Like any city that has 2,000 years of history, Antwerp has long been vulnerable to the turning fortune’s wheel. My walking tour of the Zurenborg neighbourhood in Antwerp revealed just one example of architecture reflecting a time of great prosperity in the city.
Here in the south-east part of Antwerp you will find street after street of splendid Art Nouveau and fin de siècle town houses gloriously preserved. The houses were built between around 1894 and 1906 and are remarkable in their style and decoration.
This is one of Antwerp’s hidden gems and I recommend spending some time here because it is also home to some excellent bars and restaurants.
To begin an exploration of Antwerp’s Zurenborg neighbourhood get the train to Berchem Station and walk down Uitbreidingsstraat to the traffic lights. Cross over and you will find yourself at the top of one of the most remarkable streets of Art Nouveau architecture you will ever see – the Cogels-Osy Lei.
Essentially you should walk (very slowly) down this street, also exploring the streets to either side (particularly General Merlenstraat, Waterloostraat and Transvaalstraat), as far as Draakplaats.
The development of the Zurenborg district was planned just at the time when the popularity of the Art Nouveau style was at its peak. However there are a number of other architectural styles represented, including Gothic Revival and Neoclassical.
Part way down Cogels-Osy Lei is a neo-baroque round-a-bout surrounded by castle-like houses that seem quite uniform but have unique details in the decoration.
What makes the Zurenborg neighbourhood really unique is that groups of houses were often developed together under a theme. So on Waterloostraat you will find a group of five houses with each one representing a time of the day – Morning, Evening, Night etc.
Probably the most famous example of this is ‘The Four Seasons’ at the intersection of Waterloostraat and General Merlenstraat – a house depicting Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter stands at each corner.
Inspiration from organic and natural sources is of course very common in Art Nouveau style and there are plenty of examples here in Zurenborg with houses named The Sunflower, The Tulip and The Rose.
Other influences here include the heavens – so you will find stars, goddesses and eagles – and historical references – to Boer war in South Africa (Pretoriastraat, Transvallstraat and Krugerstraat) and the Napoleonic wars (on Waterloostraat number 30 has a depiction of Napoleon and number 11 has battle scenes as well as portraits of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon).
Around the Draakplaats there are a number of restaurants and bars. We had an amazing Moroccan meal at El Warda (The Rose) a few hundred metres down Draakstraat. Very friendly service and it was heaving by 7.30pm so get there early (you can’t book).
Before dinner we had spent a very pleasant hour or so at Den Draak, where there is plenty of delicious Belgian beer on tap (as well as bar food) and where I witnessed a very professional pour – glass rinsed in cold water, beer poured then glass dipped in water to remove the overflow, then the excess head cleared off the top with a knife. All class.
There you have it – a hidden gem in the city of Antwerp. Don’t miss a wander in the Zurenborg when you visit Antwerp!
By Natasha von Geldern
Note: You can also get Tram number 8 from central Antwerp to Berchem, or get off just before at Draakplaats and you will be in the middle of the Zurenborg district.
Do you love Art Nouveau architecture? Where have you seen the best examples?