Notes on...

Antwerp: the compact, charming capital of a country that doesn’t quite exist yet

It combines Dutch can-do and Catholic joie de vivre – just don’t try to speak French…

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

Napoleon didn’t think much of Antwerp. ‘Scarcely a European city at all,’ he scoffed. If only he could see it today. Ten years ago, Antwerp felt provincial. Now it feels like the capital of an (almost) independent state. ‘Jardin Zoologique’ it says outside the zoo, but that’s the only French signage you’ll see in this resolutely Flemish city. When they built the zoo, in 1843, Belgium was only 13 years old, and French was the official language throughout this mongrel nation. Now it only survives on a few old war memorials. ‘You’re in Flanders now,’ locals tell you, if you try to speak to them in French.

Each time I come here, Antwerp seems more estranged from Belgium. It’s barely 30 miles from Brussels, but alighting at Antwerp’s palatial railway station you can tell you’ve crossed a virtual border, between Gallic and Teutonic Europe. The Flemings have founded a country within a country, and Antwerp is its hub. French-speaking Wallonia used to be the richest part of Belgium. Belgium’s Flemings were the poor relations. Now it’s the other way around.

Most sightseers make tracks for Antwerp’s historic centre — the Gothic cathedral, the baroque town hall. I like to head in the opposite direction, into the Jewish quarter. Here, in the sleepy sidestreets off Pelikaanstraat, is the centre of the world’s diamond trade. Bearded men in black hats shuffle past, minding their own business. Between the drab shopfronts of the diamond dealers are kosher butchers and bakeries. I stop off at Hoffy’s, a Yiddish deli run by the Hoffman brothers, big smiling men in skullcaps. The food is hearty, the service perfunctory. I’m the only Gentile here.

Beyond the railway bridge is Zurenborg, Antwerp’s Art Nouveau district. Here everything seems surreal. The ornate buildings are like stage sets. The tram station is like a scene from a dreamlike painting by Magritte.

The city centre is swarming with Dutch and German tourists, and you can see why they feel at home here. The food is a lot better, and the beer just as good. The biggest draw is the Rubenshuis, the flamboyant palazzo Rubens built with the proceeds from his flamboyant paintings. Inside you see another side of the artist — intimate portraits of his own family, painted for his own pleasure, a world away from his royal and religious epics.

There’s more Rubens in St Jakobskerk, the grandiose church where he was buried, but my favourite site is St Pauluskerk, where he used to go to pray. Here his ‘Flagellation of Christ’ rubs shoulders (so to speak) with masterpieces by Jordaens and Van Dyck. This church used to be on the edge of the red-light district, but now that has shrunk to a few shabby streets. Even the docks have had a spring clean. Antwerp remains one of Europe’s biggest ports, but nowadays it’s more famous for fashion designers than drunken sailors. Dries Van Noten has his flagship store here. No wonder so many Netherlanders love Antwerp. This compact metropolis combines Dutch can-do and Catholic joie de vivre.

Will Antwerp become the capital of an independent Flanders? I hope not — the last thing this no-nonsense city needs is more politicians and bureaucrats. But I fear the tide of history may be flowing the other way.

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  • Dogsnob

    Sounds so Belgian.
    Get to see it soon. By 2020 it will be 55% ‘migrant population’ and that doesn’t mean a healthy mix of all sorts, it means the country, like all of Europe, is being submerged under the new Imperialism that would rather not be talked about until nearer completion.
    It’s all so jolly.

    • justejudexultionis

      Well said. The shameful suicide of western culture continues under the aegis of ‘liberal’ multiculturalism.

      • Verbatim

        Yes, cultural suicide. And the Europeans have brought it upon themselves by failing to procreate the next generation and letting politicians in the EU ride rough-shod over them. Now the horse has bolted. Australians won’t have a bar of that happening here.

        Drilling down, we can see that the contraceptive Pill was the beginning of all these troubles. Who would have foreseen the shape this would take? (Me).

        Populate or perish. BTW, did you know that Sweden is about to take another 300,000 “immigrants”, having taken 200,000 last year? That in a nation of 9.5 million people must be a staggering disaster around the corner. 5% increase in population, literally overnight, from foreign aliens. I’m going to be interested in how women will be treated – and that in a culture of sexual freedom. Interesting days ahead. Oh, but who’d have thought…..? (Me).

  • Planet Vague

    Is Antwerp still the diamond capital of the world or has that since moved?

    • Ladolcevipera

      We’re alive and kicking!

  • Fraser Bailey

    Yes, an interesting and enjoyable city in which I spent some time a couple of years ago. The Jewish quarter is indeed fascinating. Some good shops including one called ‘Moose In The City’, dedicated to Scandinavian products.

  • Verbatim

    I was in Belgian in 2011. Brussels is a no-go zone of immigrants and we didn’t recognize the place. Hideous!! Filthy streets, people sleeping on footpaths, loud, foreign and inhospitable. A local told me everybody is moving out of Brussels for Antwerp, Ghent and Bruge. Antwerp is a lovely place, thoroughly beautiful and not at all a theme park as are Strasbourg, Venice and some other European ‘oldie-worldies’. Antwerp has real people and isn’t just a tourist clip-joint selling souvenirs. The Rubens house is impressive and with an excellent curator who really is interesting. A great place to visit but the tourists are in their thousands in summer – I’d leave it to between-seasons next time. You literally struggle to walk the streets in summer.