There is something for everyone at the Belgian city of Antwerp. Vijaya Pratap writes about how art lovers can gaze at the works of Flemish artist Rubens, families can head to the aquarium and shopaholics can shriek in glee at a historical shopping street
Best time to visit: April to September
You need: 4 days
To many travellers, Antwerp has no single meaning. As the Mecca of the diamond industry it conjures up images of dazzling diamonds to most. To the rest, it is always the land of chocolates. To me, however, it is the city that lends a certain flavour of exoticism to my holiday, through its art, architecture, history, shopping, entertainment and romance.
The Festival Hall
An hour’s drive away from Brussels, the historic city of Antwerp immediately captivates me. As I look out of the window of my hotel, the grandiose Central Station, which I am told is the fourth most beautiful station in the world, greets me. With its huge dome and stone structure, the magnificent building is an architectural marvel.
Shopping Street or the Meir
Exploring the animal kingdom
Later, I visit the aquarium Aquatopia, where I join hordes of school children to see thousands of exotic fish and reptiles in their natural habitat. I can barely contain my excitement while strolling through the aquarium’s seven fascinating sections — Rainforest, Swamp, Oceans, Lab, Mangrove, Coral Reefs and Submarine, where you can see everything from blue dart poison frogs, to snakes, sharks and iguanas. Scared of reptiles, I forego the opportunity to caress a snake (albeit non-poisonous) during a live demonstration, but fearless kids hold the slithering beauty and pose for pictures.
(Left): A demonstration at Aquatopia and (right) Okapi at the Antwerp Zoo
My next stop is Antwerp Zoo, which is one of the oldest zoos in the world. Dating from 1843 and replete with 19th century design and architecture, the zoo has historic pavilions and Art Déco facades. Here, I see meerkats, mountain gorillas swinging in the air and chimpanzees grooming each other. Okapi, a rare animal native to Central Africa, with a dark reddish back and horizontal, zebra like white stripes on the front and hind legs, roams around in solitude, while young children play with sand nearby.
The next day, my guide Rick Philips takes me to the Diamond Quarter. No more an exclusive domain of the Jewish community, it includes merchants from India (which explains the large Indian presence on the flights and the many Indian restaurants in Antwerp), Africa, Armenia and Lebanon. Philips shows me the building where the world’s costliest transactions take place. We are, however, barred from entering the building as it’s heavily guarded and meant exclusively for diamond merchants. On our way back, I spot many Jewish kosher, Lebanese, Hungarian, Indian, Chinese, Moroccan and Turkish eateries in the neighbourhood.
As we walk along the Meir Street, Philips explains the significance of each historic building. The prestigious street is lined with 16th century patrician mansions, but the Meir is best known as the ‘Shopping Street’. On peak days, the street attracts more than 2,20,000 visitors. The grand buildings, such as the Royal Palace, the Stadsfeestzaal (City Festival Hall), the Osterrieth House (a flamboyant mansion in Rococo style) take my breath away.
Palace in Meir
We enter the Festival Hall, whose grandeur and elegance amazes me. The magnificent shopping complex features an impressive glass-iron vault, a large marble staircase and gilded decorations. Apparently, seven years after a devastating fire, the Festival Hall underwent major renovation.
Rubens House, the old house and studio of Flemish baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens, is just a few yards away. I miss seeing it as most museums are closed in Belgium on Mondays. It was the house where Rubens spent 25 years with his family and produced some of his greatest works of art.
My spirits are uplifted at the Palace in Meir, where a chocolate treat awaits us. The Palace is an imposing building historically owned by Napoleon, William I of Netherlands and the Belgian royal family. We enter the Chocolate Factory on the ground floor, where we get to taste the best of chocolates. The ones that stand out are made in the shape of Napoleon’s bust, bottles full of chocolate pills, and even chocolate lipstick.
The window display of a chocolate store
After that sumptuous feast, we walk down to the Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp’s most celebrated landmark. It is unique, with seven aisles, and is the largest Gothic structure in the country. And here, finally, I get to see Rubens’ masterpieces. Philips explains the Triptychs depicting ‘The Raising of the Cross’, ‘The Resurrection of Christ’ and ‘The Descent from the Cross’.
Grote Markt is where the ancient heart of Antwerp beats. This triangular public space boasts immaculately restored guildhalls, from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Antwerp was a city of international importance and had a flourishing artistic community. The City Hall is built in Gothic and early Renaissance styles — a combination of styles exclusive to this region of Europe.
A statue at the Cathedral of our Lady. Pics/Vijaya Pratap
At the end of the day, as I sit near the iconic Brabo statue at the fountain, I wonder what makes Antwerp so popular among travellers. I look over at the long winding streets and buildings that are architectural marvels and it hits me. Antwerp has something for every traveller.
Getting there: Direct flights by major airlines from India. Well connected to Brussels, by road and train
Shopping: Annual sale seasons in January and July for more details: Visit www.visitantwerpen.be