Napoleon didn’t think much of Antwerp. ‘Scarcely a European city at all,’ he scoffed. If only he could see it today. Ten years ago, Antwerp felt provincial. Now it feels like the capital of an (almost) independent state. ‘Jardin Zoologique’ it says outside the zoo, but that’s the only French signage you’ll see in this resolutely Flemish city. When they built the zoo, in 1843, Belgium was only 13 years old, and French was the official language throughout this mongrel nation. Now it only survives on a few old war memorials. ‘You’re in Flanders now,’ locals tell you, if you try to speak to them in French.
Each time I come here, Antwerp seems more estranged from Belgium. It’s barely 30 miles from Brussels, but alighting at Antwerp’s palatial railway station you can tell you’ve crossed a virtual border, between Gallic and Teutonic Europe. The Flemings have founded a country within a country, and Antwerp is its hub. French-speaking Wallonia used to be the richest part of Belgium. Belgium’s Flemings were the poor relations. Now it’s the other way around.
Most sightseers make tracks for Antwerp’s historic centre — the Gothic cathedral, the baroque town hall. I like to head in the opposite direction, into the Jewish quarter. Here, in the sleepy sidestreets off Pelikaanstraat, is the centre of the world’s diamond trade. Bearded men in black hats shuffle past, minding their own business. Between the drab shopfronts of the diamond dealers are kosher butchers and bakeries. I stop off at Hoffy’s, a Yiddish deli run by the Hoffman brothers, big smiling men in skullcaps. The food is hearty, the service perfunctory. I’m the only Gentile here.
Beyond the railway bridge is Zurenborg, Antwerp’s Art Nouveau district. Here everything seems surreal. The ornate buildings are like stage sets. The tram station is like a scene from a dreamlike painting by Magritte.
The city centre is swarming with Dutch and German tourists, and you can see why they feel at home here. The food is a lot better, and the beer just as good. The biggest draw is the Rubenshuis, the flamboyant palazzo Rubens built with the proceeds from his flamboyant paintings. Inside you see another side of the artist — intimate portraits of his own family, painted for his own pleasure, a world away from his royal and religious epics.
There’s more Rubens in St Jakobskerk, the grandiose church where he was buried, but my favourite site is St Pauluskerk, where he used to go to pray. Here his ‘Flagellation of Christ’ rubs shoulders (so to speak) with masterpieces by Jordaens and Van Dyck. This church used to be on the edge of the red-light district, but now that has shrunk to a few shabby streets. Even the docks have had a spring clean. Antwerp remains one of Europe’s biggest ports, but nowadays it’s more famous for fashion designers than drunken sailors. Dries Van Noten has his flagship store here. No wonder so many Netherlanders love Antwerp. This compact metropolis combines Dutch can-do and Catholic joie de vivre.
Will Antwerp become the capital of an independent Flanders? I hope not — the last thing this no-nonsense city needs is more politicians and bureaucrats. But I fear the tide of history may be flowing the other way.