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Rubens' House, Antwerp“When in
  Antwerp, a
  little bit of
  what you
  fancy does
  you good...”

ANTWERP IS A WON-DERFUL, FRIENDLY, SAFE AND CIVILISED CITY with many treasures and elegant shops to explore from the ornate Renaissance guild buildings of the Grote Markt (the city's opulent central square) to the Rubens museum, the zoo and the incredible choco-late shops. Oh and
if you are so inclined, wonderful fashion and interior design shops and diamonds at irresistible prices.

We visited the city late in December to sample, in particular, the restaurant Gin-Fish and, just a couple of doors down the street, the Matelote Hotel. This was the original name of the Michelin-starred Gin- Fish, although the only connection now is that the hotel's breakfasts are served in the restaurant.

Click to view the Matelote Hotel picture galleryThe Matelote is a delicious blend of 21st century style and 16th century architecture in an unbeatable location in the very heart of historic Antwerp. Situated on a narrow street just off the Grote Markt, it has ten modern — and somewhat minimalist — individ-ually-designed rooms [click on the picture to the right to view the Matelote picture gallery]. All scored high on the design scale: clean lines with soft, muted grey, white and chocolate colours all contributing to
a relaxed and pleasant setting. However, a fairly important point is the access to the bedrooms — up a small and steep staircase. From the size of the steps virtually everywhere, it is apparent that the Belgians used to once have tiny feet!

Our room was fantastic — and I mean that quite literally. The panelled walls and beamed ceiling were painted a stark but warm grey and the room furnished in a minimalist style with recessed lighting, comfy beds (with puffy duvets and crisp white cotton), a sofa and large television. The floor was quite extraordinary — it looked just like crushed grey Rice Krispies, and felt fascinatingly hard on the feet.

The bathroom was huge, with a bath big enough for a party and a separate Hi-Tech shower, with all the little additions such as tissues, hair dryer and so on to make life comfortable. In addition, there was
a programmable in-room sound system, complimentary soft drinks in
the mini-bar and tea/coffee facilities. What more could you want?

The common areas, too, are beautifully decorated, combining the antique fireplace in the sitting room with mirrors and marble floors, together with fanciful modern lights. Altogether a lovely calm and peaceful ambience.

And more was on offer. Peter, the 'innkeeper', and his staff really
went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable. Nothing was too much trouble and we could not have asked for more. Should you
want restaurant reservations made, Peter is inexhaustible with his suggestions and knowledge.

Certainly The Matelote is a brilliant place to stay, providing you are able-bodied and do not have small children. It is no criticism to say that the stairs are the only negative point of an otherwise terrific hotel.

Rooms start at €120 and rise to €190 and there is one suite, costing €240 per night. Breakfast is a nominal extra and, as already mentioned, is taken in the Gin-Fish.

We had great expectations of the popular and internationally-renowned chef Didier Garnich's food. His tiny two-level restaurant, situated in a small 16th century house on the narrow street next to The Matelote, has gained a reputation for serving some of the best fish in Antwerp. Quite an accolade for a country and city where people are epicureans and have a great variety of dining choices on offer.

Twenty-six years ago, Didier Garnich and his wife opened their first small but elegant restaurant De Matelote at the same premises, gaining a coveted Michelin star. However, Didier eventually tired of having to slavishly follow the classic formulae required in order to justify the Michelin star, and he decided to relinquish his star in order to follow his own, more relaxed, culinary path.

In mid-2003 Gin-Fish was born, offering the same attention to detail but now thirteen diners sit side-by-side at a long bar around a sunken stainless steel kitchen where they can watch the final details of their food being put together. There is no menu and instead you are served a four-course meal inspired by the best of whatever the day's market has offered.

It is certainly entertaining and flattering to have a chef assemble dishes before your eyes, and then lean across the counter to place them in front of you for your pleasure and appreciation. We found it slightly theatrical but nevertheless most enjoyable — particularly the precision and teamwork of the staff who seemed to work seamlessly without instructions.

We ate well, starting with soft scallops on a bed of crunchy avocado and cucumber salad mixed with Greek yoghurt, together with a hint of balsamic vinegar. To follow, there was a foie gras sandwich to partner a delicate mushroom soup topped fashionably with foam and a sprinkle of truffles. However, I found the truffles tasteless but would add that
I have yet to eat truffles — anywhere — that lived up to their reputation. [Good truffles are rarer than hen's teeth, and the last time we found some excellent examples was in 1984 at the Clos du Roy in Bath — Ed]

Our main course was, we felt, a little unbalanced. A delicious piece of brill presented with a cube of potato and accompanied by the new season's petite cauliflowers — a whole one, which was rather a lot! To finish, a simple but delicious baby rhubarb compote was accompanied by freshly-made vanilla ice cream, dotted with little black pieces of vanilla seeds.

Didier is not interested in masking natural flavours with various sauces or egg amalgamations, so each dish was presented with its own cooking juices whisked up to form a 'sauce'. The result was food with its own clean and distinct flavours and textures that complemented each other — crunchy with soft; smooth with crisp.

Worthy of note was the interesting and delicious 2006 Spanish sauvignon blanc wine that accompanied dinner. It was an inspired choice and set off the food beautifully.

You can opt to sit at one of several small tables in the other room where there is a bar, but I would not recommend it. I understand from Marie-Roos (Didier's wife, who is in charge of front of house) that it is not many people's first choice to dine there. The tiny, cramped room is fairly minimalist in style with rather cold grey walls, which many might not find conducive to an enjoyable culinary experience. However, the modern chandelier confection above the tables is a very good and flamboyant touch and the restaurant obviously used the same interior designer as the Matelote hotel. Certainly a startling change from the original small romantic room with tables set with beautiful table linen.

The restaurant offers two nightly sittings, totalling thirty-six covers, and is fully booked weeks in advance — so it is an absolute necessity to make a reservation. When we dined there on a Tuesday night in December, most of our fellow diners were business people entertaining, probably on expense accounts. The set four-course menu (including half-a-bottle of wine) is €80.

Gin-Fish is well worth a visit and deserves the restored Michelin star, but we have eaten fish that was just as good at the Belga Queen in Ghent. Nevertheless, Gin-Fish is a very interesting modern addition to Antwerp's treasures.

is well worth mentioning because it
is the perfect time to visit Belgium. Christmas is still a true festival here — not simply an opportunity for the high street shops to profit —so make a note
in your diary now.

The lights and decorations are ever-present but not in your face; and no tinny, jazzed-up carols. Most of the shops do dress up their windows, but to great effect. Just the right balance is the result, and it creates a refreshingly unpressured atmosphere.

One of the most attractive and unmissable places was Hans Burie's chocolate shop. The window displays are legendary and changed frequently. When we were there we saw a great chocolate ball-shaped snowboarder in a daring pose — ie, just about to fall. And all, naturally, made of chocolate. Who could resist a visit to taste the great chocolates? If you fancy a tour around his tiny factory, you'd be best advised to book well in advance.

Reading the above you might think that the Belgians are a little res-trained, as it is relatively low-key. That impression can be instantly scotched by visiting the Grote Markt where all the fabulous historic Flemish houses and buildings are festooned with Christmas lights. They are noteworthy as they are featured in a series of light 'clusters' —
and every few seconds a white ball of light 'dripped' like luminescent stalactites. Great theatre.

In the middle of the square was the 'Christmas market' and this is not like those of Prague or Munich. Whilst there are some stalls selling crafts, most sell instant pleasure — local beers, jenevers, hot wine-based drinks and interesting snacks. For the active, there is a very popular ice rink and, in an adjoining square, a small fun fair.

Talking of drinks, we explored the bars and two were particularly noteworthy: Het Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment) situated, rather appropriately, just behind the Cathedral. The Flemish are rather quirky, as this bar confirms beyond doubt. Who else would theme their bar by covering every surface (ceiling included) with religious icons? This has taken the owner twenty-five years — it works, and guess what? All the beers are made by Trappist monks, including the beer awarded the accolade of the 'best in the world'.

The second bar — the Den Engel on the Grote Markt — was recom-mended by a fellow drinker in the Elfde Gebod, and it, too, has great atmosphere and friendly service. Despite being very busy, the waitress took time to explain the various jenevers (the local gin) which come in all sorts of flavours and ages. We tried, amongst others, the black-currant-flavoured jenever — very more-ish. No class system here: you will see the street sweepers drinking shoulder-to-shoulder with the top brass in commerce, with everyone more interested in good drinks and socialising.

The illustrious League of Flemish Artists ranks Rubens highly. Antwerp is justly proud of his citizenship, and a number of pictures have stayed 'at home' on public display. You can delve a little deeper into the artist and his patron, Nicolaas Rockox — who also lived in Antwerp in a very grand house which had a friendly atmosphere. This must be infectious, as the staff was most welcoming and cheerful. He, and others, must have paid Rubens very generously as the artist's home was only a little less grand. From our point of view, it was difficult to imagine that the same hand had both designed his house and created such a moving and stunning body of work on canvas, as they were so different in approach and feel.

High culture often accompanies somewhat lower culture and here we found interest in the city's ancient sewers, which have recently been added to the tourist trail! They have the advantage over the Paris sewers in that you get an underground boat trip and you feel a bit more involved as you have to be kitted out in very full, all-weather gear for the wading part of the adventure. Somehow they managed to find an appropriate smell as you enter this underground labyrinth of canals.

Thankfully, today it is imported clean water that one floats over and wades through, so perhaps the smell is ingrained in the brick walls…? Whatever, they set the scene well, including a large display of Wellies that would inspire Damien Hirst! So it was that we entered with a degree of trepidation — or should that be amazement — that we had decided to venture where we could meet unmentionables far worse than rats? We were surprised to emerge both unsullied and to have actually enjoyed the experience!

OF COURSE, YOU CANNOT VENTURE INTO BELGIUM WITHOUT TRY-ING THEIR HOT CHOCOLATE — and here it is drunk in some style. At the Guylian café, the drink is served in a large, individual jug and you pour this into a huge cup containing large pieces of dark chocolate before stirring vigorously. The result is a smooth, unctuous liquid far removed from our Cadbury
's hot chocolate. Naturally, this was accompanied by a chocolate praline — as are all cups of coffee in the cafés. Bliss

Whilst on the subject of cafés, we must mention the Lantern café just opposite the Matelote. The Belgian apple pie served there was to die for — quite, quite delicious and a must with a cup of coffee for a pick-me-up after a long day of sightseeing.

Some fifteen years ago we made several visits to Antwerp which we very much enjoyed at the time, but back then there were some fairly run down areas. These now seem to have disappeared, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that the original spirit of the area and street layout has been retained, with conversions where possible and gaps filled in with new buildings.

Art Nouveau house in Antwerp

One area that nearly fell to the demolition hammer is the exotic early-20th century architecture in half a dozen streets in Zurenborg, just within the frenetic ring road. Some thirty years ago, squatters pro-tested loud enough and long enough to make people aware of the treasures that were at risk — ie, a vibrant mix of houses from every style imaginable, all so joyfully expressed cheek-by-jowl in the grand scale.

One could imagine a very merry party, where people vied to outdo others with ever-more extravagant designs of large houses. What is more, they had the funds and the confidence to follow up their design aspirations. These houses have largely been restored and now give
the greatest of pleasure to both onlookers and residents alike. — Bonnie Stevens

MotorBar would like to thank Tourism Flanders-Brussels for providing the food in Gin-Fish and the Hotel Matelote
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Gin-Fish: Haarstraat 9, B2000, Antwerpen
Tel: +32 (0)3 231 32 07

Matelote Hotel: Haarstraat 11a, B 2000, Antwerpen
Tel: +32 (0)3 201 88 00

Burie Chocolates

Den Engel: Grote Markt 3

Het Elfde Gebod

Sewers Walk (appropriately, 'ruienwandeling' in Flemish)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Antwerp