Unearthing Antwerpen: A Sweet but Fleeting Visit to Brussel’s Little Sister.
It’s safe to say that I tend to fall in love with places a lot harder and faster than I ever do people. A day in Antwerp was enough for me to have my love affair. Truth be told I’d come here on a bit of a whim, knowing little of the city or its reputation, other than snippets of its fashion induced fame; its reputation stemming from the renown of designers like Dries van Noten and and Dirk Bikkembergs who make up the illustrious ‘Antwerp Six’.
“It’s a small town masquerading as a city… a curious, yet homely mix of old-fashioned tradition and avant-garde.”
My lack of knowledge of Antwerp or even Belgium in general left me under the impression that it might be smart to track down some hidden gems, some points of interest, before I embarked out of the walls of the trendy black and white apartment. Turns out any prior planning was needless; all you need to do do to discover Antwerp is walk its fairy garden-esque cobbled streets. At every corner you’ll find an independent bookstore, an affordable vintage shop, a vegan café or an eccentric fruit and veg vendor. Alongside this quirky urban vibe are kebab stores, legendary Belgian chip suppliers (it’s the Belgian’s who invented the pomme frites didn’t you know?!), and predictably copious amounts of beer, waffles and chocolate. Beyond the classic requirement of the main high-street and tourist bars, Antwerp is enfolded with independent retailers. In short, it is a small town masquerading as a city, complete with trendy young artists and batty old women selling flowers; a curious, yet homely mix of old-fashioned tradition and avant-garde.
Antwerp is an easy city to visit as a foreigner. The streets are comfortable to navigate, its people are laid back and helpful, and everyone speaks impeccable English, usually with a bit of German and French familiarity too. The local Flemish Dutch is still interesting to listen into though, especially coming from half German, half British roots as (to me at least) it sounds a bit like a distorted German, spoken in an overtly English accent. Locals range from friendly to offhand, with many joyously roping you into conversations about this that and the other, gleefully telling you about Antwerp and it’s history, and others giving off an air of wanting to rush you out of their store as fast as possible (perhaps I’m equally at fault here for asking to try too many chocolate truffles). Antwerp’s population is so diverse that there simply isn’t a type, or a look that could possibly define them, after all Belgium is probably about as multicultural and multilingual as a country can get. To have this vast scope of culture and still maintain such a communal small-town vibe, where independent shops thrive, is, I’d say, Antwerp’s speciality.
I was won over with the abundance of cool café’s, vintage stores and bookshops, one of my favourite discoveries amongst this collection being the rooftop café, Coffeelabs, with its due selection of trendy drinks and snacks and a clientele of equally trendy people to devour them. I mean who wouldn’t want goats cheese and pear syrup toast with mint for breakfast? The walls are filled with quotes, such as “Work to become, not to aquire” and “The best way to predict the future is by creating it”. I could see myself naming this place as my daily office should I ever find myself a more permanent visitor in Antwerp.
Round the corner from Coffeelabs, just off the main high-street I stumbled into T2, or Think Twice, a second-hand vintage shop which encourages everyone to recycle their clothes. Everything in here is pretty chic, they’ve hit style on the head with their clothing range, and it’s all more than affordable too.
The other side of town offers the more high-end fashion shops, which still ooze independence. One of which, Thiron, a quality shoe sellers run by the designer and owner, Guy Thiron and his mother, presumably Mrs. Thiron. They were soon explaining the trials and tribulations of running a shoe store, as well as the fantastic collection that Guy himsef has designed and sells in store.
And bookstores, oh can Antwerp do bookstores. I can’t even read Flemish and I still managed to devour half a day (would have been more had I had the chance) strolling around various stores, admiring the beautifully stacked shelves of books, flicking through the pages and soaking up that beautiful, unbeatable smell of the pages of a newly bound book. De Groene Waterman, a gem, though by no means the only one, has a hefty stock of almost 10,000 books, and a wonderful little reading area, complete with a coffee machine which made this place feel like home. I have more books than I have time to read already, but I couldn’t resist a relic and so left the store with my own brand new book, quaintly wrapped in brown paper packaging.
The thing about Antwerp, is it’s the perfect place for a weekend trip, but yet I feel there is so much I’ve left unseen. It’s many art galleries and museums for example, only a few of which I stumbled upon. Antwerp seems like a fantastic place to be an artist. Enough inspiration everywhere you turn, from the architecture to the conversations in late night jazz bars. A city that’s cheap enough to thrive in, where cycling is the main mode of trasnport, where there’s a strong sense of community, and yet everyone you meet is wonderfully unique. A community of individuals.