Good Friends Make for Great Sightseeing

Marilynn keeps up with everyone. We had at least two of her childhood friends from Kansas at our wedding, along with one of her Harvard roommates, other friends from college and a handful from grad school.

In Madrid on a trip a few years ago, we stayed with a woman Marilynn met once, a friend of a friend. Marilynn kept up with this woman as she married, changed jobs, had kids and watched them grow up. Marilynn sends the occasional letter or email, and we’re the rare family that still sends out Christmas cards, 120 last year—fewer than in years past because we left for Belfast a week after the holiday.

All of that to say we spent a wonderful weekend in Antwerp with Marilynn’s friend Béné, who opened her home and gave freely of her time to show us the city of her birth. Marilynn and Béné lived on the same staircase for a single year while both were attending Jesus College, Oxford nearly 30 years ago.

We didn’t visit any particular museum or cathedral but walked around the city as Béné showed us the sights and talked about Antwerp’s rich history. She’s a schoolteacher, but Béné could easily be the best tour guide an Antwerp visitor could ask for.

Fun facts about Antwerp

  • Declan enjoyed looking for the Mary and Child statues that many corner houses have for good luck. Béné says that homeowners also liked them because they came with a free light.
  • The golden age of Antwerp was in the 1560s, when Antwerp and Paris were the largest cities in Europe, with more than 100,000 people each.
  • Antwerp is the second-largest port in Europe (behind Rotterdam), thanks to a deep water port that Napoleon deepened and straightened. Unfortunately, the project forced the destruction of a fabled monastery.
  • The city’s other large industry is the diamond trade. Traditionally, Hasidic Jews dominated this, although Béné says Indians have taken on greater importance in recent years.
  • The story of Nello and Patrasche resonates in Japan and Korea much more than it does in Belgium, where the story originated. “A Dog of Flanders” is an 1872 tragedy written by Marie Louise de la Ramée under the pen name “Ouida” about a peasant boy and his dog. The book is required reading in Japan, where it’s become part of the country’s collective psyche, as evidenced by the reaction of Japanese tourists who stumble across the monument in front of Antwerp Cathedral. The new statue, unveiled in December, shows Nello and Patrasche snuggling together under cobblestones that seamlessly flow over the white marble fixtures. Several films have been made from the book, and not all of them relate the original story’s not-so-fairy-tale ending.
  • A statue depicts the popular legend of how Antwerp got its name. According to folklore, a giant collected a toll from passing boatmen, severing a hand off those who refused and throwing it in the river. A hero named Silvius Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and (what else?) threw it in the river. “To throw” in Dutch is werpen so throwing a hand is Antwerpen.
  • Dutch master painter Peter Paul Rubens lived and worked in Antwerp at Rubenshuis, which is now a museum. His work also can be seen in two local churches.
  • A begijnhof houses a community of single women who live communally like nuns (but aren’t) and serve those in need. These communities are dying out, with the housing passing into private ownership. Béné showed us the courtyard of a former begijnhof that is not on public display.
  • The St. Anna Tunnel connects the parts of Antwerp divided by the river Scheldt. A set of cool wooden escalators takes visitors more than 100 feet down, or visitors can take an elevator that holds 40. The pedestrian and bike tunnel is more than one-third of a mile long.

Sacrilegious Easter brunch

While wandering around town on Easter morning, amid the cacophony of church bells announcing Christ’s empty grave, we had a delightful brunch at probably the most irreverent restaurant you’ll find.

At Het Elfde Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment), you’ll find the place chock-full of saints, sinners, cherubs and other statuary on the walls and sitting on nearly every flat surface. Kitsch aside, the food was superb. I had a plate-filling omelet, and Marilynn had The Last Supper, reminiscent of a Ploughman’s lunch with tasty bread, brie, ham and olives. By the way, the 11th commandment is “to eat well, drink a lot of tasty beer and have lots of fun,” according to the restaurant.

Our thanks again to Béné and her family for the warm welcome and the chance to visit, relax and wash clothes.

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