Do we travel to glimpse the world’s realities? Not always. Mostly it’s for, as the magazine you’re holding in your hands is titled, a little bit of escapism. We travel for comfort, for solace, and for excitement – but a human geography lesson?
But as the huge horizon before me stretches and shifts, revealing warehouses and chimneys splatted against the orange afternoon sky as if painted by a surrealist, it is this obtuse reality that sucks me in. This is no vision of paradise: windmills turn, lorries beep, ships drift, the muddy waters of the Scheldt Estuary linger. It is a vision instead of a world we have made to give us everything we want.
This is a place ruled by trade and commerce – Antwerp’s Port is the world’s largest by area. If we want electricity, petrol, stuff from Amazon, food, cars, iPhones, free magazines, this is how the system works. It is fascinating as it is terrifying and, like many port cities, it thrills and frightens in equal measure. Antwerp has both guts and glory, and its pancake-flat expanses of dock make London’s own Docklands look puny. No mean feat.
This is a serious enterprise; it has been so for hundreds of years. It needs people pulling the levers, and last year they treated themselves to a new HQ.
One of the last buildings that the late, great Zaha Hadid worked on, the Havenhuis looms up at me like a ship rising from the mist. As I draw closer, over dual carriageways and bridges, past DHL depots, strip malls and car windscreen repair shops, it seems more like an axe that’s been dropped onto the port’s old fire station building that sits below it. Close up it’s almost more like a piece of flint, its angles seemingly random (they’re not, of course – they’re designed using some very complex software).
To go into to Antwerp’s new toy you need to be here during the rare tours that often sell out. Luckily I’ve scored something better, a personal whip round with architect Gert Biebauw, who worked on the building. He shows me up to the top of this strange space, from where swathes of the port can be spied as workers click away on mice, managing the ships that come in from China, Chile and everywhere in between.
The sky seems too huge for a small city as I trudge back towards Antwerp’s centre. Past the new flats and older quays of the Het Eilandje that used to brim with vessels bringing spices from the east and cloth from Britain and always a bunch of randy sailors – the red light district in the Schipperskwartier is still huge and naturally this is a town where you can really drink.
The docks are changing – the number six and number seven tram lines will extend into them for the first time this spring. I pass the Red Star Line Museum on the site where many passengers made a one-way journey from Antwerp (often after crossing Europe from the east) to New York in the 1800s – a timely reminder, of course, that much of America’s modern history is predicated on immigration.
Next up is the new Museum an der Stroom (MAS) which looks like a big Lego build and contains interesting exhibits on Antwerp’s hidden history, like the particularly dubious gains the city made from trading rubber via the Belgian Congo. Over to the east of here, near the flashy Centraal Station, which is one of the railway age’s greatest setpieces, you can find the Diamond District, where huge numbers of the precious stones are cut like they have been for centuries. For something that has come to symbolise love, much toil and many tears go into their mining and production.
As the docks fade away the harsher realities give way to kinder ones, the kind that prove conventionally attractive for weekend breaking. The Market Place is lined with the show-stopping Golden Age merchants’ houses, which line up squarely like infantry ready to march.
Port cities are open to the world, to its influences, to its challenges and its opportunities. Antwerp today is an international city boasting more than its fair share of independent boutiques south of the city centre and design studios galore.
Fashion is huge here, and on Nationalestraat I pass the flagship store of Dries Van Noten, one of Antwerp’s most famous sons. In this hip neighbourhood you can find all sorts of off-kilter fun, like Plein Publiek. This greenhouse complex in the courtyard of an old apartment block hosts evenings of dining, drinking and dancing.
A little further south is Antwerp’s excellent modern art museum, MHKA which has hosted recent exhibitions by American legend Robert Filliou and even on rave culture. And at the city's new breed of boutique boltholes like Hotel O Kathedral – in the historic old town – there are old master paintings on the wall and retro artworks in the public areas mixing the formal with the joyously flippant.
But you are never far from the water. The River Scheldt runs hard up against the city here, just a block west of the MHKA. It’s odd because I could swear, standing on the river bank, looking across the water, that I was in King’s Lynn and this was the Great Ouse. The rivers are the same size, shape, width and colour. Also like King’s Lynn, Antwerp was a Hanseatic League city – a kind of prototype of the EU in the middle ages which linked many European port cities.
But unlike many ports, which can feel shabby and past their best, Antwerp has a sheen. This is a chic city – even its docks are patently well run. Its clean streets bristle with bars and restaurants.
I eat local specialities like hare from the polders with brussels sprouts at Appelmans, where the walls are bare brick, and moules with linguine from Fiskebar. And of course some classic Belgian frites and a Cristal beer at Roest, looking through their glass floor at the remains of dock warehouses from centuries ago.
Unlike its port, Antwerp’s cute airport is tiny. But as we fly over the huge docks I see these as the asset they are. Trade has given us these goods that we crave and it’s also given us anachronistic and international cities that thrill us – like Antwerp.
Hotel O Kathedral is located in the city’s historic centre, and is crammed with Rubens-inspired artwork. Rooms start at £69. hotelokathedral.com; Cityjet offers four daily direct flights from London City Airport to Antwerp from £50 return. cityjet.com; Find out more about visiting Antwerp at visitantwerpen.be