Antwerp is forever

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

CITY BREAK:ANTWERP IS A gorgeous city – a mix of Medieval and Renaissance buildings – that is boutique in size so you can explore it in a day or take a long and leisurely weekend.

It is a city best approached by train since there are no direct flights from Dublin. On a high-speed train it can be reached in less than two hours from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. As you ascend the station originally created by Louis Delacenserie at the start of the 20th century you can enjoy its marvellously mixed bag of architectural styles – like Antwerp in miniature.

The diamond district is situated to its south-west. In this square mile some €156 million worth of gems are graded for export every day. Orthodox Jews in homburg hats continue to control the trade and can be seen carrying black briefcases chained to their bodies. Yiddish is commonplace.

The area is replete with surveillance cameras, uniformed and plainclothes police as well as magnetic, heat, movement, and sundry other sensors. If you’re in the market to buy diamonds remember that a deal that sounds too good to be true is exactly that. Avoid any potential misunderstandings by dealing only with jewellers who belong to the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers’ Association (adja.be).

When you’re finished ogling the carats, turn cityward to discover Antwerp’s renaissance heart. Traverse Frankrijklei and make your way to Rubenshuis, the home and studio of the city’s most celebrated citizen, painter Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens built the baroque mansion in 1611 when he was 34 years old. He died here 29 years later. While you get a feel for the period, only a handful of his lesser works are exhibited here. To see more, visit the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where you can also see works by Van Dyck and Jordaens, Titian and Frans Hals.

Antwerp is also renowned for its chocolate. Sample spicy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper at Quetzal Chocolate Bar on Lijnwaadmarkt or chooses some pralines at Daskalidès, a branch of which is on the Grote Markt, a pedestrianised, triangular space with an impressive Renaissance-style stadhuis.

At its centre, the Baroque Brabo fountain rising skyward from a rough rock base. The square is also home to a pub called The Irish Times run by Wicklow man Colin Mooney.

Formerly a down-at-heel district known as “the parish of misery”, the Latin quarter is now the city’s most fashionable address. Situated at number 28 Nationalestraat, is MoMu the city’s fashion museum, home to some of Europe’s most interesting style-focused exhibitions. Dream The World Awake features the work of fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the lesser-known members of the so-called Antwerp Six, a collection of designers who put Antwerp on the fashion map back in the 1980s. Van Beirendonck also designed costumes for U2’s PopMart tour.

Other members of the Antwerp Six include the now household names of Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeuelemeester. The former’s flagship is located at number 16. Het Modepaleis is the name of the two-story corner boutique. He retained the original name of 19th-century shop front. Fashion fans should note that prices here are about 20 per cent cheaper than they are in Ireland. Van Noten’s workrooms and offices are above the shop.

Travelling riverward you can continue to explore Antwerp’s significant contribution to fashion and design on Kloosterstraat. The thoroughfare is lined with concept spaces, kooky boutiques, galleries and antique and bric-a-brac repositories, all priced reasonably enough to consider shipping items home. It is a wonderful place to browse and difficult to leave without buying something. This writer succumbed to the charms of a swirling op-art 1960s ceramic lamp. Leopoldstraat is good for antiques. Go to Volkstraat for lighting, home decor and art nouveau.

Ra is quite possibly the city’s most exciting retail space. Commanding a sizable area on Kloosterstraat, the concept shop stocks fashion, music, design and books. Staff are genuinely interested in talking you through their stock. When this writer visited, a talking point was the not-for-sale shaggy coat on a mannequin that was made from (whisper it) gorilla. It was a truly unpalatable link to Belgium’s colonial past.

Museum aan de Stroom (Mas) opened last May in a dockside area called Het Eilandje (meaning the little island) that bridges the medieval city centre and the brutalist port buildings. Designed by Dutch architects Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijk, the red brick and glass structure is a paean to urban renewal and hopes to do for Antwerp’s docklands what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao. Already, cool bars, restaurants and boutiques have migrated to the area but the quarter has a long way to go.

Back in the city centre you can’t go home without sampling the national dish of moules frites washed down by any one of the country’s copious specialist beers. Some of the Trappist-made drinks contain as much as 7 per cent alcohol but taste innocent enough to have you falling about after your third. A vast selection is available at Paters Vaetje on Blauwmoezelstraat. Or you could visit Frituur Number One on Hoogstraat, a stall selling no-frills fries. Washed down with a can of Jupiler, you’ve got a Belgian treat par excellence.

Antwerp: Where to . . . .

There are no direct flights from Dublin to Antwerp. Fly Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) to Schiphol and take a train connection to Antwerp’s Central Station. Journey time is approximately one hour and 50 minutes. You can buy tickets with a credit card at the automatic ticket booths in Schiphol’s arrival hall.

THREE PLACES TO STAY

Upmarket: Boulevard Leopold, 135 Belgielei. Tel: 00-323225-5218, boulevard-leopold.be. Boulevard Leopold is a character-filled townhouse offering bed and breakfast as well as two apartments, one big enough to accommodate kids – and the house is child-friendly. It is situated in the city’s Jewish quarter, and rooms cost from €130 per night including breakfast. They don’t accept payment by credit card. Payment in advance for one night is requested, with the balance paid in cash on arrival.

Midmarket: Hotel Banks, 55 Steenhouwersvest. Tel: 00-32-32324-002, hotelbanks.com. Couples and groups without kids might like the simply laid-out and centrally located Hotel Banks. Rooms err on the small side. A standard room costs from €215 for two weekend nights in February. Check-in is before 8pm.

Value: Ibis Antwerpen, 39 Meistraat. Tel: 00-32-33939002, ibishotels.com. For centrally located, clean and cheap rooms, the Ibis takes some beating. A room for two for two nights in February costs from €121. This does not include breakfast.

THREE PLACES TO EAT

Upmarket: Restaurant ’t Zilte, 5 Hanzestedenplaats. Tel: 00-32-32834040, tzilte.be.

On the top floor of Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) is ’t Zilte, a two-star Michelin restaurant with 360-degree views of the city. It takes at least six weeks to get a table, so book in advance. The establishment also takes long holidays at Easter, during the height of summer and in October. Menus start from €105.

Midmarket: Het Pomphuis, Siberiastraat. Tel: 00-32-37708625, hetpomphuis.be

Spectacularly set in a former dry-dock pumping station, the three-storey room is framed by large windows and a soaring glass roof. Sample the extensive Belgian-style menu which ranges from roast turbot to lamb. Main courses from €29.50

Value: De Foyer, 18 Komedieplaats. Tel: 00-32-335517, defoyer.be. Set in the foyer of the 19th-century Bourla Theatre, this is an address where the amateur dramatics of people-watching is one of the main events. Its Thonet-chaired dining tables sit under an ornate painted dome, surrounded by dramatic red velvet curtains and marble columns. The daily lunch buffet costs approximately €18 and will set you up for the day. It’s also ideal for afternoon tea or coffee.

THREE PLACES TO SHOP

Most shops are closed on Sundays

Worship high fashion at Ra

Ra is a compendium of who’s who on the gritty edges of fashion and design. It is worth noting that they consider both John and Simone Rocha worthy of inclusion in their mix. The shops also sells high-class vintage from classic Hermès trench coats to Thierry Mugler’s 1980s power suits. Like Antwerp itself, Ra doesn’t feel the need to take itself as seriously as similar style shops elsewhere (Colette in Paris, for example, where you have to ring a door-bell to even gain entrance). Interestingly, Ra has had a Paris presence during fashion week and is opening a full-time sister space in Paris next Wednesday, January 25th.

13 Kloosterstraat, Tel: 00-32-32923780, ra13.be

Diamond’s are a girl’s best friend

Philippe Harold Jewellers, located in the heart of the city’s diamond district, could be your first port of call if you’re in the market for a rock. The jeweller will talk you through the four Cs – cut, carat, clarity and colour. It is worth noting that the shop is not open weekends, proclaiming that professionals don’t work weekends.

13 Appelmansstraat 13, Tel: 00-32-32333632, philippe-harold-jewellers.be