Het Steen, literally The Stone or Stone Castle, was built after the Viking incursions in the early Middle Ages as the first stone fortress of Antwerp, Het Steen is Antwerp’s oldest building and used to be its oldest urban centre.
Previously known as Antwerpen Burcht (fortress), Het Steen gained its current name in around 1520, after significant rebuilding under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. There are Habsburg coat of arms are visible on one of the walls, but they don’t match his. At least according to Wikipedia.
The rebuilding led to its being known first as ‘s Heeren Steen (the Lord’s Stone Castle), and later simply as Het Steen.
The fortress made it possible to control the access to the Scheldt, the river on whose bank it stands. It was used as a prison between 1303 and 1827. The largest part of the fortress, including dozens of historic houses and the oldest church of the city, was demolished in the 19th century when the quays were straightened to stop the silting up of the Scheldt. The remaining building, heavily changed, contains a shipping museum, with some old canal barges displayed on the quay outside.
In 1890 Het Steen became the museum of archeology and in 1952 an annex was added to house the museum of Antwerp maritime history, which in 2011 moved to the nearby Museum Aan de Stroom. Here is also a war memorial to the Canadian soldiers in World War II.
At the entrance to Het Steen is a bas-relief of Semini, above the archway, around 2nd century. Semini is the Scandinavian God of youth and fertility (with symbolic phallus).
A historical plaque near Het Steen explains that women of the town appealed to Semini when they desired children; the god was reviled by later religious clergy. Inhabitants of Antwerp previously referred to themselves as ‘children of Semini’.
At the entrance bridge to the castle is a statue of a giant and two humans. It depicts the giant Lange Wapper who used to terrorize the inhabitants of the city in medieval times.
The current rebuilt and rebrand is not uncontroversial. A whole new wing was built under leadership of Philippe Viérin, from noArchitecten. It looked (and looks?) uninspired, boxy, perhaps even just plain ugly.
Viérin reacted only on Thursday, stating he was surprised and people should wait to see the finished product. Obviously he has a point, but Viérin makes the same mistake as Antwerp master builder Christian Rapp: thinking they’re above the mêlée and thus being snob in a ‘we know what’s best for you, you pleb’, way.
On Friday, author Jeroen Olyslaegers downplayed his fierce criticism of April 2021. In an op-ed for Gazet van Antwerpen, he now wrote his criticism of the architectural design was ill-targeted, and he know target city government for still vying for cruise tourism, as the Visitor Centre is also the new Cruise Terminal for Antwerp.
So the castle is now a visitor centre. It features:
- A visitor centre properly speaking, with tourist information and merchandise.
- ‘The Antwerp Story‘, a prelude to Antwerp’s historic, cultural and tourist offering of sights and museums.
- A panoramic view from the rooftop of the new and controversial wing.
The Antwerp Story
‘The Antwerp Story’ gives you an overview of Antwerp’s history. Interactive screens in five languages – Dutch, French, German, English and Spanish – present Antwerp’s neighbourhoods. Included for free is the omnipresent Jaouad Alloul.
The Port of Antwerp room challenges your balance.
‘The Antwerp Story’ really does sample Antwerp.
The panorama is definitely a great feature. On fair weather days, it wil provide for beautiful photos of Antwerp.
Top or flop? Neither. Het Steen is a great location for a visitor centre and the place is well conceived. Is it all ‘necessary’ (“Is it really necessary?” is a Belgian’s favourite complaint) or ‘useful’?
Well, that’s up to you.
Apparently, you need to buy a ticket, 7 or 5 euros. Odd. I was there at 10.10 AM yesterday and although I did see gates, I did not see a ticket office or anyone checking anything.