A jewel in Belgium’s crown
f you asked a Belgian to sum up Antwerp, he’d tell
you about its majestic cathedral, its Old Masters,
the bustling port and the diamond trade. While
pouring out a couple of “bollekes”. No, not a dirty
joke, rather the name of the city’s most famous beer,
or bolleke de Koninck, to give it its full name, after the
equally-famous brewery that makes it.
Belgium’s second city and Europe’s second-biggest
port in this Dutch-speaking part of northern Belgium,
known as Flanders, has been one of Europe’s most
economically powerful since the 14th century. In the
17th, painters like Peter Paul Rubens put the city firmly
on the cultural map. Despite suffering under Nazi
occupation and being badly bombed during the Second
World War, Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, Anvers in
French) has continued to flourish.
Today, its history is as important as ever and people
continue to flock here to visit the diamond district,
the countless museums and to stock up on Belgian
chocolate. But now, it’s much more than its past.
Antwerp has become the country’s capital of cool, a
major draw for art dealers and fashion moguls. You’ll
find world-class restaurants in its medieval alleyways,
design-led hotels and cutting-edge galleries tucked away
behind centuries-old buildings.
For all its hipness, however, Antwerp remains
refreshingly laid-back. Whether dressed in Prada or
dungarees, more or less everyone cycles, and its cafe-
filled, cobbled streets have an easygoing ambience.
And, if you’re looking, you’re sure to find a friendly
local more than willing to share a beer with you.
Central Antwerp is compact enough to explore on foot,
so put on your walking shoes and head off to Rubens
House( www.rubenshuis.be )
on Wapper street. The
beautiful house and gardens, now a museum, showcase
works by Belgium’s most famous painter, Peter Paul
Rubens, as well as those of some of his well-known
proteges such as Anthony van Dyck.
Just around the corner, in the Paleis Op de Meir,
an 18th-century rococo palace that once belonged
to Napoleon Bonaparte, order a cappuccino at Café
Impérial( www.cafe-imperial.be )
, an elegant Belgian
coffee house with high ceilings, chandeliers and an
impeccably-dressed clientele. Afterwards, be sure to pop
into The Chocolate Line,( www.thechocolateline.be )
the ground floor, where you can buy exquisite hand-
made creations by chocolatier Dominique Persoone,
famed for inventing the ‘chocolate shooter’ (a chocolate
sniffing device) for a Rolling Stones party. Walking
westwards towards the Scheldt river, you’ll come to
Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, a soaring Gothic
structure 123 metres tall and a World Heritage Site.
Antwerp is a city of contradictions, where quaint squares and cobbled
lanes hide cutting-edge design, avant-garde fashion and a diamond
industry worth billions. We spent a weekend discovering its secrets
Words: Tina Walsh Images: VISITFLANDERS