Discovering the secrets of Antwerp

JILL SCHENSUL
Last updated 05:05 20/11/2013
Antwer[p Landscape
Jill Schensul

ANTWERP'S SECRETS: The 17th century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens created several works for the Cathedral of Our Lady.

Antwerp Std
Jill Schensul
BEER BAR: The Het Elfde cafe near the cathedral is where a beer can take on religious proportions.

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I am sitting at a small table with a big beer in a restaurant with a mystery name: Het Elfde Gebod.

After five days here in Antwerp in the north of Belgium where they speak relentless Dutch, I'm used to such mysteries.

I'm also getting used to surprises. Antwerp's full of them. I am reminded of this once again, as I sit here in Restaurant Whatever, with yet another Antwerp surprise.

I get to drink and dine in the gaze through the bubbles still rising to the foamy top of my brew, to the slightly rippling figures of ... saints.

Saints, well, religious figures at least, gaze down upon me from every corner of this warm and noisy cafe. I am a little squeamish, at first, about drinking alcohol in their presence.

I remind myself that this is, after all, Belgium, famous for its beer-making monks.

Besides, I ordered the St. Barnabus.

The beer culture is one more thing I've become familiar with during my time here. It's impossible not to, when in some places the beer menu is as thick as the Antwerp phone book - and each is served in a differently shaped glass to optimise its flavour.

Anyway, this St. B. is apparently the king of beers. And now, to my somewhat marginally better critical eye, I can begin to appreciate it.

The beer is dark, and I can smell the perfume of it from a foot away. The glass is beautiful, a serious and sturdy looking cross between a wineglass and a classic Coca Cola bottom.

I take pictures as the glass takes on sheen of sweat. In the background, past the saints, out the window, the sky has gone from all-day bright blue to the navy just before nightfall.

I take a sip.

You remember Snuffles, the cartoon dog? You know how when he finally got that cookie treat, he'd clutch his stomach, writhe in paroxysms of joy, and float skyward?

I was, in that instant, Snuffles-ecstatic.

It was the beer, sure. It was the accompanying meal. It was the garrulous, friendly crowd, the babble of everything but English.

And if the religious statues, paintings, icons and whatevers weren't actually channelling a heavenly vibe, their very presence in this unlikely situation, and their abundance, too, fuelled the good cheer.

Later, I learned that Het Elfde Gebod means The 11th Commandment in Dutch. The restaurant owners say that commandment is: "You shall enjoy," a departure from the "shalt not" litany, and definitely an easy commandment to follow.

Not just at this restaurant, either. But all over Antwerp.

Belgium's second-largest city after Brussels, Antwerp - with more than a half-million people - was a real revelation.

Full of surprises, as I said, and the biggest surprise of all was how little I'd heard about Antwerp over my decades of travelling.

Until earlier this year, when I learned about the new Red Star Line Museum opening here on Sept. 28, I was only familiar with the name of the city.

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The museum, housed in the original buildings of the steamship company that brought more than 2 million emigrants to the United States, would be telling the other side - the beginning, really - of the Ellis Island story.

Antwerp, it turns out, was a crossroads of commerce and culture in Europe - had been for centuries. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Where to start? The beer? The architecture? The cutting edge arts and fashion scene? The diamond trade? The gorgeous train station?

Yes, let's start there. Most visitors do. Antwerp does have its own airport, but international flights are much more plentiful into Brussels. From there, it's 30 or so minutes by train to Antwerp's Central Station.

Big cities in Europe have impressive railroad stations much the same as big executives have impressive paper stock for their business cards.

A central train station is the perfect place to establish a killer first impression. And Antwerp's, designed by Belgian Louis Delacenserie in 1895 and opened in 1905, will most certainly slay you.

It has not one but two gorgeous neo-baroque facades, so either approach seems like the most important one.

There's an enormous iron-and-glass dome over the train platforms, sweeping staircases and marble everywhere - along with gilded metalwork and sculptures.

There are small details everywhere - I particularly loved the beehive bas-reliefs, conveying the Antwerpian penchant for industriousness.

Look closely off to the left side of the stairs leading to the top platform - in a latticework porthole; a life-size and lifelike parrot is perched.

The building itself incorporated so many architectural styles that it was hard to categorize as one period or another. In the end, it's just endlessly grand.

It's been garnering even more praise for its recent restoration.

Two new below-ground train platforms were added, along with tracks that enable high-speed trains running between Amsterdam and Paris to go straight through Antwerp without having to go in reverse.

The renovation included more shopping (surprise!) with a new arcade featuring one of Antwerp's best-known products: diamonds.

A less-costly splurge (money-wise, though not calorie-wise) on a famous specialty would be good old Belgian waffles - piled high, hot and ready for toppings at some of the station's cafés and kiosks.

Emerging from the station, you're thrust into one of Antwerp's busiest squares.

Attempting to figure out where I was and get a grasp of the neighbourhood, I guess I was subconsciously trying to figure out the local population. The only conclusion was that it was too diverse to neatly categorise.

There were women in hijab, women in saris; Hassidic Jews in black wool coats; stereotypically Scandinavian types, blond hair blue eyes; people speaking Russian; and course the folks speaking impenetrable Dutch.

Multiculturalism is, I soon learned, one of Antwerp's strong suits. In fact, with 170 nationalities here, Antwerp is the second-most multicultural city in the world, after Amsterdam.

It's an aspect of Antwerp that gives it energy, openness and a whole lot of food for thought. You can visit various communities - the Jewish district is the largest, but there are also Portuguese, African and other neighbourhoods, too.

We spent two days learning about the new Red Star Line Museum, grabbing additional attractions and tours to fill in the rest of our scant time in the city. On an overview tour of the city our first day, we got some background:

Our guide told us how Antwerp got its name. According to legend, a mean giant named Antigoon used to guard a bridge over the Scheldt River and would force those wanting to cross it to pay a toll. If they refused, he would cut off one of their hands and throw it in the river.

Finally, a young Roman soldier and soon-to-be hero name Brabo did unto Antigoon as he'd been doing to the now-one-handed. Whack went the blade and splash went Antigoon's big hand, into the river. "Hantwerp" is Flemish for "hand-throwing."

Our (killjoy) guide then presented the second, and more scientific explanation for the origin of the name. "Aanwerp" is Dutch for an alluvial deposit or mound - like the one that was thought to exist centuries ago at a bend in the Scheldt.

The nutrient-rich soil made the spot a wise choice to settle in for the long haul, and the place would eventually wind up as Antwerp.

Hand cookies. Even if it is just a myth, the hand-throwing story has become a tangible part of the city. Brabo, the hero, rises from the waters of a monumental fountain in front of City Hall, forever mid-hand throw.

The hand has become a symbol of the city: it's on the coat of arms, hand-charms fill the jewellery stores. But the most-loved hand is the "handje" sugar cookie sold in every bakery in town.

By the end of the tour, I had a whole list of places I just had to see: the fashion district with its many cutting edge designers; the photography museum; MAS, a new design museum; the bridge across the Scheldt River that actually never does span the whole river.

Whenever I found a couple of spare hours of free time, I was off and running.

Except ... Antwerp kept getting in the way. Antwerp, with its cobblestone streets. Its outdoor cafés. It's crazy beautiful architecture. Its views over the river. Its friendly people ("Hey, come sit with us, where are you from?").

Like the day I decided to hit the fashion district and then the Rubens Museum.

I did manage to check out the windows at the Dries Van Noten boutique - Van Noten was one of the so-called Antwerp 6, graduates of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts whose radical vision and aesthetic put the city on the fashion map after they showed their stuff at the London fashion fair in 1986.

But I got waylaid for half an hour in a philosophical discussion with a friendly shopkeeper at the Diane von Furstenberg boutique one street over, and it eventually got to be too late to hit the Rubens Museum.

So I wandered off in the direction of the Cathedral of Our Lady, which also had Rubens paintings - very good ones. Except an archway leading to what looked like a garden caught my eye.

The wall bore a plaque identifying the place as the Zwarte Panter. I had no clue what it was - except there was a panther-like face on the plaque, so off I went.

Just beyond the threshold, I came upon a sculpture hewn from a thick tree trunk of a life-size man with John Lennon glasses and a dog at his feet. I stood before it, smiling, when who should come by but an artist, Frans Heirbaut.

Thankfully, he spoke French as well as Dutch, so he disabused me of my assumption that the piece was a memorial to a dead guy and his dead dog.

Not only were both alive, but they were right through the door at my back. Adriaan Raemdonck and in his arms, his little dog Fleur, appeared in the doorway of what turned out to be Raemdonck's office.

Raemdonck looked just like the sculpture, except for the surprisingly Eugene Levy-esque eyebrows.

This is a big guy, president of Federation of European Art Gallery Associations, as well as the owner of the Zwarte Panter.

The gallery, by the way, includes a warren of artists' studios, an inner courtyard and an exhibition space that provides a clue to its previous life - stained glass windows left over from its centuries as a church and a haven for refugees.

After our tour of the diamond district on another day, I realized we weren't going to see any raw diamonds, or any polishing or faceting processes.

I asked our guide if there was any place I could learn and see more about them; he mentioned a place called Diamondland.

I asked directions there later, only to find out that Diamondland had gone to dust.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, on my way to MAS, opened in 2011, I came upon the tiny Diamond Pavilion just across the walkway.

Though it had no live demonstrations, it did show a few pretty gorgeous pieces of jewellery and some elaborately adorned walking sticks, and the owners are counting on expanding the facilities in the near future.

Despite being waylaid, I did manage a brief spin around the MAS, a place so eclectic I am not sure what to call it. Well, the outside is distinctive, for each of its 10 stories is twisted 90 degrees to form a rising spiral. The 10 floors have exhibitions from basketball mobiles to advertising posters.

I gravitated to the glass walls outside the exhibition rooms on each floor. The glass ripples like waves on the facade, so not only are there great views, but you can distort them with your own personalized viewing angles.

On my last day, I made an extra effort to get the "musts" checked off my list and managed to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus, home to the world's oldest (400 years) printing presses as well as the house (er, mansion) of the owners - the Plantin and Moretus families, complete with 16th and 17th century decorative arts.

The two families were influential in the development of Antwerp, and amassed their own impressive collection of art, some of which is on display - along with rare manuscripts and art prints. The museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was the last person out of the museum that day; 4 pm and I still had an hour for visiting the cathedral and its wealth of artwork.

I hurried toward the main square, mustering all my willpower to pass by the intriguing awning advertising "Camper Theo - Shoes and Food."

I passed the alfresco café tables arranged three deep outside the centuries-old guild buildings-turned-restaurants. I stopped only momentarily to watch skateboarders catch air over an obstacle of serious tree trunks.

But I couldn't just rush by one final sight: A man in a tuxedo playing a massive yet portable organ outside the cathedral.

I ground to a halt and waited while he flipped back his coattails, settled on his stool, shook feet out of loafers, and began to play.

For some reason I was the only one in his audience at the moment. I sat down on the ground, looked at his socks and let my eyes travel up - easy in a cathedral - toward the intricately carved Gothic arches (the cathedral's, not his), up past gargoyles and ancient carved stone faces to the lacy spire pointing into the white clouds daubed on blue sky.

A Magritte moment.

I did manage to get to the cathedral and see all the art, including several of Rubens' most famous works.

All this, and then, about to pass out from hunger and infuriated, pounding feet, stumbling upon the sainted Het Elfde Gebod restaurant.

You know the rest. The Snuggles feeling, the saints, the St. Barnabus.

Antwerp, who knew?

GETTING THERE: Antwerp, Belgium, has its own airport, but the only international flights that land there come from Britain. It's undoubtedly more convenient to fly into the Brussels airport, only 28 miles away. In Brussels, grab the Airport Express train (€12.40, about $20) right from the arrivals terminal and 35 minutes later you'll be schlepping your baggage through Antwerp's Central Station.

LODGING: I stayed at the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, a convenient three-minute walk from the Central Station (some rooms have a view of the station, particularly spectacular at night); rates at this four-star hotel start at €83 nightly; radissonblu.com/astridhotel-antwerp.

Antwerp Tourism and Conventions' website has a nice search and booking engine for accommodations in categories including package deals, hotel, B&Bs, camping, youth and budget accommodation, even vacation rentals: start at visitantwerpen.be

DINING: Antwerp has some wonderful restaurants. Here are a few that stood out on my recent trip:

Het Elfde Gebod - aka Het Kathedraalcafe, Torfbrug 10. Flemish cuisine with a contemporary twist. kathedraalcafe.be.

Beer Central, De Keyserlei 25. A serious beer pub - the seriousness is only over beer, however; otherwise, it's great fun. On tap are 20 Belgian brews, on hand are more than 300 different bottle beers. We had an epic food-and-beer-pairing dinner, topped off with (my favourite) strawberry beer sherbet! Don't try to lift the beer menu - you might pull a muscle. Beer expert (sommelier?) Hans Bombeke is happy to offer recommendations; biercentral.be

Restaurant HORTA, Hopland 2, Named after Victor Horta, a respected art nouveau architect who built the original structure here in the '30s. It's been updated, but the restaurant still benefits from spectacular design and location: large industrial beams frame huge space (the restaurant's on the second floor) whose walls are floor to ceiling windows overlooking the 'hood, its shops, and, for dinner, a pink-hued sunset followed by the warm glow of night-time streetlamps. Frites (they're big in Belgium, wraps salads and steaks are all popular fare here; grandcafehorta.be.

Hoffy's, Lange Kievitstraat 52. The Hoffman brothers serve traditional Yiddish cuisine in a plain, well lit restaurant situated in the back room, past the deli counter. Great for vegetarians. hoffys.be

De Foyer, upstairs at the Bourla Theater, Komedieplaats 18; You'll feel positively regal at this "foyer," with its ornate and soaring domed ceilings, rich fabrics and cherub-themed knickknacks. Even the fare is rich (my teeth started aching just looking, not eating any of it). A slice of apple strudel is de rigueur, I hear; defoyer.be

De Rooden Hood, Oude Koornmarkt 25. More than, well, they may have lost count just how many people they've served. This is Antwerp's oldest restaurant, more than 250 years old in fact. Lots of atmosphere, rib-stickin' fare and decent prices.

ATTRACTIONS:

Plantin-Moretus Museum, Vrijdagmarkt 22-23; museumplantinmoretus.be

Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3. redstarline.be/en

Rubens House (Rubenshuis) Wapper 9-11. Peter Paul Rubens home and studio from 1610 till his death in 1640. He had the largest private art collection in Antwerp at the time, some of which is on display along with his own work. rubenshuis.be

MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), Hanzestedenplaats 1. The new museum has a couple of restaurants, so you can linger longer without fainting from weakness mas.be

Antwerp Diamond Pavilion, part of the MAS complex. The Diamond Museum closed after a 10-year run, and a new, pared down version has found a home in one of the MAS "pavilions" - small, ground-level structures arranged around the main attraction museum. Small, but the enthusiasm is palpable, and the few objects on display have major bling creds.awdc.be

Cathedral of Our Lady, Groenplaats 21. Dekathedraal.be

Galerie De Zwarte Panter (The Black Panther), Hoogstraat 70-72-74. A popular arts enclave with a warren of exhibit spaces in a former church. dezwartepanter.com (Dutch only)

GOOD TO KNOW:

If you plan on hitting a lot of attractions in town, consider buying an Antwerp City Card; it costs €28 euros ($45) and is good for 48 hours from the time you first use it.

Benefits include: free entry to all Antwerp museums and major churches; at least 25 percent off other tourist attractions, sightseeing and bike rentals; discounts on souvenirs and traditional Belgian products; and a free guide to all the participating sites. Available in advance online, or at any of the tourist information booths in town.

Most museums are closed on Mondays.

Antwerp is pretty walkable, but it also offers a very efficient and convenient "tram" - train, really. Only four "tram" lines, so it's hard to get too lost.

Though I've read some traveller accounts of "everyone speaks English," in Antwerp, that wasn't my experience. A lot of people do speak it, but a lot of signs - especially in some small museums - are in Dutch, period.

They probably have English translation cheat sheets available; ask if you don't see one.

Antwerp's streets are paved with ... cobblestones. They're beautiful, historic, and often treacherous. Wear heels at your own risk.

And consider the Antwerp Diamond Bus, a hop-on, hop-off trolley that makes stops at the major plazas and sites around town. An all-day ticket is €13 adults, discounts for seniors and children under 12; antwerp-city-tours.com

MORE INFO: Along with the Antwerp Tourism Web site, check out visitflanders.us.

- MCT

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