Three Hours or Less by Train From Paris: Antwerp

Another destination in Belgium, Antwerp is a great getaway from Paris to spend two or three days in.

We took the Thalys train from Gard du Nord and arrived in Antwerp in two hours and ten minutes. The Antwerp Centraal station was a terrific welcome to the city, a wonder of glass, metal, and stone with a vast dome hovering above the waiting room hall. Constructed between 1895 and 1905 for the new age of railroad travel, the station is considered one of the finest examples of railroad architecture in Europe.

The capital of Flemish Belgium, Antwerp is best known for being the diamond center of Europe and Port Antwerp is one of the largest ship ports in the world. However, Antwerp is a rich and diversified cultural center, which we took full advantage of.

In our two-day visit we had to carefully select which museums to visit, since there was such a vast choice and not enough time.

The former palazzo and studio of Antwerp’s most celebrated artist, Peter Paul Rubens, was turned into a museum in 1946. The palatial 17th century home has a sizable collection of Rubens' and his peer’s works. After touring the darkened rooms of so many masterpieces, we took a short break in the lovely, formal gardens.

Another supreme example of 16th century Flemish architecture is the Museum Plantin Moretus. The handsome brick and stone edifice with a formal courtyard garden was the original home and workshop of the Plantin and Moretus publishing family. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the museum holds some of the oldest printing machines in the world along with thousands of historical books and a fine art collection.

Antwerp is serious destination for fashion. In the late 1980s a group of fashion designers who earlier studied at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts started their own brands. Called the Antwerp 6, (Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee) they electrified the bourgeois fashion world with their avant garde designs and put Belgium on the map as a new design center along with New York, Milan and Paris.

Martin Margiela was another brilliant talent along side the Antwerp 6, whose brand also cemented Antwerp’s hold on fashion. We visited the Dries Van Noten flagship boutique, a two-story wonderland of gorgeous clothing, accessories and lush perfumes. Steenhouwersvest street has an impressive array of cutting-edge Belgian fashion brands, including Ginger, Damoy and Christian Wijnants.

A generation later in the late 1990s on the heels of the Antwerp 6, Olivier Theyskens shot to fame with his reinterpretation of Gothic style by dressing Madonna for the 1998 Oscars. His prolific career since then is beautifully illustrated in an exhibition at the Mode Museum, She Walks in Beauty. The show covers two decades of Theyskens' distinctive designs, which has included stints at design houses Nina Ricci, Rochas and American clothing brand Theory.

A must-visit for architecture aficionados is the Zurenborg neighborhood. The main avenue, Cogels Osylei, and surrounding side streets have a breathtaking collection of Art Nouveau, Gothic Revival, Neo-Renaissance, Greek Revival, and Neoclassical houses constructed between 1894 and 1906. On the edge of Zuerenborg, we had a latte and homemade cake at the most charming coffee bar, Maurice.

No visit to Belgium would be complete without a taste of their renowned chocolate. Probably the most extravagant chocolate shop is The Chocolate Line, housed in the 18th century Paleis op de Meir, once lived in by Napoleon. As we were purchasing our exotic flavored chocolates of sake, Tabasco, and wasabi by master chocolatier Dominique Persoone, we admired the sumptuous hand-painted murals, gold rococo moldings and marble statues alongside the mouth-watering showcases of chocolate delights.

Renaissance, an 8,000 square foot fashion concept shop stocking top European fashion labels, has a trendy restaurant attached to it where we had an excellent lunch of the freshest pasta and creamy Buratta cheese. We had an extraordinary four-course tasting dinner menu at In de Balans, where chef Piet de Buysscher prepares his creative cuisine in an open kitchen.

We had a delightful stay at De koning van Spanje, a lovely bed and breakfast in the heart of the old quarter of Antwerp. Owned and operated by the delightful couple Georgette and Karl Timmermans, they painstakingly renovated a 16th century house and converted it into a three-suite bed and breakfast. Our room was quite spacious, with the luxurious bathroom equal to the room size. The bathroom had a freestanding bathtub with whirlpool and a separate walk-in shower. In the morning Georgette served fresh-baked pastries and scrambled eggs on antique plates and strong black coffee in a dainty china teacup. Karl, a retired museum curator, was a great help in navigating the museums. Every attraction we visited was no more than a 20-minute walk from De Connick van Spagnien.

We packed in quite a lot in our 36-hour sojourn to Antwerp and could have spent another day to see some things we missed.

You can book your train Thalys train from Paris to Antwerp at https://www.thalys.com/fr/en/.

Rubenheis/Rubens Museum
Wapper 9-11, 2000
http://www.rubenshuis.be/en

Museum Plantin Moretus
Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, 2000
http://www.museumplantinmoretus.be/en

Dries Van Noten
Nationalestraat 16, 2000

Mode Museum
Nationalestraat 28, 2000
https://www.momu.be/en.html
She Walks in Beauty exhibition until April 15, 2018

The Chocolate Line
Meir 50
http://www.thechocolateline.be/en/

Renaissance
Nationalestraat 32
http://www.princess.eu/store/renaissance/

In de Balans
Kaasrui 7, 2000
https://www.indebalans.be/

De koning van Spanje
Nieuwstraat 12
www.dekoningvanspanje.be

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