Thanks to the generosity of my step-daughter Kellie who gave us tickets for a Leonard Cohen concert in Antwerp, BB and I recently hopped on the fast train (TGV) for a trip to that lovely city. A shorter version of the following appeared in the newspaper Stars and Stripes, www.stripes.com
It could have been a scene from a James Bond movie. Two shiny black limousines crept down the narrow street. Then came a monster white armored truck, followed by a smaller version of the same, and then more limos. Several stern, black-suited men walked alongside the vehicles. It was all very eerie, mysterious.
The white truck stopped in front of a non-descript building. Three hulks (you would not want to fool with these brutes) jumped out. A woman with a wad of papers surveyed the scene, as well as more of those ominous looking men and a small crowd of curious on-lookers. The muscled trio dashed to the back of the truck, opened it, and rapidly tossed out large canvas bags, at least a dozen. These were rushed inside the building.
I wanted to take pictures but was firmly warned, “No photos.” I asked the woman about the contents of the bags. “Diamonds” — obviously millions of the precious gems. Wow! I asked the value of the contents. No answer. She remained silent to that and my many other questions.
An everyday delivery in Antwerp’s diamond district where Jewish men, wearing long, black coats and wide-brimmed black hats, rush up and down the heavily guarded streets, many with cell phones to their ears.
Antwerp, Belgium’s second city, has been associated with diamonds since the 15th century. “By 2007 more than half of the world’s consumption of rough as well as polished industrial diamonds is traded in Antwerp realizing an annual turnover of $42 billion,” explained Sylvie Van Craen of the city’s tourist office. She said 1,800 diamond companies have their headquarters in the city, including four diamond exchanges, special diamond banks, security and transport firms, brokers and consultants. While the business of the glittering stones was originally associated with the Jewish community, today it’s run by people of numerous nationalities, including Jews, with Indians in the majority.
I did not come to Antwerp to purchase a diamond, although shops whose windows are brimming with diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and more abound. Husband Bob and I came to attend the Leonard Cohen concert (amazing), visit the city and my Irish friend Isabel who lives there with her Dutch husband, Carlo. She was our guide extraordinaire.
“You’re seeing Antwerp at its absolutely worse,” Isabel lamented as we strolled by café after café whose outdoor tables were deserted. “Normally at this time of year people are sitting outside.” It was mid-June, and like in much of Europe, summer had yet to appear. It was cool, dreary, rainy, but the weather did not dampen her enthusiasm for the city. “We like Antwerp,” she said. “It has culture. There’s always a holiday atmosphere. The Belgians enjoy food and drink.” Antwerp is the capital of Flanders, the part of Belgium where Flemish, a language much like Dutch, is spoken.
We walked down the main shopping street, the bustling Meir, with a quick glance inside the Stadsfeestzaal (Festival Hall), a luxurious indoor shopping mall with a glass iron vault, marble staircase, gold leaf décor and a champagne bar. Then a mouth watering stop next door at one of Antwerp’s numerous chocolate shops, The Chocolate Line in the Paleis op de Meir which offers chocolate pralines with 60 different fillings: wasabi, Sake, cabernet-sauvignon, Earl Grey
tea, cannabis, to name a few. For 45 euros you can buy a “Chocolate Shooter,” a snifter with three different flavors of cocoa powder to shoot up your nose for a nonaddictive jolt to “maximize the chocolate experience.”
One of Isabel’s favorite Antwerp nooks is the Botanical Garden Plantentuin, a small but lush patch of green in the midst of the city with unusual plants, blossoms, and a pond where over-sized, colorful carp swim. A park regular stopped to chat with us– another Antwerp plus. “It’s easy to get into a conversation with people here, having lunch, sitting on a bench. They are very chatty,” Isabel said.
And generous, as we found out at our next stop. In the food realm, Belgium is noted, not just for chocolate, but also waffles. I have never been a waffle fan, but BB loves them and misses those U.S. waffle houses. In that case, we must go to the “only place to eat waffles,” Isabel insisted, Désiré de Lille. And, we must order a Wafel warme Noorse Krieken (cherry waffle). “I bring everyone who visits here. You have to have a waffle if you come to Belgium.”
If every waffle was like this light, luscious confection with a mound of cherries and whipped cream, I’d be a waffle convert. Exquisite. And, there was more. An elderly woman sat next to us and was served a large bowl of donut balls dusted with powdered sugar. We eyed them with envy. She graciously offered us each one – another tasty treat called Smoutebollen.
Back to sightseeing and the Grote Markt, a triangular public space that is the heart of the city with its restored gabled guildhalls dating to the 16th and 17th centuries and the flamboyant renaissance town hall. For fair weather days, there are plenty of cafes with terraces where you can relax surrounded by the stunning architecture.
Nearby is the city’s architectural pièce de résistance, the Cathedral of Our Lady, a gothic temple whose towering spire dominates the city skyline. Inside are awe-inspiring masterpieces by Antwerp’s most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens, and other noted artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Waffles and chocolate…but what about beer and frites (French fries), two other Belgian specialties? In the same ancient square as the cathedral, Handschoenmarkt, is Abbey No 8, a beer store with “100 of the best beers out of 2,400 brewed in Belgium,” boasted salesman John. The shop also has 100 different kinds of beer glasses, as every beer demands its own type of glass. The most popular Antwerp beer is De Koninck, an amber colored brew served in a bolleke, a goblet shaped glass. According to Isabel, the best frites in the city are to be had at Fritkot Max, easy to spot with a large replica of fries in front.
We met Isabel’s husband for lunch at their favorite restaurant, Dock’s Café. Antwerp, located on the River Schelde just 50 miles from the North Sea, is known for fish and seafood dishes, both of which are favorites at Dock’s. I relished six scrumptious oysters, followed by very fresh flounder.
Next on our tour guide’s agenda was the city’s newest sensation, the Mas, a striking and unusual edifice along the river which houses a five-story museum illustrating the story of the city, the port, and their connection to the rest of the world. Bad luck for us – closed on Monday, the day we were in Antwerp. There is a boulevard walkway around the building to the top where the views are said to be “extraordinary.” It too was closed.
However, we found “extraordinary” views in the nearby Schipperskwartier (Seamen’s Quarter), the red light district where sex goddesses ply their trade (prostitution is tolerated in Belgium), posing in doorways and windows with little covering their bodies. Men “shoppers” stroll by, stopping now and then to converse, perhaps negotiate a price.
The district’s church, St. Paul’s, owes the salvage of some of its treasures to the prostitutes. During a huge fire in 1968 which destroyed much of the structure, the ladies of the night helped save valuable paintings. The church is a treasure trove of the latter, 50 paintings by notables such as Rubens and Van Dyck . We were lucky during our visit. A volunteer guide provided fascinating facts and insights on the church and its masterpieces. The adjacent Calvary Garden is intriguing, if not bizarre, enticing visitors to put their cameras to work.
We saved Antwerp’s most popular attraction, the Rubens house, until last.The prolific artist obviously did well. His home for 24 years (1616-1640) is an elegant palatial residence with a lovely garden, room after room where his paintings hang, and a few pieces of exquisite furniture. Rent the head set to learn more about the artist and his work.
Our visit to Antwerp ended where it had begun, at the city’s impressive central train station which was constructed in 1902 and recently renovated. Newsweek called it “the fourth most beautiful station in the world.”
“I went to several cities looking for a place for a business,”’ a young Nepalese woman named Beauty told me. She now has a shop in the city where she sells crafts from Nepal. “I liked Antwerp. It’s not too big, not too small. It has a cozy feeling and nice people.” And, interesting sights to admire, good food, great beer. I, too, like Antwerp.
Park Inn by Radisson, ideal location adjacent to the train station. Ample breakfast buffet. Rates vary depending on season and promotions available. Doubles from 89 euros. www. parkinn.com/hotel-antwerpen
The Chocolate Line, Meir 50, www.thechocolateline.be (Fun place to visit – in the back you can watch chocolates being made. However, I was disappointed with the expensive box of exotic chocolates I purchased.)
Désiré de Lille, Schrijnwerkersstraat 16, www.desiredelille.be
Friktot Max, Groenplaats 12. While Isabel recommended this, she confesses she does not eat fries. Some Trip Advisor followers gave it a poor review. One said the best fries are at Frituur Kattekwaad, Verbondstraat 112.
Abbey No 8, Handschoenmarkt 8, www.belgianbeersandbrews.be
Dock’s Café, Jordaenskaai 7, Two course lunch special, 18 euros. www.docks.be
COMING IN SEPTEMBER: Red Star Line Museum opening Sept. 28 will tell the story of this shipping company which carried some 2.6 million fortune hunters, businessmen, and wealthy travelers to America between 1873 and 1935. Museum located at the Rijnkaai next to where the ships used to dock. www.redstarlineorg.