The name Antwerp derives from two ‘olde’ Flemish words. These are ’Ant’ meaning ‘Hand’ and ‘Werp’ meaning to ‘Throw’. Rather than just being a random double pin-stick in the ‘Collins Complete Flemish Dictionary’, these two words were deliberately joined. They commemorate the old Belgian folk-tale of a psychotic giant called Antigoon who zealously officiated over the collection of the tolls for the crossing of a river. Being a rather petty minded bureaucrat he exacted a bizarre revenge on anybody sneakily crossing the river without stumping up the readies. He would chop off one of their hands and throw it in the river…so, a stump for not stumping up.
They still have toll bridges in Antwerp, as I found out when my outdated SatNav map thought it would be a jolly game to take me on a scenic tour of Antwerp Docks, rather than getting me to where I wanted to be. This was because they’d built a brand new motorway junction and they’d failed to have the good manners to inform my SatNav. Fortunately there were no appendage-severing giants at the dock’s toll-both, just a moustachioed Belgian who seemed surprised to see anybody entering Antwerp Docks on a Saturday.
We were also surprised, having found our way out of a deserted Antwerp Docks, to find nobody in the city of Antwerp itself. We parked the car down near the river and walked into town via a couple of very good art galleries. We were the only visitors and had them to ourselves. The children’s playground opposite was also eerily devoid of life too. As we walked the empty streets we wondered if the population had gone to one of the ten twin-towns that the canny Antwerp burghers have designated for ‘fact-finding’ missions at the taxpayers’ expense. One of these twin towns is Shanghai, which makes for a very nice fortnight away. However, another is Rotterdam, which is only ten kilometres down the road. This is probably a trip that gets given to new burghers as an initiation prank.
We did eventually find out where all human life is in Antwerp on a Saturday afternoon. It’s down at the shopping malls in the city centre indulging in an almighty retail-fest. From having enough room to swing several cats around we then found ourselves pressed cheek by jowl with fast-spending Belgians weighed down with bulging designer carrier bags.
We stayed longer than we should have in this consumerist purgatory. This was mostly due to the outdated SatNav (set to pedestrian mode) telling us that we should go round and round in circles many times, before gathering enough centrifugal force to be spun out in the correct direction of where we parked the car.
Once we found the car we headed off to watch a footy game featuring Royal Antwerp FC who play in the Belgian Second Division, and if you think that’s a labour of footy-love we saw a Belgian Third Division game the next day. It was quite refreshing though, and they welcomed us well. In the UK we have to suffer the English Premier League. This is nothing more than a corporate branding exercise to get Far Eastern punters to spend their month’s salary on a replica Chelsea shirt, which they’d made in the first place for tuppence. So, it was nice to see some real football. It was also nice to see a real football crowd that hadn’t been ripped off, penned in and not to be trusted with a pint of warm lager.
In the UK, Premier League crowds are seen as a necessary nuisance to add atmosphere to the game. I’m sure that Sky TV are busy working on computer generated crowds to replace the real thing altogether. When that day happens let’s hope they’ll allow the cartoon crowds to bring their own fireworks and distress flares, like you can in Belgian football. Mind you, for absolute authenticity, they’ll also have to replicate all the supporters’ burn scars and skin grafts.
For my other guides to Belgium click here.