Sparkling like a diamond, forever…
Two hours by bus from Brussels will land you in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port. Fascinating records of legacy. 12th-century centre for tapestry wool import-export. Napoleon’s favoured base for easy access to attack England. Commercial capital of the world with a humungous population of 100,000. And home to the world’s first stock market. Beat those!
The glorious past of the town lives on in the carefully preserved historic centre. So, indulge in a self-guided walking tour and taste the timeliness for yourself. Start at the old waterfront with the Het Steen (‘stone fortress’) that stands guard on the banks of the Schelde river. High walls, turrets, towers, and pennants showcase its identity as a classic medieval castle. Antwerp’s oldest building built in the early Middle Ages after the Viking incursions, now houses the museum of archeology and maritime history. Touch the giant statue of Lange Wapper, who according to local folklore, could grow to the size of an enormous giant, spying at children through bedroom windows and teasing people. Fables!
Stroll through the pretty winding streets lined with Flemish gabled houses towards the beautiful Groenplaats (Green Square), bordered with baroque architecture, souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs, sidewalk cafés. Believe it or not, this used to be the city’s largest cemetery! Now it has a dramatically opposite character…it celebrates life. Pause by gorgeous statue of the national painter Peter-Paul Rubens. Reflect on the genius known for his voluptuous rosy-skinned nudes, epic landscapes, mythological fantasies, intimate depiction of romance, as well as spectacular altar pieces.
On one side of the square, the incredible façade of St Carolus Borromeus Church, unfazed by the lack of space, rises to the heavens unrestricted. A gothic masterpiece of lace work in stone built between 1352 and 1521, with subtle elements of renaissance, rococo and baroque added on later. Don’t miss the delicate filigree work on the tall spire adorned by an intricate golden clock-face…ethereal and effortless beauty. Some of Rubens best work adorns the hallowed walls. Gawp all you can.
More stunning 16th-century architecture awaits at Grote Markt, the medieval square, barely five minutes away. The centrepiece is the Stadhuis (Town Hall), a regal Renaissance structure with a charming touch of Flemish Gothic. Symmetrical and elegantly proportioned, its 76-meters long facade is decorated with various coats of arms. Flags of almost every country flap colourfully in the breeze. The row of 45 doors on the ground floor that originally housed little shops are interrupted by a 19th-century frescoed portal. Had the rentals paid partly for the upkeep? In the middle of the square is a 1887 statue of Brabo, cousin of Julius Caesar, a city hero who is said to have chopped off and thrown away the hand of the greedy giant who tolled every tiny boat that sailed up the Scheldt. That’s also how Antwerp got its name…’Ant’ means ‘hand’; ‘werpen’ means ‘to throw away’. Not a pretty sight to imagine, but the name appeals.
Edging this square too, are guild houses, topped with gold statues, richly decorated with gold paint, each facade different in height and rhythm…their many windows designed to let in the maximum amount of light. Move in and out of the streets, revelling in the atmosphere. At one merchant’s house, a wooden prow jutting out above the bustling street indicates the pride in the town’s shipping heritage. Statues of Marian, Antwerp’s patron saint, decorate the corners of buildings…over 100 Madonnas all across town dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Later, potter about the quaint stores stocking Antwerpse Handjes, yummy hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates. Then wander into Kornmarkt, a long curving street, packed with hungry tourists enjoying leisurely lunch at pavements spilling over with tables…glitzy restaurants and cozy bistros serving global cuisine. Argentinian steak houses, Turkish shawarma joints, Greek speciality taverns, Italian pizzerias, pick your poison. Between mouthfuls of the takeaway shawarma pita, glance up to notice a beautiful statue of Madonna and Child on the corner of a building. On a midnight blue painted backdrop, under a red canopied shelter speckled with gold hanging beads, she drips with grace…new, but no less charming.
One last important stop…the Diamond District, where 84% of the world’s rough diamonds have been exchanging hands since the 18th century. The area is quite the antithesis of its name. A drab street of heavily surveilled, unglamorous offices, filled with jewellers and diamond dealers, making a livelihood from rare stones of brilliance and beauty. Leading jewellers from all over the world such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels buy their diamonds in Antwerp. Visitors need to hand over their passports and have the right index finger scanned before receiving a swipe card. The details are then checked on criminal record databases. No surprise…considering the $100 million diamond heist of 2003, when notorious team of criminals broke 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor and a lock with 100 million possible combinations! Feels like you’re starring in a ‘heist-movie’.
In 1,500 diamond offices here on Hoveniersstraat, 8000 people, representing 160 nationalities, including Hassidic Jews, Gujarati Indians, Russians, Lebanese and Chinese, handle diamonds worth £85 million every day! Interestingly, what was once an exclusively Jewish fiefdom, is an empire controlled by 400 Gujarati families. In fact, almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry is made up of Mehtas and Shahs. Imagine them with aromatic, steaming bowls of rajma and kadhi from behind their lunch rooms. The Indian connection goes a step further…over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds are cut and polished in Surat, Gujarat. After all, since ancient times, much before the South Africa diamond rush, all the world’s diamonds used to be sourced from India!
Take a closer look at the industry with a tour of Diamond Land, the biggest diamond showroom with guarded displays of over 1500 dazzling pieces of jewellery. Ogle at the flawless facets of the hardest natural substance on earth, crystallised 3.3 billion years ago. The name ‘diamond’ (from Greek word ‘Adamas’ or ‘indestructible’) seems so right for the priceless stone glowing across time and space…beyond fashion and fad. A beauty that never fades, like that of Antwerp, and many of the medieval towns all across the charming continent of Europe. Timeless. Forever.
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