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.
Art & Architecture
Antwerp offers a bounty of riches in terms of architecture and art. Art Nouveau was established in Belgium and is beautifully exemplified in the Cogels-Osylei quarter, where prominent residents had an architectural smackdown in the early part of the 20th century. The result is an eclectic mix of style and interpretation.
Also not to be missed is The Ruben’s House. A master of the Flemish Baroque style, Peter Paul Rubens spent most of his life in Antwerp, and the home has been converted into a museum that features both his work and other signature pieces of the 17th century. Although the bed was too short to consider reclining (or much else, for that matter), it was charming to visit and be around some not-so-skinny people - even if they were just in the paintings.
When the Sun Sets
Another house worth checking out is Het Roze Huis (The Pink House), which is an umbrella organization that supports dozens of LGBT groups. On the main floor is The Dragon, a popular café where I mapped out my nightlife strategy.
Local guidebooks led me to the Popi Café, which sits adjacent to the Scheldt River. It’s the perfect location to watch the sun set and socialize, with a friendly staff that churns out inexpensive happy hour drinks.
Later that night, I headed to Red & Blue, one of the largest gay dance clubs in the city. While I’m sure the DJ kept the party going into the wee hours of the morning, I was ready for an iron lung after about an hour due to my nicotine-addicted European counterparts who continued swilling the champagne.
A Reinvented Classic
I couldn’t depart the following day without embracing the quintessential Belgian product: chocolate. Shops featuring truffles and pralines appear on virtually every corner. Only one, however, can boast the whimsical creations and showmanship of Dominique Persoone and The Chocolate Line. I caught Persoone in action at his new Antwerp outpost as he shared samples that included a tequila shooter; a white chocolate, passion fruit, and green lime concoction; and a "cola" chocolate that fizzled when I popped it in my mouth. By the end of our tasting, he was smearing chocolate lipstick across his face and snorting pure cocoa powder off of a Lucite shooter than was originally created for the Rolling Stones. This is a man who takes his chocolate seriously.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Del Rey, a classic chocolatier that has been at the forefront of the chocolate industry since World War II. Their style is more traditional, featuring pralines with fillings such as ganache and gianduja. The shop was several blocks from my hotel and I managed to eat most of my purchase before reaching my room.
As I packed my bags, now overflowing with new additions to my wardrobe, a handful of flavored jenever bottles and a half-eaten box of chocolate, I took a moment to size up Antwerp and the Belgian people in general ... and realized that I didn’t need to.
It is our nature to want to define and compartmentalize a culture. But the joy and uniqueness of Belgium comes from the integration of old and new: century-old traditions and modern trends converging on the palette, on the runway, and in the spirit of the LGBT community.
The Short List
Direct flights available on American Airlines and Delta
Leopold Hotel, from 83€ per night
Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, from from 82€ per night
Mark Your Calendar:
World Outgames, Augusts 3 - 11, 2013