City at the heart of a revival

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Antwerp is trying to find a new role for itself, Stephen Thomas discovers

Political graft, Mafia-style killings, police corruption and paedophile rings have given Belgium a terrible press, but at least it makes it easier to sidestep crass stereotypes about chips and beer and all those tiresome "famous Belgians" jokes. Serious things go on in Belgium. It is a paradoxical country, derided for its unfashionably interventionist policies and hefty national debt, yet beating the UK in at least one measure of world competitiveness.

A history of military occupation has taught Belgians to keep their heads below the parapet. This has produced a deceptively rich cultural and social system, the product of quiet determination rather than aggressive self-assertion.

Antwerp is a case in point. It is a city at the forefront of a Flemish revival which has seen the industrially exhausted Wallonia lose its pre-eminence. Antwerp has surged ahead on the back of hi-tech industry, a reputation for design, investment in culture and increasing popularity as a dormitory for Eurocrats from Brussels. The city has also profited from the autonomy given to Flanders under the new Belgian federal structure adopted in 1993.

Antwerp's economic life centres on the port, Europe's second biggest. It feeds into Belgium's dense network of canals and motorways, with 16,000 ships discharging and loading l00 million tonnes of cargo a year. The "Flandria" boat tours give a striking sense of the working life of a modern harbour: flames belching from petro-chemical installations, the giant container terminals, and barges bringing steel products from Germany.

Antwerp's diamond industry, concentrated round the Central Station, is the world's largest. Stones come to be cut, re-cut, polished and sold. The Provincaal Diament Museum in Langeherentaalstraat has displays showing diamond processing from extraction to distribution. The workshops and exchanges are round the corner behind police barriers set up to protect Jewish workers and owners from racist attacks.

Flemish urban planning shows little evidence of the sleekly coherent master-planning of Belgium's neighbours the Dutch, the French and the Germans. Frank de Bruyne of the City Planning Department bemoaned the centralised system which concentrates decision-making at the level of the federal government, as well as EU-induced public expenditure cuts.

"Just look out of the window," he said wearily, "you can see that we are not very good at planning." Belgium's tradition of weak planning controls and minimal regulation of building heights has led to bizarre street frontages with 17th-century gables sitting uneasily alongside eight-storey 1960s functionalism.

There are three major projects to regenerate the river frontages and the old dock. Jan Corteel, director of the Tourist Information Office, spoke of the city's efforts to place culture and tourism at the centre of a drive to replace a dreary commercial past with new forms of urban life. Tourism, the city's second biggest source of income, will be enhanced with the opening of a landing stage on the Schelde bringing cruise ships to within a two-minute walk of the medieval centre.

The best way of seeing Antwerp is on one of the innovative tours run by Antwerpen Averechts. Its director, Vic Meese, has put together a set of alternative tours taking in off-beat areas such as the Falconplein or "Red Square" established by Russian Jews to service sailors from the Soviet Union.

Antwerpen Averechts also runs bike rides to see the early morning port activities, visits to the city's fruit and vegetable markets, and walks round the diamond and Jewish quarter.

Antwerp makes an interesting case study because of the visibility of its economic and social life. It is a focus for issues of regional autonomy versus centralism, demonstrates the impact of the European Union on urban life and public policy, mirrors European ethnic tensions and is a striking example of a city trying to find a new role in the face of a declining economic base.

Details: Port of Antwerp Promotions Department, Kolvenierstraat, Antwerpen. Tel: 00 33 2 231 17 74

Flandria tours of the port and the Schelde, Steenplein, 2000, Antwerpen. Tel: 33 2 231 31 00

Antwerpen Averechts, Haringrokerij, Kronenburgsatraat 34 bus 1, 2000 Antwerpen. Tel: 00 33 2 248 15 77

European Study Tours offers opportunities for study visits to Antwerp. Tel: 0171 388 9101

Schools Abroad's tour programme to Belgium also takes in the city. Tel: 0117 9253545

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