In my previous post about Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel I mentioned that I met a couple of friends from Belgium at the Fawlty Towers evening. Kirsty lived, and still does, in Tongeren, and although we had often communicated through the Virtual Tourist (VT) website that we both belonged to, we had never met in real life, not until, that is, we both went to a VT meeting in Belgium’s second city, Antwerp.
As much as I would love to describe this fabulous weekend in detail, this post is about Antwerp, rather than the people I hung out with, many of whom are still very good friends, I’m pleased to say.
I flew from Bristol to Amsterdam and then caught a train across the border into Belgium and arrived at the impressive Antwerp Centraal railway station, which annoyingly, from the point of view of taking pictures, had a Big Wheel stuck right in front of it.
The station is situated right in the heart of Antwerp’s Diamond District, and fortunately for me, so was my hotel. I don’t mean it to sound that I’m into this sort of thing, but it gives me a chance to explain how this city of over half a million people became such an important centre for the world’s diamond trade.
The Diamond District is also the Jewish District, and as you may have guessed, it’s not a coincidence. There were Jews in Antwerp as far back as the 13th century, but their money-lending activities never endeared them to the local population (or anywhere else for that matter). I think it’s only fair to point out though that Jews in those days weren’t allowed to buy land or work in agriculture, and money-lending was a convenient way of earning a living, but nevertheless, it wasn’t until the latter years of the 19th century that the Jewish population were fully accepted into the Antwerp community.
As far as the diamond trade is concerned, the business was given a big boost when Lodewyk van Berken, an Antwerp diamond cutter, invented the scaif in 1456. This was a tool that cut and polished the stones in a way that gave them that special sparkle that they are so renowned for. From that time onwards, the city’s diamond trade went from strength to strength.
Jews were not only adept at making money through lending money, they were also historically involved in handling diamonds, and so it was inevitable I suppose that they would also become involved in dealing in diamonds – or at least they did until Hitler had other ideas.
Around 20,000 of Antwerp’s pre-war Jewish population of 35,000 perished in the holocaust, but the diamond trade managed to survive. When the war was over, the local mayor encouraged other Jewish survivors from around Europe to help build the business up and it wasn’t long before the area around Centraal Station became the largest diamond district in the world: Business was conducted in the Yiddish language but not on Saturdays, and while I think of it, the word jewellery does not come from the word Jew, in case you were wondering.
Although the 1960s saw India take a big slice of the cutting and polishing side of the business away, Antwerp still remained the world’s most important diamond centre. When I was here in 2012 the city saw around 84% of the world’s rough diamonds passing through it, with a turnover of around $54 billion dollars, and today it still employs 80% of Antwerp’s 18,000 Jews (mostly Ultra-orthodox) and has 1700 registered traders. The latest figures I have are for 2016, when more than 200 million carats of both uncut and polished diamonds were traded in what is now called the Square Mile.
Although the area has become more multi-cultural in recent years, plenty of Jews can still be seen wandering around, and I think it’s about time I did some wandering of my own and show you a bit more of what the city has to offer.
Most of the city’s tourist sites are located within, what I would call the inner ring road, but unlike many other places it’s not usually referred to as the Old Town. There are good public transport connections from the Diamond District, but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to wander down through the town instead.
Starting off at De Keyserlei (which is located on the opposite side of Centraal Station from the Zoo), it’s not far to walk down to the inner ring road I was talking about, and then after crossing over it near the opera house, there’s the first reminder that the city has more to offer than just diamonds. The statue of David Teniers the Younger may not mean anything to you (he didn’t to me), but he was just one of many famous artists that came from Antwerp. Just a bit further on down the street called Meir there’s a statue of another artist, and one you may have heard of – Anthony Van Dyck. His work took him to London amongst other places, but I’m not going to give you his life story here because nearby in Wapper (yes, that is how it’s spelt) is the home and workplace of his former mentor, Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens was born in 1577, not in Antwerp, but in Westphalia, Germany, but his roots were here. His early life makes for interesting reading (as does his life in general), but as this topic is about Antwerp and not the artist, I’m just going to give a brief explanation about the Rubenshuis should anyone think of visiting it.
There’s no doubt that Peter Paul Rubens is held in high esteem in Antwerp, and a visit to his home and workplace is almost a must on anyone’s itinerary. That in itself, tells you that you won’t be on your own when you come here, especially if, like me and my mate Mickey from Manchester, you find yourself visiting in the middle of Summer. He bought the house in 1610 (Rubens, not Mickey) and immediately set about changing it into an Italian Palazzo, and this is essentially how it looks today – after much renovation I might add.
The house and gardens are worth the modest entrance fee, but if you’re expecting to see a good collection of his Baroque paintings, then I’m afraid you’ll be left somewhat disappointed. What’s more, as Mickey kept banging on about, “you couldn’t even take any pictures”, which is why I was only able to include one of the Palazzo from the garden.
Meir is the main shopping street in Antwerp, and if you’re already getting a bit weary you may need a helping hand for a while, and Antigoon is there to help. Antigoon is a legendary Antwerp figure and I’ve written about him in my post about the Grote Markt.
Ahead is a building you can’t miss, even if you wanted to, because it was one of Europe’s first skyscrapers. The Boerentoren (Farmer’s Tower) was built between 1929 and 1932 in the Art Deco style. Officially called the KBC Tower, its original height of 87.5 m (287 ft) has been extended to 95.8 m (314 ft) which includes the antenna. Even though it was the second tallest building in Europe when it was built, it has never been the tallest structure in Antwerp. That accolade belongs to the Cathedral of Our Lady which you can get a good view of as you walk past the tower and around the corner into Groenplaats, where you’ll also find a statue of Peter Paul Rubens.
Construction on the present cathedral started in 1352 and wasn’t finished until 1521 – a total of 169 years (and I thought the Sagrada Familia was taking a long time). What’s more, it still wasn’t completed to the intended design. There were supposed to be two towers like the one that still exists, but the other tower barely made it half-way. Even so, at 123 m (404 ft), the North Tower is extremely impressive and helps to make it the largest Gothic Cathedral in the Low Countries.
The interior may seem a bit low-key in comparison, but after changing hands between Catholics and Protestants over the centuries, several attempts at taking or damaging its treasures, and a plan to destroy the church altogether by French Revolutionaries, it’s a wonder there’s anything left here at all. Inevitably, the majority of what there is to see has been through a succession of restoration projects, and for art enthusiasts, the highlight of a tour of the cathedral is bound to be the four Rubens paintings that are on display here.
Just yards away from the front of the Cathedral is the end of our walk, and the highlight of Antwerp – the Grote Markt; a great place to while away an hour or two with a beer or two, all within a square of typical Flemish buildings that are dominated by the wonderful City Hall. Please follow the link to my post about the Grote Markt to find out more.
In my next post I’ll be showing you a part of the city that explains why Antwerp became the unofficial capital of Flanders.