travel: A gem of a city; Modern, vibrant and full of surprises, BELINDA SZONERT says Belgium's second city Antwerp is simply a great place to visit...
WHEN Napoleon Bonaparte visited Antwerp in 1803, he did not mince his words with his opinion of the city as "the most backward provincial nest I have ever seen".
The story goes that he slept on this thought overnight, and the next day - with the invasion of England at the back of his mind - ordered docks to be built. To him the Scheldt, on the banks of which the city stands, looked like a gun barrel aiming at his biggest enemy. London.
Today's visitors to Antwerp, the second largest city in Belgium, will discover that it is modern, vibrant and full of surprises.
The busy port, which the French emperor helped to create, still plays an important role in the economic life of the place. But nowadays, with the lure of Rubens and diamonds, great architecture, fantastic shopping, atmospheric bars, and fine wining and dining, it's simply a great place to visit.
The Dutch have been making Antwerp a popular weekend break destination for years, whereas the typical British holidaymaker will probably head for Bruges.
The two destinations havemuch in common, with beautiful buildings, museums and galleries, and shops selling exquisite, hand-made chocolates to tempt the most hardened of dieters. But Antwerp has another jewel in its crown - the diamond industry. More than 80% of the world's production of rough and industrial diamonds pass through the city, and a staggering 50% of all polished stones are traded here. It's therefore no wonder that you will also find the most renowned, specialised diamond cutters and polishers in the world.
Hundreds of international firms have their headquarters in a heavily-guarded zone near the Central Station. Here, Belgians, Indians, Australians, Russians, Lebanese, Africans, Japanese and many other nationalities rub shoulders with one another.
Visit Diamondland to see professional diamond craftsmen at work and learn more about the industry.
There's also a showroom with more than 2,500 pieces of diamond jewellery and polished diamonds on display. Any diamond purchased here comes with a certificate of authenticity.
There are even special packages available for couples looking for that perfect diamond ring - with hotel accommodation thrown in according to how much your chosen little rock will set you back. Chocolate diamonds are also on sale for those without the cash to splash on the real thing.
The Diamond Museum is also worth a visit while art aficionados may prefer to take in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Situated in the heart of the trendy southern part of Antwerp, this stately 19th century building houses some magnificent works of art and offers an overview of the history of artistic life in Flanders and Belgium.
Be prepared to be overwhelmed by an impressive collection of baroque art works by Rubens and his contemporaries. The 19th century salon artists and the modernist painters James Ensor and Rik Wouters are also represented. Flemish masterpieces rub shoulders with works by artists such as Jean Fouquet, Titian, Frans Hals, Auguste Rodin and Amedeo Modigliani.
Peter Paul Rubens is probably Antwerp's best-known adoptive son. Although born in Germany, the artist made his home in the city and today his former home can be visited and admired.
He acquired the dwelling on Wapper Street in 1610 at the age of 33 and expanded it into a spectacular palazzo. The present collection of the Rubens House comprises 10 works by the master himself, including his renowned self-portrait.
The impressive Cathedral of Our Lady dominates the Antwerp skyline and boasts yet more breathtaking paintings by Rubens, including 'Raising of the Cross' and 'Descent from the Cross'. The cathedral, which took 170 years to build, is the largest Gothic church in the former Low Countries and has undergone extensive restoration.
The centre of Antwerp boasts five prominent churches and the baroque St Charles Borromaeus Church is also worthy of a visit, if only to admire its magnificent facade.
If all this culture leaves you craving some retail therapy, you'll find the city is blessed with a rich and diverse range of stores. Even better yet, the shopping zones are contained in the cultural and historic sections of the city.
Lovers of bric-a-brac, old books and prints can go treasure-hunting in the shops along Minderbroedersrui, Hoogstraat and Kloosterstraat - one long street with a huge concentration of stores selling collectibles.
On Sunday mornings the stallholders of the famous Vogelenmarkt (bird market) set up shop.
This is a spectacle that you really shouldn't miss, and illustrates how different cultures view God's creatures.
Belgium is, of course, famed for its beers - and the amber-coloured 'bolleke' served in Antwerp's bars and restaurants is a popular choice. Also recommended is the 'Elixir d'Anvers', a liqueur with digestive properties based on 32 plants and herbs.
This is truly a city of contrasts where old and new sit side by side.
Belinda Szonert was a guest of Tourism Flanders and P&O Ferries, which runs daily overnight Hull-Zeebrugge crossings from pounds 133 each way for a car and two passengers sharing an ensuite cabin (Antwerp is approximately one hour's drive from Zeebrugge).
P&O foot passengers pay from pounds 104 single for two sharing en suite cabin. Mini-cruises start at pounds 64 per person return, sometimes with' two for one' offers.
For information about visiting Antwerp, call 0207 7307 7738 or www.visitflanmders.co.uk
PORT OF CALL: Antwerp's Great Market