Story & Photos by David Duran
Originally and exclusively published in Connextions Magazine Issue 13.
Arriving to Brussels on a direct flight from NYC via Brussels Airlines was a welcomed change from the typical connection at London Heathrow. The 6.5 hour overnight flight was quick and painless, and over saturated with attentive service, something the larger domestic carriers are missing nowadays. This was my first trip to Belgium and all I knew was that I was tasked with buying lots of chocolate.
After clearing immigration, I headed to the basement where there was a clearly marked train to Antwerp. I had pre-paid for my ticket weeks in advance so I was overly prepared for the short 30-minute trip. What I didn’t know in advance was that nobody checks for train tickets in Belgium. I would validate that later in my trip when a group of locals were laughing at me as I struggled to purchase a metro ticket before the train arrived to the station. Better safe than sorry though, right? After that moment of embarrassment, I learned to just buy the cheapest ticket and play the innocent tourist card.
Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world, but upon my arrival, I could have been fooled to think it was the gay capital of all of Europe. I happened to arrive during two mega events in the small city; gay pride and the World Out Games. Well, Antwerp must have found every gay pride flag around, because they were proudly displayed all over the city. In the main town square; Grote Markt, there was even a massive flag, draping the side of a building.
It was a bit of a shock for me to see so much support, in what I thought to be a small European city. Even the Vice-Mayor of Antwerp along with other high-ranking government officials are very supportive of the LGBTQ community, and ensure that their city is always welcoming to all.
Discovering the small cobblestone streets of Antwerp in the older parts was reminiscent of old world European cities. Small shops line the streets and delightful aroma’s fill the air. My friends who have visited many times before, instructed me to eat the waffles. To me, Belgium waffles were just really thick Egg-O waffles that my step-dad would make at home from time to time when I was a kid. Not being much of a carb-loader, I opted to pass on the famous waffles, until one night after hours of partying, I purchased a pre-packaged one in my hotel gift shop to cure my late night cravings. After biting into the petite preserved waffle, I discovered it was filled with grains of sugar. Now this brought Belgium waffles up to a whole new level for me. Did my step-dad just secretly leave out that main ingredient at home, or were we just clueless as to how to make a true waffle? Needless to say, the consumption of waffles for the remainder of the trip became natural.
Since I was already on a permanent sugar high from the waffles, I spent a lot of my time in Antwerp discovering the chocolatiers. Good chocolate is expensive, and expensive chocolate shops have an abundance of samples. It wasn’t before long that I learned to buy something small at the most expensive shop and proudly walk into other shops, showing off my bag. Chocolatiers are proud people, and when they see you’ve made a purchase elsewhere, they happily indulge you with their best. If you are kind enough to purchase fine chocolate as a gift, plan on spending $20-25 for a very small sampling. In addition to gaining five pounds and predisposing myself to diabetes, Antwerp opened up a whole new world to me with their fashion. Diamond and chocolate aside, fashion is written all over Antwerp, and is proved by the Antwerp 6, a group of influential avant garde fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980-81. The fashion collective changed European fashion radically in the 80’s and established Antwerp as a fashion capital. Walking past small boutiques, it’s easy to spot which locations belong to or were inspired by the Antwerp 6.
I decided to have a shopping day with one fabulous new friend from Vienna. She was my guide to finding the right things, and pushing me to recklessly use my PayPower Visa travel card, a pre-paid Visa that I only use while traveling overseas. While on a city tour earlier in the trip, we passed by a massive street, jam packed with mega brands and stores. Being a huge fan of good deals on relatively good-quality clothing, I was excited to hit up the H&M’s of Antwerp, but my fashionista friend had other places in mind.
I was taken to smaller, side streets, avoiding the large tourist areas. What we discovered were many high-end boutiques, offering anything and everything, but at a price, a “high quality price.” What’s that expression? “When in Rome…” Well, it wasn’t hard for me to get into the spirit and begin to buy. It’s a good thing we avoided the diamond district!
We ended our shopping day with a stroll through the red light district where I wanted to pull out my phone and instagram all the women in the windows, but I was quickly scolded for my brilliant idea. It was rather a sad sight as all who were cruising the streets were older businessmen, and the women in the windows obviously were the day crew, as they were hardly attractive, or even sexual. What I saw was just women standing there, bored and most likely hungry, not for sex, but for waffles.
It’s possible that the bars and clubs were extra sardine-like due to pride and the Out games, but regardless, there are plenty of places to stop in for a drink when in Antwerp. The options are endless, and there are bars for everyone, even dark, dirty bars catering to the dark and dirty clientele. (Oink Oink Bar) Antwerp is just like any gay metropolis; it’s filled with an abundance of men and women with various differences and likes. If Latin drag queens are your thing, they have you covered with Que Pasa. Popi Café caters to a more silver crowd and is filled with tables; so don’t expect a dance party. For the oldest gay bar in Antwerp, visit Café Strange, but know that most who patron this establishment are also of an older generation.
Antwerp gays also party, and party hard. Some of the massive nightclubs have weekly gay parties. Some of these parties will rival any big city circuit party. Then there is Red & Blue, a mix of hard beats, androgynous sexuality on stage, massive shirtless crowds and dark rooms where anything goes. Antwerp parties go long, and usually fizzle out when the sun comes up.
I was ultimately surprised by what I found in Antwerp, as I didn’t experience such a welcoming community in neighboring Brussels. To be completely honest, Antwerp was never on my travel radar, but I am glad that the World Out Games brought us together. With all the sexy men, the sugary waffles, and the ultimate in shopping experiences; Antwerp had won me over.