Walking through the historic city centre of Antwerp is a feast for the eye. From classical perfection to Catholic excesses… the architectural styles of 16th and 17th century are a blessing for Antwerp’s streets.
For the 16th century architect, classical Greek-Roman architecture was the preeminent symbol of perfect beauty. As a mathematician he calculated the ideal proportions and used the classical shapes and motifs of the Renaissance style in his new designs. The façade decorations on the Late Gothic buildings De Balans and Spaengien (Grote Markt) are a first careful exercise in style.The earliest pure Renaissance façade is that of the Karbonkel house located at Groenplaats 33.The City Hall, Hessenhuis and most buildings on the Conscienceplein are jubilant textbook examples of pure Renaissance.
The flamboyant Baroque style is the Catholic answer to bare Protestantism.Gold, marble and extravagant scroll motifs or volutes – churches used them lavishly on façades and furnishings.The smaller Keizer (Emperor) chapel and St Anne’s chapel follow this trend.The Baroque style explodes completely in the St Carolus Borromeus Church, which Rubens helped decorate.Gothic churches such as St Paul’s and St James’ tried to acquire a more Baroque effect via alterations and new decorations.Citizens also loved the Baroque style.Huis Schockaert (Mutsaardstraat 33) owes its opulent personality to the façade volutes and the lion masks and festoons in its portal frame.Those Spanish gates typify Antwerp’s Baroque bourgeois houses of the 17th century.Be sure to gaze at the lavish luxury of the Hof van Liere, De Gulden Passer, Rockox house and the Groote Witte Arend.
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The Antwerp Central Station, also known as Middenstatie (Middle station) or Spoorwegkathedraal (Railroad Cathedral), was first used in 1905. The structure is made up from a steel platform covering and a stone station building in an eclectic style. Recently, the station was completely renovated and in 2007 a tunnel underneath the station and a part of Antwerp was opened, reverting the station’s status as a terminus where are all trains have to turn back. In 2009, the American magazine Newsweek chose the Antwerp Central Station as the fourth most beautiful train station in the world.
The secret Vlaeykensgang alley dates from 1591 and connects Hoogstraat, Oude Koornmarkt Pelgrimstraat with one another. Walk through the gate at Oude Koornmarkt 16 and you feel as if you have journeyed back in time. In the past this alley was where the shoemakers and the poorest people in the city lived. The shoemakers were also in charge of sounding the alarm bell of the cathedral. These days you can find antiques stores and art galleries here as well as the exclusive restaurant Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The atmosphere is very intimate which is why many people also like to come here to listen to the carillon concerts during the summertime.
St Anna’s Tunnel – or Underpass, as the locals like to refer to it – was opened in 1933. Both on the left and on the right bank, you can still access the tunnel using the authentic wooden escalators which were unique at the opening.
Those who want to discover medieval Antwerp must dare to look beyond façades and buildings.