WITH A NICKNAME as sparkling as that, Antwerp has a lot to live up to. Unless you were expecting a shimmering Wizard of Oz-style metropolis carved out of diamonds, then you might be disappointed – much of Antwerp’s diamond-studded past has dwindled. Nevertheless, Antwerp still has plenty to shine about.
Let’s start at the city’s Central Station– a logical place to start – where the grandeur of this city is perhaps at its most flamboyant. Arriving in the city underground, its understated platforms lit by subtle blue lighting, I was hidden from the opulence raging above. But an escalator away is what I can only describe as the most dumbfounding train station I’ve found myself in – putting Brussels’ bland offerings to shame. Imagine the palaces of the Tsars, mixed with a dash of Liberace, colliding gracefully with the enormity of Grand Central Station – and you are nearly there. This station, opened in the early 20th Century and renovated some 90 years later, must surely be a tourist attraction in its own right – the people around me clicking their cameras implied as much.
However beautiful, you can’t stay in a train station forever, so the streets of Belgium’s second city beckoned. First impressions are good – long avenues flanked by restaurants and chestnut trees lead you into the city’s heart, where broad, tall, and perhaps ubiquitous European shopping streets are filled with Zara, C&H and friends. All the same, the majestic buildings along Meir and the surrounding streets invite you to at least have a look and not plough straight on through to the Grote Markt.
But the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s heart, is where the city is arguably at its most characteristic. Dominated by the Renaissance City Hall, adorned in European flags, the giant square is the obvious place for lunch, for selfies, for horse-drawn carriage rides. Streets – wide and narrow – radiate from it, leading you to the river or to a church overlooking a paved square. Naturally you will want to waft away from the the City Hall and mighty cathedral, in which case I urge you amble down side street and follow it. Something will surprise you along the way – be it girls in shop windows or a wedding in the botanical garden – and if you’re lucky, you could find yourself in a secluded square for a beer or two, where children play hopscotch.
Antwerpen has all the trappings of a capital city – it’s big, it feels important and is alive with culture. Even in the more outlying corners of this town you feel as though you’re ‘in the city’. Something else that struck me – intrigued me – about Antwerp is that it is architecturally dazzling. On every corner there is a spire, a dome or a statue tempting you in its direction. It’s near mpossible to chase after them all; sadly I neglected half of them because frankly, there was a chocolate shop in the other direction.
Oh, a word on eating in Antwerp – or indeed anywhere in Belgium: don’t bother resisting the frites, waffles, chocolate, moules and beer. Just embrace it and walk it all off.
On the train back to Germany, suitably stuffed, I supposed that Belgium unfairly has a bit of awkward international reputation. You might call it bland in comparison to its more colourful European neighbours. It lies at the heart of political, legal and economic Europe, yet at the same time its most famous son is a comic character with a ginger quiff. After having spent the day in this little country – which is smaller than the state of Maryland – it really does punch above well above its weight (won’t mention Belgium beating the USA in the World Cup). I can’t help but feel Antwerp is a little overlooked as a destination – it offers everything a tourist might want in a city break or a trip across Europe: culture, colour and calories in a city that is delectable and digestible. Much like the chocolate.
PS – Although I have no photos to show (blame the dead phone), we stopped off at Brussels on the way back. Visually I didn’t know what to expect of the EU’s motherboard, and while it is indeed, at times, an untidy tangle of streets and judicial buildings, not least the (currently) scaffolding-clad Palais de la Justice, the city centre has a distinct continental allure, much like Antwerp. The Rue des Bouchers and Marché aux Herbes can be oppressively touristy, but they aren’t to be missed – the sound of string quartets and the smell of moules-frites will lure you down the narrow lanes. The grand Galerie de la Reine with its chic chocolateries and the vistas from the Place Royale are, too, worth exploring. It wouldn’t be fair to miss the Grote Markt – yes, another one – which nestles in the heart of this old quarter of Brussels; it may even supersede its Antwerp counterpart. Stopping for a couple of hours at 5.30 on a Sunday meant we were never going to see a huge amount, but the place was alive. I will come next time with a fully-charged phone.