The Smooth Guide published in The Financial Times ‘How To Spend It’ magazine – February 2005
Compact, cool and cultured, Antwerp has as many claims to metropolitan status as its close neighbour and rival Brussels. At the hub of the world’s lucrative diamond market and with a flourishing fashion business the Flemish capital lies coiled around a sweeping curve of the River Scheldt sixty kilometres from the North Sea. Beneath ancient watch towers, gothic steeples and the latest modern architecture bustles a multifaceted city where avant garde models just off the cat walk rub shoulders with Jewish jewel traders in the black hats and frockcoats of 19 th century central Europe.
Living at the cutting edge of design has always been top of the list here. Until the 1960s, armies of seamstresses toiled in ateliers to reproduce the latest couture of Paris and Rome. But Antwerp came of age as a fashion centre when 6 young designers from the city’s Fashion Academy swept the board at London’s Design Week in 1988. Now, beside the wide square of the Graan Markt, the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter are packed with enough haute couture and boutique outlets to sate the most voracious fashionista. In a former garage showroom bearded be-ringed Walter Van Beirendonck, who looks more like a leader of a motorcycle gang than founder member of the Antwerp 6, directs from a doughnut shaped counter suspended from the ceiling by wires. His bright simple designs are hidden behind screens, the principle being he argues, that if you really want something you have to search for it. At Louis, in Lombardenstraat 2, owner Geert Bruloot was an early supporter of the Antwerp 6 and his shop fizzes with the latest vivid offerings of new graduates from the Fashion academy. Close by, Tina Turner and Tom Cruise have both made a pilgrimage to the impressive 1880s fashion palace of Dries Van Noten in Nationalestraat. Another member of the Antwerp 6, his collections combine classic chic in vibrantly modern electric tweeds and woven silk.
You can of course go retro in Steenhouwersvest where the mannequins of Episode Belgium unashamedly display 40s and 50s gear, or indulge in nostalgia at Francis where Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent and Dries Van Noten dresses, coats and trousers of the 80s and 90s await a new life. Or catch a glimpse of an earlier important fashion accessory in the unchanged décor of Huis A. Boon just opposite. Here, three generations of Marie-Rose Sarteel’s family have been catering to the burghers of the city since the 1920s. She will size your hand at a glance and then riffle through elegant rows of boxes to produce the perfectly fitting hand-stitched glove in calf skin, chamois, or suede.
If the senses are wilting after so much stimulation, then head for the Bourla Theatre in the heart of the Latin District. Under the high painted cupola of the newly re-opened art nouveau foyer the elderly matrons of Antwerp known fondly in Flemish as the madammekes sit with their poodles, sipping lait russe, a coffee made entirely with milk. Or if a bit of rough and smooth is more to your taste, push into the dark panelled snug of the Café Oud Arsenaal just off the square of the Graan Markt. The bar, with more than the three hundred beers on tap is a venerable institution in this most democratic of cities. Here, market workers, models and even the mayor of the city himself sit side by side, swapping the latest gossip.
Sleep may not be high on the priority list, but make sure that your hotel is in close harmony with a city so centred on design. A ten minute walk from the centre the Charles Rogier X1 is a luxurious B&B with three themed suites in a 19 th century merchant’s house close to the Royal Art Museum. On the Scottish floor a wide four poster lies in the centre of a warm panelled bedroom scattered with rugs. You can steam away the tension of a day’s hard shopping in a vast raised bath next door under the stare of a quizzical stag mounted on the wall above. A variety of croissants, cheeses, cold cuts and other delicacies are left discretely outside your door for breakfast each morning by owner and TV actor Claude de Burie. Claude can also advise those with sufficient energy reserves on the nightlife venues in the city, which has a reputation as the best party town of the Benelux countries.
Alternatively, follow the footsteps of Isabella Rossellini and stay in one of the ten lofty rooms of the Hotel De Witte Lelie. Set in a terrace of 17th Century houses around a leafy quiet courtyard in the medieval centre, suites are furnished in Baltic greys and soft whites, the perfect backdrop for your fashion shopping of the day. Not far away, ‘t Sandt has 17 elegant rooms in a converted 19th century soap factory. In the pitched roof of the penthouse suite is a vast wooden pulley used by stevedores to haul barrels of sweet smelling oils and unguents from the dark heart of Africa. Breakfast is served in summer to the sound of the carillon from the nearby cathedral. Its gothic spire makes a vital landmark in the heart of the old city where a labyrinth of alleyways snake away from the triangular cobbled 15th century Grote Markt. Make sure you spend at least few minutes inside the towering nave of the cathedral admiring the wonderful Descent from the Cross by Rubens, Antwerp’s most famous son, which depicts a suitably rubicund Christ being passed down to his grieving Mother . Only a short walk away more Rubens and Van Dycks are on display at the classically Flemish 17 th century house of wealthy art collector and mayor Nicolas Rockox. A particularly vivid painting by Snijder depicts a wealthy burgher’s wife bargaining for fish so fresh they seem to quiver on the canvas.
But seafood has always been important in this port city. At Preud Homme, close to the River Scheldt, the speciality is a half metre high plateau of shellfish, lobster and oysters topped by a dish of tiny clams brought to your table by two waiters. Or you can opt for a simple grilled turbot served with a puree of potato, broccoli and rodekool ( red cabbage). Just up river the minimalist De Hippodrom has the best lamb filet in the city, which you could follow with a rich crème caramel topped in dark glazed chocolate. This should ensure sufficient critical fuel to appreciate the wonderful paintings of Cezanne’s disciple Rik Wouters in the Royal Museum of Fine Art on the other side of the square. Blend gastronomy and architecture at the belle époque quarter of Zurenbourg just below the Central Station where Antwerp’s 19th century nouveau riche flaunted their wealth by commissioning the most extravagant turreted neo-classical, art nouveau, gothic and baroque mansions. Here, beneath a classical Greek façade topped by a gilded statue summoning the poetic muse, the Euterpia restaurant has the cosy ambience of a late 19 th Parisian café. Owner Marc Tombeur will show you to your table, and suggest the day’s speciality from an extensive menu combining the best of Belgian traditional and nouvelle cuisine. He might also give a discrete hint on the best place to buy your most lasting keepsake of the city for many of Euterpia’s regular clients are gem traders from the nearby diamond district. Good advice is definitely worth more than it’s weight in gold in this square kilometre of streets lined with shops and dealing rooms where more than 23 billion USD worth of precious stones change hands every year. But there is no hint of the cut throat world of diamond dealing in the reverential hush of Katz Jewellers in Appelmanstraat where three generations of Messrs Katz preside over the world’s biggest single stock of diamonds. Mr Katz junior, just back from an extensive study of gem cutting in Italy, will guide you to the jewel of your chice, and then make suitably informed suggestions on its mounting. Should you prefer a more avant gard creation in precious metal, go to Wim Meeussen in Wijngaardstraat, where gold and silver are crafted into fluid textured bangles, rings and necklaces.
For a slightly less enduring souvenir, head for Burie in the De Wilde Zee quarter just south of the cathedral where more multi faceted diamonds lie in a tempting window display. Surrounded by sculpted lobsters and cats, the entirety formed from the best Belgian chocolate. The shop, which numbers the Sheikh of Dubai amongst its clients is always busy, for the sweet toothed citizens of Antwerp will walk miles to make sure they get the best value for money.
This might also explain the crowds every Sunday morning at the antique markets on the long winding Kloosterstraat by the river. In a city sitting astride one of Europe’s oldest trading crossroads you might find a ship’s sextant last used on a square rigger bound for Africa or delicate Chinese porcelain from a Prussian nobleman’s family castle on the Baltic.
Now perhaps is the time to wander back towards the Graan Markt. Surrounded by people busy shopping for their Sunday lunch, dally over simple scoop of grey North Sea shrimps and a glass of white wine at Romain Costerman’s fish stall. The shrimps, he says, sharpen the memory and what better moment then to run through your mental checklist just to make sure no stone, precious or otherwise, has been left unturned.