Story of the week: Exploring Antwerp’s docklands regeneration

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* I’ll be heading back to Antwerp this autumn. The new Red Star Museum opens September 24 and I’ll be back for a preview having watched the regeneration of the docklands Little Island region since I first wrote the story below.

What’s changed since I wrote this? Post your comments below.

Antwerp is the Flanders city with that rare quality in Belgium: quirkiness.

Yes, it’s got diamonds, fashion and enough old-Europe money to stuff a bank vault several times over, but it’s the variety of village-style districts, all easily explored on foot and revelling in their own idiosyncratic character, that really sets it apart from living-museum Bruges and pen-pushing Brussels.

September brings Open Monument Day to Flanders and Antwerp will unlock the hidden-gem and tucked-away places that visitors rarely get to explore, such as the Antwerp Ruien, the city’s network of subterranean waterways.

Make sure to stop off around the Latin Quarter en route to buy traditional Antwerpse Handjes biscuits from Philip’s Biscuits and pastries from the Goossens bakery. These perennial-favourite delicacies will be fuelling the locals as they explore.

Water features heavily on Antwerp’s regeneration agenda with a whole new district of the city, the Eilandje (Small Island) docklands area north of the Old Town, currently opening up to explore.

Antwerp remains the world’s fourth largest port but the buzz is now about café culture not containers.

To be fair, the urban renaissance is still a bit work in progress, but the slow-progress evolution is even tempting the traditionally reserved Antwerp residents to leave their comfort zone of the fashionable south of the city to explore the shabby-chic north.

September in the Old Town also means the tour-party hordes are subsiding and the cobbled sidestreets less crowded to hunt out the interesting little galleries, cafes and boutiques.

But don’t fall for the last menus touristiques of the season around Groenplaats. A tram heading south will deposit you near Leopold de Waelplaats, nearby which you can eat amongst the locals at the pavement tables of Grill or Bar Italia and the watch the ritual weekend parade of designer garb and sports cars over a waffle-free brunch.

When you’re full, simply pop across the road to the landmark Royal Museum of Fine Arts (kmska.be). The permanent collection with works by Rubens and Magritte before is currently closed with major renovation ongoing until 2014.

Don’t miss

… the legacy of the Antwerp Six fashion collective on the city’s fashion sense. Fashion stalwart Dries van Noten maintains his flagship store, Het Modepaleis (www.driesvannoten.be) at Nationalestraat 16. But the latest crop of fashion graduates can be found exhibiting their collections at the Fashion Museum (momu.be).

… the Diamond Museum (diamantmuseum.be), which tells the story of the city’s love affair with big rockssome 85% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded in Antwerp’s diamond quarter.

… a close brush with Adam and Eve in Paradise. This iconic work is one of several by the Flemish master kept at The Rubens’s House (rubenshuis.be) with its baroque aesthetics and informative audio tour. But, for art without the crowds, the revamped Photo Museum (fotomuseum.be) offers a more contemporary view.

… people watching from a pavement café with a glass of local brew, De Koninck, or as thoughts turn to autumn, from a comfy armchair at Günter Watté’s chocolate-themed café (watt.be), sipping a latte and negotiating one of his dainty chocolate-pastry creations with a cake fork and a taste for indulgence.

… dipping your bitterballen (meatballs) into spicy sauce at the Art Deco-style Frituur No 1. Flanders has the finest fries on earth – prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness, since you ask – and this frituur is one of the best places to try them.

What’s new?

Het Eilandje

The first fruits of regeneration in the Small Island district are now ripe. New places to eat and drink, such as Felixpakhuis and Lux, are building a new following, the Royal Ballet of Flanders (koninklijkballetvanvlaanderen.be) has moved to a new performance space and a major, modernist new museum, Museum aan de Stroom (MAS; mas.be), is now open, telling the story of Antwerp as a world port city. By 2014 the tram system catches up with the progress to improve access.

Graanmarkt 13

Concept stores are de rigueur in Antwerp and this über-chic new opening, located at the heart of the Latin Quarter, takes the trend to its zenith. It combines a minimalist high-fashion clothes and interiors store upstairs with a suitably chic, candlelit downstairs eatery. But don’t blow the budget on a new outfit as the dégustation menu costs 80€ / £67 for eight nouvelle cuisine courses without wine; graanmarkt13.be

Hotel Les Nuits

The en-vogue home interior shop Flamant is branching out. First came the restaurant Flamant Dining (flamantdining.com) with its cool lounge and sunny roof terrace. Now the adjacent Hotel Les Nuits lives up to its nocturnal moniker with 24 Asian-styled rooms, each featuring black-lacquer cabinets and a low-lit, boudoir-chic feel. If you like the room décor, you can buy every single piece in the shop next door; hotellesnuits.be.

Paleis op de Meir

The city’s major new cultural space is the 18th-century, rococo building once chosen by Napoleon as his imperial place but never inhabited. The stately building has been saved from years of neglect and the restored rooms, all elaborate and ornate, yearn to recount their own individual story. Downstairs the Café Imperial (cafe-imperial.be) serves afternoon teas fit for an emperor  with a glass of bubbly; paleisopdemeir.be.

The Chocolate Line

Located across the courtyard from the entrance to the Paleis op de Meir, chocolatier to the stars Dominique Persoone has opened the latest Chocolate Line shop. Next to the lavish displays of chi-chi chocs, the open kitchen lets visitors pick up some of the secrets of a chocolate-crafting master at work. If you’re adventurous, enquire about a pure cocoa hit from the chocolate shooter. Well, it was good enough for Keith Richards; thechocolateline.be.

Insider’s secret

Tom Le Clef, manager, Felixpakhuis lounge and restaurant [pictured above]

“The next-door warehouse to our restaurant is Dries van Noten’s offices, but he also holds stock sales there each spring and summer. Time your visit well and you can catch up to 80 per cent off original designs. But get there early – the queues start at 6am.”

Further information

Tourism Flanders-Brussels (visitflanders.co.uk); Antwerp Tourism (visit.antwerpen.be).

This story was first published in the Independent on Sunday in 2010.

Liked this? Try also, Tracking Modern Art in Ghent.

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