Where do I begin? The train station that looks like a Cathedral? The Diamond District? Or the cutting edge fashion scene? Maybe I should start with a story. Antwerp—A city terrorized by a giant called Druon Antigoon who made all the passing ships pay a toll; a brave lad called Brabo who killed the giant, chopped off his hand, and threw it into the Scheldt River. This does seem like a gruesome introduction to an attractive city. The mythical hero of the city, Brabo, stands tall in the center of the square throwing a hand in the air. Today the hand is a quirky symbol of the city of Antwerp in Flanders, Belgium, found on sculptures and souvenirs and even sugar cookies and chocolates shaped like hands!
Imagine turning the sepia pages of a Gothic storybook … cobbled streets, medieval turreted mansions, and secret gardens. Antwerp’s warren of medieval streets reminds me of a Vermeer masterpiece, accompanied by the constant soundtrack of cathedral carillons.
“You don’t have to visit a museum in Antwerp to see art treasures,” says Johan Vink, my guide. And true enough, at the leviathan Cathedral of Our Lady, one of the tallest churches in Europe with a seven aisled nave, that took 170 years to build, and dominates the city skyline, I am bemused by the sight of the colossal altarpieces adorned with Ruben’s “Raising of the Cross” and “Descent from the Cross.”
Our hotel Les Nuits, which stands on the edge of the Fashion District, has rooms in black and white with dramatic lighting, a cozy lounge and quirky bits of sculpture.
One of my first visits is to the epicenter of the city: the Grote Market with its stunning 16th century City Hall with colored flags from the European Union. Rows of tall gabled guild houses with golden statues decorating their roofs look down at the square harking back to a time when merchants vied for prestige by building more extravagant buildings than their neighbors.
Though most people know Antwerp as the “city of diamonds” or as the fashion capital of Belgium, I decide that a less costly splurge would be the one that satisfied my stomach and soul—French fries or frites doused with mayonnaise or curry ketchup sold in small stalls alongwith warm, sugary waffles topped with cream, chocolate or banana slices. I remember my guide telling me that that the Belgians cook with the finesse of the French but serve it in German size portions!
I smell my way to Dominique Persoone’s Chocolate Line, housed in the opulent Belgian Royal Family’s former residence. The shop, decorated with period paintings and glass chandeliers, exhibits unusual creations ranging from a chocolate wedding dress, a giant frog to eerie skeletons created out of white and dark chocolate. This “shock-o-latier” as he calls himself, uses unusual ingredients like black olives, wasabi, lemongrass and has created lipsticks with chocolate, massage creams and even a “chocolate shooter” for a rock star friend to catapult a shot of chocolate for a pure cocoa high!
If you are an architecture aficionado, then Antwerp’s offerings are bound to wow you. I feast on the visual banquet of chapels, museums and guild houses that pepper the streets, sharing their space generously with modern architecture. Start at the beautiful train station which is appropriately dubbed a “railway cathedral.” It’s the most majestic one that I have seen with gleaming floors, sweeping staircases, latticework, sculptures of lions and a glass and iron dome. Johan tells me that it’s the site of the famous flash mob dance video featuring “Do, Re Mi” from the Sound Of Music which went viral.
I walk on the waterfront bordering the Scheldt River and end up at a Disneyesque castle called the Het Steen, dating back to the 13th century and Antwerp’s oldest surviving building. In front is a huge statue of Lange Wapper, a legendary giant who terrorized citizens in medieval times.
On the Rubens Trail
Art follows architecture as I encounter Peter Pauls Rubens, the city’s most celebrated citizen and famous for creating his round, rosy Rubenesque figures, in the medieval centre of Antwerp. The greening bronze statue in Groenplaats or Green Square depicts him in his mid-years with a cape slung over his shoulders, wrinkles and a benevolent smile.
I visit the house where he lived as an adult and “showed off his wealth.” Rubenshuis is a baroque mansion with a tranquil garden and gilded windows, wine colored leather wall paper, marble busts and oil paintings. Far from being the stereotypical artist starving in a garret, he was so popular that the house brims with gifts from kings, queens, and rich patrons.
On the Rubens trail, I also visit the unusual Museum Plantin Moretus, a UNESCO listed museum, dedicated to the history of printing. This was home to Christopher Plantin who had one of the earliest printing businesses in 1555, and published some important books of his time, and has a great collection of Rubens paintings.
As I look at old Mercator maps and a Guttenberg Bible, images of elegant women in flouncy gowns and silk clad merchants play out in my mind.
Almost 85% of the rough diamonds of the world are traded in the Diamond Quarter in Antwerp and most of the diamond related business is done by Indians! The main street in the heart of the Diamond Quarter near the station is a heavily guarded zone with street cameras. At the Diamond Museum, I learn about the chemical structure of the big rocks, and the Four Cs of diamonds—carat, color, cut and clarity! I walk through dark corridors to the treasuries on each floor of the museum—they have the most exquisite treasures: footwear with diamond encrusted heels, Napoleon’s gift to his lady friend, a brooch belonging to Empress Sisi of Austria, stone-encrusted diadems, tiaras and a myriad other marvelous creations. A woman can always dream.
The Designer Scene
Antwerp is also an avante garde fashion center. In the 80s, six designers called the Antwerp Six stormed the design scene. Today the main shopping mile, called The Meir, has a plethora of exclusive boutiques and department stores. The Meir, the broad avenue that used to be a lake long ago, is today lined with Rococo buildings, I people-watch as stylish shoppers throng the streets, laden with shopping bags. Looming in the distance is Europe’s first skyscraper; the 300 ft Tower called Boerentoren, built in 1934 in the art deco style of Chicago and New York. To wander among the “real people” of the city I head to Theaterplein Square, where the Sunday flea market or the Vogelenmarkt sells exotic birds, parakeets, geese, budgerigars, fancy pigeons in cages and rabbits, mice and hamsters.
Johan takes us to the once-derelict port area known as Eilandje lined with rusty cranes and hoists, which is now undergoing regeneration with new museums, trendy restaurants and housing projects.
The star attraction here is the just-opened Red Star Line Museum, housed in three historic brick warehouses of the shipping company which have been meticulously restored to their original glory. The Red Star Line ships carried more than 2 million people between 1873 and 1934 to America and Canada in the quest for a better life and almost a quarter of them were Jews. “Famous people traveled on the ships in search for a better life or to avoid persecution or Nazi oppression; few were fortune hunters or pioneers,” says Johan. There is the trademark picture of Albert Einstein in a crumpled suit and windblown hair who traveled on the Red Star Line to America in 1933.
My museum hopping takes me to another show stopper in the port area—the Museum aan de Stroom called MAS, hewn out of red Indian sandstone and undulating glass, stacked like a giant Jenga block, dedicated to the city’s rich maritime history. The museum filled with some terrific art, has three thousand shiny hands decorating its façade and transparent storage rooms for un-exhibited art. I head to the open observation deck on the 10th floor, where a panoramic view of Antwerp sweeps me away. The old and the new juxtaposed together and the glistening Scheldt river.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog