Antwerp is a special city. Every time you get here, it seems to have changed. Possibly because of the many pop-ups, new stories and wonderful meetings. But Antwerp also has places with a permanent nature such as the Jain temple, the chocolate palace and the ever so sad story of Nello and Patrache.
The idea to live in Antwerp was eventually dropped because I lost my heart to another port city and went to live in Rotterdam.
Antwerp, 7 things to know before you go
Although I had never regretted that choice, there is still something gnawing when I am in Antwerp. A kind of homesickness. What would it have been like if I had stayed there all these years? If my kids here had grown up on the banks of the river Scheldt?
I love coming to Antwerp, with or without my kids. And if you like to (re) discover the city then I love to share 7 things to know before you go.
1. City of pop-ups
The city looks different each time I meet her. Maybe it’s the time of year but in the winter I find the city different from when I left her in October. Maybe because Antwerps changes all the time as she is the queen of pop-ups. Shops, restaurants, small concept stores, one minute they are there and then they are gone again.
Over the Christmas season there was a great pop-up called LTD. Bike Shop De Geus and Book store t Stad Leest had a joint venture for two months with great books lying between bikes. Or what to think of the magnificent former post office on the Groenmarkt being transformed into food heaven Mercado.
Inspired by markets as the Torvehallerne in Copenhagen, the London Food Hall and the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. You can not only enjoy street food from all over the world but also enjoy arts and local bands.
I can tell you about that fabulous design store A Better Blend in the Grand Bazar or the Belgian travel agency in fifties style on the first floor of the Mercado. But by the time your read this, they are already gone. That’s okay though because you in turn will discover new popups.
2. City of Jews and Jains
This time I had come by train. I arrived deep underground. Men with ringlets reminded me on the escalator going up that Antwerp has a large Orthodox Jewish community. Concentrated around the Belgiëlei. not far from the station. I immediately felt like to eating a falafel at Beni Falafel an ancient vegetarian restaurant with kosher dishes on the menu.
I remembered what I had read about the Antwerp eiruv. On Sabbath pious Jews may move outdoors only for a limited stretch. Therefore walls or water marks the boundaries. But if there are no walls a thread will do on tree height. The Antwerp eiruv is unique because it is the only one that spans an entire city.
Red Star Line museum
In the Red Star Line museum in Antwerp there recorded stories of Jews trying to reach America from Antwerp. Sometimes a family was torn apart because some members could not leave due to illness or they were sent back because of a disease.
Like Ita Moel. Her father had long left for America but she was refused entrance on two separate occasions because of a contagious eye disease. These stories make the museum worth exploring.
But did you know that Antwerp has the largest Jain temple outside of India? In Wilrijk to be exact. Jainism respects all forms of life, all living beings. Therefore, they sweep the path on which they walk before them with a broom to minimize the chance they trample on an insect.
They abhor all forms of violence against people, animals and even microorganisms. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Jainism. You can visit the temple.
3. City of specialty shops
After arriving in Antwerp, a man with two French Mastiffs in a tricycle, almost run me over. Moments later, another French Mastiff stared at me from the entrance of Sir Arthur at the Hopland 34. The dog was accompanied by an equally motionless flamingo.
This duo forms part of a shop run by a taxidermist (prepares dead animals) and a furniture upholsterer. “All animals have died a natural death, we do not have deer heads and other hunting trophies,” I later read on the website.
In the shop next door they do obviously do not believe in natural deaths. There’s a woman trying to spray a withered brown boxwood green again with paint. That’s what I mean by Antwerp. No matter how cool Rotterdam is, you would never find a stuffed Mastiff next to a painted green boxwood.
4. City of chocolate
Chocolate addict? In Antwerp you are Tintin in Chocolate Land. There are so many delis that you can keep yourself busy all weekend just with buying and eating chocolate. Visit for example the Chocolate palace of Dominique Persoone on the Meir 50. The palace was bought by Napoleon in 1799.
According to rumors Napolean just loved chocolate as did Tsar Alexander I, William I the Prince of Orange and Leopold II, who later stayed in this palace. The property is well worth a visit. And do have a look in the kitchen!
5. City of stories
Antwerp is a city of stories. Like the story of Nello and Patrache, a boy and his dog immortalized on the square in front of the cathedral. The story is like a mix of Hector Malots Alone in the world and Hatchi.
During the Christmas period, while children are skating on the rink at the Groenplaats or singing carols near the cathedral, the story about the orphan Nello and his dog Patrache is a real tearjerker.
Nello lives with his grandfather. One day he finds an exhausted and abused working dog. Patrache becomes a great help when distributing milk. Nello is happy with the dog and is in love with the daughter of Alois the miller. In his spare time he develops his talent for drawing.
He regularly visits the Cathedral of Antwerp to admire the paintings by Rubens. To his chagrin, he is not allowed to see the two paintings of the Deposition, on the side altars, as they are only for the paying public. He enters a a drawing contest in the hope to earn money with his talent.
Then disaster strikes. His grandfather dies, the mill burns down and he gets the blame. He has no more money to invest in the milk he sells and he does not win the competition. On Christmas Eve he dies of deprivation in the cathedral with the dog in his arms.
Just in front of the painting that he was not allowed to see as a poor boy. In short: a sad sad story. Think of the boy when you stand in front of the Rubens.
6. City of special food
Antwerp, and that goes for most Flemish cities really, offers incredibly good and well priced food. Wander through the neighborhood Wilde Zee. Named Wild Sea because it used to regularly be flooded when the River Scheldt had it floodgates open. Now it is the district of the delicacies.
At bakery Bakker Goossens people stand in line far beyond the shop to be allowed to enter this sanctuary. Communist ways, kapitalist offers. And very tasty.
My favorite restaurant is no doubt De Gulden Bock. A delicatessen and restaurant in one. Situated in a beautiful old building the caterer is located downstairs. A stone staircase leads you to the restaurant on the first floor where delicious dishes await you.
You get information and tips from owner Arne and than chooses what you want to eat. The kitchen then prepares it for you. So good. You can only come here for lunch so plenty of options to go somewhere for the evening.
This time I ended up not having lunch at the Golden Bock but at the Local Store, an ugly apartment building whose lower floor has been converted into a trendy shop that serves soups and sandwiches. In addition, they sell wine, charcuterie, cheese, coffee and fresh herbs and cacti.
If you are into industrial warehouses and into meat, will enjoy a lunch or dinner at BBQ restaurant Black Smoke. It is housed on the 5th floor of the former storage building of the De Koninck brewery.
The owners first took a road trip through the US to gather inspiration on all sort of cuinary ways of preparing meat and sausages. But as a vegetarian you can also eat here. And the beer lover is more than welcomed. A rooftop terrace and a bar belonging to the same owners are also to be found in this unique building.
7. City of wonderful encounters
Antwerp locals are always open for a chat. During my last visit I met Kristien In-‘t- Ven and Greetje van Bruggenhout. A journalist and a photographer who reminded me of Nomad & Villager. Except that they have an army of minors in service with whom they published a travel book for children.
Their book België voor kinderen en hun baasjes, (Belgium for children and their bosses highlights the best trips for children in Belgium and in Antwerp. From food to museum and the best tips come from children.
“Because,” the authors write in their foreword. “Children are usually smarter than they look, great company too (if they are not hungry), and they are ever so curious. It is a good idea to feed that curiosity. If only for arriving at the strangest places.”
In the Polar Bar, a pop-up bar with sleds, fires and bar with Alice in Wonderland theme – not quite sure that applied only to its visitors – I run into Nico. The bar is at the cruise terminal next to the Ferris wheel.
Nico had just fled the dance floor and was urgently looking for a Dutch girlfriend. He was soon to turn 50 and who wants to turn 50 without having a Dutch Dutch girlfriend? Well, not Nico anyway. I was not available and I’m not sure whether he succeeded in the end, but at least the search provided a hilarious night.
In the evening I take the train back to the Netherlands, it is dark now. At the back of the railway station illuminated animals keep guard. They are part of the China Light festival.
Elephants squirt each other. Zebras are walking in formation on a plain and even dragons live in this special zoo.
When I come back in spring, they will be gone, but the city will have given way to new events and adventures.
Text: Anneke de Bundel – Images: Anneke de Bundel and Shutterstock