When the Monkey spent a month in Belgium in 2002, his base of operations was Antwerp. He wasn’t sure what to make of this small city in Belgium’s Flanders region, but soon found himself settled in to the surprising local vibe.
With some 476,000 people, Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking (or Flemish-speaking if you like) northern half of Belgium. Much of the city’s early growth resulted from the activities of its trade guilds, which built the 16th Century guildhouses on the Grote Markt behind the Monkey in this photo. With Bruges (see this post) and Ghent receding in importance by the late 15th Century, custom was steered to Antwerp’s ports via the River Scheldt, bringing wealth to the city (epitomized by the creation of the world’s first stock exchange in 1460). For about a 75 years in the early to late 16th Century, Antwerp was the foremost trade and financial center of Europe. It was during this period that the city began trading in diamonds, an industry for which it is still the global center.
The city’s “golden age” was abruptly ended by the sudden attention of its devoutly Catholic new ruler, King Philip II of Spain, who was concerned by the Reformist voices emanating from the Low Countries (which were part of his territory). His attempts to bring the Flemish into line only alienated them further, leading the Protestant guildsmen of Antwerp and elsewhere to riot, smashing icons of the Catholic church. Philip escalated the tension by dispatching troops to monitor the city, but in 1576 these soldiers ended up rioting, and killing 6,000 or more Antwerp residents. Decline quickly set in in Antwerp, and Amsterdam was soon able to monopolize regional trade, largely because the Scheldt was closed to navigation through treaty obligations.
Today, Antwerp is once again a major commercial and financial center, and one of the busiest ports in Europe (despite being inland).
The Monkey takes a breather while trying to get his bearings in the charming labyrinth of narrow streets in Antwerp’s old city.
In this creepy (or creepily bad) photo, the Monkey is once again at the Grote Markt. Behind him is Antwerp’s towering cathedral, begun in 1352. The statue is of Brabo, a legendary David-like figure who killed Antigonus, a monster that charged tolls on the Scheldt. Brabo is tossing Antigonus’ severed hand, thus (as the story goes) explaining the name of the city: Antwerpen (Hand-throwing).
For a city of less than a half million people, Antwerp is well-stocked with bars and restaurants. There are over 1,600 bars to choose from! That variety is paralleled by the tremendous selection of Belgian beers. Belgian brewers develop a proprietary glass to go with each of their beers. Here, in a bar in central Antwerp, the Monkey samples two of the better Belgian brews, Rochefort 8 (at right) and Kwak, with its chemistry set-esque serving contraption.
The Monkey rests on a mooring along the River Scheldt in central Antwerp. In the distance you can see the soaring 123-meter spire of the Antwerp Cathedral (see above). When Antwerp set out to build Europe’s first skyscraper (the KBC Tower) in the run-up to the 1930 Antwerp World Exhibition, city construction codes mandated that no building could exceed the height of the cathedral spire. That regulation is still in effect.
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