Flying from the super quick Southend Airport it took just 45 minutes to get there. The first-class lounge brings long lost glamour back to flying. Hostess Dawn will take your order and mix your cocktail before you fly. No stacking in the air with small places like this, the return journey was just as quick and no queues for security either end. A 20-minute cab ride into the centre of Antwerp and you’re good to go.
Belgium has always been a world leader in the production of beer, hundreds of them and each with their own shaped glass. I checked out the new kid on the block Seef meaning safe pronounced sef. Antwerp was once home to over 100 brewers and this beer is an homage to that legacy. Brewed in the old harbour district, which has been getting a Shoreditch type makeover in recent years. The beer has a rounded style based on a 1600’s recipe, they even use historical yeast for authenticity. They have a hep bar on site where you can see the beer being made that looks set to take the summer by storm. The whole area is teeming with cool restaurants, converted warehouses and new developments.
Art is the big pull in this town. And right now it’s having a moment. The Flemish Masters Programme is celebrating Rubens 2018, Bruege 2019 and Van Eyck in 2020. Good reasons to return. Antwerp is eminently walkable and Rubens house is a must see. Built in 1610 his house and studio is a testament to his stature in the city and his wealth. This is a walk-through living museum that allows you the luxury of seeing just what his house would have been like when he lived there. It’s packed with his art and his collection in the studio has been turned into a vast gallery.
The house or to be more accurate palace, is a joy to wander around, black and white stone floors, carved woodwork and a sense of space. The collection is growing and there are always new acquisitions being added and loan pieces on display. There is a continual restoration programme that brings old masters to life. The house is an evocation of 17th century life. A highlight for me was the recently restored self-portrait c1620.
There are many museums that are part of the Antwerp City Card scheme. If you’re there for a long weekend this is perfect. The one to three-day card is priced from €27 and will gain you access to 17 museums four churches and a brewery (of course, this is Belgium) and to make things really simple it also includes transport.
The newly renovated Rockox House in Kaizerstraat is another must see (also covered by the card scheme). This former mayor’s house is a slice of life from 17th century with fine Italinate gardens and art treasures galore. His friend, artist and draftsman Frans Snijders lived next door, and this has been incorporated into the museum. The two make a compelling slice of life.
The Cathedral of Our Lady pierced Antwerp’s skyline in 1521 after a 169-year construction period. At 123m high it’s the tallest Gothic building in the Low Countries, it’s also packed with art. Rubens of course has a few; ‘Elevation of the Cross’ and ‘Descent from the Cross’ are the highlights here. The seven-knave church has recently been restored the effect is a lush, resplendent building.
So, I’m sure you’re wondering about those artisanal frites? Well they can be found at Frites Atelier, a Michelin starred chef creates a gourmet chip joint with exotic toppings and fillings (think truffles) and yes, in case you need to ask, they are brilliant, and they sell beer.
Antwerp is the perfect long weekend break, easy to navigate, great food and drink and as much art as you can manage. It also happens to be very beautiful so just walking around is a real pleasure.
Getting there: Flights to Antwerp now operate four times weekly from London Southend Airport with tickets starting from just £34.99 per person one way (including taxes and charges), and can be booked at www.flybe.com
For more information about visiting Belgium please visit: www.visitflanders.com
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass