The last time I was in Belgium I was 18. Not that long ago… Well, yes. Many things have changed, but also much has not. The chocolate is still exquisite…as are the waffles.
Along with the food, my main mission on a recent visit to this western European country of 11 million was to see famous masterpieces, including those done by the Van Eyck brothers, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The Flemish Masters Project 2018-2020 is a program of exhibits, virtual experiences, restorations, festivals and whimsical jaunts that art lovers can partake in throughout the country.
After touching down in Brussels, I hopped a train (the station is in the airport) to Antwerp. The trains are fast, frequent and well priced. I zipped to Antwerp in about half an hour for around 10E. Antwerp Central train station was completed in 1905 and was named the most beautiful railway station in the world by Mashable magazine in 2014. With soaring stone pillars, an imposing dome and decorative floor patterns, I could see why. Although damaged by bombs in the second world war, the station was restored In the 1980s and by 2007 an expansion for high-speed trains was complete.
My hotel, Radisson Blue Astrid was conveniently located across from the train station. Dropping off my bags, I headed out to see the city with a local guide, Toon Livens (Toon is short for Antoon). The diamond district was fascinating, teaming with gemological centres, banks and traders. The security was serious. Toon told me the two groups of people involved in the diamond business are orthodox Jews and Jains (from India). Jewish diamond specialists were once predominant, but the Jains started arriving in Belgium in the 1960s. They started with low quality rough stones that they would send back home for cutting and polishing. It costs 1/10 the amount to cut and polish in India versus Europe. Now three quarters of Belgium’s diamond trade is controlled by Indians and 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds are processed in India. As you can see below, security is tight in the diamond district.
My first taste of Flemish art was in the home and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the home in 1610 and lived there with his family, and painted with colleagues such as Anthony van Dyck in the studio. Although the home’s walls were hung with many outstanding works, I particularly enjoyed seeing Rubens’ self-portrait.
Nearby was The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic Cathedral in Belgium that took 169 years to build. Toon pointed out four masterpieces by Rubens including Raising of the Cross, and Descent from the Cross. “These two works were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France, but they were returned in the 19th century,” he explained. Rubens’ magnificent Assumption of the Virgin Mary graced the altar at the front of the cathedral and to one side was his Resurrection of Christ.
In the fall, the Rubens Experience Center will open and visitors will be taken on a virtual tour of the artist’s world. That’s also when the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens after extensive renovations and you’ll be able to see one of the finest Rubens collections in Belgium.
Dinner that night was at Grand Café Horta, an art Nouveau structure lodged within a glass enclosure near the gorgeous covered shopping mall that was once a posh entertainment venue called Stadsfeestzaal.
One of the best ways to explore involves buying a City Card, which are available in many Belgian metropolises. My Antwerp City Card, 35 Euros for 48 hours, provided free entrance to museums, churches and discounts on attractions and tours, plus free access to public transportation. For free, I took in DIVA, a virtual experience that mixed storytelling with exhibits of Antwerp diamonds, and the Red Star Line Museum which chronicled how between 1873 and 1934 two million people (most looking for a better life) were transported from Antwerp to North America on Red Star line ships, mostly to New York, but some to Canada.
My last visit in the city was to Chocolate Nation, conveniently located next door to my hotel. The city card allowed a 10 per cent discount on admission. I was given a headset and remote control that I could activate throughout the exhibit to receive explanations about the ships that come to Antwerp carrying tons of cacao beans, local beanologists who pick only the finest, the roasting process, and how 1 in 10 pieces of chocolate found around the world are from Belgium. A highlight was the chocolate bonbon-making demonstration. At the end, a plate of finished chocolates was passed around and I popped one into my mouth. Heaven. Smooth, creamy, rich. Not at all like the waxy industrial chocolate so prevalent in North America.
Topping off my explorations was dinner at RAS overlooking the Scheldt River. As the sun was setting, I tucked into a delicious seafood salad with huge shrimp, seared scallops and slices of sole. A rich ending to an adventure in the city of diamonds, chocolate and culture.