From Gracious St Pancras to Grand Antwerp StationDecember 19th, 2011
What woman could resist a visit to Antwerp, famous as it is for diamonds, chocolates, fashion and chips? Within minutes of arriving at its gracious train station with its large hall and dome, I felt that Belgium’s second city was sure to live up to all expectations as a place where, even when the hedonistic attractions have worn thin (if that is possible), there is always culture and history to keep you occupied.
Railbookers had the foresight to book us into the deluxe Hilton hotel with its attractive Baroque façade and its central position on Groenplaats. In the middle of this impressive square stands a statue of Antwerp’s most famous painter, Pieter Paul Rubens, and all around are attractive cafés known for their local beer. Nearby is the historic Grote Market Square, with the magnificent 16th century City Hall and its Guild Houses crowned with golden statues.
At 31 Euros, the Antwerp City Card is excellent value as it includes a guide to all the main attractions as well as free entry to museums and churches over a 48-hour period. At first I thought there was an oversight, in that no transport links were included, until it became obvious that everything is within walking distance; a great bonus on any city break.
Antwerp’s historical significance comes from its position, on the eastern bank of the River Scheldt – linked to the North Sea by the Westerschelde Estuary. This makes it one of the largest seaports in Europe.
The 16th century warehouses, which were such an important part of the city, have inspired its newest river building; the 60 metre high MAS – or to give it its real name “Museum aan de Stroom”. Apart from grouping together unusual exhibits, it is a fabulous building in itself. Built on an angle, each floor has a different view over the city, until the 11th floor, where there is a spectacular panoramic view.
In the same district as the MAS is the home of the Royal Ballet of Flanders and it was exciting to experience the sense of occasion at one of their performances of modern and original, short pieces.
The biggest diamond museum in the world is in Antwerp, which is not surprising as 70% of all these fabulous minerals go through the city at some stage in their production. The process of how they are mined and cut are told in intricate detail, but to me, peaking at the treasure chambers and seeing some of the most famous examples was easily the best part!
The long established and well-known zoo is next to the train station in the centre, and it is strange to see elephants so near to city, with ordinary houses in the background. It’s easy to get around and to really come up close to the animals. There is a feeling of intimacy – the miniature red panda seemed to look back at me as much as I looked at him!
I wouldn’t advise a visit to Antwerp for anybody on a diet. Brasserie Applemans with its stylish Absinthe bar is well known, and certainly didn’t disappoint. The restaurant with the rather English name Hungry Henrietta’s sounds as if it might serve succulent roast beef and yorkshire pudding. It was certainly un-pretentious and delicious food I could see why it is so popular. Visiting Flamant Dining is a more stylish and roomy experience with its sophisticated and delicious range of menu choices. The service was good without being too intrusive and it makes a great evening out in a city where eating well is such a good and important part of the culture.