Discovering Antwerp, the Hotspot of Chocolate, Diamonds and Fashion


The city of chocolate, diamonds, fashion, art, antique and architecture. And beer! That’s quite a list of highlights for one city. We visited this Belgian gem two weeks ago and now I’ll share my selected tips.

Antwerp is convenient when it comes to getting there: a 2,5 hour flight from Helsinki and then a half hour train ride from the Brussels airport. We took the afternoon flight on Friday and were strolling along the cobbled lanes of Antwerp in search of an atmospheric mussels restaurant during (late) dinner time. And found a tasty one (Xaverius, Oude Koornmarkt 21)! Let’s dive into the culinary delights shortly.

First, must say that on Saturday, November 16, it was slightly tricky to find a nice and cosy late breakfast spot with two available seats as that day marked the yearly arrival of  Sinterklaas to Belgium,  an occasion we were utterly unaware of. The streets around the Bonapartedok were packed with families, strollers and children who had exceeded their sugar overdose for the upcoming week as well.

The Sinterklaas festivities begin in mid-November as he arrives by boat from Spain. In Belgium he always arrives in the port of Antwerp. Then he parades through the streets, the children are singing and the assistants of Sinterklaas, the Zwarte Piet, throw small spiced biscuits and candy to the cheering crowd. In the coming days children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or on the windowsill in hope that Sinterklaas will come and bring some presents during the night time. The anticipation culminates on the eve of the Feast day when the main Sinterklaas parties take place. This tradition has received criticism because of the Zwarte Piet character but based on what we saw that Saturday, the tradition, or at least the parade, is still very popular.


Now, back to my Antwerp favorites. The best restaurant, without doubt was Fiskeskur (Kattendijkdok-Oostkaai 20b). This place is excellent. We both had a fish curry: super rich and delicious, fireworks for the palate really. The wine list was delightfully impressive, the service was warm, and the mood was cosy and laid-back. Extra points for the Latin rhythms. We found the place by following the tempting fish aroma when we were walking towards the Port Authority.

The architectural wonder: the Port Authority Building. Its architecture combines tradition with futurism. The building is captivating, a real eye-catcher, and the stroll to see it makes for a good (and windy, in November) afternoon walk. Antwerp is Belgium’s biggest port and infact world’s fourth largest port complex and back in the day (like more than 400 hundred years back) it was one of Europe’s most important cities. On the way back the yummy fish curry awaits. Architecturally impressive is also the Antwerpen-Centraal train station, check it out!



The most interesting chocolate experience was the Chocolate Nation (Koningin Astridplein 7), which manifests itself as the Valhalla for chocolate lovers. The visitors are taken on an audio-guided journey to the history of Belgian chocolate. It was quite exciting: the execution was creative and interactive and I bet it appeals to both children and older chocolate aficionados. And, as one would expect, in the end we got to taste many different flavors, in liquid form. As they say, the only thing better than chocolate is more chocolate.

As for the diamonds, didn’t buy any (I’d rather save up for the next adventure, be it big or small); antiques (carry-on baggage pretty much excluded purchasing any antique dressers or mirrors) and fashion: I bought one beautiful leather hand bag from the Old town, an item which I’ll very likely use for years. And the Leonida’s chocolate ended up in a very safe place as did the Belgian waffles: the best one was purchased from a tiny cart on the street while we were on our way to the Grote Markt (market square).

Spectacular Ronda



Ronda is definitely one of those places where you first take 300 photos, decide now I have plenty of snapshots and then very soon realize that you absolutely need to take 300 more because a) the light changed just a little bit and everything looks purely incredible in this new lighting, b) this must be one of the top ten most photogenic places I’ve ever been to and c) when everyone else is photographing constantly it is slightly difficult to not to do so yourself.

Ronda is a beautiful small city in the province of Málaga in Southern Spain, around 100 kilometres west of Málaga. I’ll share my dos and don’ts to this gorgeous city situated on the top of El Tajo gorge.

Well actually there’s just one don’t: don’t be afraid to visit the city. Beforehand I was wondering whether Ronda is difficult to reach and if the roads leading up there are narrow zigzag serpentine mountain roads, but nope. There were bends and curves along the way but mostly it was a pleasant ride in a peaceful countryside setting with glimpses of sheep and goats pasturing on the fields near by. Ronda is accessible via highways for example from Córdoba, Málaga and Seville.

And then to the dos. First and foremost, the Puente Nuevo, a bridge which separates the old town and the modern city centre. Far far below in the gorge flows the Río Guadalevín. The view is incredible, dramatic and dazzling. For another excellent view point you can descend to the bottom of the gorge via the rock stairs on the side of the old town and you’ll reach the Camino de los Molinos and several great photo spots.



The deep ravine, the city located on its edge, the sweet sunshine in late December, the vineyards on the hills around the city and the mountains far away: an excellent day trip destination.



I would also recommend you visit the Casa del Rey Moro. There you’ll find La Mina, a tunnel and an Islamic staircase with more than three hundred stone steps which lead down to the river below. Be careful, some of the steps are wet and slippery. The descent is both a bit exciting and totally worth it, because once down there you can see the reflection of the city above in the surface of the water.



After the stair climbing (rather than before) you can enjoy this wine with a view tip: the terrace, bar & restaurant El Morabito (Plaza Maria Auxiliadora 4), located on the backyard of an old palace. As a bonus we spotted this tower-like special place with one table and chairs and decided to enjoy the vista and some local grape products up there.




The Plaza deToros, close to the Puente Nuevo, is one of Ronda’s top sights, but we didn’t visit it. Bullfighting in its modern form is considered to be invented in Ronda. The bullring is the largest and hence most dangerous bullfighting ring in all of Spain. Bullfighting is a divisive issue and you can decide for yourself whether you want to visit the venue or not.

What is for sure is that Ronda will rock you to the core. Promise.

Christmas Vibes under the Andalucían Sun



One of the best things on our Christmas holiday in the South of Spain? Light. Light. Light. Sunlight. Sunrays. After a long period of moist darkness in Finland, my every cell was yearning for solar energy. And that’s exactly what we got. Plus, a bunch of unforgettable experiences.

We spent the yuletide in Andalucía. We flew to Malaga and spent the first half of our vacation at Costa del Sol and did day trips to Marbella, Malaga and Ronda. The second half we spent in historic Córdoba, the city with the mesmerizing Mezquita mosque. It has become almost a tradition for us to spend Christmas abroad. Not to escape Xmas, but rather to make the most of the holiday season and to spice it with a bit of adventure. We’ve had Christmas treats made from various internal organs in Guangzhou, hiked to a mountain with the giant bronze Buddha statue in Hong Kong and bathed in sunlight in Lisbon while enjoying the rich pasteis de nata pastries. And now South of Spain.

Must admit, I was just a little bit doubtful whether the easy and comfortable Costa del Sol life was for me, with the all-day British breakfasts and generous cocktail offers. But what really made me fall for multi-layered Andalucía was the incredible versatility.

Here are some of the memories that are most vivid in my mind right now: Having delicious white fish for lunch in a chiringuito on the beach in December, wearing summery clothing (!). By the way, one popular local treat is a sardine espeto (skewer), warm and fresh straight from the grill.

Torremolinos

Patio de los Naranjos, the Mezquita, Córdoba

Taking countless pictures of tall palm trees (the new Christmas tree) and of orange trees which were ubiquitous. And listening to the mighty waves hit the shore on the beach promenade in Torremolinos when heading back from dinner.

Mercado Central Atarazanas, Malaga

Doing an evening stroll in Puerto Banus in Marbella, the Monaco of Southern Spain, admiring the big boats and yachts and marvelling at the imaginative and everything-but-affordable costumes the small dogs were dressed in.

Port in Benalmadena

The beautiful city of gorges, Ronda

Sipping delicious warm mint tea in an atmospheric tetería in Córdoba. And admiring the many atmospheric patios and inner courtyards of the city, with fountains, decorated balconies, the blooming poinsettia and cobblestoned floorings. For patio-afecionados like myself, in early May in Córdoba there is a festival Fiesta de los Patios de Córdoba: in this “best patio” competition many of the beautiful patios are opened for the public and flamenco is played on various plazas around the city. By the way, Córdoba is among those cities in Spain in which I could happily see myself living, in addition to Bilbao, Oviedo and Madrid, without forgetting the little cava village Sant Sadurní d’Anoia.

The exterior of the Mezquita, Córdoba


Back to Andalucía recollections. The food, the tapas, the wine and the dry sherry. The grilled chicken we got for lunch from the chicken kiosk Asador, El pollo dorado in Benalmadena Pueblo. The rich salmorejo (a puree made of tomatoes and bread), the oxtail, the morcilla black sausage and the various delicious treats of the sea, from navajas to different tasty types of white fish. Interestingly, we found many counterparts from the Spanish cuisine to traditional Finnish Christmas foods: Jamón ibérico for those who want to have their Christmas pork, arroz con leche – a sweet rice pudding (in Finland we have porridge), enjoyed cold. And Pedro Ximénez, a sweet and dark desert wine, a bit like the remote cousin of the Finnish rusinasoppa, raisin soup, which we enjoy with the rice porridge.


We got to see a lot, but so much remains to be explored: the Alhambra palace area in Granada with its vibes from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, discovering Sevilla more thoroughly and perhaps a skiing holiday at the peaks of Sierra Nevada. Maybe next Xmas. Hasta la próxima.