Monday, April 24, 2006

Tales of a Kiwi Guide in Antwerp

The Canadian's were in town today ...

Alison's parents are over from Canada and she wondered if I might like to play tour guide in my Belgian city.
I loved the idea.

We met on De Keyserlei at Exki, more for a mutually known location and coffee than for decor; breakfast too. We took a slow stroll along the Meir; the long car less shopping street that is said to create the backbone of the city. I was aiming for Groenplaats, home to The Hilton hotel and a large statue of the city's most famous son - Rubens, the famous 17th century painter.

Groenplaats or Green Square is still referred to as Groen Kerhof, the Green Cemetery by some; a reference to the fact that the area functioned as a cemetery until the Austrian occupiers abolished the practice of burying the dead inside the city in the 18th century. Today Groenplaats was full of people ... spring was in the air and we hit 18oC as the day progressed.

Alison's dad, a recent convert to Guinness, turned his camera on the Irish Pub on the square's corner, where there was something about pouring a Guinness. It was early in Antwerp and he couldn't be persuaded that a Guinness would be morally fine if we made a small shift to Kiwi time ...

We wandered down Reynders Straat and I pointed out the Genever store along the way ... Advocaat too, stunning stuff. There's this quirky thing about Belgium ... working conditions have been maintained and so it was no surprise to Alison and I when we read that the store didn’t open until midday.

Left onto Hoogstraat and past De Zwarte Panter … the Black Panther art gallery is the contemporary resident in this former 16th century Sint Julianusgasthuis, one of Antwerp’s oldest charitable institutions. For centuries, the tradition of offering a pilgrim’s meal to 12 needy men was continued, in remembrance of the Last Supper.

Monday … the first rule of any good guide; first lesson learned by this amateur guide … many many places are closed. I knew it but time and I have never had a good relationship … it takes a traumatic forgetting to remind me to remember these things.

I led them to Grote Pieter Potstraat … medieval in character, it is one of the city’s oldest streets. The Priory of S.Salvator is the only building to survive an ancient past and the street is named after Pieter Pot, a wealthy banker and merchant who was famous for his generosity.

We veered off to the River Schelde and admired the Steen; the waterfront castle that dates from the 12th century, making it the oldest surviving building in Antwerp. It serves as the National Maritime Museum these days but we just strolled around the free edges.

The guide jogged off to check street names before taking her group of 3 into Grote Markt and learning new things about the impressive Brabo Fountain in front of the renaissance architecture of Antwerp’s Town Hall.

The statue tells its own story if one is paying attention, a fact I hadn’t noticed until Alison pointed the way. Legend goes that a giant named Antigoon was terrorizing all ships trying to enter the city. Demanding a high toll, he would cut off the hands of any crews failing to meet his demands. In strode Silvius Brabo, the Roman who fought with the giant and won, cutting off Antigoon’s head and his hand … throwing them both in the river.

Antwerpen literally means, to throw the hand.

Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal was swarming with tourists, and not being that kind of tourist we head for Vlaeykensgang; a 16th century alleyway hidden behind an unobtrusive door on Oude Koornmarkt (although okay, we did enter from Hoogstraat … sometimes I lose streets, it’s a Di thing).

The Kathedraal was still horribly busy so we headed off for the pub of the saints, formerly known as Elfde Gebod, it’s my place … The Eleventh Commandment, previously mentioned here. We ordered a lunch there and found it delicious and cheap … a nice ‘time out’ from touring actually.

We wandered through the Kathedraal, it’s a bit of a must see and only 2euro to enter.

The big plan for the day was Schoonselhof Cemetery. Alison’s great uncle was one of the Commonwealth soldiers buried there and her mother wanted to visit his grave so we caught Tram 24 and went to the end of the line. It’s rather beautiful out there and the military part of the cemetery honours the war dead with tended gardens and uniform headstones.

My tour guiding fell to pieces not long after... I invited them home for a drink and rest before they headed back over to Brussels. Tram 24 let me down in unprecedented ways. The roadworks were stunning, slowing our sardine-jammed tram, we passed through the city and were thrown off Tram 24 at Borgerhout … a loudspeaker announcement in Dutch, one I might not have understood but it was acted upon and the tram emptied.

I was too tired for this turn of events but I know this Belgian guy with endless patience ... he got us back on another tram (his life must have been so dull before me and my SOS calls) and we made it home without further incident.

They were really nice people, I had a great day.

Tomorrow I’m up at 4.45am, celebrating my ANZAC Day in Belgium, following the footsteps of my Grandfather who was injured while fighting in Flanders in WW1.
I’ll let you know how it goes.


jarvenpa said...

Thank you, how nice to be able to tour with you! Definitely more exotic than my small rural town.

wandering-woman said...

What a delicious tour!

I've only visited Antwerp once, last summer, for a couple of days, but I carried a little piece of her home with me - a little white cast iron piggy, complete with wings, that I bought at a little market tucked back in a plaza behind hmmm.. could it be the Cathedral? - they did have a Spanish tour, which made us very happy.

And I still stare at my photos of the fountain you describe...That truly is one of my favorite squares, not sure why.
Ah and I stuffed myself on mussels nearby, as I recall, and drank my first Trappist beer..
Thanks for bringing all that back. It was fun to go along on your tour.

woman wandering said...

I don't know jarvenpa, I enjoy visiting your place :)

Hey w-w, Antwerp and summer are delicious together. Nice that you're back, I'll have to pop over and see if you have had time for a trip report :)

traveller one said...

What a lovely travelogue... I especially love that first photo- it's awesome!

Dobermann said...

Looks beautiful! Every time you post stuff from Antwerp I want to go there more and more. Damn, I will have to get there soon. ;)

woman wandering said...

I liked that first photo too, traveller one, it's kind of quirky, I loved the idea that a 12th century castle has a cleaning lady.

You will have to doberman but in truth, don't come in winter ... I may have misrepresented Antwerp in that instance. :) Spring, summer and autumn, no worries.

Mark J said...

Man - I soooo can't wait for my personally guided tour. The trouble is I'll have to take so much time off work! I better invest in Lotto:)

woman wandering said...

Good to hear that you might finally get yourself over here Mark. You would have loved Istanbul too. Forget Lotto, just fill your spare hours with another job lol ;)