Antwerp

The Grote Markt
The Grote Markt

Belgium’s Second City

Antwerp is the second city of Belgium after Brussels and regarded as the unofficial capital of Flanders.

This city of over half a million people has made its fortune largely through its location on the River Scheldt. The river, which flows into the North Sea, has provided Antwerp with a thriving commercial shipping trade that has enabled the city to create one of the largest ports in Europe.

Even though there’s probably been a settlement here since Gallo-Roman times, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the city’s importance grew as a trading centre. From the 12th to the 15th centuries Bruges was the most important port in the Low Countries due mainly to its import and export of woollen goods with the rest of Europe, but by around 1500 its tidal inlet started to silt up, and Antwerp didn’t waste any time in becoming its successor.

The first half of the 16th century saw Antwerp’s fortunes grow, not only in commercial trade, but also in the financial arrangements surrounding it, and borrowing and lending money made even more money. This led to the city becoming the richest in Europe and one of the world’s most important financial centres.

This lofty position in the financial world wasn’t to last indefinitely though because the 80 Years War between The Netherlands and Spain (1568-1648) included the Siege of Antwerp in 1585, and the financial institutions being transferred to Amsterdam.

Ports usually have a fair sprinkling of immigrants and new settlers, and Antwerp is no different. This multi-cultural city’s Jewish enclave developed into one of the world’s leading diamond centres, and still operates from the Diamond Quarter near Central Station today.

Unbelievably, the port survived relatively unscathed from the Second World War, and Antwerp still boasts a healthy trade in Petrochemicals and car manufacture, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that the city is all about its port and commercial business. This is also somewhere that has a rich cultural background, fine architecture and even a fashion industry. This was the home of the printer Christoph Plantin and artists such as Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. It’s a city that cherishes its heritage yet has a modern outlook and a vibrant nightlife – and people with welcoming open arms for anyone who wants to enjoy the city with them.