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Are You Intrigued by Het Steen, the Oldest Monument in Antwerp Along the Scheldt River?
Het Steen, literally translated in English means ‘the stone’. It remained much of a mystery for me having passed by the fortress for the past few years but have not once visited it. Finally one fine day, I insisted on visiting it to see what was the secret lying behind the magnificent fortress. The entry is free though.
Het Steen History
Het Steen is the first and oldest stone fortress in Antwerp located along the River Scheldt near the Former Werf Penisula. The first settlement with earth fortification was built on the Werf in the ninth century, which subsequently became a fortress.
Between 1100 to 1200, a stone wall and Het Steen, one of the fortress three gatehouses were added. In the early sixteenth century, Charles V has completely refurbished Het Steen. Furthermore, you can witness the refurbishment from the distinct colour difference of the façade.
In 1880, there was a demolition of many parts of the castle due to the need to expand and straighten the Scheldt quays. Het Steen is the last remaining fortress from historical time in which you see today. Between 1889-90, a neo-Gothic wing was erected as part of the development plan.
From Prison to Museum
Het Steen was used as a prison for more than 500 years from 1303 to 1823. It became the home for the disabled soldiers later. Het Steen was also used as a residence, a saw mill and a fish warehouse too. Later in 1862, it reopened as a museum which focused on the theme of ancient time.
Subsequently, from 1952 onwards, the National Maritime Museum replaced the genre. After its permanent closure in 2008, MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) housed its collection in 2010. Now, you could see the collection on display in MAS.
Concurrently in the same year 2010, the city government asked Het Paleis which is a house performing arts for all children and young people in Antwerp to transform the function of Het Steen to a child-friendly environment, organising activities and events for them. Het Steen is a project of Het Paleis, a theatre for the children, youngsters and artists, commissioned by the City of Antwerp.
A statue of Lange Wapper stood in front of Het Steen on the left side of the fortress. Lange Wapper was a Flemish folkloric character. A devilish character which had many versions of stories. He had the ability to make himself grow bigger which explained the reason for his height as compared to the other two shorter men standing in front of him. There were rumours that Lange Wapper was afraid of the images of Mary.
Due to this reason, people placed statues of Mary at the facades of their houses to ward off the devil. He fled to the city centre and drowned in the Scheldt River eventually. However, I was unsure of the meaning as to why this evil man’s statue was placed outside Het Steen. My guess was that his death was associated with the Scheldt river which was nearby and hence, the signification behind it.
Inside Het Steen
Upon entering Het Steen, on the right is a statue of Jesus Christ.
Oldest Half-Hour Glass in the World
Did you know that the oldest half-hour glass in the world is in Het Steen? There is a sentence under the huge hourglass which states:
“This is the oldest 1/2 hour glass in the world.“
On the right of the image is an old water pump.
Stepping into the fortress, on the left is a salon with some cushions. There is also a study room. Here, it is a quiet place for people to read or surf the net.
Workshop and Café
Beside the hall is a large room where Het Paleis organises youth and children’s workshops. From 2012 to 2013, the theme is “Water”. From 2013 onwards, the new theme is “Time” and always changing. The workshops focus primarily on science and let children conduct experiments and understand more about time-related subjects. There is a cafe where you can grab some cookies and drinks too.
Instant Photographs Beautifying the Wall
It was astonishing to see numerous instant photographs beautifying the wall around the toilet. Guests could take two sets of photos from the photo booth for €2. It is optional for them to leave behind one photo outside the photo booth so that the staff could display it on the wall. My friend and I did just that. We might see our faces on the wall sometimes later and leave a permanent print in Het Steen.
On the left of the toilet is a staircase leading to an exhibition room of Prince Biscuits. A video was playing a film about the production process of Prince biscuits in the factory. It was an enlightening video. We had enjoyed watching it. There was no one inside the room except for us.
Prince Biscuit originated from Antwerp in 1870 in honour of King Leopold II. He had a nickname “Belgium’s Prince” because he was a prince for 30 years before he became the second king of Belgium. Leopold II like chocolates but did not like his fingers to be dirty. Hence, a brilliant Belgian baker, Edouard de Beukelaer, stuffed the chocolate into the biscuit.
At the back of Het Steen, you can also find a war memorial to the Canadian soldiers in World War II. Beneath the stone monument states:
“As a tribute to all who have resisted and fought for the liberation of Antwerp. ~1 September 1944 to 4 September 1989~”
“The plaque is dedicated to the heroism of the 1st Canadian Army, which, with British and Polish Units, liberated the Scheldt estuary in the autumn of 1944 after bitter fighting, thus opening the Port of Antwerp.”
View from Het Steen
From one corner, you can see the view of Museum Vleeshuis (Meat House) from Het Steen. One suggestion is to cross the street and visit the museum at the same time to make your time more worthwhile. The other corner of the fortress is facing the Scheldt River.
Het Steen Review
You have seen a virtual tour of Het Steen. The fortress is beautiful to look at and to take photographs from the outside. Other than that, there was nothing much to see inside. Moreover, the staircase access within the castle is sealed except for the one inside the workshop / café. Therefore, the experience was a little disappointing as I expected to see more of this medieval fortress.
On the other hand, Het Steen would be undergoing a new revamp in 2018 for two years and after which, tout as a tourist centre. The development project costs €9 million which will convert Het Steen into a welcome centre for cruise passengers with tourist facility. Additionally, there will be a new tower construction and a roof terrace in the city side overlooking the river, the port and the city centre.
With the future project in hand, hopefully, the renovated Het Steen would inject more vibrancy and live up to the expectation of many others rather than just looking good on the outside and mainly used as a workshop currently. Surely, with its long historical standing, Het Steen Antwerpen can do more than that.