Fashion and diamonds, waffles and ales – Antwerp’s a heady mix even before its surreal side creeps up on you. And it will. Just let it. Rubens and Bruegel, the gabled Grote Markt and the soaring Flemish Gothic cathedral offer you art and architecture with a Capital A, but don’t neglect the hard-nosed quirkiness that also stalks this town, so perfect for an offbeat weekend break.
Step into the Chocolate Line workshop of self-styled “Shok-o-llatier” Dominique Persoone and ask for one of his chocolate shooters, which catapult finely ground dust of of exotically flavoured cocoa up your nose. No sniggers when you learn they were first commissioned by the wives of Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts for a surprise birthday party for their Rolling Stone husbands.
“Instead of putting chocolate on the dish, because they were the rock ‘n’ roll grandpas, we thought they should sniff the chocolate and to get a good result we designed a machine for that,” says maverick Dominique. “We just made one for that party, but then everybody talked about it in the newspapers, so then we had to make it commercial because everybody was asking for it.”
My companion took the full whoosh of a ginger flavoured shooter, while I suffered the lingering torment of sucking on a wasabi suffused truffle. Heston Blumenthal is a fan. I can see why.
The Paris-trained chef with a “chocolate is rock and roll” tattoo on his right bicep, set up hisfirst shop in his native Bruges; the Antwerp offshoot, utilising the finest South American source materials, is inside the splendid 18th century mansion called the Palais op de Meir (Meir is the main shopping drag between the imposing, gilt-encrusted Centraal Station and the Old Town).
The Palais once belonged to Napoleon, so our Flemish Willy Wonka created a chocolate in homage in the shape of a bicorne hat, filled with marzipan, cherry liquor and bitter banana cream. Look out for poodles and frogs crafted out of the finest cacao.
A sweet alternative is the waffle and doyen of these in a city that likes to snack is Désiré De Lille on Schrijnwerkerstraat (easier to pronounce than spell, it means Blacksmith Street). Desire’s HQ has a decided 1930s feel about it. Pass through to the glass pergola at the back where carp-teeming pools give it a lightly oriental garden feel. Decidedly not light are the alternatives to waffles and doughnuts – smoutebollen, or deep-fried lard balls. Good ballast, as they say.
Just the thing before running the considerable gamut of celebrated Belgian beer styles – immensely drinkable, deceptively strong Duval, various Trappiste ales such as Westmalle, Orval and Chimay and the sour, challenging Geuzes and Lambics, their grip sometimes softened by fruit in variants such as Kriek (cherry).
Step into the kitschfest that is Het Elfde Gebod, self-styled ‘The Holy Place’ on Torfbrug, more a shrine to monkish merriment than your average beer bar, and order the local De Koninck. “Ah, you want a bolleke,” the waitress tells you. That’s the local globe-shaped glass it comes in. That’s what you ask for here and in more classic “brown” long bars like Cafe Den Engel, centre of the Antwerp convivial universe with a view across the Grote Markt of the 400ft lacy spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Our Lady’s Cathedral).
This light-filled Gothic leviathan houses the pinnacle of resident genius Rubens’ devotional works, but before you make the pilgrimage across the cobbles to worship the sublime Descent from The Cross, central panel of a tryptich. and three other masterpieces, stop off at the statue of Brabo in front of the town hall (Stadhuis)
Brabo? Verdigris coated nude chucking a severed hand, like some deranged baseball pitcher shedding his mitt. Symbol of the city. Antwerp translates as hand throwing in Dutch. Legend has a giant (or heavily-built entrepreneur) called Druon Antigon who lopped off the hand of any sailor unable or unwilling to pay the toll to sail on the River Scheldt. he was finally defeated and has his own hand detached by the Roman soldier Silvious Brabo, who then became the Duke of Brabant.
The hand symbol is all over a riverside museum opened a decade ago to explore the city’s past, ethnography and many big issues (Life and Death anyone?). Oh and check out the luminously disorienting Matrix room! Yes we’re back with quirky. The MAS, (Museum aan de Stroom) is a striking building resembling a pile of rusty red horizontal box files.
Offering panoramic views of the city, it is the centrepiece of the Het Eilandje district, regenerating the old docks, Bonapartedok and Willemdok, which also hosts the Red Star Line Museum, tracing the exodus of 2 million emigrants across the Atlantic on the company’s steamers.
Classy eating options are already in place. The dockside Het Pomphuis was completed in 1920 as one of the largest pumping stations in Europe. All this industrial heritage is the backdrop to the restaurant’s culinary aspirations.
After the Cathedral, a craving for art having overtaken one for waffles and a swift bolleke, I’d recommend visiting the much-restored Rubenshuis. It’s not crammed with his works (though don’t miss a fascinating self-portrait of 1630), but it is an atmospheric introduction to a hugely successful as well as great artist, who spent much of his life in Antwerp.
A generation before, Pieter Bruegel the Elder also spent a period living in the city. His Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) from 1562 is a nightmarish Hieronymous Bosch like allegory depicting a peasant who leads an army of women to pillage Hell. It was discovered at an auction in 1897 and bought for a minimal sum by a young collector called Fritz Mayer van den Bergh. Four years later he was dead and his mother built a gallery in his name to house Meg and the rest of his 1,000 artworks, mostly from the Northern Renaissance. Just south of the Grote Markt on Lange Gasthuisstraat, it is a gem of a place. I had it to myself visiting the city’s Sunday street markets.
Not far away, in the Vrijdagmarkt square, is the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a well-preserved building, which in the 16th century housed 22 printing presses and was a magnet for dissident intellectuals. Alongside old presses, the museum contains many printed treasures including Mercator maps and a Gothenburg bible. Afterwards, just wander alleys that have remained from medieval times to get a feel for the city of Rubens, Bruegel and printer Plantin.
I’d like to say I got round to exploring the Diamond Quarter (it’s superficially drab and was closed for the weekend) and the Fashion Quarter – I kept discovering fashionable new beers and genevers (gins) instead – but I am assured Antwerp is a place to come for affordability and individual chic. The Tourism Information folk can supply an Antwerp fashion map, if you feel the style urge.
There’s so much to occupy your entire weekend without leaving the Old Town, but we did venture, via Tram Route 8 from Groenplaats, to the increasingly trendy South Side of the city. We gawped at the spiky Law Courts complex designed by Richard Rogers before visiting the old De Koninck brewery for a final bolleke of the visit (and much Duvel and Kriek, too) in a cheese matching event organised by the best cheese affineur (maturer) in town and in Europe according the Wall Street Journal – Van Tricht. Their cheese shop in Fruithoflaan is well worth a visit… but even a few nibbles do raise a thirst. Cheers! Santé! Or as they say in Flemish: Op uw gezondheid!
ANTWERP CITY CARD
This is essential for exploring the city thoroughly. It costs 37 euros for 48 hours and gives you free entry to all Antwerp museums and monumental churches, including the Cathedral of Our Lady, a free printed map guide, a discount of at least 25 per cent on tourist attractions, sightseeing and bike rentals plus special offers on typical Antwerp and Belgian products, such as chocolate.