At the end of September, I was lucky enough to spend a whole day in the city of Antwerp (Belgium). Surprising as it may seem, and even though I have been working in the jewellery industry for many years now, I had never had the opportunity to go for a walk there. I have now done so and I also know that I will have to go back to discover it a little more, as I was so enchanted by the places and the atmosphere of this beautiful city! A few months earlier, I had visited Amsterdam for a weekend and I found in Antwerp what I had liked in the Netherlands. I must also admit that after living for many years in the east of France, I have acquired a certain taste for the cities of northern Europe where there are fewer cars and more pedestrians. Cities that can be easily explored by public transport or by bike and where a certain softness of life emerges. I only stayed for a day and this is only a tourist viewpoint that I am about to share with you, but I hope that it will make you want to spend a few days in Antwerp. Especially as the city is inaugurating the Year of the Diamond with themed celebrations not to be missed, including the opening in spring 2018 of the new museum DIVA Antwerp Home of Diamonds. The programme is really nice and is meant to be very public. Don’t hesitate to consult it, you will certainly find something to make your stay in the coming months more enjoyable.
In Antwerp station.
If you are travelling from Paris, there are several options, but I can only recommend you to take the Thalys. From the Gare du Nord, it takes two hours to get to Antwerp station (Antwerp in Flemish). Don’t hesitate to book your train tickets in advance, the earlier you take them the cheaper they are. The earlier you book, the cheaper it will be. This is also an opportunity to buy first class, as the fares can be very attractive. An additional positive point of first class is that you will be offered a substantial breakfast on board, allowing you to arrive without an empty stomach. Ideal when you want to start visiting the city as soon as you arrive! Remember to arrive a little early as security checks lengthen boarding time and it would be a shame to miss your train.
Once you have set foot in the station, look up! It is absolutely monumental and beautiful. Although railway sidings have existed here since the mid-19th century, the station as you will see it has existed since 1905. For this we have to thank the architect Louis De La Censerie and the engineers Clément Van Bogaert and Jan van Asperen. Today, this building is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Belgian railway architecture. It is a must-see! I was greatly impressed by the height of the buildings and the imposing majesty of the place. I’m used to big stations, but as the granddaughter of a railway worker and a train lover, I was still in awe. Afterwards, I went to the 0 level of the station to go to the tourist office of the city. The staff there are very friendly (and speak French, which can be useful). You can get many brochures and documents about the city. A compulsory stopover unless you have very well marked out your journey beforehand. Having said that, I always recommend talking to people in the area as they are a great source of advice!
The Pelikaanstraat stock exchange.
I arrived in Antwerp under a bright sun (before a good autumn shower at the end of the day). And I dived straight into Pelikaanstraat, the diamond street. There is no doubt that if you are not from the trade, it is impressive to see such a concentration of shops in such a small geographical area. Nevertheless, the shops here are not the most interesting and the most beautiful stones that pass through the city are not displayed here but in secure offices in streets a little further away. Of course, if you come on a Friday late afternoon and a Saturday, you won’t see much as most places in the area are closed for Shabbat. While several major diamond centres have emerged around the world, the city remains a transit point for many diamonds. In 2014, more than 227 million carats passed through Antwerp, where the city employs more than 34,000 people in cutting factories, trading offices and shops. Since 1973, The Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC) has been overseeing the smooth running of the system, while the Hoge Raad voor Diamant (HRD) is responsible for the certification and training of traders. Finally, four diamond exchanges remain in operation, but the city has had more than twenty of them… Here, diamonds have held a place of choice for over 570 years and 84% of the world’s rough diamonds still pass through here!
In the lobby of the Franq Hotel.
Shortly after arriving, I set off to explore the city a little and to find a very good table for a nice lunch. The venue was Hotel Franq, a former bank turned into a 5* hotel with its own restaurant. Located in Kipdorp (10-12), the place is just a few blocks from the city’s chic district. There are plenty of luxury shops here and the world’s leading brands are well represented. However, if you keep your eyes open, you will notice that this area is full of small and charming shops. You’ll find nice coffee shops with delicious pastries. It’s home to art galleries and antique shops. And you’re just a stone’s throw from the historic district. In short, it’s a nice place to stroll around. But let’s come back to the hotel, which has been remarkably restored, giving new life to this former bank of neo-Gothic architecture. Here, the architectural elements have been preserved and serve a decoration that is both design and neat. You can have a drink, lunch or dinner here.
The patio of the Franq Hotel.
On the menu: langoustine soup, salmon fillet with vegetables and gourmet coffee.
The restaurant’s cuisine is designed by chef Tim Meuleneire, well known for his previous success at De Koopvaardij. The cuisine is seasonal and local products are favoured. The presentation is neat and the welcome is perfect. If you are a lover of gourmet cuisine and the sourcing of products is important, I can only recommend this place. I particularly liked the fact that the menu takes into account food intolerances and that it includes a vegetarian option. It was a bit cold for lunch outside but the restaurant has a patio with trees so you can enjoy the outdoors. The average price for a night is €190 if you plan to stay there, which is very reasonable for the standard of the establishment. I didn’t have the chance to stay there but I know now that this restaurant is well worth the budget. Nevertheless, I reassure you, the city offers a lot of places to have lunch on the go and in a more accessible way. And then, you’ll be in Belgium, so what better way to enjoy Chips with mayonnaise and a waffle!
After this lunch, I walked to the Museum Aam de Stroom (MAS). This place, designed and built by the Neutelings Riedijk architectural firm, is a must-see. Opened in 2011, it has the style of these new museums where the place is as important as its content. It is a museum, a cultural centre and a living space, all at the same time. It offers permanent collections as well as temporary exhibitions. Finally, on the top floor, a belvedere will allow you to admire the city and the port in which it is located. This is where the weather turned slightly sour… But the view over the estuary and the iodine wind coming from the North Sea make the experience really beautiful. I can only encourage you to go up to the tenth floor of the building!
In the port of Antwerp.
But I went to the museum for a very special reason. I went to visit the exhibition “The Radiance of Desire” which lasts until 18 January 2018. This event dedicated to the history of diamonds and their place in our societies really appealed to me. Although I am passionate about this sector and know the industry well, I am not a specialist in the history of Antwerp and its special relationship with this stone. So I learned a lot and discovered some really amazing historical documents. Like the ordinance that opens the exhibition. Dating from 1447, it prohibits the trade in fake diamonds and gemstones in the city. At a time when our institutions and the profession are trying to position themselves on synthetic diamonds, the Antwerp merchants of the time had decided: a fine of 25 gold coins was applied to the forger! Finally, I linked this visit with my discovery of Amsterdam and better understood the city’s relationship with diamonds, which goes back to the siege of Antwerp in 1585 and which pushed the merchants, including a large part of the Jewish community, to settle in the Netherlands before returning to Belgium.
Flemish silver and diamond heart, early 19th century. Photo: MAS Museum
It was a great opportunity to discover remarkable old jewellery such as the Flemish Hearts, traditional jewellery popularised in the 19th century and offered on 15 August in honour of the Virgin Mary. Love, of course, but also death, because jewellery also bears witness to the passing of life. There are many pieces of mourning jewellery in the exhibition and I particularly liked piece 21: a sixteenth-century gold and enamel Memento Mori depicting a skull containing a coffin, kept in the Royal Museums of Brussels. Don’t miss the drawing of Martin Luther’s famous twin ring, but also the ring that could be the engagement jewel of Mary of Burgundy. The contemporary part of the exhibition was, for me, a lesser discovery but I urge you to take some time to discover how the diamond is still a symbol of power and prestige today and how this translates into our society. With also some excesses like the most expensive boots in the world. Set with more than 38,000 diamonds on over 4kg of gold, they were created by designers A.F. Vandevorst and unveiled in 2013. More than 30,000 hours of work were required to create them. It’s breathtaking! Before leaving the museum, try to win the famous stone that makes so many people’s eyes shine. As for me, I preferred to keep a few tokens as a souvenir.
Brilliant Foodies Festival, Felix Pakhuis.
To finish the day, I walked around the port and enjoyed the Flemish architecture that I love so much. Tall buildings, large windows and elaborate doors… Nothing to do, I can’t get enough of these houses and buildings. Then, I had an appointment at Felix Pakhuis, a restaurant located on the port but especially a hallucinating place which is located in a former goods storage hall now converted for the municipal archives and others. At the end of the day, the AWDC organised the Brilliant Foodies festival for the first time. The programme included workshops on diamonds, but above all the opportunity to taste dishes from Jewish, Pakistani, Indian, Armenian and Flemish cuisines! The aim is to discover the culinary wealth of the Antwerp diamond industry. Against the backdrop of a great music programme, it was just the right thing to end this beautiful day.
Some specialities from the Brilliant Foodies Festival. Photos: MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com
Then it was time to head back to the train station and to Paris. A last walk through the diamond district, a hot chocolate and some Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp hands) accompanied my departure. I would have liked to see the Rubens museum, the big churches like Sint-Andrieskerk or Sint-Jacobkerk but also a stone-cutting workshop… As you can see, I would come back! What about you?
The hands of Antwerp. Photo: Visit Antwerp
See you soon!