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Antwerp, A Polished Diamond

by Sarah Shuckburgh

After years of decline, the sparkle has returned to Belgium’s second city, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

Compared with its arch-rival Amsterdam, Antwerp is little visited. Without an internationally recognised brand-name, the capital of northern Belgium is in trouble – is it Anvers, Antwerp or Antwerpen? Originally its name was Aan’t Werp, an alluvial mound in the river. Or, in Latin, Ante Verpia. Or was it An’t Werf (on the wharf)? Or perhaps Hantwerpen – hand-throw - after the legendary hero who tore off a wicked giant’s hand and threw it into the river. To add to the confusion, locals are known as Sinjoren.

My friend Gila is a historian, and on the Eurostar she imparted some of Antwerp’s turbulent history. I concluded that the city’s grudge against Amsterdam is justified. By the 16th century, Antwerp was the wealthiest city in the western world, a centre of trade, exploration, culture, painting, printing and finance. But the Golden Age ended abruptly with the Spanish Fury and the massacre of 6000 citizens. Philip II of Spain closed the river Scheldt, the protestant elite left, and Antwerp suffered successive wars, uprisings, rages and periods of foreign rule. The river was finally unblocked only in 1863.

Visitors to Belgium tend to prefer picturesque Bruges to Antwerp, where medieval canals were paved over during the 19th century. And Sinjoren are also touchy about Brussels. Although Antwerp was historically a far greater city, Brussels was chosen as the capital when Belgium was created in 1830. The tiny country is thoroughly fissured: there’s tension between Antwerp’s Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, between town and province, between north and south, between Protestant and Catholic, and linguistic extremists such as Vlaams Belang and le Front des Francophones advocate segregation and separation.

But meanwhile, Antwerp’s economic fortunes have revived. Recently dubbed Cultural Capital of Europe, Belgium’s second city makes an excellent weekend destination. Gila and I took the Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels, and 30 minutes later we stepped out of Antwerp’s imposing Centraal station into the diamond district.

Antwerp’s diamond trade, which began in the 15th century, was eclipsed when Amsterdam took over as Europe’s major diamond market in the 17th century. But today Antwerp is back on top, trading half the world’s cut diamonds (compared to Amsterdam’s one per cent) and 85% of its rough diamonds. The city boasts 1500 diamond companies, and four of the world’s 21 diamond bourses. The largest and most valuable diamonds are cut and polished here, the ‘Antwerp cut’ a guarantee of purity and beauty.

Small and portable, diamonds were first brought to Antwerp by Jews fleeing persecution, and Jewish traders controlled the diamond market for centuries. Today, the streets throng with Indian traders, but they still seal transactions with a traditional handshake and the Yiddish phrase “Mazzel und Broche”. Diamond deals have no written receipts.

Our first stop was the World Diamond Centre for some geology (diamonds are compressed underground for millions of years) and some history (diamonds were first discovered in India, and first used for decoration by Moghuls). Rough stones mined in Africa, Canada, Russia, Australia and South America arrive in Antwerp to be cut, polished and traded. A reconstruction of a 19th-century family workshop showed how the husband would set a diamond in molten lead and laboriously grind each facet with diamond dust, on a turntable revolved by his children, while his wife swept diamond dust from the floor. Diamonds are the hardest mineral in the world, and nothing but diamonds will cut them.

Antwerp is the perfect place to buy diamonds, and Gila and I suddenly thought of convincing reasons to purchase. My parents’ diamond wedding – what about a sparkly brooch to celebrate 60 years together? Or we could suggest engagement rings to our career-mad offspring, all intent on postponing marriage and babies. Or – daring thought – we could buy jewellery for ourselves.

In Van der Veken’s atelier, bespoke jewellery is made by hand, using top-quality African diamonds, cut and polished in Antwerp. We watched silent craftsmen, perched at chin-high benches, each peering intently through an eye-piece. Mr Van der Veken was scathing about his customers - spoilt heiresses and tycoons used to getting their own way - like the man who demanded 21 identical diamond necklaces, one for each of his daughters and granddaughters (Mr V took months to find exactly matching, graded stones), or the lady who telephoned Mr V at home one Saturday night, to get him to come and fasten her earrings.

His disloyal tales did not detract from the lure of his diamonds. Squinting at pieces through a ‘loupe’, we marvelled at the twinkling facets and the craftsmen’s tiny golden pins. Mr V plied us with information: we must remember the four Cs – cut, colour, clarity and carat. Carat is a unit of weight – a corruption of ‘carob’, a bean with seeds of remarkably uniform size. Coloured diamonds are rare and coveted. “When it comes to the cut”, confided Mr V, “I recommend the ‘brilliant’, to maximise sparkle. And the way to clean diamonds is in boiling water”.

Gila and I took off our plastic earrings and replaced them with glittering cascades. Around our necks, Mr V arranged garlands of brilliants which flooded our faces with light. We looked like princesses.

Diamonds intrigued and diverted us, but Antwerp has many other delights. Even more important to Antwerp’s economy is its port - the second largest in Europe and fifth largest in the world. There are plans to double the size of the docks, which already handle 8 million containers a year. Gila and I spent a fascinating afternoon on a boat, touring this maritime metropolis of gantries, silos and wharves, silhouetted between grey water and huge empty skies - a world apart from the delicate towers and spires of the city just behind us. The docks are 50 miles from the sea, and ships have to navigate the winding river Scheldt between sandbanks and through locks. Cargo from 800 destinations worldwide is processed, refined, repacked and shipped out again, or moved on throughout Europe by pipeline, rail, lorry or barge. We watched tugs manoeuvring a Chilean ship carrying fertiliser ingredients, while nearby giant cranes delicately scooped up house-sized containers of bananas. We chugged past towers of granite, dark mountains of coal, and warehouses full of coffee, tropical fruit and spices.

Perhaps because of the port’s exotic foodstuffs, Antwerp has a reputation for gourmet cuisine. Sure enough, we ate fantastically well – and still found room for the locals’ favourite snack of chips, mayonnaise and Belgian beer.

Next, we looked up the Antwerp Six - not (as I supposed) terrorists, but designers who took London by storm 30 years ago, establishing Antwerp as a leading fashion centre. Gila and I were daunted by the couture, but enchanted by the architecture. Dries van Noten’s shop is elegant belle époque, with marble floors and chandeliers. Dirk van Saene and Walter van Beirendonck, director of Antwerp’s Fashion School, have turned a steel-and-glass-roofed garage into their showroom. Ann Demeulemeester’s shop is a cavernous two-storey space with dark rafters and a leafy conservatory.

Just opposite her shop in the arty Zuid district is the Fine Art museum, a late 19th-century edifice with a monumental staircase but intimate galleries, sparsely hung. Flemish treasures include a tiny Madonna by van Eyck, Cranach’s marvellous Eve, sculptures by the Quellins, and exquisite paintings by Teniers the Younger, Brouwer, Jordaens, the Bruegels, Frans Hals and Van Dyck - and by Antwerp’s master of the high renaissance, Rubens.

Despite Antwerp’s economic collapse in the 17th century, the Counter-Reformation allowed baroque art to flourish, as Catholic churches were rebuilt and extended. Rubens contributed to the façade decorations of the Jesuit Carolus Borromeus church, and provided four paintings for Antwerp cathedral, including the superb Raising of the Cross. While Antwerp slumped, Rubens became spectacularly wealthy. His castle has not survived, but his townhouse is an impressive testament - a Dutch burgher mansion with the painter’s grandiose additions, including a studio with a viewing gallery for admirers, a large garden, and a marble rotunda for his collection of classical sculptures.

Printers also benefited from the Counter-Reformation, as liturgical tracts were commissioned for Europe and South America. Antwerp’s most unusual and memorable museum is a creaky-floored house where the Plantijn-Moretus family ran their printing company from 1576 until 1876. In 300 years they never threw anything away, and the museum - a World Heritage Site - has a unique collection of presses, type stores, foundries, correctors’ desks and an archive of thousands of books and papers, including a Gutenberg bible and several maps by Mercator.

Over a cup of frothy hot chocolate at Günther Watté’s delectable cafe, Gila and I discussed the highlights of our weekend – printing, paintings, food, fashion, churches, chocolate, docks and diamonds. Amsterdam? Bruges? Brussels? Antwerp wins hands down.

First published by the Telegraph

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