The beautiful facade with its signature alphabet ‘A’ gleaming brightly overhead seemed to be belonging more to a temple than a terminus. I had noticed it immediately on arrival as I navigated the four levels of subterranean platforms to emerge into a dramatic foyer.
Topped by a neo-Baroque dome, the railway station wore a classy robe. ‘Welcome to the fashion capital of Belgium,’ said Vera, my guide. “Not to forget the cuisine and diamonds, of course. Are you ready for it?” I was more than ready. Fashion and diamonds are two magical words for women and I was one of the tribe. “What do you want to be served first?” she twinkled. “Diamonds, fashion or would you rather begin with food?’
“The diamonds, please,” I begged. “Let them be the starters,” my heart was already skipping in anticipation. We found ourselves in the diamond district with the orthodox Jews, flitting around in their bicycles and black overcoats. I noticed many Indians milling about, exchanging notes with their Jewish counterparts. They all had briefcases, chained to their hand — a sign they were filled with precious cargo.
Rows of inviting jewellery stores twinkled in the sunlight, just waiting to entice me. A visit to one of the jewellery stores proved to be an eye opener. These diamonds were nothing like the ones I was used to seeing. They were the world’s best; their brilliance incomparable. Furiously calculating the price of a rock in rupees, I staggered. It came close to a million plus. Something I couldn’t afford. My head drooping with disappointment, I walked out. “Let us taste the main course, now,” I told my guide, determined to spend a few hard earned euros.
Six graduates from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, popularly known as the ‘Antwerp Six’, set the fashion world on fire and placed the city firmly on the European fashion world map. Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Martin and Margiela are giving designers in neighbouring Paris, a run for their money. They are extremely popular, and so are their creations. Many young designers have added their bit to create a flutter of interest in the city’s boutiques. Fashion tourists from as far as Tokyo are drawn to Antwerp for their shopping sprees.
Fashionable stores and boutiques lined the streets, mannequins in windows wrapped in haute couture. “Knowledgeable shoppers consider Antwerp second, only to Milan in regard to shopping for the latest styles,” informed Vera. We were at Modepaleis, or Fashion Palace — the front runner boutique of Dries van Noten. While appreciating the styles, I stole surreptitious glances at the price tags and clutched my purse possessively. I realised that I couldn’t afford haute couture. “Let’s go to some place affordable,” I requested. Maybe H&M would be more like it.
And so we made our way to Meir Square, a pretty tree lined avenue, which happens to be the main shopping area for clothing, shoes and accessories. It has a huge selection of stores displaying designer duds and bargains alike. That I came out with my Euros intact is no discredit to the designers but a discredit to my thrifty self. Each time I converted the price into rupees, I paled quite visibly drawing a look of concern from Vera. “Maybe the chocolates are what I would shop for,” I mused as we followed the delicious odours wafting from a tea shop. I was delighted with the fact that I could afford something as I went through a mind boggling array of pralines and chocolates from Del Ray, Leonidas, Goossens and Buries. Satisfied with the booty, we settled down for a cup of coffee and watched the passersby till I realised that I had hardly done any sightseeing.
So I set out to explore Antwerp. First stop was the Grote Market with its beautiful guild houses, cathedral and the town hall. A singular beam of sunlight lit up the orange-gold facades of the tall, narrow 16th-century guild houses that stand on one side of the Grote Market. The fountain in front of the town hall has a lovely statue of Silvius Brabo, in a gesture of lobbing a severed hand into the river. Legend has it that a very long time ago, a giant controlled the Scheldt river, extorting heavy tax from the sea men. He cut off the hands of those who couldn’t cough up the tax. It was Brabo who defeated the giant in a battle, cut off his hand and threw it into the river. In fact, the name Antwerpen comes from the work handwerpen ‘thrown hand’. However, cynics have a different explanation. They say it was actually the name of a rock projection, the Flemish words ‘aan de werfen’ that gave the town its name.
The Cathedral is my next halt. A lovely gothic-style structure, it has beautiful stained glass work and an admirable collection of old paintings. The altar is a spot of reverence for both, religious and the lovers of art, adorned by four of Rubens masterpieces. Then came the time to wind off the tour with gastronomic indulgence. Belgium is known as the nation of gourmands. Bordering countries like France and Germany have had a big influence on the Belgian culinary creations. Famous for their fries, waffles and seafood, the restaurants offer a wide variety of culinary delights.
I decided to try the ‘gegratineerd witloof’ — a special rabbit dish prepared in Belgian gueze beer, made from endives prepared in melted cheese and mosselen friet (a combo of french fries, mussels and konijn in gueze). Umpteen kinds of local beer (Belgium produces about 400 kinds) ranging from lagers and pilsners to lambic (made from wheat and barley), white and fruit beers and Trappist monastery beers leave a person befuddled. On the waiter’s suggestion I settled for Kriek — cherry beer and it was delicious. Diamonds, fashion, sights and food. I had done it all, albeit in a rush. Perhaps, I would return to enjoy them again.