Trip to Antwerp - The Diamond Capital of Europe


According to legend, a giant was demanding taxes to sail on the river Scheldt, so the local hero Brabo cuts off the giant's hand and throws it away. Throwing away a hand translates to "hand werpen" in Dutch. So there you go, the port city of Belgium gets it's name - "Antwerpen", a.k.a., Antwerp.

Brabo's Fountain- Brabo still deciding where to throw the Giant's hand
The city was initially not on our list when we drafted our itinerary, so unlike Paris or Amsterdam we were pretty clueless about where to go in Antwerp. We took Flix bus from Amsterdam at 10:30 am and reached the Antwerp central station within 12:45 pm. We were to spend just one night at Antwerp before we headed to our next stop planned at Brugges. It was not the perfect weather - the sky was overcast  when we reached the station and remained that way for most of the day The Antwerp Centraal, also called "Midden Statie" meaning middle station is a must-visit place at Antwerp even if you don't land here by train or bus like we did. Often ranked among the world's 10 most beautiful train stations (even at no.1 by some surveys),this grand monument is a masterpiece and could easily be mistaken for a museum. The large dome with beautifully decorated exteriors are just a teaser of what's inside.  We  took a few pictures from outside the station, made a mental note to come here later and walked towards our shelter - the Antwerp Central Youth Hostel. The hostel is about 2.5 km from the station and on our way we passed through some of the under construction monuments, tramlines and the oh-so-gorgeous fashion district. Read review of the hostel here
One fa├žade of the Antwerp Centraal
Our hostel was in a surprisingly peaceful complex near the throbbing fashion district. We loved the hostel, but what we cherished the most were the free pocket maps made by locals that were made available on the rack for tourists. These were not just maps but also had a host of local tips and some history lesson of the city which not only guided us through our walking tour of the city but also helped me recollect the tidbits while writing the blog (yes, this is the only souvenir I could bring from Antwerp). So after taking some time to freshen up we set off for exploring the city on foot.Here's a few things that is hard to not notice when you walk on the streets of Antwerp-

- Antwerpeans love to build. The skyline full of building cranes, with the roads connecting one construction site to another. According the map the construction work included renovation of old monuments, raising skyscrapers,constructing tram lines and some big plan of building a whole new green district on top of the ringway around the city ("RingLand").

- The formal, classy dressing style. When it comes to fashion, we mostly think of Paris, but just a walk down the fashion district and looking at the well-dressed men and women you'd know Antwerp is not behind. Honestly, I don't understand fashion, but even for a fashion agnostic person it was not difficult to appreciate their stylish outfits.
The upscale fashion district
- It is a well planned city with one dedicated block for each purpose. On our way from hostel to the Stadspark, we walked through the fashion district with the designer boutiques, big brand outlets and then the shopping malls. Then we came to the Cathedral around which there are the souvenir shop and those mouth-watering Belgian Chocolate shops. Then you would walk into the world's largest  Diamond District, with diamond shops, the Diamond trade center and few offices and banks within or adjacent to the diamond district. Then you enter the foodies street with lots of pop-ups bars, restaurants, pizzeria and cafes. You will see pop-up bars  and cafes everywhere in the city, but there is this one block where you can just reach and have all options for food in a small radius.

At this angle it looks like old Calcutta, my hometown- this is on our way to the hotel

The Stadspark
A pretty theme park for children
We had a delicious bacon and prawn pizza at a local pizzeria and then we went to the city park, called Stadspark. The remains of a 16th century Spanish fortress was re-engineered into this beautiful open park in 19th century, in a classical English landscape style. "On summer days it's full of skaters, girls in bikinis next to women in veils.." said our pocket local guide. But on a relatively cold, somber day it just looked like a page out of Tom Sawyer or Great Expectations. There was lovely children's park where parents were watching the kids play after school-time.
The English landscape at Belgium's park
The Railway Cathedral
We went to the Central Station to buy ticket to Brugges, and took a stroll inside the magnificent building. It actually has two parts- a steel platform covering and a stone station building  near the Antwerp Zoo. It was originally constructed in 19th century but completely renovated ten years ago, completed with a tunnel underneath the station, reverting the station’s status as a terminus. Look up at the glass dome above and the details on the arches with tainted glasses when you go up the escalators. It indeed looks like a cathedral inside but I appreciate the fact that the locals don't shy away from telling the truth - according to our pocket guide the original building was built  under the command of Leopard II, with blood money from inhumane rubber harvest and genocide in the then colonies of Belgium. 
Inside the Antwerp Centraal
The Diamond Quarter, Jewish neighborhood and the Indians
Antwerp is the heart of diamond trading for over five centuries, with around 84% of the world's rough diamond passing through the city. With 220 million dollars worth diamonds traded daily in the diamond district of Antwerp, you'd know why there are so many men in uniform around in the city. The highly secured Diamon quarter is home to the diamond trading center, a large number of jewelry shops, diamond traders, wholesalers, cutters and guess what, a branch of The Bank of India! Orthodox Jews have dominated the closed world of diamond trading in Antwerp for centuries, but Indians are taking over steadily. The rising prominence of the (mostly Jain) Indian community is seen in the cuisine as well, with special mention of vegetarian Indian restaurants on our map. You'd see a large number of formally-clad Jain Indians and orthodox Jews identified by the headwears (kippah) and long beard walking on the street with complete no-nonsense look. There are around 20,000 Jews in Antwerp, most of whom are orthodox and these families have inherited the diamond business from their ancestors from as early as the fifteenth century. The Jewish neighborhood near the diamond district has beautiful old buildings and synagogues. You'd find most of my pictures of the city roads are sort of photo-bombed by an unusually large number of wires - I first thought these were only for the tram-lines, some of them are, but mostly it is the Eruv - a holy wire that symbolically encloses a certain area (a larger home). Read up a little about this on internet and found out that Eruv runs almost throughout the central city enclosing the station and diamond district, to allow the orthodox Jews to move around as usual during a  religious observation called Shabbat, in which they are forbidden to leave their home.

Diamonds are not a woman's best friend, but they are great to ogle at



The Grote Market (The Great Market)
This is the central square of Antwerp is famous not only for the large number of shopping options and cafes but also for the architectural wonders around. Each building- be it a shopping mall or a bank has a medieval design lending the place its old-world charm. The Brabe's fountain stands at the centre, (recall the story I began with?) depicting the hero  This is where we also saw the chocolate shops I mentioned and the stunning OLV Cathedral. With a 123 meter tall tower, which could be seen from various parts of the city on our walking tour, this Gothic masterpiece was completed in early 16th century and has been robbed several times since then. From here we followed the direction of Brabo's hand towards the river Scheldt.. just kidding,we followed the map and walked towards the river
The tower of the Cathedral is just omnipresent



The Steen
Now despite the archaic buildings that we saw in the Grote market, Antwerp in itself looks and feels like a modern trade-hub, so when we got a glance of an old castle while waiting to cross the road, I was just delighted. Strategically located at the banks of the river stands Antwerp's oldest building - The Steen. It was built in ninth century and was subsequently expanded with a stone wall and gatehouses turning it into a fortress that has held its ground for centuries now. It was renovated and further expanded with a neo-gothic wing in 1889-90. The Steen was probably erected as a castle, given it's appearance, used as a fortress for centuries, then as a prison till 1823, after which it was consecutively used as a residence, a saw mill and a fish warehouse until it was reopened to public as a museum in 1863. All this information comes directly from the gate of Steen, where stands a striking  Semini statue, which was a symbol of fertility. The statue was maimed by roman Catholic priests in the sixteenth century.
The Steen - a piece of early medieval era in a modern trade-hub

After spending a great time at the banks of the river taking watching the ships and the windmills, we headed to the Grote market to buy some chocolates and souvenirs, but alas, all the markets were closed already! Not just the small shops but even the shopping malls! Coming from a developing country where shops remain open easily till 10 pm at least,  this thing stunned us. Also with extended daylight hours, this looked all the more surprising, but that's how the city works. Once the shops are shut down, the night bars and parties pop-up and the city gears up for some party time. We ended the day with our comfort food fried rice and pepper- chicken at a WOK outlet, while enjoying the party vibe around.
Beautiful views at River Scheldt
The things we missed? Well, there are plenty -

- the underpass connecting to the left bank of the Scheldt river, which, according to our map is the spot from where you get the best panoramic view of the city,
-the Ruben's museum which is a tourist classic and
-the peaceful hideout of the Beguines, being the top three in my miss-list.
If you are going with kids and have a little more time, the Antwerp zoo will be a great idea. The locals spoke highly about it and it's right next to the Central Station

This was a part of our first Euro-trip and we planned it all on our own. Read more to know about it:Planning our first Euro-Trip
Also check our itinerary for Amsterdam and Paris (more to come on Paris)

Thank you so much for your time. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
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