Finally, I managed to get to the last part, which happened to be the most fun.
Our day started from Gare Noord in Brussels, where we hoped on a train, for about 15 min, to the town of Antwerp. We were greeted by a majestic and beautiful building, the Central station, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. It was built between 1895 and 1905 to replace the old wooden one, erected in 1854 by engineer Auguste Lambeau. The monumental main building was designed by Bruges-born architect Louis dela Censerie. It has an enormous dome and eight smaller towers, six destroyed in 1950. Luckily, they were all restored by 2009, together with some decorations, some of them huge lion statues.
The first visit that we did after the station was the, mandatory for us, zoo. An unusual feature is it’s location – right next to the train station, they are divide by just one wall. Despite this, there was no noise from the trains, I was truly surprised by the silence.
The zoo itself is not very big, but it’s one of most famous and visited landmarks in Antwerp. Notable building is the Egyptian temple built in 1856, now housing the giraffes. it was designed after the Egyptian court in the world-famous Crystal Palace in London. The hieroglyphs symbolise the connection between the Royal Animal Society and the town of Antwerp.
If you are not interested in animals you can wander around in the beautifully maintained gardens, actually they deserve a visit just for them. Many of them contain exquisite sculptures, made by plants and bushes. This might be the most gorgeous garden in the town.
The most memorable things, at least for me, were the Indian monkeys, the gorillas and the okapis. And the loveliest fact – the weather decided to take pity on us and the sun was shinning through our visit. The entry ticket is quite expensive, but it’s worth it.
Actually, here in Antwerp, we didn’t have a strict plan, we just wanted to visit the zoo and the home of Rubens. Since we made the first one rather quick, we headed to the second. It turned out that the route takes you along the biggest and busiest market street, which slowed us greatly. It was just impossible not to enter in at least few stores…The beginning was for the diamond market, which quite surprisingly didn’t impress me much, apparently diamonds aren’t my best friends 🙂
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from the town, I thought it would be more of a industrial place, but it turned out beautiful and cosy town with lovely buildings and parks, and apparently richer than Ghent. I won’t compare it with Brugge, keeping in mind that Antwerp was one of the reasons for the decay in Brugge after taking over most of it’s trade… But bygones be bygones, nowadays they are both lovely and a must see.
But let’s get back to Rubens. His house is located in one of the quieter streets of the main boulevard and it’s rather dull on the outside. But when you enter it’s a different story. They started building in 1610 after Rubens’ first big order as a royal artist for the Spanish governors in Netherlands. Part of it’s design is his own and was inspired by the architecture of Roman Antiquity and by famous Renaissance artists and architects. The interior is packed with his paintings.
Rubens owned and patronizes other buildings but this one is housing his most remarkable paintings. Here his wife Isabela Brant dies, later and Rubens himself. After this tragic events the house is rented by William Cavendish who makes his dream a reality – he turns the gardens into a riding school. The next owners neglects the house greatly until 1937 when a massive restoration took place.
We made one big mistake in Antwerp – we decided to see all the landmarks on foot… We managed, but the price were our aching feet. The distance is longer than expected and I would strongly recommend to use the public transport.
However, after Rubens’ House we wanted to keep the spirit and headed to the old town center with the famous Town Hall and the Brabo’s Monument fountain.
Brabo is a legendary hero, who saved Antwerp from a giant with Russian descents, who built a castle on the river bank and wanted a tax from every passing ship. Whoever didn’t want to pay or couldn’t had to give a hand. One day, a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo passed with his ship and challenged the giant on a duel. Brabo won and chopped the giant’s head and arm and tossed them in the river.
The square is surrounded by majestic buildings, on one side is the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp. It building started in 1352 by design from the Jan and Pieter Appelmans. brothers and was ended in 1521, despite the fact that one of the towers on the facade was not finished. There are a few important Rubens works housed there.
We were pretty tired already and left my favourite travel app triposo to lead us. That is always a great idea and saw interesting sites on our way. The first one was the house of the Butchers Guild, built in red and white bricks to resemble bacon 🙂
Behind it, on the bank of the river is the Het Steen Castle. Het Steen is the oldest building in Antwerp – the first stones date from the 11th century – and over the centuries it has fulfilled several functions. It is located along the Scheldt River, near a former peninsula called De Werf. The first settlement with earth walls appeared on De Werf in the 9th century. It became a fortress. Around the turn of the century, between the 12th and 13th centuries, a stone fortress wall and Het Steen, one of three gatehouses in the fortress, were constructed here. Het Steen was substantially refurbished under Charles V at the beginning of the 16th century. You can still see the colour difference in the façade.
Het Steen was used as a prison until 1823. After serving shortly as a residence, sawmill and fish depot, Het Steen opened as a museum in 1862. Initially it was the Museum of Antiquities and from 1952 to 2008 it served as the National Maritime Museum. Now you can admire that collection in the MAS | Museum aan de Stroom.
Het Steen will undergo a substantial renovation starting in 2018. Het Steen will be the gateway to Antwerp in 2020 and serve as a cruise terminal, welcome centre and interactive experience route. The main focus of the experience centre will be Antwerp and its history.
From here we headed back to the station and our main goal was just to enjoy the sun. Despite our weariness we loved Antwerp and were not sorry that we made a change in our plans, which didn’t include it at first. But let’s not forget that the main reason for our visit was the zoo 🙂
Since it was our last day in Belgium, now is the time to express my surprise and how impressed I was by this country. My expectations were for a complete bore, mediocre cities and nothing interesting to do. And not to forget the bad weather. Luckily, we saw just the opposite and I’ll was remind myself never to cross off any country or destination just because of my lack of knowledge for it or simply because I’ve decided that it sucks.
So, long live the flight tickets sales, which gives us a chance of visiting places, unexpected even for ourselves!