-edge designers; the photography museum; MAS, a new design museum, and the bridge across the Scheldt River that actually never does span the whole river.
Whenever I found a couple of spare hours of free time, I was off and running.
Except. Antwerp kept getting in the way. Antwerp, with its cobblestone streets. Its outdoor cafes. It’s crazy beautiful architecture. Its views over the river. Its friendly people (“Hey, come sit with us, where are you from?”).
On my last day, I made an extra effort to get the “musts” checked off my list and managed to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus, home to the world’s oldest (400 years) printing presses as well as the house (er, mansion) of the owners — the Plantin and Moretus families, complete with 16th- and 17th-century decorative arts. The two families were influential in the development of Antwerp, and amassed their own impressive collection of art, some of which is on display — along with rare manuscripts and art prints. The museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I was the last person out of the museum that day. It was 4 p.m. and I still had an hour for visiting the cathedral and its wealth of artwork. I hurried toward the main square, mustering all my willpower to pass by the intriguing awning advertising “Camper Theo — Shoes and Food.” I passed the alfresco cafe tables arranged three deep outside the centuries-old guild buildings-turned-restaurants.
But I couldn’t just rush by one final sight: A man in a tuxedo playing a massive yet portable organ outside the cathedral. I waited while he settled on his stool, shook feet out of loafers and began to play. For some reason I was the only one in his audience at the moment. I sat down on the ground and let my eyes travel up toward the intricately carved Gothic arches (the cathedral’s, not his), up past gargoyles and ancient carved stone faces to the lacy spire pointing into the white clouds daubed on blue sky. A Magritte moment.
I did manage to get to the cathedral and see all the art, including several of Rubens’ most famous works.
All this, and then, about to pass out from hunger, stumbling upon the sainted Het Elfde Gebod restaurant.
You know the rest. The Snuggles feeling, the St. Bernardus.
Antwerp, who knew?