Notes from Antwerp

An eye for beauty and a ruthless nose for business defines Antwerp rather well

In Antwerp, the central railway station is called the ‘cathedral’ and it certainly makes you feel worshipful. Massive, ornate, the colour of clotted cream, Antwerpen-Centraal dominates the square. Bang in front of the 19th century structure there’s a massive Ferris wheel but it doesn’t feel a bit incongruous. Old and new merge tastefully at every turn in Antwerp.

A vast central hall towers upwards into a beautiful dome. Leopold II’s coat of arms are emblazoned everywhere and you can see that the ravages of Congo were put lovingly to use by the second king of Belgium. The varieties of marble, the lavish decorations, the cafeteria that looks like a palace dining room—it’s hard to absorb that you are standing inside something as plebeian as a railway station and it’s equally hard to ignore the little voice that reminds you of the mammoth amounts of blood-money that went into these architectural masterpieces.

In a fantastic piece of modernisation, under the heritage structure, the city has created three more levels, making this one of Europe’s busiest rail hubs. On the platform in the lowest level is a huge comic book store, doffing the hat at Belgium’s extraordinary legacy of comic art. And near it are, yes, diamond stores! Most of these have since moved out, but a few are still up and running, making you wonder who might stop before the commute home to pick up a diamond ring and a baguette for dinner.

Nose for business

An eye for beauty and a ruthless nose for business defines Antwerp rather well. As indeed it might all of Belgium, its cities stunningly picturesque, its past record outside home not quite so admirable.

Art, diamonds, fashion—this is the Antwerp triangle. There’s Rubens’ towering presence, both in Rubenshuis, his magnificent Renaissance home with its Baroque garden, and in the cathedral where his most famous altarpieces hang. The magnificence of the Descent from the Cross gives me shivers on a very warm summer day, and I can’t resist buying it in the shape of—what else—a fridge magnet, its immensity shrunk to fit my limited means and fridge door size.

A short walk away is the diamond square mile, where $220 million worth of stones are traded every day. You turn a corner and suddenly you find desis and snatches of Gujarati conversations in the air. The community has almost edged out the Orthodox Jews, traditionally the leading diamantaires. A huge Jain temple has come up at Wilrijk, which we don’t visit, but we learn that the rich community’s extravagant weddings regularly make it into the local papers. This tiny square mile, now barricaded to vehicular traffic, employs some 6,000 people and creates some 32,000 jobs.

A melting pot

Around the corner, heritage meets commerce again. In the early 1900s, Leopold II decided the city needed a grand assembly hall, so the fabulous Stadsfeestzaal was built, where the rich and famous danced and drank. When it was destroyed by a fire in 2000, the city reconstructed it using the original 1906 plans, but adapted it into an upscale shopping plaza. The glass dome with gold leaf, the carved reliefs, the oak parquet floors—they are all back, making this possibly one of the most opulent places for your Hermès fix.

The makeover is apt, the city’s fashion reputation being rather formidable too. Linda Loppa, today the advisor of strategy and vision at Polimoda in Florence, was the teacher of the famous Antwerp Six, who radically broke into the global catwalk in the 1980s. Today, the city has the MoMu fashion museum and, of course, the acclaimed programme at its Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

At lunch, our indefatigable guide emphasises that her city is home to 143 nationalities, one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan congregations. Later, however, the brisk guide in Brussels sniffs. “Antwerp,” he says, “has just elected a right-wing mayor. What do you want me to say?”

It’s late afternoon, and I am sitting on a bench in Antwerp’s cathedral square, surrounded by golden Gothic buildings that lean into one another, listening to the bells toll deep. It’s all madly beautiful, but there is a slight chill in the air. It’s time to go home.

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Printable version | Mar 25, 2020 1:40:45 PM |

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