Belgium: A Wander Around Antwerp

From the cathedral tower one may see the little towns of Calloo and Oordam, on either bank of the river; it was between them that Parma built his bridge to obstruct navigation, and against it the men of Antwerp sent their famous fire-ships to open up a passage for the Zeelander allies. Gianibelli, who devised them, and whom Schiller styled “the Archimedes of Antwerp,” builded better than he knew, for with one ship he destroyed a thousand Spaniards and heaped up their defenses into a labyrinth of ruin. Could Antwerp have risen then above the clash of factions, there would have been no need later to tear down the dikes and present the strange spectacle of ships sailing over the land, and their story might have been as triumphant as Holland’s, and a united Netherlands have issued from those long wars with Spain.

Here where the visitor takes his afternoon ease many a brave pageant foregathered in the troubled, olden days. In the magic pages of old Van Meteren’s chronicles we see them pass again: Cold, gloomy, treacherous Philip stepping from his golden barge to walk under triumphal arches on a carpet of strewn roses, surrounded by magistrates and burghers splendid in ruffs and cramoisy velvet; later on, the Regent, Margaret of Parma, strident and gouty, whom Prescott has called “a man in petticoats”; and then the bloodthirsty Alva; then the dashing “Sword of Lepanto,” the brilliant and romantic Don John of Austria; next, the atrocious Requesens; and, last of all, the revengeful Alexander of Parma. Hopeful, stolid, impassive Antwerp, ever the sheep for the shearers, ever believing that at last the worst was over, rejoices in her welcome to each as though the millennium had finally dawned on all her troubles and sets cressets to blazing in the cathedral tower and roasts whole oxen in the public squares.

The scream of a river siren will arouse the visitor from the Past to the Present, and, with a sigh, he will saunter forth to see the places that cannot come to him. He will leave with regret this busy, fascinating river – “the lazy Scheldt” that Goldsmith loved. Excited little tugs are bustling busily about, queer-coated dock-hands struggle mightily with their mammoth burdens, and ships of every shape and pattern throng the roadstead before him. The sharp and trim Yankee sloop, the ponderous German tramp, the fastidious British freighter, the clean-cut ocean liner, and, best of all, the round-sterned, wallowing Dutch craft, green of hull and yellow of sail, – all are here, and, he can think, for his especial diversion. A canal barge crawls laboriously by, and in that floating home which she seldom cares to leave, a much-be-petticoated mother of Flanders busies herself with her many children and looks after the care of her tiny house; – and looks after it well, as you may see by the spotless little curtains that flutter in the windows and the bright pots of geraniums that stand on the sills. One recalls the keen delight this singular craft afforded Robert Louis Stevenson at the time he made his charming “Inland Voyage” from Antwerp. Quoth he: “Of all the creatures of commercial enterprise, a canal barge is by far the most delightful to consider. It may spread its sails, and then you see it sailing high above the tree-tops and the windmill, sailing on the aqueduct, sailing through the green corn-lands; the most picturesque of things amphibious. . – . . There should be many contented spirits on board, for such a life is both to travel and to stay at home.”

Along the front there is also opportunity to expend a couple of francs to advantage for a ticket on the comfortable little steamer that is just impatiently casting off from the embarcadere, and to go sailing with her on an hour’s voyage up the river to Tamise to view the shipping at greater length, to see the merchants’ villas at Hoboken, and finally the famous picture of the Holy Family at the journey’s end. Otherwise the visitor may take a parting look up the Quay van Dyck and the Quay Jordaens, examine once more the striking Porte de 1′Escaut that Rubens decorated, and so turn a reluctant back on the bright life of the river to thread a crooked street or two, cobbled and tortuous, and issue forth on the Grand Place before the immense, fantastic Hotel de Ville.

In the drowsy early afternoon this quaint and curious old city hall wears a most friendly and reposeful air. To one who has never before seen any of these extraordinary Old-World buildings such a one as this will move such incredulity as mastered the countryman at the first sight of a giraffe;-” Shucks!” said he when he had looked it all over, “there never was such an animal!” Fancy a rambling, picture-book of a structure a hundred yards long, made up of the oddest combination of architectural orders – massive pillars for the first story, Doric arcades for the second, Ionic for the third, and last of all, an abbreviated colonnade supporting a steep, tent-like, gable-pierced roof! As though some touch of the whimsical might even so have been neglected, behold a pompous central tower, decorated to suffocation, arched of window and graven of column, rearing itself in three diminishing, denticulated stories above the long, sloping roof, until the singular, box-like ornaments on the very tiptop appear tiny Greek tombs of a cloud-hung Acropolis. The statues of Wisdom and Justice could pass for ~Eschylus and Sophocles, and the Holy Virgin on the summit might very well be Athena. The friendly air to which I have referred extends even to these statues, who have the appearance of shouting down to you to come in out of the heat and have a look at the great stairway of colored marbles and rest awhile before the splendid chimney-piece of delicately carved black-and-white stone in the elaborate Salle, des Mariages. Subtle matchmakers, those statues! And, indeed, if Antwerp is the first steamer-stop of the visitor, he may well be pardoned for reveling in this Hotel de Ville as something that for picturesque beauty he may not, hope to better elsewhere. And yet that would only be because he had not seen the glorious one at Brussels, or the grim and huddled caprice at Mechlin, or the incredible Halle aux Draps at Ypres, or the amazing Rabot Gate or Watermen’s Guild House of Ghent. And even these will fall back into the commonplace once he has drifted along the Quai du Rosaire of drowsy old Bruges and been steeped in picturesqueness and color that is beyond any man’s describing.

No one who cares for structural quaintness and originality can fail to find especial delight in the surroundings of this venerable Grand Place. Along one entire side, like prize competitors in an architectural fancy ball, shoulder to shoulder, stiff and precise, range the old Halls of the Guilds. The Archers, the Coopers, the Tailors, the Carpenters, and all the others of that most unusual alignment, present themselves in full regalia of characteristic ornament and design. As though in keeping with their ancient traditions of stout rivalry, there is a very real air of vying between themselves for some coveted palm for fantastic bizarreness; and all the while with a solemn innocence of being at all grotesque – or unusual. One could laugh at their naive unconsciousness of the prodigious show they make, with sculptures and adornments of bygone days and a combined violent sky-line slashed with long eaves and bitten out in serrated gable ends. But there is little of merriment and very much of reverence in the thoughts they excite of worthy pride in skill of craftsmanship and the glory their masters brought to this city in the sixteenth century in winning from Venice the industrial supremacy of the world. In those days there were no poor in all Antwerp and every child could read and write at least two languages, and the Counts of Flanders were more powerful than half the kings of Europe.

But the Grand Place has more to show than the guild halls. The apogee of the whimsical and fantastic has been attained in the choppy sea of red-tiled roof-tops that eddies above this huddled neighborhood. Grim old dormered veterans, queer and chimerical, palsied and askew, have here held their own stoutly through the centuries. They have echoed back the shouts of the crusaders, the triumphal cannon of Spanish royalty, and the free-hearted welcomes to foreign princes come to curry favor with the Flemish merchant rulers of the world. They have turned gray with the groans of their nobles writhing under the Inquisition and rosy with approval of the adroit and courageous William of Nassau. From their antique windows have leaned the burgomasters of Rubens and the cavaliers of Velasquez, brave in ruffs and beards; and out of the most hidden nests of their eaves the wan and pallid faces of their hunted sons have been raised to watch the approach of the ruthless soldiery of Requesens and Parma. These old roofs look down to-day on a rich and happy people whose skill and tireless industry have reared a commercial fabric that astonishes the world.

At this afternoon hour the Grand Place betrays little of its early-morning activity, when it is thronged with the overflowing stands of busy marketmen in baggy trousers, and banks of rich colors of the flower-women in immaculate linen headdress proffering the choice output of their scrupulously tilled farms. Scarcely less picturesque are these oddly garbed country-folk than the famous fish-venders over at Ostend, and certainly they are a more fragrant people to shop among. A curious and colorful picture they present with the long lines of gayly painted dog-carts blazing with peonies and geraniums. Huddled around the great statue of Brabo they quite throw into limbo the Daughters of the Scheldt that are disporting in bronze on the pedestal. Brabo himself, Antwerp’s Jack-the-Giant-Killer, pauses on high in the act of hurling away the severed hand of the vanquished Antigonus as though he could see no unoccupied spot to throw it in. Should he let go at random, and hit house Number 4, he could surely expect to be hauled down forthwith, for the great Van Dyck was born there, and Antwerp is nothing if not reverent of the memory of her glorious sons of Art. And Brabo cannot afford to take too many chances with the security of his own position, for he himself has a rival; Napoleon the Great was really a greater champion of Flanders than he, and overthrew a worse enemy of Antwerp’s than the fabled Antigonus when he raised the embargo on the Scheldt, that had existed for a century and a half under the terms of the outrageous Treaty of Westphalia, until scarcely a rowboat would venture over the silt-choked mouth of the river, and only then to find the famous capital a forsaken village of empty streets and abandoned factories. The dredging of the channel, the expenditure of millions in construction of wharves and quays, and the restoration of the city to its high place in the commercial world was a greater and more difficult work than Brabo’s.

The varied and vivid life of Antwerp unfolds itself strikingly in the early afternoon to one who exchanges the sleepy, mediawal Grand Place for the broad, curving, crowded boulevard of the popular Place de Meir. It was just such clean and handsome streets as this that inspired John Evelyn to write so delightedly of Antwerp two hundred and fifty years ago, describing them in his famous “Diary” as “fair and noble, clean, well-paved, and sweet to admiration.” Indeed, everything seemed to have charmed Evelyn here, as witness his inclusive approval, “Nor did I ever observe a more quiet, clean, elegantly built, and civil place than this magnificent and famous city of Antwerp.” Rubens, the name of names in Flanders, was then too recently dead to have come into the fullness of his fame; whereas to-day one thinks of him continually here and likes nothing better than the many opportunities to study him in the completeness of his wonderful career – “the greatest master,” said Sir Joshua Reynolds, “in the mechanical part of the art, that ever exercised a pencil.” Even trivial associations of his activity are cherished; as we find them, for instance, in the little woodcut designs he made for his famous friend, Christopher Plantin, the greatest printer of the era, and which one handles reverently in the old Plantin house in the Marche du Veridredi – that picture-book of a house, where corbel-carved ceilingbeams overhang antique presses, types, and mallets, and great windows of tiny leaded panes let in a flood of light from the rarest and mellowest old courtyard in the whole of the Netherlands.

The Place de Meir is Antwerp’s Broadway; and an afternoon stroll along it affords a constantly changing view of stately public and private buildings, no less attractive to the average man than those “apple-green wineshops, garlanded in vines” that delighted Theophile Gautier on the river front. Little corner shrines, so numerous in this city, shelter saints of tinsel and gilt and receive the reverence of a population that has four hundred Catholics to every Protestant. One must necessarily delight in a street whose houses are all of delicately colored brick, with stone trimmings carved to a nicety and shutters painted in softest greens. The imposing Royal Palace is graceful and beautiful, but human interest goes out to the stone-garlanded house across the way, – old Number 54, – where Rubens was born and where he lived so many years and took so much pleasure in making beautiful for his parents. On either hand one sees solid residences of the most generous proportions, and all in tints of pink and gray, and busy hotels with red-faced porters hurrying about in long blouses. Picture stores and bookshops scrupulously stocked with religious volumes beguile lingering inspection. There are establishments on every hand for the sale of ecclesiastical paraphernalia, with windows hung with confirmation wreaths, crucifixes, rosaries, and what-not. Occasionally, even here, one discovers, crushed in between more consequential businesses, the celebrated little gingerbread-shops of which so much amused notice has been taken. Restaurants and cafes abound. One sees them on every hand, with their characteristic overflow of tables and chairs on the sidewalk, always thronged, both inside and out, with jolly, chattering patrons and gleaming in sideboard and shelf with highly polished vessels of brass and pewter. Here and there one passes the confectionery shops, called patisseries, where ices, mild liqueurs, and mineral waters refresh a thriving trade. Stevenson found no relish for Flemish food, pronouncing it “of a nondescript, occasional character.” He complained that the Belgians do not go at eating with proper thoroughness, but “peck and trifle with viands all day long in an amateur spirit.” “All day’-long ” is apt enough, for Antwerp’s restaurants and cafes are always thronged.

These ruddy-faced and placid Belgians are a very serene and contented people. It is pleasant and even restful to watch them; they go about the affairs of life with such an absence of fret and fever. Spanishappearing ladies float gracefully past in silk mantillas; priests by the hundreds shuffle along leisurely in picturesque hats and gowns; the portly merchant, on his way at this hour to the moresque, many-columned Bourse, proceeds in like deliberate and unhurried fashion. Street venders, in peaked caps and voluminous trousers, approach you with calm deliberation and retire unruffled at your dismissal. On every sunny corner military men by the score” loafe and invite their souls.” Tradesmen in the shops and cabmen in the open go about their business as though it were a matter of infinite leisure. Even the day laborers in the streets, whose huge sabots stand in long rows by the curb, survey life tranquilly; why worry when a good pair of wooden shoes costs less than a dollar and will last for five or six years?

The snatches of conversation one catches betray the confusion of tongues inseparable from a nation of whom one half cannot understand the other, and whose cousins, once or twice removed, are of foreign speech to either. The Dutch’spoken in the Scheldt country is said to be as bewildering to a German, as is the French the Walloons employ in the valley of the Meuse to a Parisian. But although the Flemish outnumber their fellow countrymen of Wallonia two to one, still French is the tongue of the court, the sciences, and all the educated and upper circles. It is like Austria-Hungary all over again. And French continues steadily to gain ground in spite of the utmost efforts of the enthusiasts behind the new “Flemish Movement.” One sees both classes on the Place de Meir, – the stolid, light-haired man of Flanders and the nervous, swarthy Walloon. The beauty of the blue-eyed, belle Flamande is in happy contrast with that of the slender, dark-eyed Wallonne, and their poets have exhausted themselves in efforts to do justice to either side of so delicate and distracting a dilemma. Our grandmothers heard much of the charms of La Flamande when Lortzing’s melodious “Czaar und Zimmermann “was so popular, seventy-five years ago: -

“Adieu, ma jolie Flamande, Que je quitte malgre moi! J’en aurai la de demand, J’ai de 1′amitie pour toi.”

The complexion of the life on the Place de Meir changes with the hours. Between two and three o’clock we find it disposed to adapt itself as closely as possible along lines of personal comfort. By five it will be lively with carriages and automobiles bound for the driving in the prim little Pepiniere, or the bird-thronged Zoological gardens, or around the lake in the central park, with a turn up the fashionable Rue Carnot to the stately boulevards of the new and exclusive Borgerhout section. At that hour one may count confidently upon seeing every uniform of the garrison among the crowds of officers who turn out to have a part in the beauty show. On the other hand, if it were early morning-very early morning-and the sun were still fighting its way through the mists and vapors of the Scheldt, the Place de Meir would resound with rattling little carts by the hundreds, bearing great milk cans of glittering, polished brass packed in straw, by whose sides patient, placid-faced women would trudge along in quaint thimble-bonnets, with plaid shawls crossed and belted above voluminous skirts and their feet set securely in the clumsy wooden sabots of the Fatherland. Market gardeners in linen smocks and gray worsted stockings would be bringing Antwerp its breakfast in carts only a little larger than the milk-women’s, and butcher boys would be scurrying by with meat trays on their heads or suspended from yokes across their shoulders. And all the echoes of the city would be forced into feverish activity to answer the wild clamor of the barking and fighting dogs, shaggy and strong, that draw all these picturesque little wagons. Assuredly there are few sights in Antwerp so impressive to the stranger as this substitution of dog for horse. It has been celebrated in prose and verse, with Ouida possibly carrying off the palm with her canine vie intime, “A Dog of Flanders.”