Rick Steves doesn’t gush about Antwerp, so let me. First of all, the very train station is a remarkable fin-de-siecle building of the type that usually got demolished somewhere in the 1950s.
Secondly, although the Grote Markt or big square is just as beautiful and much older and more authentic than the Grand Place in Brussels, which was all rebuilt after Louis XIV flattened it in 1794, it is not shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists wearing Belgian beer t-shirts and buying reproductions of a stupid little peeing statue.
Thirdly, Antwerp has real artistic chops. Rubens lived here, and Jacob Jordaens and the Brueghels. Van Dyck trained here before going on to glory in England. And the city is proud of its artists, erects statues to them and names streets after them – Teniersplaats, Adriaan-Brouwer Straat, etc. Sadly, the main art museum, KMSKA, home to a tremendous collection of Flemish painting from the Renaissance onward, is closed for restoration until 2017, but some of its pieces are scattered throughout the city.
On our first afternoon in Antwerp, after shoehorning all of our luggage into the closet of our lovely hotel and eating lunch near the Grote Markt, we visited the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Kathedraal. The Cathedral of Our Lady is not just a big gothic building stripped of its altarpieces, as in Brussels, but still has several magnificent and very significant works by Rubens, especially the Raising of the Cross in his heroic style, the synthesis of the near decade he had just spent in Italy before returning home to Antwerp and painting it, and the Lowering of the Cross from a couple years later and less interesting to the boys as it does not contain a fluffy dog.
These were hugely influential paintings for the history of Northern Baroque painting. After seeing these, Alexander said, “Now we should see the Resurrection,” and I said, “Right over here!” but unfortunately that Rubens is under conservation and was not on view. But there is a spectacular later altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin over the main altar. And during the restoration of the NMSKA, the cathedral is housing an exhibit of some of its religious works.
Then went to the Rockox House. KMSKA has installed an exhibit called the Golden Cabinet there, focusing on the collecting practices of Antwerp’s elite. So Rockoxhuis works mingled with KMSKA works like the spectacular Jan van Eyck drawing of St. Barbara and the triptych Rubens painted of his friend Nicolaas Rockox and his wife, now back in their residence. The exhibit was very well done, including a film at least William paid attention to; he could tell us that some seashells cost as much as a car today. After the museum we revived with coffee on the Grote Markt, checked into our hotel, and had dinner at an elegant Thai restaurant on the waterfront. After dinner we strolled around the Steen, a fortress on the riverfront, and read about the Canadian troops who wrested the port from the Nazis and reestablished its connection to the North Sea, at great loss of life.
The next morning Mitchell went out on his bike, and the rest of us headed on another Rick Steves walking tour from the cathedral to Rubens’s house, passing the statue of Rubens on the Groenplaats and ducking into what may be the most beautiful chocolate store in the world, in a rococo palace later owned by Napoleon and the Belgian crown.
This was just around the corner from the Rubenshuis, where we saw the palace Rubens built in Italianate style and furnished lavishly as he became the most successful artist in Europe. For a small museum, they had an awful lot of works on loan, including something I would really have liked to have seen – from what I could gather, a device for starching those ridiculous collars. The boys were not terribly engaged, but it was very interesting seeing where the master lived and worked.
We met Mitchell at the station and had lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant before the kids & their grandparents headed for what is apparently one of the great zoos of Europe and Mitchell & I checked out the history of printing at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. This highly reviewed attraction was the home of one of Antwerp’s great publishing families and contains the oldest existing printing presses in the world. I thought I would geek out on it, but the espresso after lunch didn’t touch me at all, there was simply too much information, & I was having trouble staying awake. But the zoo was proclaimed Saucesome by William. Dinner was tapas on the Grote Markt – my last night with everyone.