Antwerp: Belgium's city of surprises

Grote Market with traditional facades in the old

Grote Market with traditional facades in the old town of Antwerp, Belgium. (Credit: iStockphoto.com)

I am sitting at a small table with a big beer in a restaurant with a mystery name: Het Elfde Gebod. After five days here in Antwerp in the north of Belgium, where they speak relentless Dutch, I'm used to such mysteries.

I'm also getting used to surprises. Antwerp's full of them. Saints -- well, religious figures at least -- gaze down upon me from every corner of this warm and noisy cafe. I am a little squeamish, at first, about drinking alcohol in their presence. I remind myself that this is, after all, Belgium, famous for its beer-making monks.

Besides, I ordered the St. Bernardus.

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The beer culture is one more thing I've become familiar with during my time here. It's impossible not to, when in some places the beer menu is as thick as the Antwerp phone book -- and each is served in a differently shaped glass to optimize its flavor.

Later, I learned that Het Elfde Gebod means The 11th Commandment in Dutch. The restaurant owners say that commandment is: "You shall enjoy," a departure from the "shalt not" litany, and definitely an easy commandment to follow.

Not just at this restaurant, either. But all over Antwerp.

 

Crossroads of commerce and culture

Belgium's second-largest city (after Brussels), Antwerp -- with more than a half-million people -- was a real revelation. Until earlier this year, when I learned about the new Red Star Line Museum that opened here in September, I was only familiar with the name of the city.

The museum, housed in the original buildings of the steamship company that took more than 2 million emigrants to the United States, would be telling the other side -- the beginning, really -- of the Ellis Island story. Antwerp, it turns out, was a crossroads of commerce and culture in Europe -- had been for centuries. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Where to start? The beer? The architecture? The cutting-edge arts and fashion scene? The diamond trade? The gorgeous train station? Yes, let's start there. Most visitors do. Antwerp does have its own airport, but international flights are much more plentiful into Brussels. From there, it's 30 or so minutes by train to Antwerp's Central Station.

A central train station is the perfect place to establish a killer first impression. And Antwerp's, opened in 1905, will most certainly slay you. It has not one but two gorgeous neo-baroque facades, an enormous iron-and-glass dome over the train platforms, sweeping staircases and marble everywhere -- along with gilded metalwork and sculptures.

Emerging from the station, you're thrust into one of Antwerp's busiest squares. There were women in hijab, women in saris; Hasidic Jews in black wool coats; stereotypically Scandinavian types, blond hair blue eyes; people speaking Russian; and course the folks speaking impenetrable Dutch. With 170 nationalities here, Antwerp is the second-most multicultural city in the world, after Amsterdam.

 

Fashion, diamonds, design

I had a whole list of places I just had to see: the fashion district with its many cutting-edge designers; the diamond district; the photography museum; MAS, a new design museum; the bridge across the Scheldt River that actually never does span the whole river. Except Antwerp kept getting in the way. Antwerp, with its cobblestone streets. Its outdoor cafes. Its crazy beautiful architecture. Its views over the river. Its friendly people ("Hey, come sit with us, where are you from?").

I did manage to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus, home to the world's oldest (400 years) printing presses as well as the house (er, mansion) of the owners -- the Plantin and Moretus families, complete with 16th and 17th century decorative arts. The two families were influential in the development of Antwerp, and amassed their own impressive collection of art, some of which is on display -- along with rare manuscripts and art prints. The museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was the last person out of the museum that day; 4 p.m. and I still had an hour for visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady and its wealth of artwork. I hurried toward the main square, mustering all my willpower to pass by the alfresco cafe tables arranged three deep outside the centuries-old guild buildings-turned-restaurants. I stopped only momentarily to watch skateboarders catch air over an obstacle of serious tree trunks.

 

Portable organ concert

But I couldn't just rush by one final sight: A man in a tuxedo playing a massive yet portable organ outside the cathedral. I ground to a halt and waited while he flipped back his coattails, settled on his stool, shook feet out of loafers, and began to play. I sat down on the ground, looked at his socks and let my eyes travel up toward the cathedral's intricately carved Gothic arches, up past gargoyles and ancient carved stone faces to the lacy spire pointing into the white clouds daubed on blue sky. A Magritte moment.

I did manage to get to the cathedral and see all the art, including several of Peter Paul Rubens' most famous works.

All this, and then, about to pass out from hunger, stumbling upon the sainted Het Elfde Gebod restaurant. You know the rest.

Antwerp, who knew?

 

If you go

Antwerp, Belgium, has its own airport, but the only international flights that land there come from Britain. It's more convenient to fly into the Brussels airport, only 28 miles away.

Brussels Airlines has nonstop service from Kennedy Airport and code-shares with United, among others, to offer nonstop service from Newark (KLM, Delta, Air France and Lufthansa also offer nonstop from our area). In Brussels, grab the Airport Express train (about $17) to Antwerp's Central Station.

 

LODGING

Antwerp Tourism and Conventions' website has a search and booking engine for accommodations in categories including package deals, hotel, B&Bs, camping, youth and budget accommodation, even vacation rentals; bit.ly/1aRiUyY

 

DINING

Het Elfde Gebod, aka Het Kathedraalcafe, Torfbrug 10. Flemish cuisine with a contemporary twist.

 

ATTRACTIONS

*Plantin-Moretus Museum, Vrijdagmarkt 22-23; museumplantinmoretus.be

*Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3. redstarline.be/en

*MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), Hanzestedenplaats 1, mas.be

*Cathedral of Our Lady, Groenplaats 21; dekathedraal.be

Antwerp Diamond Bus is a hop-on, hop-off trolley that makes stops at the major plazas and sites around town. An all-day ticket is 13 euros adults, discounts for seniors and children younger than 12; antwerp-city-tours.com

 

MORE INFO

Along with the Antwerp Tourism Web site, check out visitflanders.us

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