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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?