Belgium: Old World, New Style
There was one major gay bar in southern Ohio in the 1980s. It was called the Dock and I would park in a deserted gravel lot and run to the entrance for fear of being hit by a wayward beer bottle, or a homophobic slur that would cut deeper and probably do more long-term damage. So when I arrived this summer in Antwerp, Belgium for their 3rd annual Gay Pride Celebration and visited City Hall - a government building that has regularly hosted same-sex marriages since 2003 - I realized that although change is slow to come in the United States, the world view is widening its lense on the LGBT platform.
Belgium is an interesting mix of old-world traditions and modern style. The northern cities of Antwerp, Ghent, and BrusseIs embrace the rich cultural history of northern Europe and have become landmarks for fashion, education, art and music. Walking the streets amid the soaring spire of the Antwerp Cathedral or devouring mussels in an open-air café late into the night, I rarely thought about being gay in Belgium.
Instead, I was a tourist in pursuit of the things that bring me joy: food, spirits, artisan shops, and local flair. Pride flags flew abundantly overhead; but on the streets, pride was embodied in a nonchalant attitude that seemed to say, "Really? What’s the fuss?"
Antwerp considers itself the fashion capital of northern Europe, and I didn’t doubt it as several fashion-forward passengers were on my transatlantic flight with sunglasses clutched between bleached white teeth and overstuffed dress bags sweeping the aisle of the plane as they boarded. Although I didn’t run into any of them in my pursuits, I did stumble on some unique districts worth checking out.
The Meir is Antwerp’s largest commercial shopping street; featuring international brands and just a short walk from Central Station if arriving by train. As I wandered east, the ModeNatie district revealed more avant-garde designers along with MoMu (the fashion museum) and the Flanders Fashion Institute. I could have spent all day in Copyright - a stunning bookshop focusing on art, architecture, and design - but local libations beckoned me.
Gin’s Sassy Cousin
The Grote Markt in the historic center was a perfect place to catch my breath and grab a De Koninck beer at Brasserie Appelmans. The restaurant features a locavore menu and once housed both official documents associated with the adjacent cathedral as well as a private stash of wine for the priests.
Within walking distance is de Vagant, a charming shop whose sole product is jenever. Think of it as gin’s sassy cousin. Distilled from the juniper berry and sometimes infused with a range of flavors from passion fruit to coffee or almonds, it’s not for the faint of heart. In fact, it makes quite a potent aperitif.