Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Girl's Favourite City

I knew as soon as I got off the train in Antwerp (I took the train from Brussels as hitching out of a big city is always difficult and I couldn't justify the hassle for such a short distance) that I would like the city. Not only is it a beautiful lend of old and new, but instead of spreading out to accommodate its many tracks and platforms the station has delved deep and is layered over 4 floors with trains running above and below each other. My geeky half was more than impressed.

Antwerp's magnificent railway station.

Anyway, this is not a trainspotter's guide, so on with the show. Antwerp is Belgium's second city and is known for three things: ships, shirts and stones. Although the city doesn't make much of a song and dance about it, its port is the second busiest in Europe and (depending on how its measured) in the top 10 or 20 in the world. This lends the city a more cosmopolitan vibe with its sizeable population of sailors (and the various service industries that cater to them). The big harbour is understandable given Antwerp's central location in western Europe and its good transport connections to the rest of the continent. What's less understandable however, was the imposing cruise ship full of geriatrics on holiday - obviously they hadn't looked at the climate charts before buying their tickets, as the rain yesterday was horizontal and the temperatures arctic. The aforementioned shirts refer to Antwerp's fame as the style capital of Benelux, with a prestigious fashion college and scores of trendy, artsy boutiques (I know nothing about fashion but I could tell that they were very stylish because all the clothes looked awful to me and ridiculously overpriced - I did, however, see a neat "fusion" shop that was both a shoe shop and restaurant at the same time).

But it is Antwerp's stones that intrigued me most. The city is the undisputed capital of the world's diamond trade, with 80% of rough diamonds, and 50% of cut ones, being traded in one of Antwerp's 4 diamond bourses. The diamond industry, despite its luxurious image, centres around the shady district surrounding the train station. The whole enterprise looks rather seedy, with deals occurring in dirty, back alleyways and branches of banks from suspect countries (you can find offices from Thai, Indian, Chinese, South African, Nigerian and Gulf banks on just a couple of small streets). The trade is dominated by Jews, with a very visible Haredi community sporting curly side-locks, long lack coats and strange hats - you would be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported to (an admittedly cold) Jerusalem if you were to take a wrong turning out of the train station upon arrival. he Jewish community is so large and important in Antwerp, that it is one of the few towns in Europe to have an eruv. But over the past few years they have had some stiff competition from the Indians who are beginning to muscle in on the diamond market and can be conspicuously seen around the diamond quarter. Apparently there have recently been several cases of break-ins and kidnappings which have shocked the rarefied diamond community - though whether this is an overflow of the Indian-Jewish rivalry or organised gangs trying to get in on the act is not known. Not that it affects normal passers-by, just don't start pointing your camera at people loitering in doorways...

Hasidic Jew in traditional garb loitering in Antwerp's diamond district.

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