Antwerp guide – Belgium’s second city, takes the spotlight

Antwerp guide – Belgium’s second city, takes the spotlight – words Lawrence Hunt

The spotlight’s been hot on Brussels lately. But if you’re sick of hearing about our continental problems, go a little further and spend a long weekend in Antwerp, Flanders’ thriving, friendly port city. 

This is the diamond capital of the world, but it’s also a gleaming hub of bright ideas and skilful craftsmanship. Equal measures of medieval history, architecture, art and contemporary design will have you shouting “I’m European!” from the rooftops.

 

Antwerpen, Anvers, Anversa, Amberes: almost every European language has a different name for this trade city on the bank of the river Scheldte. A fact which stands as a testament to its early dominance in European commerce. Antwerp, I’m reminded repeatedly during my stay, was the New York of the 16th Century, when it had a ‘golden age’: it was the gate to the rest of the world, and people migrated from across the continent in search of grand opportunities.

The name is believed to come from the Dutch werpen ‘to throw’, and reveals something of the local imagination. Folklore has it that a giant lived here by the River Scheldte, collecting tolls from passing merchant vessels. Sailors who couldn’t pay had their hands torn off and flung into the river. Local storefronts display hand-shaped chocolates and biscuits in service to this legend, and it seems a fitting symbol for many aspects of a city that prides itself in the things it builds and creates.

The first stock exchange was built here, as was the palatial house of Peter Paul Van Rubens, one the most famous baroque artists. And with the recent opening of several new galleries and museums, the cultural scene here is quickly gaining traction once again.

Come 2017 Antwerp will be more accessible than ever, with a direct link from London on the Eurostar. Not that I need convincing that the most civilised way to make the journey is by rail. Travelling Business Class, I take full advantage of my Raymond Blanc breakfast and allow myself the vague fantasy of being in a Wes Anderson film.

I emerge, refreshed and not even slightly Vitamin C deficient, into the lavish surroundings of Central Station – an Imperial Age vanity project of the infamous king Leopold II. It stands on the edge of the city’s ‘diamond mile’ – which is no exaggeration in size, since 85% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city to this day. It’s a voyeuristic pleasure to stop for a bit and imagine the lives of the swooning couples, and the homburg-hatted Orthodox Jewish men who shuffle past chained to their briefcases.

Antwerp might have many old buildings, but it also strives to be a evolving space, with designers constantly repurposing buildings in their own image. In light of this I check into HotelO Sud, recently established 100 metres from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, in the up-and-coming south of the city. I find myself pondering a spacious, minimalist room with high ceilings, strange doors and a bath somehow built into the floor.

For lunch I splash out at a Michelin-starred restaurant just around the corner, The Glorious, where a stunningly colourful dish of tuna tartare is the main highlight. After this I’m ushered across the street to their gin bar, Bar Barbure, to learn more about their gins, which come in four variants, one for each season. I sit out on the wooden deck with my summer-flavoured gin fizz, and under the fading sun wave goodbye to the summer.

I’m quickly discovering there’s a great deal more to the Flemish palate than moules frites – food is a religion here, and you can look forward to a large range of locally-caught seafood as well as more hefty Germanic-inspired fare. Some of Antwerp’s top chefs are proud believers in making fine food accessible, and have united to offer discounts to under-30s. Coffee is also taken very seriously, as you see from the proliferation of trendy cafes that rival the best in Shoreditch.

With so much to pack in, you’d be daft not to do some of it by bike – and an independent bike tour specialist called Cyclant does it brilliantly. My guide has been cycling in Antwerp since he was young, and as we glide over the cobblestones, his boyish passion for the city’s history, design and architecture is contagious. He takes me to the workshop of printing businessman Christopher Plantin (a must for any typeface enthusiasts). Then we take the tunnel under the river to the opposite bank and admire the interlocking shapes that make up the skyline, from Gothic spires to Bauhaus-inspired square frames.

An afternoon spent in the fashion quarter is also a must. The city is home to one of the world’s best fashion schools, whose renown dates back to the 1980’s when the ‘Antwerp Six’ took London fashion week by storm. Boutique concept stores like St Vincent abound too, in case you’re looking for a £200 ergonomic chair and a coffee – as well as unique finds like Hungry, a supermarket that sells only the ingredients for a specific set of meals each day (a la Hello Fresh). Being fast-growing and quote unquote creative, the city’s a popular testing ground for startup concepts, as the owner tells me. “If you can’t make it in Antwerp, you know your concept is dead.”

For dinner there’s nothing quite like the ambience of Plein Publiek, which until Spring 2017 remains in its eerie location in the middle of a massive empty council apartment complex, fairy lights twinkling through the windows. Half upmarket restaurant and half warehouse rave, it offers a tapas-style menu and party music late into the night.

Belgium is, of course, beer country – and a good half day at least needs to be spent visiting the De Koninck brewery, which recently opened a rather slick exhibition with many good stories to tell: the brewery was founded by a woman, for instance, in the 19th Century at a time when brewing beer was often one of the best ways for single women to earn an income.

You can make your way afterwards to the bar where a fantastic range of craft beers is on offer. The brewery also houses several artisan food outlets, like the Van Tricht cheese company. A father-son team, they’ve been awarded the label of the best cheese supplier in Europe, no less. Indeed I believe in no active, imminent god, but I’m willing to accept he’s retired and supplying Van Tricht with their Duval beer-flavoured cheese.

Finally, the trip would be incomplete without a visit to the harbour, where I climb to the top of the MAS museum’s intriguing helix structure. With the wind whistling in my ears, I pan across the skyscape – on one side the towering form of the city Cathedral, and on the other, the distant docks that make this city the second biggest port in Europe, even now. And in a way this dichotomy sums up why exploring Antwerp is such an invigorating antidote to months of fretting over Europe.

Where Bruges and Ghent might win top marks for historical preservation, Antwerp has a bold, living heartbeat – one that embraces its history while pushing to grow and evolve in the spirit that it always has. We like, from time to time, to believe that in spite of everything we live in a ‘golden age’. And for this Flemish gem of a city, it’s easy to believe that time has come again.

Antwerp guide – Belgium’s second city, takes the spotlight – words Lawrence Hunt

Getting There
 
Tickets to any Belgium station on Eurostar start from £34.50 one-way at  eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.
In Antwerp
Flanders Website for Antwerp flights, Antwerp map & Antwerp Belgium points of interest www.visitflanders.com
 
Antwerp city website: http://www.visitantwerpen.be/
An Antwerp Card gets you a pass to all museums and galleries, and is available for 24 (€27 ), 48 (€35) or 72(€40 ) hours.
Bike tours with Cyclant http://www.visitantwerpen.be/detail/cyclant-235561 – every Weds, and Sat and Sun mornings. 4 hours – €18 each
De Koninck Brewery – http://www.dekoninck.be/en

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