Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
There is a general consensus amongst English-speaking writers, who consider themselves amusing, that Belgium is boring. Antwerp is, on its own, proof that this cliché is as untrue as it is lazy.
Antwerpen to its Flemish inhabitants, or Anvers in its other official language, French (which you will hear spoken on its streets much less often than English), this modestly-sized city is one of Europe's most charming. Although it has an industrial side - it's one of Europe's largest ports, despite being over 50 miles from the sea - as a visitor you are more likely to stick to the quaint old town around the Cathedral and the Grote Markt (Big Market). This latter, though not quite as "Grote" as the one in Brussels, is more decorative and lighter.
The Cathedral of Our Lady continues the light and airy motif, and is a welcome relief from some of the gloomy Gothic cathedrals dedicated to Christ's junior parent - Cologne's huge edifice and Notre Dame in Paris may be more famous, but they don't lift the soul in quite the same way (nor do they have a triptych by Rubens, to whom we shall return). One of the strange things about the Cathedral is that the surrounding streets are actually built onto it, so you can enjoy a beer or two virtually under God's roof. Another building worth taking in is the Central Station - currently being refurbished. It is a glorious tribute to the riches which the city enjoyed in the late 19th century, and a great way to enter the city (about three-and-a-half hours from London, Eurostar via Brussels, and barely two hours from Paris).
Another myth, which Antwerp makes its contribution to dispelling, is that "there are no famous Belgians" - this one city alone produced three of the great Flemish masters Breugel, Van Dyck, and, most famously, Rubens. The house where Rubens lived is now a museum, conveniently located just off the main shopping street but often - bafflingly - closed.
The other unique thing about Antwerp is the diamond trade. More than half of all the world's cut diamonds pass through the city, and its market is the most active in the world. If you are from England and considering buying an engagement ring, you can easily save the cost of your trip and a night in a romantic hotel (try the Hotel Firean), just on the stone. Prices in the jewellers' shops around the station are on average 30-50% lower than in UK high streets; and you will get a diamond with a certificate telling you its exact specification and guaranteeing its quality. Bring cash, though, for the best deals - and be aware that the predominance of Jewish traders means that Saturday is not the best day to visit.
If your budget is smaller, the second best way to a lady's heart is also in plentiful and high-quality supply: the chocolatiers of the city are uniformly excellent - my favourite is a tiny shop in the small alleyway that leads from Grote Markt towards the Cathedral.
It's not all good news. The city has traffic problems completely out of proportion to its size, largely due to massive long-term road closures while the tram system is extended, but not helped by the fact that the Belgians are considered to be Europe's least considerate drivers. As you try to find a way out of the city, you may also pass through some of the poorer districts, where large immigrant communities live in run-down housing; but, while it is depressing, there's not the sense of menace you might experience somewhere like New York or London.
On balance, though, you haven't "done" Europe until you've been to Antwerp; and you may well find you like it more than some of the more obvious tourist destinations. It is young and trendy, predominantly rich, often beautiful, and closer than you think to almost anywhere. Don't let the xenophobes put you off.