Cruise: a sparkling experience in Antwerp, Belgium
Antwerp has a wealth of treasures. The key to making the most of a day in this port is to delve beneath the surface, discovers Pat Richardson.
Antwerp is the diamond industry’s primary business centre, with some 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds passing through it every year. Yet there’s nothing unpolished about this city’s many treasures. Look past the predominantly grey architecture, which can take the lustre off the city even on a sunny day, and you’ll find that Antwerp’s every facet sparkles and dazzles.
Satisfy your senses
The diamond district itself is no gem, but if you are looking to buy one, don’t miss it. If you simply want to marvel at the beauty of these highly desirable stones, make your way to the multimedia Diamond Museum on Koningin Astridplein, near Central Station. For shopping – other than for diamonds – the main thoroughfare, Meir, has all the big stores.
Stadsfeestzaal luxury shopping hall in Meir (Alam
The stunning rococo palace at number 50 Meir is where you will find avant-garde chocolatier — or, as he prefers, “shock-o-latier” — Dominique Persoone. Besides the traditional tastes that you would expect, and a chocolate lipstick to slick on and kiss off your loved one, he makes chocolates flavoured with mild curry, fried onions, lemongrass, black olives and wasabi to name but a few. Believe it or not, they’re delicious.
Raise your glass
Two more must-tastes are beer and jenever. If you fancy the first, the local brew, De Koninck, is served in any number of local bars – and there are more than 1,000 of these. Jenever, the local take on gin, comes distilled in either the old (oude) or the new (jonge) way, and in many flavours. The place to sample it is the characterful De Vagant café, in Reyndersstraat. If it is served in the traditional manner — full glass and freezer-cold — it’s best to bend and sip without picking it up.
And should the popular pub challenge arise — naming a famous Belgian — be ready to cheat a little (as Belgium did not come about until 1830) with this shortlist of world-famous Flemish artists: Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck were born in Antwerp; Pieter and son Jan Brueghel both lived here; so, too, did Peter Paul Rubens…
Baroque’s leading star
Although he was born in Germany, Rubens spent much of his life here. The house he bought in his early thirties is now a key tourist attraction and offers much to enjoy. Rubens designed and added a sculpture gallery, a studio and a delightful garden. The property became Antwerp’s finest, in the style of an Italian palazzo. A self-portrait in the dining room shows the artist aged 53.
His vision and genius still illuminate this city: influenced by an early eight-year spell in Italy, he married Renaissance imaginative classicalism with the fundamental realism of Flemish painting to produce a feast of Baroque exuberance — for royal courts, private individuals and the church.
Several of his masterpieces are displayed in St Paul’s Church, along with artworks by his student Van Dyck. In the resplendent St Charles Borromeo Church, although 30 Rubens paintings were destroyed in a fire in 1718, his hand is still evident — he designed the façade and tower and works by him decorate the high altar and chapel. Meanwhile, in the Cathedral of Our Lady four dramatic Rubens triptychs dominate.
The painter’s elaborate tomb can be found in St James’ Church, the city’s starting point for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.
Like a 16th-century skyscraper, the Cathedral of Our Lady, with its Gothic spire, soars above Antwerp and all other church spires in the Low Countries. Here, until 2017 when the Royal Museum of Fine Arts reopens, eight beautiful altarpieces from the museum’s collection are on display, along with eight Golden Age masterpieces from the cathedral’s own collection.
If that doesn’t make up for the Royal Museum’s closure, there are more art treasures to marvel at in the Museum Plantin-Moretus. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this enchanting house-cum-workshop-cum-museum complex chronicles the history of typography and is home to two of the world’s oldest printing presses.
At the new Museum aan de Stroom, the permanent collection is spread over five floors and, until December 30, 2012, Masterpieces in the MAS celebrates five centuries of images in Antwerp. This startling building also has a rooftop offering panoramic views of the city, river and port.
Time for one more museum? Make it the house of avid art collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh. It holds a king’s ransom in sculptures, tapestries, stained-glass windows, drawings and paintings, including an allegorical work by Pieter Brueghel the Elder — Mad Meg. Its hidden meaning remains a mystery.
Once upon a time
You’ve got to, erm, hand it to the Antwerpians: they’ve come up with a good story to explain how their city got its name.
It goes like this: the mythical giant Druon Antigone demanded a toll from all the ships on the river Scheldt, killing anyone who opposed him. Roman hero Silvius Brabo slew the giant, cut off his hand, and threw it into the water.
And so the city’s name derives from the Flemish hand werpen (“hand throwing”). As well as the signature chocolate hands sold in the shops, this momentous event is commemorated by an imposing statue that stands in the Grote Markt, where you can also find the Town Hall and guildhouses and the tourist office.