Antwerp benefits from having had a heyday in the 16th century, lapsing into obscurity when its big brother rival Amsterdam stole its mantle by blocking its access to the sea and world trade.
The result is a city where its golden age remains perfectly preserved while the contemporary is now also embraced to create a fascinating visitor destination.
That golden age is epitomised by the paintings of Rubens and its stunning cathedral while some stunning new architecture, a thriving fashion district and its evergreen diamond industry add a pulsating, living heart to the city.
By one of those quirks that beset the tourist, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts was closed for renovation when I visited and a number of the star works had been displayed in the cathedral in an exhibition called ‘Exhibition REUNION – Masterpieces from the Royal Museum reunited in the cathedral’ that will now run until the end of 2014.
The cathedral was a treasury of religious art until the French Revolution. In the wake of this upheaval, several altarpieces were transferred to museums including the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The cathedral already houses a number of Rubens masterpieces but the exhibition returns eight of the most beautiful altarpieces in the museum’s collection to the cathedral.
This is a unique chance to see three of Rubens’ most important works The Raising of the Cross (1609-1610), The Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) and The Resurrection of Christ (1611-1612) almost side-by-side and gives you a spectacular overview of masterpieces created by the Antwerp school during the Golden Age.
When all the art makes your eyes cross, then step outside into the Grote Markt surrounded by the fine facades of the guild houses all vying for attention and the elaborately fronted Stadhuis and head for the nearest cafe for pancakes and waffles.
In addition, Antwerp specialises in museums in some of the best homes from its heyday period. Chief of these is Rubens’ own house with a selection of his works.
This is a very atmospheric tour through the objects and paintings that interested him and inspired his work followed by a blockbuster set of his paintings displayed in his original studio.
Rubens is not my favourite painter but seeing his work in the context of his house and city, definitely gives an insight into his plump women and muscular labourers.
If this was not enough, there is also the Rockoxhuis with more paintings from the golden age including a jolly painting called Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Younger showing a crowded village square where the village folk act out more than 100 proverbs, for example two dogs fight over a bone representing a bone of contention – many are more lavatorial than that.
Yet another period house museum is the house of the printer Christopher Plantin. The extensive collection includes some of the oldest printing presses and shows you how to cast your own lead type. Enough golden age. Antwerp has a flashy new museum called the Museum aan de Stroom. It is worth going for the amazing modern building, like a spiral within a cube.
You wind your way in a spiral through the floors to the panoramic roof and each floor holds a differently-themed exhibition.There are more exhibitions on trade and shipping and Antwerp’s role in the world. The weirdest exhibition, called Visible Storage, consists of wire cages stuffed with potties and pictures, compasses and coins, parrots and pantaloons, just all the stuff in their collection that they don’t have out on display.
After museums it must be time for some retail therapy. Antwerp is famous for its diamonds but if you have less of a budget then head for the fashion quarter which is quite amazing, the whole block just has designer fashion boutiques and little else. This was spearheaded by six local designers; appropriately collectively called the Antwerp Six in the 1980s, including Dirk Bikkembergs and Dries Van Noten, graduates of the nearby Flanders Fashion Institute which includes a fashion museum, MoMu.
Yes, there are lots of museums but with the Antwerp City card you can breeze around them all with little effort.
The city offers plenty of opportunities for drinking and dining. But Belgium is not the cheapest places to eat out so we tended to snack during the day, trying out pancakes from street stalls, coffee shops and open air markets and saving our euros for a decent evening meal and a glass of excellent Belgian beer or two.
Tourism Flanders-Brussels: www.visitflanders.co.uk
Antwerp Museum Card: www.antwerp-tourist-guide.com/Antwerp-Museum-Card.html.