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Travel: The romantic perfection of Antwerp

Ancient Flemish city shows its age, and its style, well



Tired from a flight to London and train travel on to Antwerp, I knocked over a small table lamp at the Hotel Julien. The delicate ceramic shade survived the initial fall, but when I reached to retrieve it, it gently shattered.

The Hotel Julien is located on the winding, cobble Korte Nieuwstraat, not far from Antwerp’s historic Grote Markt. A large wooden door, topped by a semi-circular fanlight, and with only a small hanging sign to identify it, opens off the streetscape.

On the ground floor, beyond a reception area presided over by a personable receptionist, is a small courtyard and gorgeously attired breakfast room. Each of the 11 oh-so-chic guest rooms is different. Ours was an attic of exposed wood beams looking over rooftops to a church steeple. Plush bedding, a potted orchid, and afore-mentioned lamps with hand-made porcelain shades no larger than my (smallish) fist, along with similar porcelain pieces in the bathroom, provided detail.

To my romantic sensibilities, the hotel was perfection — as is Antwerp itself.

This old Flemish city came out of the Second World War remarkably well, and its older parts recall the 16 th and 17 th centuries, when Antwerp experienced a Golden Age. Among its glories is the gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, whose many-pillared naves rise to vaulted ceilings painted a gold-studded white. Several Peter Paul Rubens paintings hang near the altar, including the triptych The Descent from the Cross . Side chapels radiate outward. The magnificent church is always filled with people.

On a nearby plaza, apart and lovely, stands a wonderfully baroque church (with exterior decoration by Rubens) called the Carolus Borromeus Kerk. The Grote Markt, a vast triangle of cobblestone, is encircled by late-medieval guild houses (reconstructed in the 19 th century), and the massive Renaissance-style town hall.

I met Stefan, an old acquaintance, near the plaza’s central fountain that depicts the legendary Brabo throwing a severed hand into the River Scheldt, the symbol of Antwerp. We retreated to the Café Den Engle, and over a De Koninck 1833 — a Belgian beer drunk from a glass shaped like brandy-snifter — Stefan told me that Dutch-speaking Belgians are more like the French than the Dutch — “more Bourgondie,” he said, meaning fun-loving.

These fun-loving people dress with courage — evidenced by the male fashion designer in a beautifully tailored outfit of rust and gold-coloured checks suggestive of a latter-day Pinocchio. The Mode Museum (MoMu), where he was spotted, hosts exhibits in what has become an epicentre of European fashion culture.

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