City Break Antwerp
Antwerp may not leap instantly to mind as a short break destination - but there are few more rewarding choices. Go for the lovely old city centre and the paintings of its favourite son, Peter Paul Rubens. Go for the excellent museums, the huge choice of restaurants and pubs and – of course – the frites and the beer. And it's easy to reach by train.
With the Royal Museum of Fine Arts closed until later this year for renovation, some of the Rubens, works normally on show there have been transferred elsewhere. For example, several may be seen at the former home of his wealthy patron Nicolaas Rockox, with its delightful courtyard, though the bright star of that exquisite collection, to my mind, is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s sensual Eve. You can get a Rubens trail leaflet from the tourist office. Even if after taking in all the relevant sites - including the artist's house - that you’ve seen enough of his works to last a lifetime, do not miss his intimate portraits of Christian Plantin, his wife and members of their family in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Though born in France, Plantin came to Antwerp in the mid 16th century where he established a print shop and commissioned work from Peter Paul. Make plenty of time for this breathtaking museum, which is home to perhaps the world’s oldest surviving printing presses. On one of them, set in original type, is a sonnet by Plantin. It also contains a fascinating collection of rare books from the period, among them early works on the anatomy and the Romans.
Antwerp is more than wall to wall culture, however. Besides its famous chippies there are the inevitable waffle vendors. There are chocolate shops and cafes. And of course there is beer. There are countless atmospheric bars, among them Quinten Matsijs on Moriaanstraat, claimed to be the oldest in town. You may tae a tour of the local De Koninck brewery, established soon after the birth of Belgium in 1830. Its best known brew is synonymous with the bowl shaped glass in which it arrives – a bolleke.
Few cities can have such a density of places to eat. One which stands out from our visit is the Docks Café - on the waterfront, as the name implies. And one dish in particularly lodges in the memory: herb crusted road cod in gleaming fresh flakes, with leek and mashed potato topped with a perfect poached egg.
On a hot and humid evening we took the tram to Zurenborg, a suburb to the south east of the city centre. While the narrow streets of the old centre are thronged with tourists in high summer, few venture this far from the honeypots. I had wanted to see the posh mansions on Cogels Osylei, an avenue named after two people who once owned the land. Elegant art nouveau houses rub shoulders with overblown properties whose design was clearly influenced by French chateaux. We returned to Draakplaats for a beer and an organic burger at a cafe where all the other tables appeared to be occupied by locals.
Even if you can’t fit Zurenborg into your schedule, do not neglect to walk north of the centre, along the Scheldt, to Antwerp’s up and coming dockland area. Take the lift and stairs to the top of the MAS building for a magnificent view of the city, the docks and the broad, shining river, stretching away towards the North Sea. Make you way down through the museum floors (best get an audio guide with English translation as, unless things have changed since I visited, much of the information is only in Flemish).
But make time for a little more history, this time more recent. The Red Star Line museum is one of the most compelling you will find anywhere, with a particular resonance in light of ongoing migrant problems. It is housed in the clearing house used by the former shipping company to process tens of thousands of emigrants between 1873 and 1934, refugees from anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe, poverty and the Nazis, who sailed on its ships in the hope of better lives in North America. Many travelled on hard train seats for several days, with no washing facilities. From Antwerp’s ornately impressive central station they headed for the brick chimney at the line’s riverside facility, a landmark now rebuilt as part of museum complex, where they and their luggage were disinfected. Some, children at the time, have provided their family stories, told through letters, interviews, film and photographs and items they carried with them. It is a rich history of humanity uprooted, beautifully realized – and very moving. I travelled by Eurostar and switchsmoothly to Belgian Railways at Brussels Midi/Zuid (note that Eurostar does not run to Brussels Central). It took maybe 6hrs from home to the hotel lobby but much of that time was spent relaxing, reading, watching the countryside flash past and – as we were travelling in Standard Premier – enjoying continental breakfast at our seats in both directions. You could take a tram from Antwerp's breathtaking central station but a taxi to our hotel, the Rubens-Grote Market - a short step from the cathedral - will cost around €12.