DAZZLING DINING AND DESIGN
They take their beer seriously in Antwerp. And their waffles. And their chocolate. Before I'd visited this bustling, prosperous Belgian city on the banks of the River Scheldt I had just associated it with being one of the world's centres for diamonds.
The glittering gemstone is still what makes the place tick, of course, but there's much, much more to Antwerp than a bank vault full of carats.
Like so many of these European lowland destinations – Bruges, Amsterdam, Lille – Antwerp does the basic things very well: transport, for one. Pedestrianisation for another.
There are trams on tap, as it were, and bikes for hire if you are so minded.
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But don't worry about over-exerting yourself with the latter, as it's as flat as the proverbial pancake (or waffle) and easy on the calf muscles. You could do what we did, though, and not bother with either. We walked most places and felt very smug in doing so, but it really wasn't strenuous.
If you arrive in Antwerp by rail you will be mightily impressed from the outset.
The main station is slap bang in the centre of town and is a truly grand structure. The design of this busy rail hub is breath-taking, a veritable cathedral dedicated to the permanent way.
The terminus buildings, topped with a vast dome above the waiting room hall, were designed by Louis Delacenserie. Adjoining is a vast iron and glass train shed.
Built towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, it has been rated as one of the world's greatest railway stations.
Many of Antwerp's buildings are ancient and superb and, in their own way, rather miraculous. That's because it really is a miracle they survived at all.
This important port was actually devastated towards the end of the Second World War by Hitler's fiendish V1 and V2 rockets.
Being a tourist can work up an awful thirst and there's no shortage of places to put paid to that. Grande Cafe Modest in Waapenstraat 18 is one such place where you can pay homage to some of Belgium's finest brews.
Beer is king here and they know what they are talking about, especially in this deceptively large café. Under the very informative instructions from the resident beer sommelier we sat at long tables and supped as if we were the local wine circle. Some of the beers were fabulous – and strong – and with each one we accompanied our supping and sipping with some breads and cheeses. It was a great experience and you could easily have settled in for a large chunk of the day.
But this was but one food and drink trip we would have in Antwerp. Our next eating stop was a place known to all of Antwerp's residents, Desire de Lille, in Schrijnwerkerstraat 14. Calorie- counting was forgotten as we tucked into the local delicacy, liberally adorned with cream and all things gooey.
You can't miss the chocolate, either. There seem to be shops selling cocoa confections on every corner and some of the amazing pieces crafted by local chocolatiers are nothing short of being edible pieces of art.
And diamonds? Well, you can find out all about them and buy them. There's a Diamond Museum, open from 10am to 5.30pm every day, except Wednesdays and public holidays. You'll find it at Museum aan de Stroom, Hanzestedenplaats 1.
In between our drinking and eating we did pack in some history, too. It's all around in Antwerp but one place not to miss is the home and former studios of the famous Old Master, the artist Rubens – the Rubenshuis is now a museum.
Rubens oversaw the construction of the Italianate house to his design and the building stands within a Baroque garden he also planned.
Antwerp bought Rubens' house in the Thirties and it finally opened to the public a year after the last war ended.
It contains many works by the great man but the nice thing is that, when you've finished your tour, you can wander through the courtyard garden.
The waterfront is ever present in Antwerp and one distinctive feature you cannot miss is Het Steen, a medieval fortress located there.
This fortress helped control the River Scheldt, on whose bank it stands, but what you see today is apparently but a small part of what was once here.
It's still impressive as a good vantage point for sightseers, though, but today it is used as a maritime museum and, nearby, under cover, are some old barges.
Boat cruises taking in the harbour and port on the River Scheldt, lasting between two and five hours, are also available.
Our Lady's Cathedral of Antwerp is another iconic structure to visit. You can't miss it, as it dominates the city skyline.
And shopping's another big attraction. You can window shop as you promenade up the main street, the Meir. But if you want a unique retail experience, do pop into what was once the old city ballroom here. It has been superbly renovated and is now a luxury shopping mall.
We liked Antwerp. It's a really friendly, nicely informal city, packed with a host of things to see and do... and eat. And drink.
And, if you're feeling really indulgent, it can make you sparkle, too, with a diamond. Or two.