WHERE BELGIAN WAFFLES are simply "waffles" and fries aren't French but "Belgian fries." Lovely, lively Antwerp provided me my first encounter with Belgium, expanding my chocolates-and-beer notion of the country with both impressive historical sites and edgier new sightings.
Of the old world, Rubenshuis houses works by Peter Paul Rubens, in the Italian-style villa that was his home. Designed by the artist himself, the 17th century palace served as living space and studio, with an interior courtyard, baroque garden and portico. From the same century, Carolus Borromeuskerk is a baroque church on the Hendrik Conscienceplein. While the church is breathtaking, charm surrounds the entire square, lined with cafes and littered with both bohemian musicians and fashionable passers-by.
Home for a few days was De Witte Lelie, yet another 17th century gem. Spanning three white gabled buildings, the 11-suite hotel has delightful interiors and is a stone's throw from Grote Markt's Medieval guild houses. Further inland, Antwerpen-Centraal is not as old but equally of note. Built between 1895 and 1905, the marvelously eclectic train station by Louis Delacenserie is so beautiful, it is a destination in itself.
For fashionistas, Antwerp is home to avant-garde fashion, hatched in the 80s by the Antwerp Six: Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee. Credited for putting Belgian fashion on the style map, the sextet are alumni of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which celebrates its Fashion Department's 50th anniversary this month with an exhibition at MoMu.
The only spoiler to my splendid Antwerpian encounter was the frequency of summer showers. Clouds would loom, rain would pour and what follows would be ducking into a cafe, the nearest nook or heading back to the hotel.
But no matter. On a dreary day, Belgium has chocolate.
Hotel De Witte Lelie, Rubenshuis, Antwerpen-Centraal, Hendrik Conscienceplein, Wouters & Hendriks, Dries Van Noten and Mode Museum, Antwerp. Photos by Lady San Pedro and Jaime Sese.