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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.