From Old Masters to Michelin star-standard chips, Adam Jones discovers the delights and surprises of Belgium’s beautiful second city
In the Seventies, a favourite game was ‘Name Ten Famous Belgians’. After Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Georges Remi (AKA Hergé, the creator of Tintin), pop-punk Plastic Bertrand and, of course, legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx, many struggled to complete the list. Now it’s easy to deepen your knowledge of beautiful Belgium thanks to the direct route between London Southend Airport and Antwerp. Barely an hour’s flight time away from Essex, this remarkably relaxed city is an eclectic mix of medieval, Renaissance and baroque buildings combined with bold, modern architecture.
The home of Antwerp’s most famous son, the celebrated 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens, is a must-see. Rubens bought the property in 1610 and then remodelled it. Some rooms have leather-lined walls – vastly expensive in their day – and merely imagining what buying a similar-sized property in Essex today would cost, gives visitors a very good sense of just how successful Rubens was. The art is rather good too (www.rubenshuis.be).
Art lovers will also be charmed by the Rockoxhuis (www.snijdersrockoxhuis.be), a delightful museum and treasure trove of Baroque art including a number of paintings by Rubens, along with works by other Flemish masters. The building itself was the former residence of the mayor of Antwerp at the time, Nicolaas Rockox, a friend and patron of Rubens.
In Groenplaats, a broad square in the old town district, you’ll find a number of cafes, bars and restaurants inviting you to simply pull up a chair and kick back. In De Stoop has a great vibe, an incredible drinks menu and friendly staff on hand to keep you topped up. They don’t skimp on the wine measures, so do what the locals do and ask for some ‘lekkere knabbels’, or tasty nibbles. These are simply cubes of cheese, crisps and salami pieces, ideal for keeping you going until dinner.
The appropriately named The Glorious (theglorious.be) boasts a Michelin star with a small but exciting menu of modern French, European and Belgian dishes. Steve, the sommelier, is a master of the art of matching wine with your food choices. Relax, trust him and prepare to be wowed.
In contrast to The Glorious’ modernism, Huis de Colvenier (www.colvenier.be) is proudly of the old school and charmingly eccentric. Complete with his trademark, stovepipe toque blanche, chef-patron Patrick Van Herk creates a warm, personal welcome by inviting guests into the restaurant via his kitchen. From there, you descend a flight of steps into the most incredible wine cellar – the largest in the city – for a pre-dinner aperitif. There is a strong emphasis on game on the a la carte menu while daily fresh produce, such as foie gras, exclusive types of fish, wild and homemade desserts, are always available. This is a foodie’s paradise.
Find out more
For details, see the Visit Flanders (visitflanders.com) and Visit Antwerp (visitantwerpen.be) websites
LEFT:The gardens at Rubenshuis