18 JAN 2017: Imagine two perfect medieval town squares surrounded by merchants’ houses, a floodlit cathedral soars above them, a river flows swiftly past nearby and a statue of the city’s most famous son - Rubens - looks down on revellers in the many bars and restaurants. This was once one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities and even today it is Europe’s second largest port. Yes, we are talking about Antwerp, a city that probably doesn’t make its way onto many wish-lists which is a pity as it has so much to offer.

We’ve been here for over two months now, and have thoroughly enjoyed so much, although a visit at a different time of year would be recommended as it’s pretty damp and chilly during the winter.

But for those who love art and architecture, trendy shops, delicious and hearty food and the sparkle of Europe’s Christmas markets, winter would make for a fine visit too.

That Antwerp has much to offer can be appreciated when one knows that 174 nationalities live here. It’s therefore no surprise that it’s such a fine culinary city, with so many people from afar calling it home and running restaurants, with fine local foodstuffs produced in the fertile surrounding lands and a great port bringing additional delicacies from around the globe. And then there are all those Belgian beers! Dozens of them, each with its own specially-shaped glass. No wonder it’s a city of bustling bars and busy restaurants.

Then there’s the art. For serious art lovers, Antwerp will indeed be on their wish-list, but everyone will be charmed by the city’s gracious old house museums which show not only major art treasures but give a glimpse into the lives of the prosperous of Antwerp in days of old.

Ruben’s House is most certainly one of these. The lives of many great artists are plagued with struggle and poverty, but not Rubens, who was held in high esteem in his lifetime and whose beautiful house reflects this.

There are the city homes of Messrs. Mayer van den Bergh and Nicholas Rockox to visit, each with their major collections of art, including renowned pieces by Brueghel, Van Eyck and Rubens. (I have not mentioned the famous Antwerp Beaux Arts Museum as it has been closed for extensive renovations for about six years and will not re-open until 2019. Obviously quite the renovation, that will no doubt eventually be well worth a visit.)

For those whose taste runs to more modern offerings, there are museums of photography, modern art and design … the last being especially apt for Antwerp as it has a long history of textile production and fashion design, both of which are reflected in the city’s boutiques.

The Red Star Line Museum, located in the docklands in the very buildings where emigrants were ‘processed’ for their passage to the New World, offers an especially moving display with emigrants’ stories, ships’ models and a selection of posters declaring “Come to Canada!”

The docklands and port are vast and fascinating. Boat trips offer a closer look and there are many colourful bars and bistros enjoyed by visitors from the world over.

The Cathedral of our Lady is the largest Gothic cathedral in Belgium. Recently renovated, it offers a sparkling interior with yet more famous art - Rubens’ ‘Descent from the Cross’ and his altarpiece among them. And their regular carillon concerts add a special charm to the Old Town.

Antwerp is a great cycling city, with bike lanes everywhere and courteous car drivers. City bikes can be rented from stands all over town. For visitors there’s an Antwerp City Card for public transit, museum and church admissions.

I have two recommendations to make any visit to Antwerp memorable - a place to lay your head, and a place to eat (you don’t need me to point you to a bar … they are all over!).

For position, the Hotel O Kathedral cannot be bettered. It occupies three old town houses between Antwerp’s main squares. Ask for a room overlooking the cathedral!

And for delicious dining, head to Le Zoute Zoen, just a couple of blocks from the market square and the Hotel O. Here you’ll find glittering chandeliers and fine linens all reflected in beautiful mirrors. Sounds ritzy? The setting certainly is, the service certainly is, but the nightly, set three-course dinner (three choices with ‘treats' in between) at €37.50 ($52.40) account for the popularity of this fine dining experience. It can be found at Zirkstraa 23, a quiet street just steps from all the tourist action in the main square.

Another reason why Antwerp should not be overlooked on a European vacation is its position.

It lies less than an hour by train from Brussels, just a little longer from Amsterdam (with a direct link from Schiphol Airport). The train can also take you to historic Bruges and Ghent, which are wonderful cities much loved by visitors from near and far.

Less well known are the charming towns of Lier and Mechelen. The latter is a true fairytale city, where nothing spoils the medieval town square with its beautiful town hall, another soaring cathedral and so many charming details such as the carved signposts! Before Christmas, with its beautiful decorations, it was quite magical. There is so much to enjoy in all these memorable Belgian cities.

 

 

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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