Friday, April 25, 2014

Boats, Windmills and Tulips… Antwerp, Belgium

Day 6 - Antwerp, Belgium
Our next destination was Antwerp. As we were sailing into Antwerp we passed through a number of locks and under a number of bridges. I thought this scene was whimsical - three local girls sitting on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away.
Antwerp is the second largest city Belgium, after the capital Brussels. Antwerp is located on the right bank of the river Scheldt and is linked to the North Sea. The city has one of the largest seaports in Europe. Antwerp is also famous for for being the world's leading diamond city, more than 70% of all diamonds are traded in Antwerp.
When we arrived in Antwerp one of the first things I noticed was the tall spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady - it towers above all.
It made me a little dizzy looking up at the 404 foot high spire.
The cathedral was built in gothic style by architects Jan and Pieter Appelmans. It contained a number of significant works by the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Unlike many of the Dutch towns that we visited, Antwerp seemed to have statues, carvings and ornamentations on many of the buildings.
The market square, called the Grote Markt, was surrounded by these medieval guild houses. Each house would represent a different trade. These buildings are relatively new. The original houses were destroyed in the fire of 1576. They were rebuilt in Flemish renaissance style, but were revamped again in the 19th century, resulting in the current lavishly decorated houses.
This door belonged to the Vleeshuis guild. Literally, this is the "meat house". It was built as the guild hall for the butchers. Every day tonnes of meat switched owners here. 
The building is famous for the original masonry and is made to resemble stacks of bacon switching between white stones and red bricks. It now houses a museum, of which the main part comprises a musical instrument collection, including some examples of old harpsichords built by the local Ruckers family.
I believe that this was one of the oldest houses in the town of Antwerp.
I would say 1442 is pretty old.
Don't you hate it when you take a photo, then can not remember the context or significance of the subject matter. I believe that this was an office for the port and all the seamen would check in at the office. 
On one side of the central square lies the city hall.
These horses stood patiently in the front of the city hall waiting to offer a ride to tourists.
Near the city center and alongside the Scheldt river bank is a medieval fortress called Het Steen. The structure was built after the Viking incursions in the early Middle Ages as the first stone fortress of Antwerp. Het Steen is Antwerp's oldest building and used to be its oldest urban centre.
At the entrance bridge to the fortress is a statue of a giant and two humans. It depicts the giant Lange Wapper who used to terrorise the inhabitants of the city in medieval times. The legend started in the 16th century in Wilrijk. A farmer found an enormous garden parsley and a red cabbage in his bed. When he touched the vegetables, they turned into a cute baby. As he was unable to take care for the child it was adopted by a family living in Antwerp. Many years later the boy helped persons in need. One day he saved an old woman who was thrown into the Scheldt river by a youth gang. The old woman thanked the man by giving him some gifts such as the ability to shapeshift and to make himself so tall he could move from one town to another with a single giant leap. As he preferred to be in his tall size, he got the nickname Lange Wapper. The man turned into a water sprite who liked to live near the sea, near rivers or canals. Since then, Lange Wapper used tricks to approach women to get their breast milk. He teases drunks, cheats whilst playing with children and laughs like the devil.
The Dutch word "steen" means "stone" and is used for "fortress" or "palace". The fortress made it possible to control access to the Scheldt river. The structure was used as a prison between 1303 and 1827. The largest part of the fortress, including dozens of historic houses and the oldest church of the city, was demolished in the 19th century when the quays were straightened to stop the silting up of the Scheldt. The remaining building, heavily changed, now contains a shipping museum
While walking around Antwerp we encountered a number of interesting passageways.
Nooks with intriguing views.
Cobblestone walkways
And winding staircases
This tight alley area is known as the Vlaeykensgang. At the end of the 19th century, there were many of these alleys in the city center. They may look idyllic now, but at the time only the poorest were housed here. Living conditions were often abysmal, with many of the large families crammed into small spaces. Sanitary conditions were poor with often just one pump providing water for a whole alley. During the 20th century, many of these alleys were demolished and redeveloped. By the 1960s the dilapidated Vlaeykensgang was also slated for demolishment, but fortunately a local antique dealer purchased the houses in the alley and restored the whole complex. 

Supposedly the custodians of the cathedral's bells lived in this area due to its proximity to the cathedral. In case of an emergency, the bell ringers would run to the cathedral and sound the alarm by ringing the bells. 
This lock was part of a house in the Vlaeykensgang and was designed with the outline of a drinking chalice. After a night of drinking the owner of the house might stumble home a little tipsy. In a dark alley with little light it would be difficult to find the key hole. However, he could trace the edge of the chalice with his key until he found the key hole.
At the edges of Grote markt there was a commercial area which contained a number of shops and cafes. 
This Belgium couple seemed to be enjoying the overcast day by sitting near the square and comparing notes on something.
A little walking distance from the city center we came across an antiques market. 
There were plenty of interesting items for sale, but nothing really caught my eye.
And then I came across this boars head. I thought that it would be the perfect tacky souvenir for my brother. But then I thought that some Belgium chocolate might be easier to carry home.
In the afternoon, I was able to meet up with two of my friends Wim and Debbie. They are actually Dutch and live in the nearby town of Breda. They drove from Breda to Antwerp just to spend the afternoon. We originally met each other about two years ago when I was traveling around the Galapagos Islands. They took me to a nearby restaurant and introduced me to a croquette. A croquette is a small breadcrumbed fried food roll usually containing as the main ingredients mashed potatoes and/or ground meat. It was fried crispy on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside.
We went to a different restaurant where they introduced me to freits, what others might call fries or chips. However, in The Netherlands and Belgium, freits are typically eaten with mayonnaise or a special sauce composed of mayonnaise. Inside the cafe I could choose between a dozen different sauces to accompany my freits. Debbie said that she could actually tell the difference between the Dutch mayonnaise and the Belgium mayonnaise. I could not, but I believed that she could. 
After we ate some croquettes and freits we passed by this beer store. Of course Belgium is famous for their beer. I stopped by the store to look at the selection, but I did not buy anything. Wim and Debbie suggested that we go to a local pub and order some beer. We found a pub with outdoor seating, sat down and order some drinks.
I'm not really a beer expert, so I asked Wim what he recommended. He ordered a De Koninck. I said make it two. Debbie preferred a glass of wine. Any time you order a beer in a pub, the beer comes in a special glass designed for that specific brand of beer. So our De Koninck beer came in a De Koninck glass. From what I could gather, De Koninck, is something of a Flemish institution. Its standard beer, De Koninck, is a smooth, yellowish pale ale that is better on draft than in the bottle.

We drank our beer and talked for the remainder of the afternoon. Then Wim and Debbie returned to Breda and I returned to the boat.
Before we parted ways they gave me gift package of two very traditional Dutch treats - black licorice and stroopwafels. I do not think that you are suppose to eat them together, but I took this photo for illustrative purposes.

I've never been a big fan of black licorice, but I'm alway up for new experiences. I tried the black licorice and it pretty much tasted like black licorice. There were some difference shapes and each shape seemed to have a different texture. But to me, it all tasted the same.

The stroopwafels are a totally different thing. Once I tried the stroopwafels, I was immediately impressed. It consist basically of two very thin waffle cookies with sweet syrup in between. I believe that the Dutch will often eat stroopwafels with their coffee. Some people will place the treat on top of the cup of coffee to soften the waffle. It is like a little sweet taste of heaven. I am now totally addicted to stroopwafels.

I think that if I were Dutch, I would have to eat a piece of black licorice, then follow it up by eating a stroopwafel.

It was good to see Antwerp. It was great seeing old friends in new places.

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