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The delights of Antwerp

Punita Malhotra

Contributor

Antwerp, just two-hours from Brussels, makes a fascinating day trip for lovers of architecture and medieval history. Europe’s second-largest port has a long and glorious legacy linked to world trade and Napoleon’s empire. The Old Town is an art gallery of medieval gothic architecture, with some of the prettiest gabled townhouses in all of the country. Its beautiful medieval town boasts of one of the most impressive cathedrals in the continent. Antwerp is famous as the hometown of the famous painter, Peter-Paul Rubens. The city also houses the world’s biggest diamond polishing industry.

Het Steen

Antwerp’s biggest draw is a lovingly preserved Old Town area, which is its heart as well as the historic centre. Past and present meet halfway here and the best way to soak in the glory of its impressive past is by taking a self-guided walking tour. The recommended starting point is at the old waterfront, which is marked by the stoic medieval castle. Het Steen (‘stone fortress’) has been guarding the town at this prime position from the Schelde riverbanks since the Viking times. The forbidding walls, towers and turrets of Antwerp’s oldest building date back to the early Middle Ages, and now serve as the facade of the Museum of Archeology and Maritime History. Outside the structure is a giant statue of Lange Wapper. The local legend is that Wapper had the power to grow to giant proportions to scare and tease people.

Groenplaats

Most visitors tend to gravitate towards Groenplaats (Green Square), and for good reason too. It makes sense to follow the throngs into this classic European square, which is the epitome of timelessness with its Flemish gabled houses and baroque architecture. Souvenir shops, restaurants, eateries and cafés are generously littered around, adding liveliness to the charming atmosphere. Who could believe that this spot was once the city's largest cemetery? Antwerp’s best-known son and painter Peter-Paul Rubens is celebrated through a striking statue. The highlight of the square is the fabulous St Carolus Borromeus Church. This towering facade of the iconic gothic masterpiece is enough to give you a crick in the neck. Looking closely, you can admire fine lacy stonework and also see the curious mix of renaissance, rococo and baroque elements that were added during the 14th to 16th-centuries. Especially noteworthy is the filigree work on the tall spire, which also sports a lovely clock-face. The interior is decorated with some of Rubens choicest art pieces, lending the church a unique museum-quality.

Grote Markt

The theme of 16th-century architecture continues at the adjoining medieval square of Grote Markt. There is enough to ogle at here, starting with the Flemish guild houses topped with gold statues to the Renaissance-style Stadhuis (Town Hall), an elegant 76-meters long facade, adorned with multiple coats of arms and flags of almost every country. 45 doors on the ground floor, which originally led into tiny shops, still make a pleasing symmetrical picture. The 19th-century statue of Brabo, cousin of Julius Caesar, standing in the middle of the square has special importance. It is said that Brabo, who chopped and threw away the hand of a greedy giant, gave Antwerp its name (’Ant’ means 'hand'; 'werpen' means 'to throw away’). Gems lie scattered along the narrow streets that wind out in every direction. Looking up while strolling along, you can locate statues of Marian, Antwerp’s patron saint, decorating the building corners. More than 100 Madonna figurines dating from the 18th and 19th centuries can be found. Let the countdown begin.

Kornmarkt

This long curving street running parallel to the Groenplaats is a delight for diners. The pavement is lined end-to-end with food options catering to different tastes and budgets. Surprisingly, there is a wide variety of cuisines on offer, from Argentinian steak houses to Greek taverns, Italian pizzerias, Turkish shawarma joints and even Indian restaurants. One can be spoilt for choice here, but if time is a constraint, choices need to be made quickly, because table waiting can be tiresome if you’re hungry. The best artistic feature on Kornmarkt is a remarkable statue of Madonna and Child, painted on a midnight blue backdrop. It can be spotted quite easily at the corner of a building. Before leaving, it is a good idea to stock up on Antwerpse Handjes, the local hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates. A great souvenir to take home.

Diamond district

Leading jewellers from all over the world source diamonds from Antwerp’s Diamond District. What's more, 84% of the world's rough diamonds have been traded here since the 18th-century. 1,500 diamond offices on Hoveniersstraat, represents a massive 8000 diamond traders from 160 nationalities, including Hassidic Jews, Gujarati Indians, Russians, Lebanese and Chinese. An estimated £85 million of these precious stones exchange hands here every day. One can take a tour of Diamond Land, the biggest diamond showroom, which has displays of over 1500 dazzling pieces of jewellery. Timeless like Antwerp itself.

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