by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)
Beer, chips and chocolate – what more could you possibly want from a city break?
In Antwerp you get the best food and drink in the world – in addition to the triple-fried chips – and it all comes wrapped in a diamond-encrusted blanket of art, culture and history.
Just two hours from London on the Eurostar, plus a short hop from Brussels, means this Belgian port has never been so easy to get to.
Effortlessly stepping on to Eurostar at St Pancras’ station in London makes you feel like you’re sticking two fingers up to air travel and the stresses of check-in, security queues and cramped aeroplanes.
From when you arrive at Antwerp’s ornate Central Station it’s obvious this place is special. And just across the square is the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, the perfect place to launch your adventure.
Antwerp is the city where, legend has it, a giant would chop your hands off and throw them in the river if you didn’t pay him for being carried across it. Antwerp literally means throwing of hands.
The city oozes history, from its typically Belgian zig-zag roofs to the busy cobbled streets and squares. But it is through the new MAS Museum that it is intent on making its mark on the rest of Europe.
The MAS – Museum aan de Stroom or “museum by the river” – is not just a museum. Labelled a love mark rather than a landmark, it is more iconic than any of the masterpieces it holds.
Built from several shades of red sand- stone and adorned with 3,185 aluminium hands cast from a Moroccan immigrant worker who mixed cement for the construction, it looks like a fantastical Legoland creation, housing 470,000 artworks.
It has ten floors, all with amazing views across the city through a huge spiral of wavy glass. One of its neatest quirks is the storage room, housing all the artefacts not currently on display but which are part of the exhibition tour.
Entrance to the building and its rooftop, which is open until midnight every night, is free. The idea is to turn the interior walkways and lifts into an extension of the city streets.
To visit the exhibitions across eight floors costs just a tenner – and you can download a free app for your mobile phone to get all the information you need on the exhibits in English.
Part of the remit of the MAS museum is to attract young people and that shouldn’t be hard. Antwerp is already well-known to its European neighbours as a party city.
Right now the docks area around the MAS is undergoing a cutting-edge transformation, so that night culture is set to thrive. Antwerp’s port was a trade frontier in the 19th Century and its importance has attracted no fewer than 169 nationalities to the multi-cultural city.
Add wealth to the mix – this is the diamond capital of the world – and you end up with great places to stay, superb shops and restaurants but without the sky-high prices of cities like Paris and London. At the MAS’ ’t Zilte restaurant, run by famous Belgian chef Viki Geunes, tables are booked up months in advance but there are dozens of exquisite smaller eateries nearby.
Restaurant Marcel has popped up in the shadow of the MAS. It’s a great place to try delicious dishes. Or, for a sunset view down the river, the Zuiderterras restaurant, on the edge of the docks, is a fabulous setting to enjoy dinner.
One of Antwerp’s big cultural attractions is artist Peter Paul Rubens, the city’s most famous former resident. His baroque paintings can be seen around the world but it is in Antwerp where his city-centre Rubens House has been faithfully preserved and his best works can be seen.
Fortunately, if you can’t tell your baroque from a barcode, there is a chocolate shop just round the corner. And not just any chocolate shop. The Chocolate Line, run by Dominique Persoone, is one of only three Michelin-starred chocolate shops in the world.
Cocoa cooking reaches a new level in taste sensations with Dominique, who was on hand to describe the intricate flavours of his amazing chocolates during my visit.
He served up – among other delights – a caramel of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and pine nuts! Believe it or not this was good, though I did find the soy-sauce creation a little too much for my Mars bar-loving palette.
Perhaps the only thing better than stuffing your face full of chocolate on holiday is a belly-full of ale. And you can’t go wrong with Belgian beer.
The number of bars, cafés and restaurants in Antwerp is staggering – it has more bars per person than any other city in the world.
The Antwerp beer tour, on a road tram, takes in Den Engel, the most famous bar in the city, Bier Central – which sells over 300 brews – and the brewery of ’t Pakhuis. The home brewery in the Zuid region of the city produces three fantastic beers which are sold only on its premises. Its Antwerp Blond is as good as it gets.
What makes Belgian chips, served in conical cartons with lashings of mayonnaise, so special is they are triple fried. They provide the ideal end to a boozy afternoon.
In fact, the magic triangle of beer, chocolate and chips makes Antwerp a dream destination for us British.
It’s all the things we love, plus your holiday quota of history and culture.
A THREE-NIGHT package at Radisson Blu Hotel, return standard class Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International or Ebbsfleet International to Brussels and onward train journey to Antwerp plus daily breakfast costs £299pp. Offer is valid until October 31. Call 0203 327 3569 or visit railbookers.com
For more information call Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 or visit visitflanders.co.uk