Delectable pursuit

Delectable pursuit

changing times The harbour area in Antwerp.  photos by Author

A train station is sometimes a telling introduction to a city. Antwerp’s train station is appropriately dubbed a railway cathedral — it’s the most majestic one that I have seen with marble and glass, gleaming floors, sculptures of lions and a fantastic dome. Antwerp in Flanders, Belgium, used to be a powerful and influential centre of trade, printing and culture till the Spanish invasion. A lot of its wealth found its way into majestic squares, churches and religious art. Today, it’s the second most important port in Europe after Rotterdam.

Diamond district

Diamond trade came here in the 15th century and ever since, this city has always had a love affair with the big rocks. Our guide, Vera Verschooren, begins our Antwerp odyssey at the Diamond Museum. We learn about the chemical structure of these rocks, how they are polished till they are the glittering beauties, something all women pine for.

Our ‘wow’ moment is a 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 other marvelous creations. Almost 85 per cent of the rough diamonds in the world are traded in the Diamond Quarter in Antwerp and 65 per cent of 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. Buying diamonds here is safe and ethical; blood diamonds are illegal.

Antwerp is also a city in the throes of an urban renaissance. An 18th century city palace, which was the headquarters of Napoleon, is now the City Festival Hall. It was damaged by fire in 2000 and has been renovated into a luxury shopping mall with sweeping marble staircases, gold leaf, and an enormous globe dome with a luxe champagne bar. The just-opened iconic MAS, a red stone and glass museum with contemporary architecture in the harbour area, is dedicated to the city’s rich maritime history. The swish building, with 3,000 shiny hands decorating its façade and panoramic views from every level, is filled with some terrific art.

Peter Pauls Rubens, the artist, is the city’s most celebrated citizen and you can’t escape him anywhere. We visit the house where he lived as an adult-Rubenshuis, a baroque mansion with a tranquil garden. This was the house where dignitaries and royalty visited him and he also had his studio here. His self-portrait and a painting of Adam and Eve are the stunners here. We follow the Rubens trail to 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 has a great collection of Rubens’ paintings. We walk through his office, print shop and foundry, which have some of the oldest printing presses and books, including a Guttenberg bible.
Vera mixes our history and art appreciation lessons with tasty bites and delicious drinks. Antwerp, like most of Belgium, has a massive sweet tooth. Waffles with a range of toppings, from fresh cream to Nutella, are sold everywhere. We visit Dominique Persoone’s Chocolate Line, housed in the opulent Belgian Royal Family’s former residence. This looks more like a Bond Street jeweller’s shop with an open kitchen where you can watch the chocolates being created.

There are chocolates with unusual ingredients like black olives, lipsticks with chocolate and even a ‘chocolate shooter’ for a pure cocoa high. Del Ray Chocolaterie has some special diamond chocolates filled with cognac and champagne and some multi-coloured macaroons. The local tipple is jenever, the Belgian take on gin. Vera takes us to a old cosy pub called De Vagant where we are introduced to its pleasures. There are more than 200 varieties with even one made from cacti.

Laidback lifestyle

The city seems to have a languid pace with open air cafes, bicycles and trams. Our Rubens trail ends at the Cathedral of Our Lady, one of the tallest churches in Europe, that dominates the city skyline. Ruben’s ‘Raising of the Cross’ and ‘Descent from the Cross’ are the stunning works displayed here. Close by is the Grote market. This has the stunning 16th Century City Hall with hundreds of techni-coloured flags and rows of tall gabled guild houses with golden statues decorating them.

A statue of the mythical hero of the city, Brabo, stands in the centre of the square. Lore has it that the city used to be terrorised by a giant, who made all the passing ships pay a toll. One day, a brave lad called Brabo killed the giant, chopped off his hand and threw it into the Scheldt River. The city’s name is derived from the Flemish word translated as ‘hand throw’ and the hand is a symbol of the city, which is found on emblems and souvenirs across Antwerp.

Antwerp is also an avant-garde fashion capital. In the ‘80s, six designers, called the ‘Antwerp Six’, stormed the design scene. Today, the main shopping mile, Meir, has a plethora of exclusive boutiques and departmental stores. Our gourmet meal at the swish and contemporary Flamant brasserie, atop the distinguished interiors store by the same name, has some delicious linguini with black truffle tapenade and local beer. Vera is not done. She takes us for a coffee break to Gunter Watte’s Chocolate Café   where we relax under glitzy chandeliers with a chocolate coffee. History, good food, diamonds and art are indeed a delectable combination.

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