I've been to Belgium for a few days and spent a day and a bit in Antwerp. There are many reasons to visit Antwerp. There's beer, and chocolate, and diamonds, and lots to see if you're a fan of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens or if you're an aficionado of busy river ports. But none of these feature in my top 5 in Antwerp.
1 Antwerpen Centraal Station.
Of course I'm not suggesting you stay too long at Central Station, but I do recommend a few awe-struck minutes as you pass through.
The main station edifice (and it really is an edifice) was built in 1905 in what my guide book describes as no recognisable single style of architecture. It's simply grand, impressive even over-bearing. It's a cathedral to rail transport, built at a time when Antwerp was a major transportation hub for northern Europe. I was very impressed!
2 The Grote Markt
This is Antwerp's grand central square, surrounded by show-off late sixteenth century buildings. There's a row of guildhouses, shiny with gilt, each constructed to demonstrate the power and influence of the guilds of the time:
Nowadays the square has many cafes and restaurants and you can sit with a glass of wine (as I did in my warm coat, knitted hat and scarf) and contemplate the grandeur of the buildings, in particular the grand Stadhuis - Town Hall.
It's particularly interesting to travel the relatively short distance from Amsterdam to Antwerp - two such influential cities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries - and to note the differences in the architecture of the time: from Calvinist Amsterdam's neat, discreet geometric structures to the florid, gilded, exhibitionist buildings of Catholic Antwerp.
3 MOMU - Antwerp's Fashion Museum
This is a new museum, probably inspired by Antwerp's recent reputation as a centre of fashion innovation. It's located in a purpose-built structure in a street of fashionable shops - just across the street from designer Dries Van Noten whose window display was so fashionably deconstructed that at first glance I thought they were cleaning out their display spaces. The Museum is primarily a space for visiting exhibitions and I was fortunate enough to see a very well curated exhibition of silks and printed fabrics from the archive of Swiss fabric designer Abraham who designed and supplied textiles for haute couture French designers from the 1950s to 1990s. There was not only a display of the luxurious fabrics, arranged in themes such as roses, animal prints, tartans and checks, but also of clothes from Parisian couturiers such as Christian Dior, Yves St Laurent, Givenchy and Balenciaga.
The photos below are of textiles featuring rose designs and of Christian Dior dresses from the mid 1950s made from the rich Abraham fabrics.
This is a street in the Zurenborg area of Antwerp that was developed around the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. The street is a a most exuberant display of grand houses in Art Nouveau and other romantic and revivalist architectural styles of the period. There are towers and onion-shaped domes and wrought iron and coloured brickwork and every other elaborate architectural decoration you could imagine. Over time the prestige of the area declined and in the 1960s there were plans to pull down the houses for more practical, economical housing. But artists and other activists demonstrated and the street was, thankfully, preserved. As I walked along the street I noticed a number of architects', accountants' and medical specialists' offices, though some of the grand buildings still seem to be simply residential.
I couldn't manage to capture the grandeur of the full street in a photo, so here instead are a selection of doorways. I think they give an idea both of the amazing decoration of the houses as well as the variety of styles:
5 The shopping
Antwerp is a clothes shopper's paradise. In a relatively small area you can find every brand of fashionable clothes you might want. There are all the usual high-end luxury shops found anywhere in the world, but there are also edgier, trendy local designers, high-street fashion, and all the latest fads. But I didn't actually do any clothes shopping. Instead, I visited Julija's yarn and fabric shop. Such tempting shopping for knitters, sewers and quilters.
[Forgive me for cutting off the top of the shop's name - I took this photo very quickly to avoid being flattened by a tram]
The shop is much larger than it seems from this photo as it turns at a right angle and has another shop front on a side street. Julija's has a small selection of yarn brands, but when the selection is Malabrigo, Spud and Chloe, Blue Skies Alpaca and French yarn La Droguerie - all in wide colour ranges - what more do you want?
And the fabric range includes Liberty, Heather Ross, Michael Miller, Nani Iro and other brands I don't know. Lucky I don't sew!
So that's my list. I imagine it's a list that's suitable for someone who likes knitting and is interested in architecture and fashion - perhaps not a very wide audience. I had a very enjoyable, though exhausting, day and a bit in Antwerp.