Antwerp - The Epicenter of the World’s Diamond Trade
Antwerp in Belgium is located on the right bank of the River Scheldt. It connects with the North Sea through the Westerschelde. Antwerp is a thriving commercial center which has the second busiest harbor in Europe and the sixth busiest harbor in the World. It is the epicenter of the world’s diamond trade accounting for 70% of the trade of polished and nearly finished diamonds. Though this trade has historically been dominated by the Hasidic Jewish community it is now dominated by Indian and Armenian traders. The trade of diamonds constitutes 6 % of Belgium’s total exports and amounts to $ 4 billion a year. The trade takes place in the diamond district located in the old part of town and is concentrated in the 2500 diamond and jewelry shops located around the neo baroque domed railway station. Diamondland is Antwerp’s largest jewelry showroom.
Antwerp in its heyday in the 16th century was one of the busiest and richest cities of Europe. Its might was comparable to that of London and Paris. During this period with its fortified port guaranteeing its continuous wealth due to trade Antwerp saw guilds of traders and craftsmen being established in stone and wood buildings called guild halls which were located around Antwerp’s Grote Market.
Peter Paul Rubens who was the court painter at the Spanish Hapsburg court that presided over Antwerp at this time built an imposing mansion in the city center. The then Hapsburg ruler Charles V who was the commander of the Low Countries actively encouraged and aided the growth of Antwerp. However, this prosperous period was followed by a period marked by religious strife caused due to protests by the protestant populations who revolted against their Roman Catholic rulers. A series of events which included a horrific massacre of 8000 inhabitants of Antwerp saw the Protestants flee to the north of the country.
At the end of the thirty year war in 1648, the city of Antwerp continued to remain Roman Catholic under the rule of the Spanish Netherlands. At this time the port of Antwerp was bared to non Dutch ships and this era saw the demise of Antwerp’s port as the city of Amsterdam came into prominence. The eighteenth century saw a succession of different nationalities seize control of Antwerp as the Spanish rule gave way to the Austrian rule which was in turn replaced by the French occupation under Napoleon. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at the battle of Waterloo,Belgium was incorporated into the Kingdom of Netherlands which was composed of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.
The twentieth century then saw Belgium being occupied twice by the Germans during the course of the two World Wars until the city was liberated by the Allies in 1944 after much bombardment.
Today the port of Antwerp is one of the world’s largest cargo ports which handles a lot of the traffic from the Oil refineries of Europe.
Climate and Weather
The best time to visit Antwerp is the between the months of May and September. The summer temperatures can go up sometimes to as high as 25°C (77°F). Antwerp sees a fairly mild winter with temperatures ranging between 3°C (32°F) to 6°C (43°F).
The main languages spoken in Antwerp are Dutch and French but English is also widely understood and spoken.
Belgium is a part of the European Union having joined the Union as one of the first few member states in the alliance. The Euro is widely accepted as legal tender.
Antwerp is served by the Antwerp International Airport which is located in the district of Deurne. The airport is located at a distance of four km south east of the city center. A single carrier serves the airport which is VLM. This airline flies to London and Manchester. The flight time to London is an hour with the airline flying into London’s City Airport. There exists a bus service from the airport to near the Centraal railway station. The Bus operates on the hour from 5.30 am to 11 pm.
It is far easier to fly into Brussels Zaventem airport and then connect to Antwerp. Due to the geography of Belgium there are no domestic flights in the country. The best connection to Antwerp from Zaventem airport is via the Airport City Express train. The train runs from the station adjacent to Zaventem and it runs at a frequency of fifteen minutes from 5.30 am to 11 pm. There exists also the option to go by the SN Brussels Airlines Express bus which leaves the airport at 5.30 am and goes to the bus station near the Centraal Station in Antwerp every hour from 7am to 10 pm.
Antwerp has two main train stations the Centraal Station located at the east of the city center and the Berchem Station which is located to the south east. From Berchem the Thalys trains go to and fro from Paris seven times a day and six times a day to and fro from Amsterdam. Several regional train services connect Antwerp to Brussels and to Lier from Centraal station in downtown Antwerp.
Eurolines bus service connects Antwerp to other major European cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and London. The De Lijn bus service provides domestic bus services between Antwerp and other cities in Belgium.
Antwerp is ringed by a network of highways that lead to cities such as Brussels, Gent and even Breda in the Netherlands. Both sides of the Scheldt River are connected by three tunnels and a fourth tunnel is under construction with the proposed completion scheduled for 2012.
Getting Around Antwerp
Antwerp has a well developed public transport system hence driving on Antwerp’s somewhat congested roads is not very enjoyable. There is much construction going on at present so driving in the city is all the more cumbersome though all the major car rental agencies are well represented in Antwerp. The city is served by a network of Buses, Taxis, Trams and the Metro. De Lijn operates the city bus service. A number of options exist for tickets one can buy a single ride ticket, a ten ride ticket or an all day pass. Buses in Antwerp operate from 6 in the morning to midnight. Taxis can be procured from the Taxi stands or they can be called. The initial flag fall for a taxi is 2.70 Euros with a subsequent per km charge of 1.20 euros. This charge goes up to 1.86 euros at night.
Cathedral of Our Lady, Grote Markt
Work on Antwerp’s most famous landmark was begun on 1352 and completed in 1520. This church with its 404 ft white stone lacework spire which is the tallest in the Benelux countries has survived many a disaster. A devastating fire in 1533 was followed by attacks by the iconoclasts in the 16th century, damage by the French revolutionaries during which Ruben’s masterpieces that adorn the church were removed this resilient church built in the Gothic style has withstood it all. Today the church with its seven aisles and 125 pillars is breathtaking in its beauty. On its wall are four oeuvres of the city’s favorite son Peter Paul Rubens. These works are The Raising of the Cross done in 1610, The Descent from the Cross completed in 1614, The Resurrection of Christ completed in 1612 and the Ascension of the Virgin which was done in 1626. Apart from these masterpieces one must mention Rombout’s stained glass window which is an impressive work depicting the scene of the last supper. The bells of the Cathedral peal in the manner of a carillon concert on Sunday between 3 and 4pm and on Monday between 8 and 9 pm during the months of July and August. Free guided English tours are available at the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal during the summer and tourist heavy months of July and August.
Runbenshuis, Wapper 9-11
The three storey stone and brick home built in the Renaissance style was the home of Peter Paul Rubens. The court painter and diplomat, was well compensated for his artistic prowess and was able to build this stunning villa surrounded by an ornamental garden on a paved off canal in the city’s main commercial shopping district. He lived here from 1577 to 1640. The villa contains pieces of Roman art collected by the artist which so inspired his works, ten of which are on display in the villa including a self portrait done
when he was 47 years old.
Plantin- Moretus Museum
This museum was originally the home of Christoffe Plantiin. Plantin established a printing workshop in the mansion and produced multilingual translations of the Bible amongst other works. His grandson was a contemporary of Rubens and many of the great master’s works adorn this 34 room edifice which almost covers an entire block. The museum has displays of rare Flemish wall tapestries, rare books and original presses and fonts. In room 4 on the ground floor are books which were banned by the clergy. Plantin, , was accused of having printed these books and this caused him to flee to France to seek refuge in 1562.
Rubens is buried in the apse of this Gothic Church with its baroque interior. The church has seven chapels and it is in one of these chapels that the Rubens vault is located. The church is adorned by several works of the Belgian masters Van Dyck and Rubens as well as others.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts
This museum located on the southern edge of the Old city on the Leopold de Waelplaats has displays which comprise the largest collection of old Masters in the worlds. This grand collection contains works of art by Jan Van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden and Rembrandt. The marble entrance hall has frescos painted by the city’s favorite son Rubens. The museum has paintings which cover five centuries.
The sixteenth century town hall was constructed during the years 1561 to 1565. The town hall is fronted by a statue of a Roman soldier called Silvius Brabo who seems to be throwing an object which looks like a hand. The myth behind the statue is that a giant called Druon Antigon used to reign over the Scheldt River. The giant used to extract tolls from the sailors for the use of the river. and used to cut off the hands of those sailors who couldn’t pay the toll. Silvius Brabo says the myth cut off the hand of the dragon and threw it into the River. The town hall was designed by Cornelius Floris.
This medieval fortress located on the banks of the River Scheldt dates back to the thirteenth century. It is Antwerp’s oldest building and has within its folds the National Maritime museum. The museum has exhibits of documents on river navigation and general maritime history as well as models of sailing ships of yester yore.
This Antwerp Fashion museum is housed in a restored 19th century ModeNatie building in the historic part of town, It has exhibits of lace, clothing, haberdashery, fabrics and tools used over the ages for textile processing. The museum also has exhibits of works of contemporary Belgian designers such as Dries Van Nooten and Ann Demeulemeester.
Mayer Van den Bergh Museum
Located in the banking district on 19, Lange Gasthuisstraat this museum houses yet another stupendous art collection. The most famous work here is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Dulle Griet’.
Antwerp’s most charming hotel is the boutique hotel called ‘De Witte Lelie’ or “The White Lilly”. The hotel is owned and operated by two German sisters called Monica Bock and Dagmar Nitz- Bauer. The hotel is a modern hotel with modern amenities and stainless steel light fixtures which are combined with old world elements such 16th century rafters, antiques, marble fireplaces and works of contemporary art. The hotel is renowned for its excellent service. This hotel can be accessed for rates and availability online at www.dewittelelie.be.
Rubens Grote Markt is a hotel housed in a 16th century mansion with luxurious furnishings and an air of old fashioned coziness. This hotel can be accessed online at www.hotelrubensantwerp.be. Rubenshof is a small family run hotel which used to be the home of a Belgian cardinal. The hotel is furnished with ornate wood carvings and stained glass windows. This hotel can be accessed online at www.rubenshof.be for room rates and availability.