As a Hudson County native, I had two places high on my bucket list that I wanted to visit: the city of Bayonne in France, and Hoboken, a district of Antwerp in Belgium. I was able to visit the “old” Hoboken on a rainy Saturday last January. I am not crossing it off the list yet because I plan to go back in better weather. It’s worth a trip if you’re in the area.
Folk wisdom has it that the name for our Hoboken originated with the Lenape word for tobacco pipe, “hopoghan.” Because of Castle Point, Colonel John Stevens changed it slightly to the Flemish word for high bluff: Hoboken. The Flemish Dutch settlers in the region were familiar with the section of Hoboken in southern Antwerp, so the name stuck.
Both places have a big draw for tourists. We are accustomed to tourists walking around looking for Frank Sinatra’s house or other places associated with him. In Belgium, tourists are usually Japanese or Korean, and they are looking for the statue of Nello and his dog, Patrasche. This is due to the old Flemish novel A Dog of Flanders, a children’s classic in Japan and Korea. It’s also well-known to moviegoers who may have caught the 1959 or 1999 versions of the tale. But the book was more popular in Asia.
Reportedly to capitalize on this, the local tourism board erected a statue of the boy and his dog in Hoboken, based on the premise that the author visited the Antwerp Cathedral and a canal near the cathedral on a short trip to the city.
Hoboken does not have many historic structures because Belgium has been the center of many religious and other conflicts. Antwerp and Hoboken have been part of two noted sieges and many wars that destroyed most of their historic buildings. The siege in the late 1500s caused many Protestants to flee to Amsterdam, helping to fuel the Golden Age of Holland. Many also fled to our area, including Peter Minuit, who is said to have purchased Manhattan Island. The siege during the First World War lasted 11 days; the city was eventually taken by the Germans after more destruction and flooding.
One of the few historic buildings remaining is the City Hall, surrounded by a pretty park. This is a popular place for weddings of all religions. During our visit, a couple, originally from Turkey, were married. Their wedding party drove around the city with horns blaring for an hour or so after the ceremony.
Tale of Two Cities
Like our Hoboken, the Flemish one is a bedroom community for a larger city, in this case Antwerp. The two Hobokens have roughly equal populations. There are buses, trams, and trains to Hoboken from Antwerp’s city center, costing around $4 and taking 20 to 30 minutes. Though we drove, I don’t recommend it because as in our Hoboken, parking is a problem. We were able to snag a meter a few blocks from the center of Hoboken but did have to drive around for a while. Fortunately, there is a bike share program much used by commuters to Antwerp.
Legend has it that cows still graze in Hoboken’s Polderbos, a wooded park area of about 420 acres that borders the river Scheldt. We did not see any farm animals there, but the area’s agricultural past is illustrated by the statue of “The Hobokenaar” by Yvonne Bastiaens in the city center. There’s a Farmers Market on Saturdays. Even on a rainy Saturday in January, there is a large selection of local cheeses and produce.
Housing prices are reasonable by our standards. A two-bedroom apartment will rent for about $825, and a one-bedroom for about $475. Row houses are available in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. The town primarily consists of two-story brick houses, with few, if any, high-rise buildings.
There are many places in Hoboken to sample the two national foods of Belgium: mussels and French fries. Being Belgium, there are many great beers on tap throughout the city—well-known brands such as Stella, Hoegaaden, Leffe, Palm, and Duvel, as well as numerous beers brewed in local breweries and monasteries. Beer is part of the culture in Hoboken. Each year there is a 5K run called the Beer Server Race on the first Sunday in November. Locals make the (dubious) claim that the race was inaugurated in 1777.
Antwerp is easily accessible by rail from many European cities. It may be worthwhile to make a side trip to Hoboken for a day, if for no other reason than to cross it off your bucket list. Hey, mussels, French fries, world-class beer? Why not?—07030