The only time I have had cause to think of Belgium's second city is while trying to hitchhike past it, on the motorway that snakes through its ugly industrial fringes. Antwerp's bypass ranks with the Munich triple-concentric-ring-autobahn, and an especially dodgy junction on the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria, as one of the black holes for transcontinental hitchers. Furthermore, when I think of Belgian culture I think only of Plastic Bertrand, who had a minor hit with 'Ca plane pour moi' 15 years ago. So I was not looking forward to returning.
Like the EC presidency, the cultural capital of Europe rotates around the Continent. It started with Athens in 1985. Madrid handed on the artistic baton to Antwerp at the turn of the year. The city has opted to begin its official tenure on 26 March, but already Antwerp has a respectable repertoire of art and architecture.
Try to approach this year's cultural candidate by train. The railway station is a terminus fit for a capital of culture, a structure magnificently out of proportion to the city. Descending the triumphal staircase from the train to the ticket hall, it feels at least as exotic as Istanbul or Kiev - not somewhere only an hour from Ostend.
While you are still marvelling at the station's extravagance, the tide of passengers ejects you into a building site. You are entering a functional city, and furthermore one with a million ugly dogs that seem to have some awful collective gastric problem; tread carefully. Neither do all the human residents appreciate the visitor. A German tourist making a home video found his lens suddenly occupied by a local ruffian who loosed a remarkably imaginative string of obscenities for posterity.
Those who genuinely cannot think of Antwerp without thinking of diamonds need not venture far from the station. On the street that runs along the side of the terminus, a dozen glittering shops drip with gems. A block farther east, the diamond business gets serious. A police checkpoint is manned continuously in the heart of the diamond quarter.
Five out of every six of the world's rough diamonds pass through Antwerp on their journey from mine to engagement ring or drilling machine, so high security is required. The process of extracting, cutting and mounting the gems is explained in entertaining fashion at the Diamond Museum.
The burghers of Antwerp were delighted when the river in Bruges silted up in the early 16th century, cutting off that city's industrial trade. Most of it moved to Antwerp, which grew rapidly to become the second-largest city in Europe - only Paris was more populous. One hundred thousand people were squeezed into a couple of square miles, which now constitute the old town. The only way to fit them in was to build upwards, and Europe's first skyscrapers were seven-storey houses that jostled one another in the narrow streets.
The loveliest quarter is Vlaaikensgang, a huddle of houses stooping over a shady courtyard. It is here you become acutely aware of the bells. Every 15 minutes (or thereabouts - Flemish timekeeping is a touch vague), a gentle wave of chimes washes over the city. On the hour, a campanological cacophony peals out.
Assess the city's credentials over a glass of one of its fine ales (described on the right by our beer writer, Michael Jackson). Antwerp has 25 museums and far more Rubens per hectare than anywhere else in Europe. It has exceeded all EC production norms for indulgence: the city has 600 restaurants and four times as many cafes. Every drink arrives accompanied by peanuts, biscuits, or an ambitiously decorative chocolate. If the average British greasy spoon corresponds to travelling standby, Belgian cafes are club class. There seems to be a city planning ordinance that requires a desperately tempting chocolate shop to be located in every street. Do not feel too guilty about indulging, since the average Belgian eats a half-pound of chocolate every week.
Most cities are designed around squares, but the centre of Antwerp is a sequence of irregular triangles dating back to the cattle markets favoured by the original Frankish inhabitants. So the main 'square', Grote Markt, is one of those bizarre shapes that used to crop up in geometry tests. The side that might loosely be called the hypotenuse is occupied by the Town Hall, a motley concoction of styles which began life in Renaissance Italy before colliding with Gothic northern Europe.
The modern market - food on weekdays, birds (alive) on Sundays - occupies an untidy sprawl in front of the gravel-faced monstrosity called the Hotel Arcade. When Antwerp builds functionally, it can match Europe's worst offenders for tastelessness and supreme non-appeal. The market is the place to stock up on exotic spices; Belgium never had much of an empire, but Antwerp's trading links with the rest of the world are still strong. The most crowded stall is the one selling snails, seven for a pound. The locals swallow each baker's half-dozen greedily.
The Independent can trace its antecedents to Antwerp. The premises in which the world's first printed journal was published, almost 400 years ago, now house the Newspaper Museum. This hack's heaven covers written communication as far back as hieroglyphics, but really picks up speed with the publication of the first newspaper in 1605. It was the home of Abraham Verhoeven, publisher of Nieuw Tijdinghen (literally 'new tidings'). The news that was first considered fit to print was a collection of reports from the battlegrounds of Europe interspersed with lurid descriptions of executions. Verhoeven was unashamedly tabloid, not averse to publishing the last words of a condemned man a day or two before the death penalty was actually carried out.
Christopher Plantin, who lived above his shop on Friday Market, was the first truly commercial printer. He took up where Gutenburg and Caxton left off. His home has become a rich museum named after him and his successor, Jan Moretus. Their obsession with the word has been perfectly preserved: the house contains a complete printing works, together with a magnificent collection of books. The most exquisite is the Wenceslas Bible, brought from the palace in Prague, a Good Book for a Good King. Casually decorating a corridor is a vivid painting of the Roman philosopher Seneca. It was done by the man who used to design frontispieces for the company, one Peter Paul Rubens.
The artist's pictures litter Antwerp. A church without a sprinkling of his moody, atmospheric portraits is a poor church indeed. The greatest concentration of the Old Master's work is at his house. It is odd to be thrust from the Saturday shoppers into the calm of Rubens's 400-year-old mansion. The greatest Flemish artist lived and worked here, when he was not moonlighting for Balthasar Moretus, son of Jan. Rubens ran a highly successful portraiture business from here. Like a film director, he had a chair with his name inscribed; from it he could comfortably mould a genre. The quality of light shining from his subjects' faces dazzles even under unenthusiastic grey February skies.
Rubens was only one in a string of Flemish painters with an eye for the bright and the buxom, and a knack of finding commissions. His contemporaries include Jacob Jordaens - whose 400th birthday is celebrated by the city this year - and Jan Brueghel. A good collection of their works is yours for 200 Belgian francs (about pounds 2.20) at the Royal Museum for Fine Arts.
Half as much money buys admission to the Pelgrom Museum, a perfectly preserved merchant's dwelling in the heart of the city. Estate agents would delight in the many original features of this slim and sturdy house, until they reach the cage containing a live chicken; every home had such a beast, which could expect to be converted to dinner fairly rapidly in the event of unexpected guests. Sixteenth-century sleeping habits are explained: the mattress on the lavish four-poster slopes down because it was thought that high blood pressure in the head caused erotic dreams, and if a person died in his sleep in such a state, he could not go to heaven. Every self- respecting merchant had a dovecote full of well-trained white birds that would fly home bearing messages, a highly effective predecessor to the fax.
This is one museum that encourages you to drink on the premises. The admission ticket for the Pelgrom entitles you to a free beer in the bar downstairs. The bar extends in 10 different directions, all of them below ground, through the cellars of adjoining houses. The Pelgrom is no tourist trap; you spend your beer token in the company of locals enjoying one of 20 different brews plus crepes, extravagant cream concoctions and the inevitable moules.
More substantial fare can be found by the River Schelde. Antwerp turns its back on the waterway that brought it prosperity, and it would be quite possible to wander around without being aware of the proximity of the Schelde. Maritime trade has shifted a couple of miles north. The sturdy old wooden barges are tethered pointlessly and lifelessly in dry dock. Commerce in the old quarter has been replaced by chic; the city's best restaurant overlooks the river, and bears the modest name of the Dock's Cafe. The sluggish, grey water looks thoroughly unenticing, but the succulent seafood and extravagant beer more than compensate.
Few people think of Belgium when they think of exciting nightlife; anyone who has spent a rainy night in Brussels knows the gloom inspired by the EC's head office. The reason, perhaps, is that all young Belgian dudes gravitate 30 miles (45km) along the motorway to Antwerp. The cultural capital of Europe is the karaoke capital of Flanders, and its citizens enjoy themselves with a vengeance. Everyone gets spectacularly drunk, content with the live culture at the bottom of each beer bottle.
Getting there: British Airways 081-897 4000 and Sabena (081- 780 1444) fly from Gatwick and Heathrow respectively to Antwerp. The cheapest return fare is pounds 85 with Sabena (weekend surcharge pounds 5 each way); it requires seven days' advance reservation and a minimum stay of a Saturday night.
Non-stop flights are available to Brussels from all four London airports, plus Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle. The nearest port is Vlissingen in the Netherlands, served from Sheerness by Olau Line (0795 666666); a 53-hour return for a family of four plus car costs pounds 146.50. Zeebrugge is 60 miles (100km) from Antwerp, with sailings from Hull on North Sea ferries (0482 77177) and Felixstowe on P & O (0304 203388). P & O also sails between Dover and Ostend. London to Antwerp takes just under six hours using the Dover-Ostend Jetfoil. A five-day return with British Rail International (071-834 2345) costs pounds 56.
Where to stay: The Villa Mozart at Handschoenmarkt 3 (010 323 231 3031) is a plush 25-room hotel in the heart of the city; it has a weekend rate of pounds 100 single or double, including breakfast. The one-star Hotel Monico, opposite the station at Astridplein 34 (010 323-225 0093), charges pounds 27 single/ pounds 42 double, including breakfast. New International Youth Hotel, close to the station at Provinciestraat 256 (010 323- 230 0522), has dormitory beds for pounds 8 a night.
Further information: Belgian Tourist Board, 081-861 3300. The tourist office in Antwerp is at Grote Markt 15.
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