A Diamond Of A Place

11th September 2009

Mention Belgium as a weekend destination, and thoughts turn instantly to Brussels or Bruges. Beyond these headline haunts, though, are other towns and cities with diverse attractions and a charm all their own – Ghent or Leuven, say, or Antwerp.

Jill Glenn went to the latter, and found a buzzing city, basking in late summer sunshine and completely at ease with what it has to offer.

I’m ashamed to admit that before I went to Antwerp I knew remarkably little about the place. You’d think that Belgium’s second city – the second largest port in Europe, the nerve centre of the world’s diamond-cutting industry (the world’s two largest diamond banks have their headquarters here), the home of Rubens, the up-and-coming fashion hub of northern Europe – would have managed to impress some facet of its identity onto me…

Sadly not. It’s not that the city hides its light under a bushel, more that its light is outshone by those more familiar destinations such as Brussels and Bruges. And yet Antwerp is quite distinctive – and definitely worth visiting.

It’s manageable in size. Larger than Bruges and Ghent, of course, but still compact, still easy enough to walk – or simply wander – around. There are trams and buses, for those who prefer, but the main areas of tourist interest are close enough together to make it possible to be footloose and timetable-free for days on end.

Centraal Station

If you arrive by train (an easy journey on Eurostar to Brussels, followed by a local connection taking about 40 minutes) you can begin your sharp intakes of breath at Antwerp’s amazing architecture with gasps of admiration at the splendid Centraal Station: an impressive complex with a domed exterior, and a huge iron and glass vaulted arch covering the platforms. Railway enthusiasts travel from far and wide to see it – but, unless this really is your main aim in life, don’t be tempted to hop straight back on a train again, thinking you’ve seen it all; there’s plenty more in this ‘dazzling’ maze of streets.

There are diamonds, for a start. The railway station itself has more than 30 diamond outlets within its confines, and the diamond district is located in the neighbouring streets. Merchants trade here in both rough and polished diamonds, working within rules and traditions that have developed and flourished here for over 500 years. There’s a diamond museum (the largest in the world, of course) and the history of the industry is fascinating – trade routes, royal patronage, international alliances and enmities – but most visitors just want to shop. Or dream.

Stadsfeestzaal

Shopping – for fashion, as well as jewellery – is another major draw. Although steeped in the history that welcomes you at almost every street corner, Antwerp achieves a very modern, up-to-date vibe. Past, present and future are fabulously integrated, for example, in the Stadsfeestzaal, a contemporary shopping centre (complete with champagne bar) that is housed in an elaborate vaulted festival hall dating from the turn of the 20th century. A sign at the door greets you with ‘Welcome to the most beautiful shopping centre in Europe’. Arrogant – but probably true. Even if you’re not a natural shopper, it’s worth ducking off Meir, one of the main pedestrian streets, just to admire it.

Around the corner, in Wapper Square, is the former home of Pieter Paul Rubens, Antwerp’s most famous painting son. A rambling building, with a grandiose portico and a surprisingly lovely garden, it has been carefully restored. There are paintings by the man himself, and by his pupils. Rubenshuis is great for an insight into the public and private world of the 17th century maestro, and pleasingly domestic in a city where so much is on a grand scale.

City Hall, Grote Markt

At the heart of the historic centre is the Grote Markt, with its town hall and restored guild houses – as dramatic, if not as large, as the Grande Place in Brussels. In nearby Handschoenmarkt is the stunning Cathedral of Our Lady, with its lacework stone spire, and light, bright seven-aisled interior, still undergoing a process of tender restoration that began around twenty years ago. If you’re lucky, you’ll come upon the cathedral unexpectedly from one of the side streets… it’s quite, quite breathtaking. Inside there are several artistic treasures from the 17th century, including Rubens’s magnificent Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. They’re dramatically displayed (nothing becomes a religious painting so well as being seen from an appropriate distance in a sacred building) and accompanied with some really intelligent interpretation notes: an intellectual and artistic feast.

The city’s cultural life doesn’t revolve solely round its ecclesiastical architecture though. There are plenty of galleries and museums too. Take a stroll south from the cathedral through the fashion district that centres around Nationalestraat, and if you can resist the attendant temptations you’ll soon arrive at the really arty area, 't Zuid, which has been becoming steadily trendier and more vibrant since the 1980s, having been laid out to a star shaped street pattern around a century earlier. Both the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Rubens, Van Dijck, Titian Frans Hals) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MUHKA), housed in a converted grain silo are here.

As a whole, Antwerp strikes as both pleasantly sophisticated and cheerfully casual. It’s civilised and elegant, without being remotely prissy. A place that can appeal to the hippest of fashion shoppers and the most dedicated of culture vultures alike can’t be doing too badly.

There is, apparently, a vibrant club culture too, although I have to confess to not having tested it out. According to Lonely Planet, however, there are club ‘extravaganzas’ throughout summer and ‘the nightly scene in the regenerated docklands to the north and south of town beat to the coolest vibes’… You have been warned.

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