MABUHAY,  ANTWERP!

MANILA, AUGUST 7, 2007
(STAR) RENDEZVOUs By Christine S. Dayrit - Where in the world can a weary traveler from Manila, after flying thousands of miles to a foreign city, be welcomed by a heart-warming “Mabuhay”?

In the European Kingdom of Belgium, 55 miles off the North Sea, lies Antwerp, known as the “Daughter of the River Scheldt.” A multi-faceted metropolis of fabulous architecture that dates back to the 16th century, it is a cosmopolitan city where the old and new exist harmoniously. A fashion capital between Paris and London, it is also the diamond center of the world. Little did I know that besides being the domain of this scintillating gemstone, there is much more than “a woman’s best friend” that abounds here.

A very amusing website of the Mabuhay Bed and Breakfast caught my fancy while planning my trip. It read “Antwerp Mabuhay Lodgings: Experience Asian Hospitality in a European Setting. A bed and breakfast in the heart of the home of the many artists of Antwerp.” Intrigued by the unique combination of a quaint lodging in Antwerp with Filipino influence, I corresponded with the owners Eric de Guzman, a Filipino, and Herman Dejongh, a Belgian, who both turned out to be more precious than diamonds.

We were welcomed to their very cozy haven where several rooms and a studio apartment on Draakstraat Street have a spectacular view of the city. Over a hearty breakfast of freshly cooked eggs, cheeses, jams, breads, orange juice and robust coffee graciously prepared by this dynamic duo, we exchanged stories of home as well as their experiences living in Antwerp.

A graduate of De La Salle University and former member of the Whiplash dance troop, Eric explained that since Mabuhay means “Welcome,” it was the perfect name for their bed and breakfast. A simple, very phonetic and easy to remember Filipino word that could make guests feel at home and experience how hospitable Filipino and Belgian hosts can be.

Antwerp Mabuhay Lodgings, established in 2003, is the perfect solution for short-staying visitors in Antwerp and other nearby cities of Belgium. Here, you are welcomed as a good friend, not just a guest. The apartment has a charming bathroom, kitchen-dining room and living-sleeping room. Located on the third floor, it can accommodate four to five people, ideal for family or groups of friends while the studios are located on the ground floor and have all the luxuries of home.

Herman speaks Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish and Eric speaks English, Dutch, French and, of course, Filipino. Since Belgium is just a small country, most of their guests use their place as their base. The gracious business partners are more than willing to help their guests with their travel plans and queries. With the train, making a day trip to other cities — such as Brugge, Ghent, Oostende, Brussels and even to Paris and Amsterdam — is very easy.

Eric, who recently acquired his master’s degree in international management in Brussels, disclosed that Filipinos are more accustomed to staying with their relatives or opting for hotels. He pointed out that the experience in a bed and breakfast includes fostering friendships with the local people and acquiring tips on where and where not to go. He has traveled extensively and has stayed in both hotels and B&Bs, and prefers the latter.

“Posh hotel rooms cannot beat the family atmosphere, warm welcome and hearty meals that a bed and breakfast offers,” he added.

The weather was cool and crisp as we embarked on a scenic tour of the surrounding district. Being an old soul, I must confess I have an intense penchant for centuries-old homes. These antique structures that reek of old-world charm, culture and pride in one’s heritage have taken me to far and distant lands. From the grandest central station and oldest railway line in Belgium, created from metal, glass and marble, I felt as though I was disembarking at the train station in a Harry Potter book. Transported back to a precious moment in time, it was exhilarating to imagine how elegant and progressive life was during that era.

Just observe the stock exchange close to the town square, which was the very first building in the world to be designed for this business activity. The original Gothic building was even replicated upon the orders of Queen Elizabeth I, who called it the Royal Exchange of London.

Groenplaats is the most beautiful square and historical heart of the city. Often packed with locals and tourists, it is dominated by Our Lady’s Cathedral. Around the square, there are exquisite cafes and restaurants where famous artists converge.

Each breathtaking step we took was a stride toward historical enlightenment. Experiencing the cityscapes, our senses were treated to an overwhelming view of art noveau houses. We seemed to have been hypnotized by the spellbinding beauty of the unique street called Cogels-Osy Lei. In the middle of the 19th century, the population boom in Antwerp necessitated the enlargement of the city. In 1866, Edouard Osy and John Cogels inherited farmland from their father Baron Jean Osy located in the Zurenborg area (where Mabuhay Lodge is located.) Realizing the potential for development, Osy and Cogels sold it to a company which decided to build new houses.

By the end of the 19th century, the absolutely unique main avenue was named Cogels-Osy Lei and it became the heart of the new “rich” area. Many writers, photographers and filmmakers have attempted to capture the soul, spirit and anima of this enigma. Some have even expressed that their photography leaves them cold upon witnessing such architectural wonder. Here, houses huddle together as in a collection of petit-bourgeois dreams. We learned that old wealthy families spend a fortune to preserve their ancestral homes, which they consider synonymous with their family heritage and pride. Restoration and renovation seem endless on turrets, dormers, windows, bays, balconies and mosaics. Exhaust fumes and general air pollution are such that the work has to be repeated every five or six years, but pride outweighs monetary considerations.

Each home has distinctive crests to distinguish the profession of the owners. Most of the edifices of grandeur are owned by a variety of professionals such as lawyers, doctors, journalists, philosophers, writers, poets, designers, artists, sculptors, photographers, architects and the like.

A plan to demolish such homes aroused public intervention. The ministry of Dutch Culture spearheaded a campaign in 1984 to save the art nouveau homes. The miniature illusory city has been frozen in order to exalt it. Classified as a cityscape, no less than 170 houses were individually listed as protected monuments.

Walking through this mecca of architecture is like recreating scenes from films like Story of the Seven Gables, Sleeping Beauty and the Harry Potter opus. This intoxicating kind of grandeur is a distinct memory, a precious spectacle. Nothing disturbs the fairy tale. It is too beautiful to be true.

Like the diamond traded here for over 500 years, Antwerp is truly a timeless treasure where dreams happen not only upon sleep.

Mabuhay!

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For more information, e-mail Eric and Herman of Antwerp Mabuhay Lodging at info@mabuhay.be. E-mail the author at miladay.star@gmail.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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