By Chrissie Walker
Antwerp is often overlooked by visitors to Europe. They are more likely to head to its more celebrated neighbours of Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. It is, however, a city steeped in history, classic Flemish architecture and art, and all in a relatively small area. Antwerp is an ideal walking city and still good value for money.
This beautiful town is the capital of the small Belgian province of Flanders. It is one of the most populous cities in Belgium, although the old city centre gives the impression of a classy market town. It is about 40 kilometres north of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and only 15 kilometres from the border with Holland. Antwerp is known as “The Diamond Capital of the World” for its sizeable gem district.
Where To Go:
Rubenshuis in Antwerp
This was, for many years, the home of Peter Paul Rubens. He loved the city so much that he built his own house here, and that is now a museum open to the public. It’s called, unsurprisingly, Rubenshuis and it is a must-visit for any art-loving tourist.
Rubens was not only an artist but a well-travelled diplomat and a linguist. The rooms used by the family are intimate and on a human scale. Some of the walls have a covering of tooled and varnished leather that was popular with the Spanish at that time. The walls are hung with Rubens paintings and sketches, and one has the sense that this must have been a comfortable home for Rubens. The gift shop opposite the house has some tasteful souvenirs of this painter and of Antwerp.
There are no cocoa plantations in Antwerp, but it does have many wonderful chocolate boutiques. Belgium’s association with chocolate goes back to the 1600s when the country was under Spanish rule and was called the Spanish Netherlands. By the mid-18th century, drinking chocolate had become popular with those few who could afford this luxury product. By 1900, new manufacturing processes had made chocolate accessible to everybody. Buying chocolates in Antwerp is a treat for all the senses. Enjoy the chocolates while you are here, but take some home, too!
The Dog of Flanders
No, this isn’t a canine breed but a very famous book that is still popular in Japan. Tourists from that country come especially to see the cathedral and the paintings which are such a focus of this book. The novel doesn’t have a happy ending, but the magnificent paintings in the cathedral will lift the spirits. The lofty ceiling and altar are both impressive. Read The Dog of Flanders before you go.
Antwerp isn’t always on the bucket-list of visitors to Europe, but it should be. The old city centre is small enough to be enjoyed on foot. It has a magnificent Square fringed by iconic buildings, fine-dining restaurants, as well as more casual spots offering Belgian fries. Bars around the city centre serve international beers and spirits, but do try the local brews for which Belgium is so renowned. There are plenty of charming independent hotels at reasonable prices, and lots to see and do.