Every city has a main drag. Broadway is as celebrated as New York. Las Ramblas is a draw all on its own, no offense to the rest of Barcelona. And if you see a Tokyo street scene with all the signs in a wattage competition, there’s a good bet that’s Yasukuni Dori.
But I think I left my heart amid the HOLY-HONKIN’-CHRIST architecture of the Meir.
Everybody Wants Some
Funny thing about Antwerp: Everybody wanted it, so everybody bombed it. On a bend of the Scheldt River, it is one of the best ports in Europe. More over, it lies directly on the culturally (and financially) rich divide between the Germanic east and Romanesque west; Belgium’s second city was one hot commodity. Antwerp was so strategic, so stubbornly held on to, it took being on the wrong end of a cannon, or several, to dislodge whomever it was you were trying to dislodge. It’s a tediously repetitive pattern that goes deep into Antwerp’s past. Catapults came before cannons, after all.
And here’s is where a text-book case of silver linings comes in. Each time a building was blown to pieces or burned to the ground, the Antverpians threw up a new one in the style of the age. So Late Medieval is right up against Baroque is right up against Rococo is right up against Art Deco is right up against Mid-Century Modern. And amazingly, it all “works” — although I have to admit I winced when I found a 13-century building with a Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor. But hey, that’s Antwerp. And it’s all on the Meir.
On the Map
The Meir links the Stadhuis, the rather grand city hall, to Antwerpen Centraal, the rather grander train station (Antwerpen is the actual name of the city). But the kicker is that you will be hard-pressed to actually find the name “Meir” on a map. The pathway goes by different names along different parts of its route; officially, it is only “the Meir” for three blocks, but the prestige of the name extends end to end today. It’s not hard to spot; it’s one of the broadest streets in Antwerp, both modern and old.
Also not hard to spot is the division between “modern” and “old.” From the train station, the street is straight and neat, but once you pass the Frankrijklei boulevard and two very stately domed buildings — bang! — you pass into the old quarter. Cars are forbidden, cobblestones replace asphalt, and the direction meanders in a we-really-weren’t-consciously-planning-it sort of way. If you think you might have wandered off it, just look at the store fronts: the Meir is the premier shopping street of town with some of the best clothing, jewelry, and accessories to be found. And in Antwerp, that is saying something.
Although, I skipped all of that as I suffer from a dreadful case of sticker-shock hypersensitivity. Instead, I headed straight for Dominque Persoone’s, the best chocolatier in Belgium. I am a slave to my reasonably-priced passions.
But I am one for culture. Antwerp is drenched in places to go and things to see, but in the universe of the Meir, one name looms the largest: Peter Paul Rubens. Just off the Meir, but close enough to still be considered part of its neighborhood, is his home, today called the Rubenshuis. The in-city estate of Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish Baroque painter extraordinaire, it is one of Antwerp’s great must-dos. The man was a Midas; everything he touched he excelled at. Aside from being one of the best painters in the world (period), Rubens extended his mastery to sculpting, architecture, even diplomacy. Seriously Type A.
Rubens, despite being a poster-boy for the Counter-Reformation, was stunningly colorful and dynamic in style, and it glints off every stone and waft of his home. Blending Roman Antiquity and Renaissance sumptuousness with a heavy dash Old-Flemish practicality, the “huis” is both manor house and studio: Every artist will recognize the huge windows to let in natural light not only in the studio, but all over. Not surprisingly, the Rubenshuis is a shrine to his work, with a cozy, yet profound, collection.
I found his soul, however, in the gardens. The paintings, you see, are the finished work. We see none of the hemming, hawing, futzing, fussing, screaming, and scrounging it took to make them. But in the garden and portico, I could imagine Rubens walking the same paths and idylling by the same flowers, mulling his next stroke or envisioning his next masterpiece. I particularly liked the sculptures in the portico. They’re happy. And hot.
At its end, the Meir opens up, funnel-like, upon the illustrious Groot Markt, the grand square and beating heart of Antwerp where culture and architecture all mash together to near-apoplectic fabulousness. Really, there is no safe place to put your eyes. You’ve got the Stadhuis here , the gold-tipped guild houses there, or the fountain of Brabo, the legendary founder of Antwerp over there. And he deserves his own article.
So I’ll end it here with my sit-down at Bonaparte, a great gay bistro-bar right on the square, and with a great view thereof. I ordered a glass of elixir d’Anvers, the local spirit and actually served in a pony (it’s 74 proof; all you need is a pony). Old Antwerp, the Meir included is cobblestoned; it’s quaint and picturesque, but boy, is it bloody murder on the feet. No one, not even a native, will throw shade for you wanting to sit down with a stiff one.
Don’t make that dirty.