Planning a little weekend away from Bonn - a 'mini-break' as Ms Briget Jones might call it, literally one hour before leaving on a Friday afternoon, is a tad ambitious. Last minute flights anywhere fun were too expensive. Then we thought, what about going to London on the choo choo - only 5 hours away and there's always a special offer. Unfortunately the Thalys leg from Cologne to Brussels was booked out. That by the way also ruled out Paris. Copenhagen was also a wild card but quite far to go by train and the sleeper wagons were also booked out. So, deciding we might drive somewhere, we looked at the map and wondered what's possible say within in a two hour radius of Bonn. Alsace-Lorraine is nice, but a bit too far. Maastricht... meh, didn't get us excited. But, what about... Antwerp? Fashion, culture, good food, interesting things to see - it seemed to fit the bill - and my word it did!
I knew that Antwerp is Belgium’s capital of diamond dealers, art lovers and fashion designers. And certainly wearing one's best was our first sight in the city. As we arrived in the late afternoon we first passed many stockinged and traditionally black attired orthodox Jews - probably just coming out of the synagogue on the Sabbath. The most interesting were gentlemen wearing large round fur hats.
On we drove into the historic centre. The patchwork of old and modern architecture, the startling visual and cultural contrasts won me over instantly.
Beautiful medieval architecture side by side with baroque, art deco and some surreal construction sins of the 1960s; cobbled lanes filled with touristy cafés and souvenir shops, next to trendy neighbourhoods with funky design and fashion shops, antique furniture shops and great restaurants. What more could you ask for?
We found our Hotel Banks was smack bang in the middle of the St Andries "Fashion District". Oh what good planning Mr Aventures! So, after a leisurely brunch on Saturday we had little choice but to begin our exploration of Antwerp with a little, well.. more like a thorough shopping spree. After all, the big names such as Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dries Van Noten were just around the corner.
I must say though I was more impressed by the design of the Het Modepaleis - the Dries Van Noten’s flagship studio, rather than the fashion. The 19th-century triangular-shaped building is one of Antwerp's many architectural gems. We then meandered down just a few blocks to the east along Lombardenvest, Huidevettersstraat and Schuttershofstraat - well worth a stroll for popping in to see more fashion boutiques.
I can also thoroughly recommend the MoMu - Antwerp's Fashion Museum which is currently hosting a brilliant exhibit on Stephen Jones, one of Britain's leading milliners.
I also liked RA in ’t Zuid (Kloosterstraat 13), which houses collections from up-and-coming and yet-to-be-discovered designers. It's a fascinating space. When you enter the 300-square-meter loft you're not really sure if it's a gallery, store, cafe or an artist's studio. The inventive displays (including a thatched hut) and unusual assortments are curated by owners and founders Romain Brau and Anna Kushnerova - hence RA. It's sort of a playful layout. At the right of the entrance, you could be mistaken for thinking you're stepping into someone's apartment. Your eyes are drawn to a Hoch-Bett decked out with cushions and blankets, but then you realise you're in a cafe. It seems like a popular hangout for a hip and arty crowd, chatting over cappuccinos, working away on their silver Macbooks or leafing through design books and magazines in a designated little reading nook.
No matter where you go in Antwerp you're never too far away from somewhere interesting to stop for a caffeine fix or a well deserved Belgian beer. We were intrigued by Kapitein Zeppos (Vleminckveld 78) - a cafe right behind the beautiful botanical gardens. It's perfect to grab a quick bite and there are loads of tables to sit outside if it is sunny. The staff are friendly and laid back and if you're wondering who is Kapitein Zeppos? Well he's a character from a Belgian children's TV series.
Other nice places to stop are Berlin (Kleine Markt 1) or Hangar 41 (Sint-Michielskaai 41). On the Marnixplaats there are loads of bars, cafés and restaurants too. We tried Lucy Chang for creamy coconut currys and other yummy Asian-fusion dishes. Fiskebar on the other side of the square is also highly recommended for grilled fish and big seafood platters.
Of course, in between the boutiques, cafes and bars you have to squeeze in seeing some of the big ticket items in the medieval heart of the city. On our Saturday afternoon stroll there were few tourists in the Grote Markt which is lined with splendid guild-halls. Newly wed couples posed for photos outside the impressive Italo-Flemish Renaissance-style Stadhuis (town hall) and the towering Gothic cathedral loomed over the whole square.
situated between the popular shopping street Meir and the upmarket Huidevettersstraat. It's sort of an open/covered market bustling with locals and you can literally buy anything from meats, fish, Dutch cheeses, French savouries, fruit, vegetables and fresh cut flowers.
But I recommend two treats - either a dozen freshly shucked oysters and some bubbles at J&M or queue up at Sudelices for a Moroccan style "M'Semen" consisting of fresh fetta cheese, drizzled with honey and topped with a sprinkle of olives or sun dried tomatoes, all wrapped into a wafer thin piece of lightly fried bread and served with a glass of sweet mint tea.
Are you getting the picture that we had fun?
And yet there's still so much more we wanted to do: visit the contemporary art museum M HKA and the Photography Museum for example. Um, when's the next mini-break? We'll be back soon! And if you do know a nice Bed&Breakfast or a good-value Boutique Hotel in Antwerp - do let me know. We want to spoil ourselves more often in this fantastic Flemish city.