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Flanders – Through the Lady’s Finger

Chocolates, diamonds and fashion…it’s all there in the charming and contemporary Flanders in Belgium

Chocolates and diamonds. Both are mood foods in their own way. Nothing can make a girl happier than chocolates or diamonds. If women are reading this, I am sure they are saying “Aye” in their mind. If men are reading this, well, I am sure they already know this, and they are saying “Aye” too! The best place to get these both in abundance is Flanders. Not only do you get the best quality of Belgian chocolates and diamonds here, but the best deals as well.

Dazzling Diamonds

Back in the Middle Ages, when trade routes were being established, Bruges acquired a reputation for producing fine gems from uncut stones. It might have retained that reputation but for the silting up of the river Zwin. Without its river, Bruges lost its trading power, which was taken over by Antwerp with its new and better facilities. Diamond cutters migrated to the new city and honed their cutting expertise. Soon they were much in demand from European royal households.

But, by the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had overtaken Antwerp as Europe’s commercial heart and also the centre of the diamond industry. Amsterdam kept the best stones for its own workers, passing on the inferior, smaller ones to Antwerp. Not the city to lose hope, Antwerp’s craftsmen learnt how to transform small, mediocre stones into exquisitely cut gems. With the discovery of diamonds in other countries and the increasing demand for gemstones, Antwerp’s future was assured.

Antwerp, built around the country’s most impressive cathedral, is as beautiful and intimate as it was centuries ago. The cobbled lanes and backstreets are hosts to charming restaurants and bars, antique shops, art galleries, exclusive chocolate outlets, designer boutiques and diamond shops where Antwerpenaars enjoy spending money.

Antwerp Flanders Belgium The Antwerp Diamond Centre, home to 1,500 diamond companies and four diamond bourses or exchanges, covers one square mile of the city, where you can also find some good restaurants. It is in Antwerp that 70 per cent of the world’s diamonds are cut, polished or traded every year. Not only white, but you will also find orange, brown, pink, green or blue coloured real diamonds here. The city specialises in the three ‘Cs’ of diamonds – cut, clarity and colour.

To learn about the transformation of diamond from a stone to a glittering piece of jewellery, and maybe buy one, you can visit Diamond Land on Appel Mans Street. The Diamond Museum on Koningin Astridplein is also well worth a visit. Visitors in Bruges interested in the role that city played in the diamond trade in the Middle Ages should head for the Diamond Museum in Katelijnestraat.

Fine Chocolates

Belgium, as you know by now, is renowned world wide for its chocolate. There are so many shops selling chocolates in Flanders that you will almost feel the streets paved with this divine substance. Belgian chocolates are made from cocoa paste, sugar and cocoa butter. The purer the cocoa butter, the better the chocolate. Also, the smoother the chocolate, the better it is. It takes skill to recognize the exact point when the chocolate is at its best.

Many chocolate shops sell boxed and packaged chocolates. But it is far more exciting to go into a shop and make your own selection. Tell the white-gloved assistant what size box (known as ballotins) you want and work your way along the displays telling them which to pick.

You will also see amazing works of art created out of chocolate. At Easter time, you are quite likely to see giant rabbits. If you are in Brussels there might be a reproduction of part of the Grand Place.

Antwerp at night

In Antwerp, better-known brands to look for are Del Rey, Guylian and Burie. In Brussels, look out for Pierre Marcolini and Neuhaus. Neuhaus’s was the first chocolate to open in Brussels and created the first praline in 1912. In Ghent, search out Van Hoorbeke. Look out for artisan chocolatiers, like Chocolatier Van Oost and Chocolate Line in Bruges.

You can even combine chocolates and diamonds now! A top chocolatier from Burges, Dominique Persoone, created a chocolate jewel along with Antwerp diamond dealer David Van Turnhout. The diamond is rests in a real cocoa bar. The makers say, “The chocolate jewel is portable and edible. The jewel is suitable to wear at temperatures up to 25 degrees. Around the chocolate is a protective layer to keep it from melting in your hand.” The chocolate remains solid even if the jewel is in contact with skin and body heat. The chocolate bar is resting on a silver frame. Peersoone realizes that the chocolate jewel can’t be preserved forever, “It’s still chocolate and a product that many women are addicted to. They can loosen the bar and eat, and then replace it with more chocolate.” The chocolate jewel costs between Euros 4,000-6,000. They have already received the first order too!

Intellectual Fashion

Antwerp’s status as a celebrated fashion hub means it’s a crowd-puller for shoppers. Antwerp boasts an astonishing number of world-acclaimed fashion designers. Many have set up boutiques here. Designer-led stores buzz with shoppers looking for the latest in hip clothing and accessories. Antwerp’s club culture has expanded over time. Club extravaganzas burst out in summer and the nights beat to the coolest vibes.

The Antwerp fashion scene is clustered in and around Nationalestraat. The ModeNatie at the corner of Nationalestraat and Drukkerijstraat is the creative fashion heart of Antwerp. The MoMu Fashion Museum, the world-renowned Fashion Academy and the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI) have all set up home here. Major international names as well as former Fashion Academy students are also well represented in Lombardenvest and Steenhouwersvest. Kammenstraat features an eclectic mix of posh boutiques and street wear stores for a hip, trendy and young audience.

Whether you’re looking for chic, casual or trendy, or a combination of special accessories, the Wilde Zee neighbourhood, Huidevetterstraat and Lange Gasthuisstraat are the places to find your style. The Wilde Zee neighbourhood consists of five pleasant shopping streets: Korte Gasthuisstraat, Lombardenvest, Wiegstraat, Groendalstraat and Schrijnwerkerstraat. Gourmets will be delighted to take their pick of exquisite delicacies, delicious lunches or breakfasts. The beautiful Nieuwe Gaanderij gallery with its boutiques will lead you into the Huidevettersstraat.

Cosmopolitan, charming and full of contrasts, Antwerp is a must-visit luxury destination!