Rise and shine to Antwerpen. For many, it’s the first day waking up to the sun of Flanders (obviously it’s vastly different than the Dutch sun). First stop, breakfast. While the hostel breakfast suffered from the distinct lack of vegetables, it had some good granola and yoghurt so I can’t complain.
Second stop in the morning – Antwerpen University, one of the major universities of Belgium after Leuven and Ghent.
We entered the university through the stadscampus quad. It was built in the 14th century and it has served many purposes before finally becoming part of the university facilities. It reminds me of the Gravensteen in Leiden that also served many purposes (prison, hospital, school, stable for horses, etc) before finally becoming a University building. Also, other buildings like the Hall of Knights in the Hague, have been used for many purposes over the years (including as a stable for Napoleon’s horses during the French occupation of the low countries). It is amazing how these buildings last through the years, especially as many of its uses are less than ideal.
We were ushered into a classroom in the inner square of the quad and welcomed by the Dean of the College of Humanities. He gave us summary of his university. Yes, yet another university advertisement, but “there is no such thing as a free lunch” as they say. And, no university can compete with the level of advertising that the University of Utrecht imposed, but the Dean did make sure to give us a relatively detailed look at the University’s programs and statistics. He did mention a few times how “young and dynamic” and “superdiverse” the university is. 19% of the University students are from abroad. And regarding the local Belgian population, this can be very diverse in itself. In Antwerpen I have seen throughout the city large populations of Moroccans, Muslims, and Jews. Many citizens of the city don a hijab, something that is much less common for me to see in either Southern California or Berkeley. And I sometimes see pedestrians or bikers go by dressed in stereotypical Jewish garb with a tall cap, long coat, kippah, and long beard. This was quite a sight when I saw them biking – something I truly had never seen before. Of course, many foreign citizens of Antwerp might also keep a lower profile. It is interesting to me though how in California the Jewish residents there embrace the traditional garb much less. I knew many Jews in my class but none would wear any “traditional” jewish garb or a yamakkah.
Another aspect of the university that was interesting to me is the fact that it is so new. Its oldest roots go back to 1852 when an institution was founded by the Jesuits of Antwerp. In the 1970s, the merger of two other educational institutions within Antwerp created “Antwerpen University.” I suppose I have just been wired to the idea that everything in Europe is old, but that’s not always true (one wall of the stadscampus is fake, its from the 20th century gasp!).
After this talk, we had one more speaker on the history of Antwerp in relation to a general history of Belgium. And at last we had a fascinating speech on the welfare system in Belgium and the rest of Europe. While it was very interesting to get the information, sometimes I felt that the whole story of the welfare state was not elaborated upon.
Welfare and University
Going back to university system, during the talk the speaker stated that since almost anyone can go to any university within Belgium, all universities are considered of equal merit. The same can go for hospitals, high schools, etc. At least for universities, this claim of equality fails to mention the rigor at different universities in Belgium. Yes, almost any citizen could attend the University at Leuven, Ghent, Antwerpen but programs at Leuven are definitely considered to be more advanced and rigorous than the same programs in Antwerp.
This train of thought leads me to the differences between Belgian (Europe) and American systems of university. In America, it is quite difficult to be accepted into a top university. Prospective students to University of California or prestigious private institutions, must work very hard for four years in secondary school and in many cases, also achieve great success beyond their grades. However, once accepted and attending the university, the vast majority of students will graduate with a degree (that degree might be different than what is first intended, but the students will most often graduate). Here, I learned from my cousin (who attended Leuven), that anyone can go to the university, but the rigor of the program causes many students to drop out – at astonishing rates that would be unheard of in top universities in America. About half don’t return after year 1 and this trend of half leaving continues each year. On one hand, this is a more democratic system of allowing anyone a chance to succeed in university, regardless of performance in secondary school. On the other hand, the state finances the schooling in Europe, so having students attend for a year or two and then drop out is a tremendous “wasted” expense to the state.
The welfare talk continued to elaborate on health care (the fact that you can just walk into a hospital and be helped is amazing) and the availability of unemployment benefits, etc.
Now, for the free lunch. I must say the mini-sandwiches were well worth it. And essentially unlimited speculoos with our tea? Divine.
Next, we embarked on a tour of the city of Antwerp – home of the fourth largest port in the world (according to our guide). We began, naturally, with a map of the city from 1500 with which I could practice my latin.
On the corner of many streets throughout Antwerp hangs a sculpture of Madonna. These range in style, colors, and impressiveness but each one is a beautiful work of art. Two hundred of these sculptures are left which is quite impressive. The Cathedral of the city is also built in reverence to Mary – the Cathedral of Our Lady. We (regretfully) did not have time to visit the Cathedral with the class but I saw it before on June 26.
Humor me with this digression into the Cathedral (or “Church,” as it was only granted Cathedral status in 1962).
The Cathedral is gorgeous and really illustrates the power and grandeur of the catholic church. It is just so huge it makes one think back to centuries ago when the church would have been bursting with people for Sunday mass. While the size of the congregation today will be much smaller, I hope to attend a mass at the Cathedral once before I must leave. What is interesting about the building of the church is that it took almost 300 years to build. It began with the choir in 1225, then the nave and transepts, and at last the towers were completed in the 16th century under Charles V. It is a slow process due to the physical might of building such a structure before cranes or modern tools but the main hinderance was money – the church would have to continuously wait for funds in order to keep building the next section of the Cathedral. Luckily, in those days, the wealthier members of the population would donate large sums of money to the church (in hopes of getting into heaven and relieving their guilt for being wealthy). And Antwerp was a large, wealthy port back then in the 16th century, the Golden Age of Belgium. Thus, the funds did appear. Though there were other obstacles including a fire and a raze of iconoclasm and French revolutionaries who tried to demolish the building. Inside the Cathedral is beautiful, with large stained glass windows and many lovely paintings by famous artists like Rubens.
There are some lovely paintings like the Assumption of the Virgin and The Raising of the Cross but I am speaking on end. The Cathedral also prominently displays one work of contemporary art which I quite like. It is a gold sculpture of a man balancing a massive cross in his right hand, representing a “quest for balance, for equilibrium” (Flanders Today). When the work premiered, the artist said, “Do we believe in God, or don’t we?” I must say, I quite like the art and I like to think that it represents a (hopefully) dynamic church trying to consider the challenges and questions of the 21st century.
Moving along the expanse of the church, one finds numerous altars with artwork and decoration related to the whom commissioned that alter. Rich individuals or crafts / guilds could have their own special altar in the church as a form of prestige. Along with burying people under the church floor, this was another way the church could make money. It is interesting because you can see a view of the people of the church back then through the unique altars.
Oh, also this is the National Church of Belgium (whatever that means).
Also not that it’s a competition but the height of the cathedral is 123 meters tall, which is taller than anything in the Netherlands (and narrowly beats the church in Bruges). An interesting fact is that the two towers were originally meant to be the same height but enlarging the second tower would have required a complete remodeling of the church which was impossible after money woes after the fire in 1533. Anyway, the tallest tower was embraced by the city as the belfry and now has a complete carillon with 49 bells.
Whew. Next stop on the tour!
Another church 😉 On the tour we also walked by the Church of Sint-Carolus Borromeus. I shall mention that my name is Carolus in Latin (which translates to Charles in English, Carlos in Spanish, Carlo in Italian, etc.). By any reasonable explanation, this church from 1615 is named after me.
As Toon was quick to point out, the outside structure of the church is Gothic (naturally), though it has lovely baroque decorations inside which I surmise from the black and white contrasts. (This form of decoration was also very apparent in the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal in Bruges). Rubens was also very involved with serving the church with his art so many of his pieces can be found inside.
Back on the true tour path, we visited the beguinage of Antwerp. We saw the Begijnhof in Amsterdam and Bruges and I also so a nice one in Leuven and Dendermonde. Speaking of Dendermonde, the wife of the Professor that gave a talk at the University is from Dendermonde and she was quite exuberant that I had a connection to there. It’s a small world in Flanders 🙂
Anyway, the beguinages were common in almost every major city as as a form of protection and community for pious women during the middle ages.
The beguinage in Antwerp was founded in 1544 but located outside of the city walls which was later abandoned and rebuilt within the city for safety reasons.
And at last we entered a church! The beguinage comes with a catholic church, St. Catharina which had an interesting separation between the beguines and the general public.
Gorgeous. One side of the square is dominated by the City Hall built during the Golden Age of Antwerp (16th century) sporting flags from around the world and, naturally, another Madonna.
The square also provided a nice water fountain for cooling off the residents on hot summer days like this. On the top of the fountain is a statue of Brabo throwing a giant hand.
Apparently, the city of Antwerp got its name from the giant that lived by the Scheldt river (the river flowing into Antwerp). Anyone who refused to pay his toll would have their hands severed and thrown into the river. The young hero called Silvius Brabo saved the city however, who cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. Thus, the name Antwerpen comes from the Dutch hand and werpen (to throw) which has evolved to Antwerpen. (Some think the story’s accuracy is dubious.)
Museum aan de Stroom, the largest museum in Antwerp, nicely situated by the river. But we skipped all of the collections and headed straight for the top, for a view of the city. We could see the ocean coming into the city and the many boats and container ships docked in the port. Looking out onto the land the great Cathedral jutted into the sky.
As the sky falls
Quick stop by HEMA and fnac to grab some towels and a charger because I left my adapter and towel in Amsterdam (shocker).
Visited the first DelHaize since being back. And then we went to Désiré de Lille, a restaurant I am familiar with. They have delicious waffles. Of course, if you buy a waffle sometimes you have to go all out with the cream and the ice cream and fruit. Healthy dinner options.
Interesting that the name of the restaurant is Désire de Lille as we are planning on going to Lille this weekend (yay France!). But seeing as I already had Lille waffles, I have essentially already been…. (just kidding).
Speaking of France, I stopped by DelHaize again to grab a baguette to eat with some ripe Gouda cheese in the hostel.
At last, goede nacht!