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A city with its own brew: Antwerp

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2006

ANTWERP, Belgium -- Our waiter had a way with words. ``When do you wish to order," he asked the distracted group at the table next to ours. `` Tomorrow, perhaps?"

Observing him had been the high point of lunch. We managed to avoid his wrath, yet the bill left us puzzled: The bottled water was twice the price of the beer, the ``lemonade" turned out to be Fanta, and ``entree," we learned, meant appetizer. It was the first of many mysteries in a week's exploration of Antwerp, Belgium's bustling second city.

We drifted instinctively toward the city's cobblestoned center, the Grote Markt , where a row of 16th-century guild houses spans a square trimmed with gold statues, ornate stonework, and gables. The spot encapsulates what this city stood for in its Renaissance heyday: a textile boom town, the wealthiest in Christendom .

We had come to see my high school chum, Judy Rust, who had moved here in 1989 to sing in the Flemish Opera . The Grote Markt topped her must-see list; it was in these medieval trading halls that Antwerp's fortunes hatched, so shouldn't our tour?

The city owed its wealth to its prime location on the River Scheldt , a murky artery that connects to the North Sea . Though it drizzled, we wended our way to the waterfront. From a wharf rose the stone towers of the Maritime Museum , formerly the city dungeon. Beyond we could see the main harbor, a blur of cranes, ships, and petrochemical plants.

Returning to the city's photogenic heart, we passed a building with its 19th-century name still imprinted: Entrepot du Congo (Congo warehouse). All around were hints of Belgium's global reach: a Mexican-Indian bistro, a snack bar selling Australian ice cream, a South African pub . As the evening air filled with chiming church bells, each side street beckoned us.

Over dinner, Judy doled out advice. For starters, we should address people in English, not French. Antwerp is the center of the Dutch-speaking half of the country, Flanders. The Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons are not on the best of terms. Speak French and the Flemish cringe. German is even worse, as it rekindles wartime memories.

As for the restaurants, she said, you can't go wrong. She was right. We savored the witloof , tender Belgian endives wrapped in ham and then braised in white wine and cheese. We adored the rabbit, stewed in a dark broth of prunes and black beer. Best of all was the white asparagus smothered in hollandaise sauce.

The city's favorite food has to be frietjes (pronounced FREET-ches), french fries twice fried and dipped in one of a dozen flavored sauces. The beer is cheaper than bottled water, probably because Belgium produces more than 400 varieties, each served in a special glass. Antwerp's own, De Koninck, comes in a jumbo goblet. Even the coffee was exceptional, always presented with a bonus cookie or chunk of Belgian chocolate.

Canines are regular guests in Antwerp restaurants, and while they looked well behaved, Judy recalled a dogfight she saw in a Ghent eatery. With its all-too-frequent showers, this hardly seemed ideal dog-walking country, though it is lush. The rainy weather, Judy believed, is probably why the arts have flourished here: ``You're almost always indoors, and you have to occupy the time with something."

On a drier day she took us to her favorite spot, a park in the suburb of Middelheim where Rodins, Moores, and Giacomettis hold court between ponds and meadows. When it poured, we retreated to the museums : medieval merchants' homes, a brewer's house, a collection of modern art, and palaces of film, photography, folklore, ethnography, printing, diamonds, and fashion.

The largest is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts , a neoclassical monolith packed with Flemish masters. The Renaissance cloth merchants sank their money into art. Invariably the subjects are draped head to foot in fur-edged brocades, linen ruffs, or flowing nun's habits. The same cloth obsession was visible at the house of Pieter Paul Rubens , a Baroque mansion restored to what it had been when the painter lived and worked there in 1610- 40 . Fabrics dripped from his subjects. The neighboring boutiques were equally clothing-conscious. Ironically, some of the styles were not all that different: pointy-toed shoes, shimmering silks, and multilayered skirts.

The Antwerp Fashion Academy has produced world-class designers the likes of Dries Van Noten , whose Nationalestraat shop, like Rubens's paintings, is an exercise in sticker shock. In the window were cotton dresses priced just under $1,000 and pumps close to $500. A much better place to shop is the Friday morning auction on Vrijdagmarkt , a jazzy neighborhood where antiques and novelties spill into the square. Around the corner is Steenhouwers Street with its mishmash of eclectic shops intermingled with hip cafes.

We couldn't leave without seeing the famous Diamond District , so Judy led us to the glittering jewelry shops by the central railroad station. We got a five-minute glimpse into one of the city's four diamond exchanges before security guards showed us out. Antwerp is the center of the international diamond trade, an insular world dominated by ultra-orthodox Hindu Jains , Hasidic Jews, and increasingly, Russians and Armenians. Nearly half of the waxy-looking rocks are cut, polished, and brokered here before migrating to shops worldwide.

Why is Belgium the capital of diamonds and chocolate, items hardly indigenous to northern Europe? On our last day, we took a 45-minute train ride to Brussels, then hopped tram 44 for the 10-mile trip southeast to Tervuren . There, commanding a vast park , was The Royal Museum for Central Africa , a gargantuan Louis XV-style palace built in 1910 by Belgium's King Leopold II to provide, as a sign explained, ``a window on the Congo."

Inside was one of the world's largest collections of Africana, a glass-encased time capsule of tribal life circa 1900, when the Congo was Belgium's sole colonial possession. (Renamed Zaire after independence, it is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Spears, drums, crocodiles, stuffed giraffes, every piece of the puzzle was laid out for viewing, down to American journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley's hat.

A year earlier, an exhibit called ``Memory of Congo, the Colonial Era" offered a cautious overview of the cultural and industrial stranglehold that Belgium foisted on this country from 1885 until it broke loose in 1960 . Rickshaws, steamer trunks, and white uniforms filled glass cases; a plaque commemorated the 1,508 Belgian lives lost there during Leopold's reign. What it omitted was the African toll. In his 1998 exposé , ``King Leopold's Ghost," American author Adam Hochschild estimated it at 10 million . Most were casualties of the slave labor instituted in the monarch's frantic grab of untapped raw materials: rubber, copper, gold, cobalt, manganese, tin, and yes -- diamonds and cacao. The conditions were brutal, the profits huge. The museum itself was a fruit of Leopold's Congo profits, Hochschild writes, and most of the cargo docked in Antwerp.

The Antwerp we discovered is an ethnic stew Leopold could not have imagined, a cosmopolitan city of a half million throbbing with culture and originality. At our tram stop, a league of nations waited to board: black-garbed Hasidim , women in Arab headscarves, turbaned Sikhs, teenagers chatting in Russian. We got off, glad to see them, and blended into the throng.

Contact Diane E. Foulds, a writer in Burlington, Vt., at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

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