By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our BoatBikeTours route on Day 4 of our Bruges-Amsterdam bike tour into Antwerp would normally involve going through an interesting 500-meter long tunnel. But our leader, Arnold Thurko, tells us that the 1930s-vintage elevators broke and they haven’t been able to find the spare parts to fix it, so we ride over a bridge and take a ferry into the city instead, which proves a delightful ride with gorgeous views of the city and a fun (quick) ferry ride.
We park our bikes (Arnold stays with them) and go off with our leader, Corrie Stein, for a guided walking tour of Antwerp’s historic city center.
Antwerp’s Golden Age was the 1500s (earlier than Amsterdam), largely because of the advantage its Suikerrui (canal) provided traders by connecting the city to the sea. (Today it is closed off but you can visit the De Ruien, the underground waterway. You get to walk along old vaulted ceilings, narrow canals, bridges, sewers and sluices, and see the city’s underbelly. You can visit The Ruien by booking a guided group walk, walk on your own with an interactive tablet at fixed times or navigate a small section of The Ruien by boat. Go to www.deruien.be). I have this on top of my list for a return visit to Antwerp.
Antwerp was apparently spared bombing in World War II. As a result, we can still marvel at the City Hall, which dates from 1560, and a magnificent square ringed with Guild Houses, one for each guild and each with its own decoration.
The square has as its center the Silvius Brabo statue, a mythical Roman soldier. According to legend, Corrie relates, a giant, Druon Antigoon, who lived on river, would demand a toll from people who wanted to pass the bridge over the river Scheldt. If they refused, the giant would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. Brabo killed the giant, cut off his hand and threw it into the river. This is supposed to have been the origin of the city’s name, Antwerp, translated as “hand throw.”
We walk over to the Cathedral of Our Lady, built 1550-1800 in Gothic style. The belfry, 1339 meters high is included in the Belfries of Belgium and France list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cathedral possesses some major works of art: including three major works by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (two of which were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France but returned to the Cathedral in the 19th century).
We get back on our bikes and ride to where our ship, the Princesse Royal, is tied up at the dock, and walk a few blocks away to the Red Star Museum, which BoatBikeTours has arranged for us to visit.
This is a fascinating museum that is a kind of bookend to our Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. Indeed, Ellis Island is where 2 million Europeans who boarded the Red Star Lines at Antwerp to come to America would have wound up. But this museum does more – it tells the age-old story of migration through individual people, going back to the Neanderthal, and why migration is such a fundamental quality of being human.
The commentary doesn’t shy away from condemning phrases (that are factually true) – for example, describing the brutal, impoverished conditions these desperate people were escaping, or taken by force as slaves, or fleeing persecution, and up to modern day anti-immigrant policies and speech that has lead to the plight of so many undocumented immigrants.
Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island, with a whopping 1,004,756 entering the United States in 1907 alone. Of these, only 2% were turned away (and if were sent back, it was at Red Star’s expense, which is why, we learn, the line was so very scrupulous with their own medical evaluations)
Anti-immigrant fervor took hold in the United States after World War I; the Great Depression, effectively brought an end to migration to America. By then, almost 20 million Europeans had emigrated to America – settling the West, populating the factories of new Industrial cities. The Red Star Line ceased sailing in 1934.
The exhibits are candid about the difference in how the wealthy traveled in such luxury and style compared to those in steerage. You get to see how passengers in different classes were treated – ‘livid’ – don’t disguise how tough steerage was (but compared to what leaving?). The inescapable conclusion that steerage class was actually key to the company’s revenue and profit.
The exhibits are remarkably personal. It is amazing to see these old photos and recognize the buildings, to see postcards, passports, ID papers, and personal effects.
What I loved most is the display on the first floor which so vividly conveys the central theme: there has always been migration, from beginning of man – and they personalize with one representative person for each era – even Neanderthal.
The museum shows that migration is innate to being human.
Interestingly, for many, Antwerp became their final stop and today there are some 170 nationalities in Antwerp (another similarity to New York City). You can see it in the faces of school children on their outings, in restaurants that represent all nationalities.-Vietnam, Indonesia, Argentina, Italy, France.
This is the evening we are on our own for dinner. (I miss out on visiting the Red Building, which houses an important museum, but even though it is closed, you can take escalators up eight floors to see the photos of people, old and young, then climb two stories higher to the top for a view.
I go off to wander Antwerp myself and on my way back to the ship, find myself in Antwerp’s Red Light District. I have a story to tell when we are all back on board.
The Oklahoma couple says they wound up at a French restaurant, Bistro de Pottenbrug. They saw steak on the menu and wind up feasting on flattened pig heads, escargots, eel soup in creamy base.
“On this trip,” Lindsey says, “I decided instead of saying ‘no,’ to say ‘yes’.”
She asks what others’ weirdest meals have been: Anne’s weird meal – bone marrow from buffalo; Janet’s was fish eye. Lindsey says, “Last night’s pressed pig head – but it could have been marketed better.”
What is so notable about Antwerp, which is still a major industrial city, is that in one view, you can see dozens of wind turbines, coal being shipped, even a nuclear plant billowing smoke, which we see as we sail out of Antwerp the next morning.
Antwerp is really worth a longer stay. Use the Antwerp City Card for free entrance to museums, churches, attractions and public transport; as well as some great discounts. (www.visitantwerpen.be/en/antwerp-city-card).
We leave Belgium and continue on into The Netherlands.
Dordrecht: Birthplace of Holland
Day 5 on our BoatBikeTours trip, we sail in the early morning from Antwerp to Kreekrak and cycle 23 miles to Tholen (new harbor), where our ship, Princesse Royal, meets us to sail on to Dordrecht – not places that I would bet most of us have ever heard of before.
We stop to visit to the Canadian war cemetery where there are 80 graves of Canadian soldiers who fought trying to free Netherlands from the Nazis. “They try to give the graves a face,” so each one is personalized.
We have our lunch at Fort De Roovere, built in 1628, the largest of four forts that formed the West-Brabantse Waterline, a water-based defensive fortification. It is located along the edge of a sandy embankment between Bergen op Zoom and Steenbergen and built during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.
After the fall of the French Empire of Napoleon in 1816, Fort de Roovere no longer had a military purpose and was reclaimed by nature. It was designated a national monument in 1975. The earthen-fortress was restored in 2010 as much as possible to its original state, along the same design configuration as in 1784, and today is a lovely park where I watch dragon flies on a lily pond, and climb an interesting modern tower to get a sense of how, in a siege, the approaching enemy forces could be bombarded from protruding bastions by batteries of cannon..
We bike into a charming village of Tholen which has a surprising windmill (converted to a restaurant).
We meet the ship here and spend a pleasant afternoon sailing to Dordrecht, going through locks which I learn is not to level the water but to keep salt water separate from fresh so the land can be farmed. Apparently, it’s also an interesting water defense system – areas could be flooded to stop an invader.
This day proves a nice, relaxing combination of cycling and sailing, but the highlight is yet to come.
We are supposed to dock at the historic city of Dordrecht, but there is an important historic steam-engine ship festival about to get underway and the harbormaster has refused to let us dock there. So Captain Roy van der Veen finds a spot at a boat-building marina across the river.
Our leader, Corrie Stein, not to be deterred because we can’t just walk off the ship into the historic center, organizes a ride back into Dordrecht for her guided walking tour because this is a city that is not to be missed. Dordrecht, as I learn, is like our Philadelphia in 1776, and this place and this adventure proves to be a highlight of our trip.
Here we also get to see the extraordinary infrastructure for bikes – to get up/down the very high bridge, there is actually a track and even an escalator for the bike, as well as dedicated path on the highway bridge.
Dordrecht is 800 years old, the oldest city of Holland (not Netherlands), with a population of 120,000 and some 900 monuments. It has always been a garrison town.
At the main church we learn that they wanted to build a tower 120 meters high (to compete with another city’s tower), but the ground wouldn’t support it. So with the money left over, they built four clocks and a bell. But when the bell tolled, windows broke, so they stopped.
We see these “schooske” – special historic sailing ships that are iconic to Dordrecht (and why there is the special festival). They are allowed to stay in this marina for free.
The original, ornately decorated entrance gate to the town is where Napoleon entered Dordrecht, Corrie says.
Walking down a cobblestone street, I see stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) – bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk as a memorial to the Jewish families who were taken from their home during the Holocaust. There are stolpersteines to commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime in more than 1,100 locations in 17 European countries
On this street, Corrie points out a special Dordrecht style façade of buildings dating from the 17th century, which she says would have been designed by a mason in order to qualify to join a guild. “There were hundreds of these buildings but they fell out of fashion.
We come to what seems a simple courtyard of a 1275 Augustine monastery, but here, in 1572, a meeting was held to decide to revolt against Philip of Spain and to choose William of Orange as the leader. “The Netherlands was born in Dordrecht,” Corrie tells us.
“Netherlands formed after a revolt against Spain. It started with representatives choosing William of Orange as leader and agreeing to fight for freedom – a political moment – a thought out idea – freedom of religion,” which took place right here. (It sounds so much like the Continental Congress of 1776; Dordrecht in 1572 was Philadelphia in 1776.)
“William wanted their own church” not like Catholic churches, but rounded with 8 sides. And they wanted their own Bible translated in Dutch.”
In 2019, the King of Netherlands, a descendent of William of Orange, came here to Dordrecht with an original family bible, and computerized art projected the writings from the old text on the building.
By now, darkness has all but descended. We put on our bike lights, and ride back to the ship, everyone giggling over how we look like a line of fireflies.
Boat Bike Tours, Aambeeldstraat 20, 1021 KB, Amsterdam, Netherlands, tel.: +31 20 72 35 400, [email protected], www.boatbiketours.com.
Photo: Antwerp’s historic center, ringed with Guild Houses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
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