Antwerp’s a diamond of a destination

View of the Antwerp dock area from the MAS penthouse
View of the Antwerp dock area from the MAS penthouse
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IN Antwerp in 1812, a certain resident could have changed the course of English history forever.

This warmongering empire-builder considered the northern Belgian port city as his “pistol pointed at England” – the perfect place from which to despatch a fleet of warships down the river Schelde and across the North Sea.

Of course, Napoleon’s long-cherished invasion of our shores never materialised and these days Antwerp is more interested in an influx in the opposite direction to experience its sights and culture.

This Flanders city thankfully attracts fewer diminutive despots these days, but is a charming destination for tourists lured by its fine art, splendid architecture, world-renowned chocolate and beer and, of course, its diamond exchange. And as long as you don’t blow all your spending money on an item which may be a girl’s best friend but can also be the worst enemy of a boy’s wallet, then you can enjoy the unique flavour of all the above in a couple of days in this compact and very walkable city. Four of the world’s 29 diamond exchanges can be found within a precious stone’s throw of each other in central Antwerp, where the vast majority of the world’s rough diamonds are traded and around half of the cut variety. Cutters can be watched at work in the museum, where the 500-year-old story of Antwerp diamond dealing is told.

A particular reason for our trip was to witness the opening of the latest jewel in the city’s crown, the MAS. Its name stands for Museum aan de Stroom, or museum by the river, and after a decade of planning, this nine-storey red-stone tower was opened last month in a revitalised dockside area.

Bringing collections from other museums together under a single roof, MAS is home to close to half a million exhibits, both permanent and temporary. Opening attraction Masterpieces in the MAS is a celebration of five centuries of Antwerp painting. If you find the concept of 470,000 exhibits a little daunting, you don’t need to set your alarm for an early start as they are not all on display at any one time. It’s possible to have a personalised guided tour of MAS without leaving your home.

A visit to www.mas.be will link you up with a guide who follows your instructions as to where the point the webcam. Of course, a visit via computer isn’t quite the same as being there and won’t enable you to experience the work of MAS’ very own in-house composer (Eric Sleichim’s job is to set the right background mood to view the exhibits) and masterchef (Viki Geunes). Most famous of Antwerp’s artistic gifts to the world is Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Okay, so technically he was German but Rubens resided in Antwerp from a young age and this prolific artist/architect painted some 2,500 pictures in the house he designed for himself.

Best-known for his paintings of – how shall we say it? – women of substance, Rubens was also drawn to Christian themes and his richly-detailed religious paintings adorn the Cathedral of our Lady and lend this magnificent building a unique splendour. His house is well worth a visit but is unsurprisingly popular and can be a bit of a squeeze. Talking of which, the bedrooms aren’t to be missed for connoisseurs of ornate but remarkably small beds, which would have been of little use to the ladies Peter Paul painted.

And Antwerp is not only a feast for the eyes - the former royal palace and home of Mr Bonaparte now houses The Chocolate Line, where master chocolatier Dominique Persoone works minor miracles with cocoa beans. Napoleon’s old kitchen is now the hub of Dominique’s operation, where he first perfected smoked salmon and asparagus chocolates before deciding they were a little too conservative. Indeed, you won’t find too many strawberry creams or hazelnut whirls but expect exotic flavours aplenty. I found the vinegar and soy sauce chocolates a taste I’m yet to acquire! The Chocolate Line name was inspired by a visit from The Rolling Stones, who mastered the art of snorting chocolate by literally catapulting it up their nostrils (Dominique will let you have a go if you ask nicely). To wash down all the chocolate, what better than a Beer Train Tour, which proved the cultural highpoint of my trip (sorry Rubens). You’re in good hands with a local beer expert, or Bier sommelier, like Hans Bombeke, who will talk you through the brewing process at Homeebrewery t’Pakhuis before disembarking at the final stop, Biercentral, where a mere 300 Belgian beers are on offre.

I’m pleased to say Hans won’t tolerate any of the spitting-out nonsense associated with certain tasting sessions, and with good reason as it is from the back of the tongue that bitter beers are best appreciated. Happy to take Hans’ word for it, this true professional sampled as many as possible in the name of thorough research for this article.

I might have forced myself to stay in his jovial company longer had not my flight home enforced a dash straight (well, swaying a little) to Central Station (officially Europe’s most beautiful rail terminal) to begin my homeward journey. The others in my party journeyed the whole way from the UK to Belgium in one relaxing Eurostar trip but I flew from Manchester. There are direct flights to Antwerp but Brussels Airlines offers a pleasant hour-long hop over to the Belgian capital, from where a comfortable shuttlebus takes about as long again to reach Antwerp Central Station. My base was the charming and perfectly-located Radisson Blu Astrid hotel, barely a minute’s walk from the station, where residents include the 10,000 exotic fish and reptiles on display in its aquarium, Aquatopia.

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