Antwerp: Throw Your Hands Up!
So here's the story: Long, long ago (right before the Roman Empire invaded present-day Belgium) in a land far, far away (present-day Belgium), the giant Druon Antigoon terrorized the people of the Schelde River by demanding a fee to cross. If one didn't have any money, the crafty Antigoon improvised and sliced off the person's hand as payment. A round-trip, needless to say, was a bitch.
Enter one Silvius Brabo, Roman soldier and savior of the concept of finger-food everywhere, who gave a little aggro Golden Rule action and whacked off Antigoon's hand and threw it into the river. And then he offed Antigoon for good measure. Score one for the Romans.
Ever since, the spot where Antigoon got as good as he gave was called hand wearpan, or "throw the hand." Jump ahead a few centuries and the city that rose there is today pronounced Antwerpen, the native name for the city of Antwerp.
Antwerp's Got Game
It's hard to get away from disembodied hands in Antwerp - the motif can be found on the city arms, statuary, and in the form of synapse-blowing chocolates in confectioners like Desire de Lille, Burie, Elisa Pralines, and Dominique Persoone, Antwerp's iconic "Shock-o-latier." No one does chocolate like a Belgian, and, in the case of Persoone, is not above infusing the stuff with spices, vodkas, and cannabis for that extra kick. He even developed a contraption to snort chocolate in honor of the Rolling Stones.
With spiked sugar available by the kilo, the athletes of the World Outgames must have been locked in their rooms for the temptation when not competing. For two weeks in August, more than 5,000 athletes from a record-setting 118 countries descended on Antwerp, a muscle-straining, limit-pushing, Putin-flouting armada that was the culmination of a perfect storm: Antwerp had already been declared the European Capital of Sport for 2013, and the last week of the Outgames overflowed into the city's Pride Week.
Yeah. It was a party waiting to happen.
As I watched balls fly (water polo) and legs chug (marathon) I couldn't help but notice how a relatively small sports event was more evocative of harmony and good sportsmanship than anything that's going to come out of Sochi in February. It was impossible during the Outgames to escape the increasingly grim news surrounding LGBT persecution in Russia and how that might affect the Olympics. The more possessive the Russians became over "their" games in Sochi, the more Antwerp felt like what the Olympics are supposed to be about.
The Outgames are all-inclusive: straight ally athletes aren't banned from the Outgames. They ran, swam, threw, and swirled along with their LGBT peers in 30 events from ballroom dancing to track and field with no other agenda than to win. And in the spirit of international peace, the Russian delegation received standing ovations wherever they went.
Who cares if Antwerp isn't a megalopolis - the athletes embraced the approachable city. It is a fashion capital, Europe's third most ethnically diverse city, second largest port, and a hub for 80 percent of the world's rough diamonds. If you love sparklers, welcome to Nirvana - $16 billion worth of stones flow through the city yearly (and that's counting just the finished ones). The Diamond District, conveniently located right next to the luxuriously ornate main train station of Antwerpen Centraal, is a night's sky of flawless-grade glitter, shimmer and shine.
Unfortunately, this kind of prominence means that Antwerp has historically often found itself on the wrong end of a bomb. From Antigoon on, everybody wanted this city. Inhabitants are referred to as Sinjoren ("sin-yor-en"), which comes from señores, a carry-over from when Spain held the city in the 1500s.
With annoying regularity, the city was sacked, burned, cannonballed or blown to smithereens throughout its nearly two thousand-year history, but in one of those cosmic ironies, this only contributed to the jaw-dropping beauty of modern Antwerp. With each successive crater, the Sinjoren rebuilt in the style of the age, so Late Medieval buildings, with their characteristic stair-step pediments, nestle up against Rococo, Beaux-Arts, Baroque, Art Deco, and Mid-Century modern masterpieces.
As with a lot of ports, things get more interesting the closer you get to the water. In this ancient city, the must-dos are found between the Schelde ("skelt") River and the Frankrijklei boulevard. Here, the modern world stops and the archaic streets of Old Antwerp take over. Hotel Leopold - just beyond the Frankrijklei and looking over the uber-cruisey glades and groves of the Stadspark - is within a stone's throw of the old section, an absolute bonanza of gorgeous streets, mini-plazas, and alleyways lined with picture-perfect cafes.
It's also an absolute labyrinth. Antwerp grew organically, and while street signs are all fine and good, remembering where to go based on landmarks (this store, that statue) is a good idea, as well as a sturdy pair of walking shoes. The old city streets are cobblestoned. Picturesque to be sure, but murder on the feet.
My first stop was the Meir, the premier economic spine that runs through old Antwerp. Along its length are examples of the city's rich artistic history, including the Rubenshuis, the house where artist Peter Paul Rubens produced some of his most recognized works. Located in a small plaza and topped by a golden sun, the studio, parlors, and statue-graced gardens are virtually untouched from the days of the Baroque master.
Another great little offshoot is the Vlaeykensgang. Following this snug, white-washed alley through its winding length, after passing through courts, corridors, and hanging gardens, I ended up at the De Groot Witte Arend, a cozy watering hole harkening to the Middle Ages and a go-to for some of the best beers in the city. Beer is an art form in Belgium; I settled on a cherry-infused variety, De Arend Kriek.
I also tried the true tipple of town: Elixir d'Anvers. This potent digestivo carries the French name of the city, Anvers ("an-VAEHR"), and it is one of the rare times that French is spoken in Antwerp. The city is in Flanders, and the people speak Flemish, a Germanic tongue. While Belgium is officially bilingual (split between the Flemish north and a French-speaking south) there is a certain level of acrimony between the north and the south. Stick with English; everybody knows it.
All of this led up to the grand Grote Markt, the panoramic main plaza of the city. The tightly packed houses dramatically peel away into a huge square overlooked by the fantastical spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady a few blocks away. The centerpiece, however, is the 435-year-old Stadhuis (City Hall), draped in flags and fronted by a magnificent fountain of Brabo in all his hand-flinging glory. Bordered by cafes of every sort - Bonaparte is the gay one - they are housed in some particularly stately buildings, topped by gilded statues: An angel, a ship, a fox. These are old trading guild houses, and in the age before widespread literacy and street addresses (those didn't show up until Napoleon invaded) such figurines were the only way people identified one building from another.
Then I got lost... on purpose. Antwerp was made to dawdle through. Taking a different route each day to and from the Leopold, within a week I found culinary gems like Bourla (I recommend the rib steak; Belgian cuisine means meat - lots), Appelmans, Horta, and Bar Deco. I also discovered the town's gay bookstore, the cavernous Boekhandel 't Verschil, and the Carolus Borromeuskerk, a basilica whose 39 paintings by Rubens were the showstopper of Antwerp before it burned down in 1718.
Antwerp now has a new showstopper (fortuitously surrounded by water). North of the city center, along the old wharfs and docks, rises the dramatic Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS. A museum of the city, it takes three days to see every exhibit, so the string of top eateries ringing it, Het Duvels Genot, Brocadero, and Lux, make for great refueling. The roof of the museum offers unparalleled views of Antwerp and the rather unusual mosaic of a plague mask fronting the museum that you can only see from high above.
Generally speaking, the closer I got to the Cathedral of Our Lady, MAS, and the Grote Markt, the prices and touristy-ness increased, but nowhere did I see anything that would count as a "tourist trap." Because it isn't a huge tourist-magnet, Antwerp is wildly affordable. The kitschiest café on the Grote Markt is a steal compared to Brussels.
Next page for tips on gay Antwerp.
The Gay Capital of Benelux
This is a gay-friendly town. Really gay-friendly.
So friendly, in fact, some give it higher billing than Amsterdam, heralding Antwerp as the gay destination of the Benelux nations - Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Certainly the city was throwing its collective weight behind every gay event within its limits, and even straight bars were flying the rainbow flag (which made for a bit of confusion, but I appreciated the gesture). Rainbow colors lined the city streets, even those without a bar, club or parade in sight.
The actual Antwerp Gay Pride Parade, running along the bank of the Schelde with the Het Steen castle as a backdrop, is dwarfed by even modest New York equivalents, but the after party is one for the gay history books.
It took over the entire dockyards, which in Antwerp is saying something. With the old cargo cranes providing an industrial setting, the air was nearly splintering with dance beats before the fun moved into the massive Hangar 29. Once a warehouse for goods coming in and out of the port, the space was converted into a megaclub whose scale swallows New York's club scene with room for dessert.
Like many European cities, Antwerp has no gay section. The bars and clubs are flung all over town, but you'll find a denser number of establishments the closer you get to the Schelde. Benelux is the European birthplace of techno and EMD, and the cavernous club D-Club and Red & Blue blasts out the finest. This is on top of the 33 other bars, clubs, cafés, restaurants, saunas and "erotic shops." During Pride, parties, many of them outdoor, multiply exponentially, so getting a guide is prudent, but read it carefully, because they get specific: "Bars" are just that, but leer-en kinky bars like Oink Oink (I swear that's its name) and historic The Boots are entirely different animals.
And even Brabo won't be able to save you...
Getting there: The easiest way to get to Antwerp is via the Belgian capital of Brussels. Fly into Brussels International Airport and the train station is right in the terminal. Antwerpen Centraal is 30 minutes away.
Helpful tips: Even in high summer, Antwerp is cool; 80ºF is a heat wave. Keep the coat handy.