Famous tour guide captures bygone Antwerp in new book


In his new book, Flanders’ bestknown tour guide Tanguy Ottomer takes a nostalgic look at the city’s past, with a gentle plea to local officials and developers

Photo by Fabian

Antwerp’s biggest fan

Tanguy Ottomer’s latest project, a book about Antwerp’s vanished past, has been years in the making. It’s the culmination of a life-long fascination with the city’s history and the buildings that have disappeared from the urban landscape.

Ottomer started out as the city’s youngest tour guide eight years ago. He now runs his own company employing several other guides and has made a name for himself as the city’s most recognisable ambassador and promoter. In 2013, CNN named him in its list of “Seven of the world’s savviest tour guides”.

Born and raised in Antwerp, Ottomer readily admits that his fellow Antwerpenaars are extremely proud of their city. More than half (60%) of Ottomer’s clients are from Belgium, and a sizable portion are from Antwerp. “They really want to know their city. They want to know these little bars, these little alleys.”

In the last few years, high-profile media coverage in the foreign press has raised both Antwerp’s profile and Ottomer’s. These days he has many clients from the US, Japan and Russia. Sometimes he also works as a personal shopper, guiding style-savvy visitors through the ins and outs of the Antwerp fashion scene.

Still, it’s not just fashion that lures visitors to Antwerp. “It has all the advantages of a big city, but pocket-sized,” he explains. “It’s a village, because everyone knows each other. You can do everything on foot. For tourists, it’s an exquisite city to visit. If you stay here for three days, you’ll know the city.” 

The old Antwerp

The origins of his new book, ‘t stad van vroeger (The City of Yesteryear), can be traced to the guide’s youthful passion for his hometown, as well as a certain rebellious streak. Bored with the history lessons in school that focused on faraway places and distant time periods, the young Ottomer had a better idea.

Antwerp has all the advantages of a big city, but pocket-sized

- Tour guide Tanguy Ottomer

“I said: ‘I want to know the history of the area that I live in,’” he recalls. “So as a teenager I started to go to the city archives of Antwerp and look for things like old maps, plans of buildings that were already demolished, to see what it was like before. I started to get interested in old Antwerp.”

‘t stad van vroeger profiles 12 different neighbourhoods and squares in Antwerp, accompanied by the history of the area, anecdotes and old photographs. Ottomer started the book with his own collection of vintage postcards, but then issued a public call for additional material. For the most part, people came forward with pictures that he already had.

“Until this one guy called me and said: ‘Maybe you should come to my house and have a look, because I have some pictures.’ I go to his place ...” Ottomer pauses, leans back in his chair and chuckles at the memory. “This guy had so many pictures. It was amazing.”

The book contains over 100 photographs ranging from 19th-century postcards to family snapshots from the ’70s. Two weeks after its initial release at the Boekenbeurs, Flanders’ largest book fair, the book was already in its second printing. It’s proven very popular with residents of Antwerp as well as visitors interested in the history of the city.

Hands off

‘t stad van vroeger isn’t just for history buffs and old-timers taking a trip down memory lane. It’s also meant to show the current generation how much of Antwerp’s architectural heritage has been lost, a theme dear to Ottomer’s heart. 

“One of the first tours that I made was about places that were destroyed by the city,” he says. “In the 1960s and the '70s they destroyed more than in two World Wars together.” By showing people what’s already been demolished in the name of modernisation and efficiency, he hopes to encourage his fellow Antwerpenaars to value what they still have.

Antwerp’s biggest fan is optimistic about the future. “I’m very happy that it’s such a successful book, and I’m very, very happy that people have the same feeling: ‘Come on, they destroyed too much. Keep the city like it is now and don’t touch the old buildings anymore.’”

Ottomer’s next project is a children’s book based on A Dog of Flanders, the 19th-century novel about a boy and his dog – more famous abroad than in Antwerp, where the story is set. Perhaps he can do for Patrasche, the titular dog, what he’s already done for the city of yesteryear: unearth a forgotten gem and bring it to light.

‘t stad van vroeger is published by Luster Uitgeverij in Dutch

In his new book, Flanders’ bestknown tour guide Tanguy Ottomer takes a nostalgic look at the city’s past, with a gentle plea to local officials and developers.

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