kulminator

Antwerp Kulminator INT sm

I went looking for a legendary Antwerp bar called ‘Kulminator‘. I thought I had been there before; back in 2000, I remember reading about this place in Antwerp with a ridiculous selection of beers, with enormous character that was worth looking for. I remember it took me a while walking around the evening streets in the days before smartphones with GPS showing us the way (that was only about three or four years ago for me, but now seems like medieval times), and when I got there, I was presented with what looked like a textbook but was actually the beer menu. I found a beer called ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (called ‘Verboden Vrucht’ here, or ‘Fruit Défendu’ as I know it) which I’d never seen before and sounded mysterious; it felt like I had completed a quest. It’s been my favourite Belgian beer since, although when I got back to Charleroi I told the barman at my local and he said, “oh no we have that beer too, here you go.” So I think that place was Kulminator, but I honestly cannot remember now, it was 22 years ago. I only had that one beer there that night, and then left to go explore night-time Antwerp a bit more, ending up skewering Pulp songs on karaoke; see a previous post.

This time I looked for Kulminator in the daytime. I had been doing some reading about old Antwerp taverns to check out and sketch, and this leapt out at me as possibly being that place from 2000. Even with my smartphone sending me upstreet and down, I still managed to get lost trying to find it. When I got there, the door was locked. It was open, but you couldn’t just walk in. There were signs all over the door. This place was serious about its beer, but you needed CASH, no cards. While I was in Lille I only ever used cash once, when buying a book off my friend Vincent Desplanche, but otherwise it was tap-tap-tap with the cards. In Belgium I found a few places which were cash only, but Kulminator evidently wouldn’t even let you inside. The door opened narrowly, and the face of an old lady peered through. “Cash?” she asked. “Ja,” I replied nervously, feeling like I was still probably not going to be let in. The clouds were starting to get greyer. Nevertheless she welcomed me inside, and it was like entering an old curiosity shop. You couldn’t see the bar itself – it was hidden behind boxes and bottles and glasses and all kinds of Belgian-beer-related knick-knacks, so it became more of a retreat den for the lady who ran the place. There were books piled high, shelves with board games, even a Brazil football shirt hanging from the rafter. The only people in there were an old man hidden away in a corner with his head in a book, and another older couple seated at a table, talking in Flemish. At the rear there was some kind of covered semi-outside area I didn’t go into, but I could hear a couple of American voices talking about beer, but otherwise the only sound was classical music, and Flemish chatter. I could see bottles of every kind of beer in the gaps through to the bar, and the old bar-lady brought to me not a massive menu , but a large chalk board, upon which were written the names of various beers. I think these were the ones on tap (“van’ vat”), and I felt that I should probably order one of these, and I should probably order the one she recommended. So she recommended a Gouden Carolus, and I took a seta by the window. The rain hard started and now it was chucking it down, so I was going to be hear for a while. It was very much the sort of place that you dream of finding as an urban bar sketcher. As I sat and drew, another older chap came in and was talking with the other patrons and the bar-lady. I can’t speak Dutch but I could understand a decent bit of what they were saying. I think he was called Vladislav and may have been an afficionado of classical music, it sounded like he was talking about it with a passion. I loved listening to the rhythms and patterns of their Flemish conversation with the backdrop of gentle music and pounding rain, and the occasional laugh as they made each other smile. I just sat in the corner with my beer and my sketchbook. I picked out some phrases; one of them said “geld is macht en macht is geld”, “money is power and power is money”. When the Americans passed through, looking nervously at the rain, they did speak with them briefly about a couple of beers they were on the lookout for, one of which was Krusovice Dark (a Czech beer). I joined in with a nod of approval and a thumbs up for that, I used to like drinking that here in Davis at the old Little Prague, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. I had one more Gouden Carolus, and by the time I was done with my sketch the rain magically stopped, and I walked to the train station. I enjoyed this place and I’m glad I found it (and glad I had some cash).

Antwerp Kulminator EXT sm

I drew the outside of it (above) from a photo I took quickly across the street before I went in, before the rain started. If you are in Antwerp, look for Kulminator. I needed to get back to Brussels though (well, I didn’t need to, I had no plans, but I thought I should get some rest). The next day I was planning to catch a train back down to the old haunt of Charleroi, where I would be climbing slag-heaps and drawing old rusty factories – at least, that was the plan.

“thou Scheldt not pass”

Antwerp Steen sm

I weaved through the streets of Antwerp heading for the river Scheldt, to use that brilliant “thou Scheldt not pass” line I had thought of in my previous post. I might use that as a title for this blog post. I headed for Het Steen, the little castle on the banks of the wide river that is the oldest building in Antwerp. It dates from the early 1200s, and means “The Rock” (though “Steen” is a pretty common word for a stone castle in Dutch). There was a castle on this spot right back in the 9th century Carolingian period. It has a decent tourist information office in there now, where I bought some chocolates for my son (little chocolate hands from Antwerp). I had a good spot to sketch from across the busy street, up some stairs, but it was starting to spit so I sketched quickly. You know I love a street sign, so I made sure to include the blue crosswalk sign in the bottom right corner. Some people might think no, you leave those out, takes away from the historic castle, but I say thee nay, give me modern metal street signs and old medieval buildings any day. Back on my 1998 train tour of Europe I became a little bit obsessed with crosswalk signs, because they were a little different in every country. I liked the German ones in particular, wearing the little hat, as do the ones in the Czech Republic which look a bit like spies. I would always get obsessed with things like that.

Antwerp Lange Wapper sm

I tell you what, they can’t get enough of those Flemish giants here in Antwerp. This is a statue of a big lad called Lange Wapper. It’s right outside Het Steen, and shows Lange Wapper doing that Tory-party conference stance and looking down on two smaller people, crotch out, threatening them with his Lange Wapper (I’m so glad he is clothed, unlike Silvius Brabo). Lange Wapper is a Flemish folk tale, about a boy who started out as a bit of parsley and cabbage and then became a bit of a trickster. He apparently saved an old woman who had been thrown into the river Scheldt by a gang, and the old woman gave him the ability to shape-shift, for example turning into a massive giant who could leap between towns. He got into all sorts of antics; he would probably be cancelled now. He is kind of like a bogeyman figure of Antwerp. This statue was put there in the early 1960s.

Antwerp hydrant 2 sm

Not far from here I found another hydrant I needed to draw. This one had a peculiar sticker that said “Love the game, hate the business” and “Against modern football!” on it, which must really make the firemen think. Haha, a fire hydrant talking about sportswashing, the irony. Anyway I drew this down a fairly quiet street. Those few drops of rain I felt over at Het Steen were coming back, we were definitely going to get wet today. It’s good to keep adding new city fire hydrants to my big collection.

Antwerp Kathedraal sm

This is the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal, in the heart of Antwerp. As well as fire hydrants, and crosswalk signs, I am obsessed with drawing cathedrals, though one subject generally takes a lot longer than the other. I drew this one looking upwards from a standing spot, all the benches in that particular square having been taken, and those clouds were pretty ominous. I did about 75% of it and finished the rest later when I was sitting down not craning my neck. The hours of the day were moving along quicker than those clouds, and I wanted to go and sit inside somewhere before getting the train back to Brussels, and have another hearty Belgian beer. I had a place in mind, but it would be a walk to get there. It took a while, but I beat the incoming rainstorm by bare minutes.

and on to Antwerp

Antwerp Station EXT sm

After my morning pain-au-chocolat I took a train from Brussels Centrale to Antwerp. It’s been 22 years since I set foot in Antwerp, and even then it was at night, and the one time before that it was a rainy dark grey autumn day. So I’ve never seen Antwerp in actual daylight. It wasn’t very sunny today though, but it was dry and good weather for sketching and exploring. It was a city that always interested me though, full of places to discover, and lots of shops as well. I don’t actually remember the train station being all that interesting, but my Belgium guide book put Antwerp’s Centraal Station as one of the big architectural highlights, and they weren’t wrong. After eating a quick waffle, I sat down on a bench and started drawing the scene below, but decided after about ten minutes that this would be just too much to attempt, I should do this later. In the main interior ticket hall there was a big basketball court set up with TV cameras, filming some famous Belgian basketball players bouncing balls about. Basketball is popular in Belgium; my local Charleroi team Spirou were quite good (and named after one of the local comic book characters). I went outside in the fresh North Sea air and drew the exterior (above). It’s pretty magnificent. Inside the mainline platforms are all on several levels, it feels a bit like a huge deep shopping mall underneath a Victorian exhibition hall. The building was finished in 1905, designed by architect Louis Delacenserie, and is sometimes nicknamed the “spoorwegkathedraal” (“railway cathedral”). I left the outside sketch unfinished as I wanted to move along and get some frites (it was nearly lunchtime already!), and as for the drawing below, I kept the outline I’d already started but ended up doing the rest later on from photos. So many details.

Antwerp Station INT sm

And so, into Antwerp. It was a fairly long old walk from the station to the main city centre where all the shops are. The first time I came here, on a gloomy day at the end of 1999, I was pretty excited by all the big shops, because it was better than what Charleroi had at the time. This time I was most excited to find a really cool art supplies shop, and spent longer in there than I meant to, buying quite a few little things. The woman behind the counter spoke to me only in Dutch, and I did manage a few words myself (I tried to learn Dutch twenty years ago but found it hard to speak because every Dutch speaker would only ever reply to me in English). I didn’t completely understand her, but I did my best. I really should get learning that language again, and it’s not hard to read. The Dutch of Belgium (which is usually called Flemish, or ‘Vlaams’) does sound a bit softer to my ears than the Nederlands of the Netherlands, and I really enjoyed listening to it while I was out and about. I discovered that even the garbage bins speak Dutch. As I put something into a bin, it made a funny sound, like I was feeding it. When I threw something else in, it made another sound, saying something in Dutch. The bins are very peculiar.

Antwerp hydrant 1 sm

On Meir though, it was too noisy to listen to anything. Meir is one of the big shopping streets of Belgium, like the Oxford Street of Antwerp. I did pop down the adjoining street called ‘Wapper’ (they really need to put a Burger King on that street) to have a look at the Rubenshuis museum, where Antwerp’s greatest painter son Rubens used to live. I didn’t go in though, just mooched about the gift shop. I mean I like Rubens I guess, but I also really like drawing fire hydrants and there was one I saw on Meir that I really had to sketch. Meir was just so noisy though. There was some construction going on in a building nearby, the echo of the pneumatic drill bouncing off the buildings. There was a fire alarm in a nearby Primark, and the shop staff all stood outside. People passed by on their phones, dogs barked, and it was one of those moments when I have a bit of audio-sensory overload and can’t fully concentrate. I got through the hydrant quickly (there was a sticker on the hydrant that said ironically “Take Sides – Silence”) and went looking for somewhere a bit calmer.

Antwerp Silvio Brabo sm

I headed over to the Grote Markt. That’s where you’ll find the statue of Antwerp’s most famous hero – no not Rubens, no not Romelu Lukaku, no not Toby Alderweireld. This is the statue of Silvius Brabo. Now we enter the realm of mythology and city origin stories that we all love, like Romulus and Remus (Rome), King Lud (London), and He-Man (Manchester). Brabo was a Roman soldier, who cut off the hand of a giant and threw it in the river. The giant in question was a big lad called Druon Antigoon, and he would demand money from people who needed to cross the river Scheldt. (I really hope he would say “Thou Scheldt Not Pass!”) If they didn’t pay up, their hand was chopped off and thrown into the water. I would have thought that made it more difficult to put their hand in their pocket after that but giants might be big but they are not clever. He tried it on with Silvius Brabo. Brabo, who as we can see was stark naked, clearly had, um, balls. He told Druon Antigoon to go and do one, and while he was scratching his head to see if there was a pun on his name, Brabo beat him up. It’s not clear whether he had clothes on before the fight or if they came off during the fight, but in the end Brabo sliced off Antigoon’s hand and slung it into the water. Everyone thought that was hilarious, except Antigoon, who left the story at this point. So the people decided to honour Brabo by calling the region ‘Brabant’ (dubious mythology klaxon #1), and calling the town ‘Antwerpen’ (dubious mythology klaxon #2). Antwerpen means, so the tale goes, ‘hand throw’, from ‘hand-werpen’ in Flemish. Ok, let’s be fair, Antwerp is almost certainly not named after this event (poo-poo on your parade klaxon #1) but it’s a much more fun story than the likely real etymology (something about wharves or mounds on riverbanks, nobody knows for sure) but it’s a fun story and even if it’s not true, we can say it is because who cares.

Antwerp Grote Markt sm

“Hand-throw”, yeah alright. Imagine you are one of all those people Antigoon dismembered, and then they go and name the town “hand-throw”, well it’d be a bit of a slap in the face. More likely it was already called “hand-throw” before Brabo showed up, maybe Antigoon himself named it so people knew what they were getting themselves into. The Grote Markt is a pretty nice square. The statue of Silvius Brabo (after whom the Duchy of Brabant is definitely NOT named; if anything his name comes from that) is in front of the town hall. Around the square are the old guildhall buildings. Antwerp is a historic Flemish merchant port with a rich history. I sat at a little tavern (‘Den Engel’) on the square with a delicious Maredsous beer, wrote some postcards, and drew this. I remember coming here on that damp and gloomy day in 1999; I also remember coming here in early 2000 after a day out in Ostend, and spent much of the evening at a nearby pub where people were singing karaoke. Chatting with locals, I was encouraged to sing too, and I did a version of the Pulp song ‘Help the Aged’, a version in which the words had been replaced with football-themed lyrics, called ‘Help the English’. That version was written by me and my friend Roshan, along with many other popular songs that we had re-clothed in football colours. ‘Help the English’ was probably our favourite, all about how England might need help because they can’t win trophies (no change there then, though the caveat now of course would be that it just means the men’s team). “When did you first realise / You’re never gonna win another World Cup? / Sixty-six, don’t it make you sick / Funny how you’ve won nothing since.” Anyway the Antwerp crowd in the room, well some of them liked it, others were either England fans convinced that Euro 2000 would be their year (spoiler alert, it wasn’t), or people who disliked football and assumed it was just some English hooligan chant, or massive Pulp fans who really wanted to hear the right lyrics. Still, it got a cheer (just one cheer) (and I probably misheard it). There were these two women who walked out, and then came back inside right after I was finished. They actually told me (in that straight-talking Flemish way) that it wasn’t only because I changed the lyrics, or that it was about football, but because I just couldn’t sing at all. I mean, yes, this is true, but ouch. I’m surprised they didn’t throw my hand in the river. Instead, they brought me some sandwiches, for some reason, and I chatted with them all about music until it was time for my train back to Charleroi. The year 2000 was a long long time ago.