In the United States, we all know the history of Ellis Island and some of us may even be fortunate enough to have seen this monumental piece of the past. But, have you ever thought about the beginning of the journey? For many, the beginning was Antwerp.
Antwerp’s Red Star Line Museum is the perfect introduction to truly understanding the city. With all of the historical items in the exhibit contributed by a single donor, you experience the most complete story possible. In addition, modern technology encourages interaction and engagement and takes museum goers from the expected item-behind-glass mentality to the exciting world of videos, lighting, and touch screens. A memorable part of your journey through the museum may be the opportunity to sit on a replica of a hard, wooden train seat that would have transported hundreds of thousands of hopeful emigrants on journeys to this historic port that may have taken hours, days, or weeks.
An important part of Red Star Line’s ship boarding process was the necessity to “clean and disinfect” all potential passengers before allowing them on board. Each traveler forfeited their clothes and possessions to be showered and sprayed with harsh disinfectant, all while in the company of their peers. Forfeited items would have gone through the same process and (hopefully) returned in a paper bag labeled “Cleaned & Disinfected by RED STAR LINE Antwerp.”
Many other photos, paintings, videos, posters, and artifacts enable museum visitors to best comprehend the vast efforts and epic nature that was a true journey to America.
In addition to this museum, Antwerp is full of old sparkle and charm at every turn. St. Paul’s Church may be a good place to play hide-and-seek with a sculpture garden. Pass through an alley and find a B&B entitled “Bed Star Line.” De Kathedraal may entertain your eyes with colorful altarpieces, frescos, and a light, open atmosphere. Printing presses at the Plantin Moretus Museum may guide you to an enclosed finely manicured courtyard. Flower pots line window sills, moss naps on shingles, and leafy vines dance to the sky. But there is more to Antwerp than history.
After World War II, most Belgian cities did their very best to restore buildings that were damaged and preserve history. Not Antwerp. Out with the old, in with the new. This city is home to more architectural dichotomies than hidden streets and courtyards, if you can believe that. Next to an old, tan and red brick, steeple-adorned apartment building may be a new, dark, round, eco-friendly office building. Shopping, music, decorative scaffolding, shopping, street performers, graffiti, (And, did I say shopping?) are all external signs of a modern community that cherishes its renowned foundation but looks steadfast towards the future.
“Antwerp was my favorite city of all. First time I had ice cream. We used to hear about ice cream. But we never had even seen it”
-Basia Cohen, Passenger on The Zeeland in 1921
“Where are the days when, Rijnkaai, the heard of Antwerp’s port would beat, with a heavy rumble? You could feel the heartbeat of the Red Star in the city’s arteries.”
–De Nieuwe Gazet, Antwerp Newspaper, 1934
After a visit to Ghent, keep Antwerp in consideration for an addition to your Flanders itinerary. Antwerp’s waterside location instigated the coming together of people from all over the world and the city remains iconic for that reason. Today, Antwerp is not only a melting pot of culture, but also of ideas, architecture, art, fashion, and time.
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Written by Carol Gabbert, Van Zile Travel