E. Tresmontant - 2009-11-24
A two-hour train drive from Paris and Amsterdam, and not quite double that time from London, Antwerp is an ideal destination to spend two or three days with your other half. Intimate and dynamic at the same time, the world diamond centre offers a fascinating digest of Flemish beauty and cosmopolitanism, of museums and creative venues, of boutique hotels and hip eateries. See map of Antwerp
Intimate and dynamic at the same time, the world diamond centre offers a fascinating digest of Flemish beauty and cosmopolitanism, of museums and creative venues, of boutique hotels and hip eateries.
Prosperity, tolerance and art de vivre
Belgium's second city is also the largest city in the Flanders (the northern part of the country where 60% of the 10 million Belgians live). Dutch is spoken here as well as English and French.
With its port (Europe's second) sprawling over 35,000 acres to the Dutch border, Antwerp is a trading and industrial city open to the world.
Since 1476, diamonds have been cut here in an area under a square mile. The district around Central Station is the setting for the sale of 40% of industrial diamonds, 85% of uncut diamonds and 50% of cut diamonds, amounting to an annual turnover of 26 billion dollars (8% of Belgian exports).
This international district is home to 1500 companies and 4 diamond exchanges. It is a model of tolerance since Jews, Indians, Zairese, Lebanese, Armenians and Chinese have been living together peacefully here for over a century!
But for the passing visitor, Rubens' home town above all impresses on account of its artistic and cultural wealth. Whenever you turn a corner you come upon new boutiques, another museum, a Renaissance garden or a boutique hotel housed in an ancient Flemish mansion.
Antwerp: the ins and outs
When you arrive in Antwerp, the mildness of the climate is what strikes you first. However changes can come without warning, gales of icy wind, rain or snow suddenly following glorious sunshine!
The first thing to do is to get a taxi to the historic centre located around the Gothic cathedral, Belgium's most impressive monument (2.5 acres surface area, 123 m height).
You should stay in the vicinity at one of Antwerp's most beautiful boutique hotels, Hotel Julien. The chic interior decoration is a subtle blend of wood, stone and daylight. After lunching at the bistrot De Kleine Zavel (see our article), all you have to do is jot down a visit programme comprising three parts: walks, museums and shopping! Our suggestions follow.
The cathedral district, the size of a big medieval village, can be explored either in the daytime or at night. Its warren-like passages and narrow streets recall Vermeer paintings.
A typical example is Vlaeykensgang (photo opposite), which you enter at 16 Oude Koornmarkt. This labyrinth impenetrable to the noise of the modern-day city enjoys splendid acoustics that will allow you to appreciate, especially on Mondays, the chime concerts given by the 47 cathedral bells!
Another quirky feature of this district, well known for its cafes and antique dealers, is the wealth of recesses housing madonnas at the corner of houses: we counted more than 300! They were often masterpieces by sculptors wishing to join St Luc's guild.
Opposite the cathedral, Grote Markt Square is testimony to Antwerp's heyday, with its houses of corporations and 16th century town hall.
This magnificent architecture reminds us that Antwerp, then under the rule of Charles V, was Europe's second city after Paris.
few minutes walk away, you arrive on the right bank of the Escaut, in the former port district. Here you'll see the town's oldest public building, the Butchers House (1501-1504), with its brick walls striped with white sandstone and flanked by elegant turrets.
Opposite, SteenFortress, built in 843, is the departure point of a pleasant walk above the quayside, alongside the 19th century wrought iron halls.
A long terrace walk provides splendid views of the estuary, which reaches a width of 500 m here, but the wind can be very cold!
Further to the south, you'll see the former docks in the process of gentrification, as in London! Enjoy a drink here in one of the town's hippest cafes: l'Entrepôt du Congo, located, as you can guess, in a 19th century colonial warehouse.
Three typical Antwerp addresses
The Geneva gin specialist
Close to the cathedral, Café De Vagant is an institution for people seeking peace . and Geneva gin! In a beautiful rustic hall bathed in filtered light and Bach music, you can discover more than 400 Geneva gins distilled in Belgium.
Those with the best reputation are the Antwerp Genevas (very spicy), those from Wallonia (milder), from Flanders (suitable for ageing) and from Hasselt (very complex).
These typical spirits, varying between 30 and 54° alcohol can be enjoyed at room temperature as an aperitif or an after-meal liqueur. They are also employed in some sauces and are a pleasant accompaniment to the traditional dishes served on the first floor.
The gloves specialist
The Huis A. Boon shop, established in 1884, is one of Antwerp's most traditional. You'll discover here a vast choice of gloves hand made from the finest boar (very strong), stag and lamb leathers (expect to pay from 80 to 160 € a pair).
To try the gloves on, you rest your elbow on a little mat placed on the counter: the sales assistant will than measure your hands and, with a wood peg, will adjust a pair of gloves exactly to your fingers.
The Havana cigar specialist
Established in1893, Maison Verloo is Antwerp's oldest tobacconist. If you're passionate about Cuban puros or about handmade cigars from Santo Domingo, Honduras or Nicaragua, Frank Evens will show you his humidor where he keeps 1400 different samples.
In conjunction with the best wine-waiter of Belgium, Michel Delrée, Mr Evens also organises introductory sessions during which you can smoke a great Havana (like the Upmann 46) while drinking a first quality rum, brandy or whisky.
The three museums you absolutely must visit!
Antwerp is the setting of no less than 17 first-ranking museums, without mentioning the churches and public buildings (like the town hall) packed with treasures and paintings by Flemish masters.
If you had to choose just three, we would advise you to begin by the Royal Fine Arts Museum which will allow you to see the evolution of Flemish painting from the 14th century to our day and age, from Van Eyck, Breughel and Cranach to James Ensor, Magritte and Delvaux.
The great masterpiece of this museum is a French painting, the Virgin surrounded by red and blue angels (photo opposite), whichJean Fouquet painted with the features of Agnès Sorel, mistress of the King of France Charles VII.
This mysterious portrait of amazing pictorial audacity embodies the 15th century model of feminine beauty (Length of visit: 1h30).
As for the Plantin-Moretus Museum (photo opposite), it is located on the picturesque Vridagmarkt Square, in the heart of the historic centre.
This magnificent 34-room Renaissance building with a garden and innumerable treasures (period furniture, paintings, Gutenberg original bible) became a Unesco world heritage site in 2001. It houses the only 16th century printing works still operating, that of Christophe Plantin (1520-1589), history's first industrial printer. (Length of visit: 1h)
The Rockox House, lastly, is certainly one of Antwerp's most intimate and ravishing venues. This 16th and 17th century restored jewel belonged to the burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), an art collector, humanist and friend of Rubens. The chests, paintings, fireplaces, tapestries and pieces of earthenware will plunge you into the refined atmosphere of the day. (Length of visit: 1h)
With Paris, London and Milan, Antwerp is one of Europe's fashion capitals. Shopping is therefore a permanent temptation here around the ModeNatie building (photo opposite), which is both a museum and a living laboratory of fashion located at the centre of Nationalestraat, one of the town's main streets.
Everything began at the beginning of the 1980s when young designers, who had trained at the fashion department of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, left to exhibit their works in London. 'The Antwerp six', as they were nicknamed, enjoyed huge success which was never to wane.
Twenty years later, their respective creations, often eccentric and provocative, have become classics, like the androgynous suits by Ann Demeulemeester, the oriental-inspiration jackets by Dries Van Noten or the jeans and windjammers by Walter Van Beirendonck, the most fiery-natured of the gang (superb boutique located in a garage).
In their wake, a second generation of Antwerp designers emerged in 2000 with, at the forefront, Véronique Branquinho, Christophe Broich (photo opposite), Stephan Schneider and Bruno Pieters.
Their styles are sometimes complete opposites. Véronique Branquinho has taken up classicism again whereas Christophe Broich has opted rather for 'destructivism'.
All their clothing however is original and remarkably well made.
You'll need a full day to visit their boutiques!
Turning to jewellery, Antwerp is also home to a few talented artists like Pascale Masselis who, in her boutique in the historic centre, designs and produces herself necklaces, rings, brooches and ear-rings (in gold, silver and diamonds) drawing inspiration from the Art Nouveau style.
Antwerp tourist office
Reception at Grote Markt 13
Tel.: +32 3 232 01 03
Fax.: +32 3 231 19 37
Korte Nieuwstraat 24
Tel.: +32 3 229 06 00
Rooms from 160 €
Café De Vagant
Tel.: +32 3 233 15 38
Huis A. Boon
Tel.: +32 3 232 33 87
Tel.: +32 3 238 08 64
Royal Fine Arts Museum
Leopold de Waelplaats
Tel.: +32 3 238 78 09
Tel.: +32 3 221 14 50
Tel.: +32 3 201 92 50
Tel.: +32 3 231 47 51