Sonia Nazareth walks the streets of Antwerp and finds chocolates harder to resist than most things precious.
No experience of Antwerp is uncomplicatedly romantic or easily consistent. Unlike most other towns in Flanders — with their immediate fix of picture-book loveliness and promise of medieval character, Antwerp takes me longer to gauge. Not least because this port town has continued to expand over the centuries, a product of the diverse influences, ideas and products that sailed in through here after the Middle Ages.
Exiting the train station that resembles a cathedral with its domes and lion statues and shops selling diamonds instead of medals, I run smack into a small army of Indians. Turns out they’re heading southwest for the nearby diamond quarter. “Over 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds and half of its polished diamonds are traded in these high security backstreets, with up to 60 per cent of those working in the industry now hailing from India. The Orthodox Jews once held the monopoly but the Indians, who are willing to put work first even on the Sabbath, have clearly gained the upper hand. “Which is why I can guarantee you not just the best kosher food, but also the best curry here after India,” the guide tells me with a playful wink.
The diamond quarter wears an unassuming air. It could be a backstreet of Mumbai in fact, but if you look closely you’ll see men in Armani coats and shop fronts with steely grills guarding the millions of dollars worth of stones. “Whatever you get here will be at a 20 per cent discount. But if you don’t want to buy,” my guide says, “you’re better off heading to diamond land to watch diamond cutters at work.”
Along the way to diamond land, I must confess that a jewel of a different nature derails me. Trays full of dark and white — oblong, square and shell-shaped swirls of chocolate light up shop windows. Although chocolate from this part of the world once had a secure place in world chocolate hierarchy that seemed inviolate, in a world of rapidly-changing consumer tastes, Antwerp like most of Flanders, couldn’t afford to rest on its laurels and had to innovate to stay top of the charts. Which explains why, in addition to the old-fashioned solidity of chocolate varieties, there co-exists the emergence of modern day Willy Wonka’s like Dominique Persoone.
In Persoone’s store — ‘Chocolate Line’, it’s easy to see how flamboyant Persoone came to be known as the notorious Shock-O-Latier. Rows of bitter coca-cola, black olive, wasabi, cauliflower, vodka, curry powder and onion-infused treats entice me to make my way off the familiar straight-and-narrow, onto a road less travelled.
Edible chocolate paint
For Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, Dominique famously made a splash with a chocolate shooter created for his birthday party. Through this unique contraption, you can catapult a mixture of cocoa, ginger and mint up your nose for a chocolate rush. “Innovation,” an ardent customer at his store ‘The Chocolate Line’ expounds, while buying a pot of edible chocolate body paint, “is for the spirit, what exercise is for the body. A way to start thinking about the limitations imposed by society, a way of bringing life back into living, an exit from routine.”
The design studios and niche art galleries that dot the city, clearly fit with this aesthetic agenda. The justitiepaleis or law court with its asymmetrical triangular glass roofline — that looks like a cone of fries, is one such example.
Antwerp, like much of Flanders, likes to do its living outdoors, especially when the days are sunny. When you stroll down the cobbled streets, the shopping thoroughfare and look at the garments and bags, shoes and twinkling diamonds on display while the aroma of chocolate and frying wafts towards you, it’s not difficult to see that the city still harks back to a time before diets were popular, before restraint was made fashionable.
Despite the monumental cathedrals and larger-than-life festival halls, the city has retained its human-sized quality. Artist Peter Paul Reuben’s home and the MAS or the Museum aan de Stroom — a 60-meter high tower are on every traveller’s must-do list and that’s all very well. But to many people who throng Antwerp for the world music festival in July, edifices like these are but a majestic backdrop for those times of year when the city becomes an extended living room, with the jazz concerts and rambunctious events taking place around town.
Contemporary artists like Luc Tyumans and Jan Fabre may be local ambassadors for contemporary art. And the Antwerp six — the six designers who wielded Antwerp’s influence on the fashion world, may have design and art editors sucking their thumbs in excitement.
A stroll around Zurenborg may have aficionados of art noveau with their knickers in a twist. But as a wise man told me once, “If you visit Antwerp and allow yourself to only focus on the big artists, designers and monumental architecture, you will miss a lot of the subtlety around town.”
And I couldn’t agree more. For part of the charm of a city, this city, any city — is to be found in not just those who have arrived, but those in various stages of arrival, the un-published and un-heralded, small-scale operations, labour-intensive manufacture — and Antwerp thankfully, is a city that encourages these fire-starters.
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights from Mumbai to Brussels start from Rs. 45,000 per head for a return trip. Antwerp is a 40-minute train run from Brussels.