Clare Thomson explores the giant waterway that runs through the heart of this historic port

The river runs through the romantic, if utterly bogus, story behind the city's name. In Roman times, the tale tells, a giant, named Druon Antigon, ruled this stretch of the Scheldt, exacting a toll from all that passed, and cutting off the hands of captains courageous enough to stand up to him. Like all tyrants, he met a sticky end. A soldier, Silvius Brabo, slew him and threw his hand into the river and the city was called "hand werpen", or hand-throwing. More plausibly, though also more prosaically, the name may come from "aan de werpen", meaning "on the wharf".

Today, the port of Antwerp is Europe's second-largest, behind only Rotterdam, and its docks and associated facilities sprawl over 140 square kilometres - but its passage to this position has almost been as choppy as the Brabo myth. For much of the Middle Ages, Bruges was the main port of Flanders, but when its access river, the Zwin, became clogged with silt in the 15th century, Antwerp took over. For a few decades, it rode the crest of a wave, but the religious conflicts that ravaged Europe from the mid-16th century left deep scars; the Scheldt was closed to ships in 1648, under the terms of the Treaty of Munster, and the city sank into a deep decline. Though Napoleon built a new naval dock, it was only in the 1860s that the Scheldt reopened. Since then, it's been full steam ahead. Antwerp depends on the river to the extent that there are no bridges across it.

While pooh sticks is not an option, you can get a sense of the Scheldt's scale by walking under it. Head south from the Grote Markt to Sint-Jansvliet and you'll see what looks like an Art-Deco power station: in fact, it's the gateway to the Sint Anneke (St Anna) tunnel, a unique pedestrian passageway that runs for 572 metres beneath the river bed. You reach this chilly, tube-shaped tunnel, lined with cool white ceramic tiles via the lift, which whirrs and groans like a Jules Verne bathysphere, or the delightfully old-fashioned, clanking wooden escalator. Surface on the other side for a fine view of the cathedral spire and the pointed turret of the medieval Steen. To your left, beyond a bend in the river, you can see the cranes of the modern port.

Antwerpenaars rarely make this crossing, claiming that the only thing the river's left bank has to offer is the view, but that's a little unfair: head north from the tunnel and you'll come to sandy Sint Anneke beach, Antwerp's top sunbathing spot. It's not St Tropez, but there are worse places to while away a sunny afternoon.

Back on the right side, make for the Steen, a castle, site of execution and sometime prison. It dates back to the 12th century, though much of it has been rebuilt, and now houses the Maritime Museum (Steenplein 1; 00 32 3 201 9340; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; €4/£2.80), an eclectic collection spanning panoramic pictures of Antwerp - from the left bank, mostly, so you can see how the city has changed through the centuries - paintings of storms, dockers and fish markets; and displays about sailors' superstitions (it's bad luck to meet a woman before sailing, apparently, but good luck to meet a soldier) and knot-tying. Outside, slightly decrepit hangars house a collection of merchant and naval boats.

The exit is next to the new cruise terminal. Flandria Boats offers tours of the Scheldt and the harbour (www.flandriaboat.com; 00 32 3 231 3100) and a 50-minute river tour costs €7 (£5); the two-and-a-half-hour harbour tour costs €11.50 (£8). River tours depart from the Steenplein; harbour tours from Kaai 14, Londenbrug. Both tours finish at the end of October and resume on 1 May 2006.

Continue up the broad, windswept quayside to the Rijnkaai (Rhine quay). Though it's a drab stretch of dock, with just a few rusting cranes on the waterfront, it has a special place in European history. From here, the ships of the Red Star Line carried thousands of passengers to Ellis Island, many of them escaping eastern Europe's pogroms. Stand here for a while and you can sense the dreams and desperation of people in search of a new life: the chaotic scenes, with pickpockets, and con men promising refugees tickets, only to steal their money. The city has just bought the ancient buildings of the Red Star Line and is planning to renovate them into a memorial with a visitors' centre by 2008 (www.redstarlinememorial.be).

From here, take Amsterdamstraat inland to the southern tip of the Kattendijkdok. This is 't Eilandje (the Little Island), so named because of the quays and waterways that separate it from the city. Not so long ago, this gritty dockside was awash with drunken sailors; now you're more likely to see sharp-dressed Antwerpenaars sipping wine at a café overlooking the Willemdok's new marina. Dries van Noten's workshop is set in a former warehouse on the southern edge, and the Royal Ballet of Flanders' theatre is nearby.

The Bonapartedok is, of course, named after Napoleon, who built these docks during the French occupation, in an effort to "point a pistol at the heart of England". It's undergoing a sea change, with office blocks, loft apartments, restaurants and galleries replacing the faded seamen's haunts. A former shelter for dockers is now a bustling, high-ceilinged brasserie, La Riva (Londenstraat 52; 00 32 3 225 01 02; www.lariva.be), which hosts DJ nights on weekends. Further north, on the fringes of the port proper, is Het Pomphuis (Siberiastraat; 00 32 3 770 86 25; www.hetpomphuis.be), a vast old pumphouse stunningly converted into a bar and restaurant.

The port is an extraordinary network of docks, mini-harbours, canals and bridges, dotted with cranes and oil and chemical refineries. Flandria runs port cruises, while, for drivers, the tourist office publishes a Port Route brochure (€1.50/£1.10): you'll learn that Antwerp is Europe's largest processor of kaolin (and what it is), and that the largest crane, named Brabo, weighs a whopping 800 tons. One word of warning: due to heightened security after September 11, some of the areas mentioned in the brochure are out of bounds.

The port's expansion has come at a price: many of the old polder villages have vanished, with a few sad remnants left amid the warehouses and petrochemical plants. There is respite from the industrial activity: the village of Lillo, a remarkably peaceful spot, is ideal for a lunchtime break and near the Dutch border there's a nature reserve, the Reigersbos, renowned for its blue herons.

The city's most refined district also owes its existence to Antwerp's maritime past. The vast Vlaamse Kaai and Waalse Kaai docks, filled in during the 19th century as part of a sanitation programme, are now home to many of the city's trendiest shops, clubs, bars and restaurants, and are the focal point for the über-gentrified Zuid (South) district. Antwerp's bright young things flit from terrace to terrace, making this a people-watcher's paradise, and there's substance as well as style: the square is home to the Contemporary Arts Museum (www.muhka.be), the Photography Museum (www.fotomuseum.be) and a world-music venue, the Zuiderpershuis (www.zuiderpershuis.be).

For a city built on water, it's fitting that the hottest new attraction should be a tour of the sewer system (entry via the Ruihuis, Suikerrui 21; 00 32 3 232 0103; www.ruihuis.be; book in advance for group tours in English; no children under 12). This network of underground waterways, dating back as far as the 12th century, was recently opened to the public, and the locals can't seem to get enough of it. To up the atmospheric ante, visitors are given full waterproofs and hand-powered torches that whirr away eerily in the blackness.

There's a certain frisson to wading underneath the city's main sights, and the dark, dank passages have an authentically Stygian feel. Not to mention smell. Best of all, it's just a short stroll from these murky waters to the watering holes on the Grote Markt, at the heart of which is a fitting tribute to this port city's past, present and future: a fountain topped by Silvius Brabo, caught forever in an heroic hand-throwing pose.

Emotions

It takes some imagination to envisage the hustle and bustle on the now deserted Rijnkaai when the Red Star Line first arrived. However, for the next month, an exhibition on the subject gives you an opportunity to step back in time, and into the footsteps of the three million refugees and emigrés who went from the Old World to the New, from the banks of the Scheldt to Ellis Island, between 1880 and 1935. Via audiovisual displays and original film, this exhibition explores the traumatic journeys of the voyagers, among them the families of Albert Einstein and Bob Hope.

Hangar 29, Rijnkaai 150; 00 32 3 286 4267; www.redstarline-expo.be; until November 13, daily 10am-6pm; €9 (£6.60).

ExtravagANT!

The dawn of the 16th century was a happy time for Antwerp, and its artists benefited hugely from living in one of northern Europe's biggest trading hubs. The "Antwerp Mannerists", were among the most in-demand painters of the day, but hardly anything is known about them today. This exhibition, a joint project with Maastricht's marvellous Bonnefanten Museum, uses 40 pictures and drawings taken from European collections to explore the origins and achievements of a flamboyant movement for which God was truly in the detail: a favoured subject was the three kings of Orient, primarily because it gave the artist a chance to go crazy on the costumes.

Fine Arts Museum, Leopold de Waelplaats; 00 32 3 238 7809; museum.antwerpen.be/kmska; until December 31, Tue-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun to 6pm; €6 (£4.40) plus exhibition charge.

Blind Stamped and Richly Guilded: Six Centuries of Book Bindings

You'd be forgiven for not having considered book bindings as a reason to visit Antwerp - but when they date from the Middle Ages, and are on show at the city's most compelling museum, their attraction swiftly becomes clear. The exhibition is staged at the Unesco-listed Plantin-Moretus House, a Renaissance publisher that's still crammed with 16th-century printing presses and sturdy proofreading desks; amid the charming clutter, the temporary treasures on show include the first Antwerp blind-stamped book binding (from 1240) and an Officium for the Holy Virgin (1575) in exquisite French Renaissance style. Still not convinced? The Rubens portraits in the opulent first-floor living quarters should clinch it.

Vrijdagmarkt 22; 00 32 3 221 1450; museum.antwerpen.be/plantin_moretus; October 15-January 15, Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm, €6.

TIMEless Jewels

The unnecessary capital letters give the game away: at Antwerp's Diamond Museum, you can get a brief history of timepieces, in a show that examines four centuries of wrist action, with an unsurprising emphasis on all that glitters. With items loaned from New York's Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which has one of the world's best watch and clock collections, this spectacular exhibition includes pieces from the late 16th century and more recent gems, among them a Swiss-scarab timepiece with diamond-encrusted wings over the dial: press a lever and the wings fly up, revealing the watch's face.

Koningin Astridplein 19-23; 00 32 3 202 4890; www.provant.be/diamant; 10am-5.30pm until 4 Dec, closed Wed; €6 (£4.40)

Katharina Prospekt

You've probably noticed that Russian attire is one of autumn's trends, and nowhere more so than at Antwerp's fashion museum. The Antwerp design duo AF Vandevorst are presenting their vision in a collaboration with Moscow's State Historical Museum. It offers an interpretation of military and religious costumes, juxtaposed with clichéd souvenirs such as fur hats and Russian dolls. It's a bit more challenging than the mock-Cossack clobber that's just come to a high-street near you.

Nationalestraat 28; 00 32 3 470 2770; www.momu.be; Tue-Sun 10am-6pm, €6 (£4.40).

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