I was convinced something was going to go wrong yesterday afternoon in Antwerp. Yes, I went to Belgium. Yet I went there willingly. And, with Yahoo Weather promising temperatures of around twenty degrees, I was even a bit excited.
Still, I was nervous. Bad things tend to happen to me in Belgium, time and time again. I was almost ready for something to happen, you know, the things you do for a good story, that sort of thing. So yes, I spent an afternoon in Antwerp in search of a good story.
I’d been to Antwerp once before; as host city of the 1920 Olympics, I had visited its shocking stadium back in 2007. It was a Sunday and Antwerp was a ghost town; I basically just walked around getting more and more cranky before giving up and heading back to Bruges.
I remembered hardly anything about Antwerp. I recalled the Grote Markt, the main square, but only kinda. The other day Paul showed me a photo of it and I instantly labelled it as Brussels. Realising I was wrong, I decided I had to rectify the situation straight away.
Antwerp’s less that an hour away from Dordrecht, and when you get off the train, you’re impressed right away. Antwerp’s a rich city, it always has been, and its train station looks more like a palace than a simple place in which to transit. I’ve never been to Moscow, but the pictures I’ve seen of its underground stations always remind me of Antwerpen Centraal.
I wandered around the station for a bit, snapping some photos and getting in the mood for exploring. The area around the train station, leading down to the Old Town, doesn’t look Belgian at all. The buildings were grand, much too grand for a city of less than a million. All over I’d hear countless languages; Dutch of course, as well as plenty of French, Italian, German and finally English. The shops too were just as international; I spotted Carrefour (French) and Albert Heijn (Dutch) supermarkets, and a Quick (French) and Bakker Bart (Dutch). I even spotted a Galeria (German) and a Forever 21 (American).
So what was Belgian then? Well, the countless chocolate, waffle and beer shops I suppose.But things just don’t feel Belgian in Belgium. Things feel European; they’re proud Europeans. It’s the only country where you see the EU flag more often than the national one, and even their public carparks are toted as ‘European standard’.
I wandered down the main shopping strip, the Meir, which reminded me of Wenceslas Square in Prague. It felt like a capital; Antwerp’s controlled the world diamond trade for centuries and you can definitely tell in its buildings.
Eventually I found myself out the front of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal; the ridiculously long name given to the city’s cathedral. It didn’t look too special to me but I went in anyway, only to find out they wanted five euro off me! This, as well as all of the little Mary statues on every second street corner, reminded me I was back in Catholic Country. What’s so different about Flanders and the Netherlands? That, really. And better beer.
It was at about this time that I realised I was sort of enjoying myself. The area around the cathedral is Belgium as it should be; not over-restored like Bruges or dirty and ugly like Brussels, but cute little medieval lanes and squares peppered with buildings that tell Antwerp’s story. The flashy Parisian-like buildings on the Meir show us the heydays of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the time which delivered the city the Olympics. The Old Town, however, is all about the heydays of the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
What happened in between? Well, their Dutch neighbours cut off their access to the North Sea (their river flows across the border) for a good three hundred years. (They actually want to deepen it now, so bigger ships can get through, but the Dutch just say talk to the hand.) I was now getting a bit of a sense of why there won’t be a Dutch language reunion anytime soon.
Antwerp has two main squares; the Grote Markt and the Groenplaats, and Grote Markt definitely gets all the attention. It’s not as flashy as the one in Brussels, but it’s got a bit more class. Groenplaats, in comparison, seemed to be full of locals soaking up some rare rays and eating fries and mayo. It wasn’t nearly as pretty but it was by far the more used of the two.
I was getting a bit worried now; the Belgians had definitely let me down. The train had gotten me there in time. I hadn’t gotten lost at all. Nobody had yelled at me, pushed me aside or shortchanged me. The worst thing to happen was that I realised that the Belgians have an uncanny ability just to stop walking in the middle of a footpath or stop at the top of an escalator, causing a domino effect. Hardly country-dismissing stuff.
Plus, the city was pretty. The Old Town, with the small exception of the riverfront, was charming and full of people. I easily managed to find a tiny little pub on the atmospheric street called Hoogstraat for my obligatory Belgian beer. And Antwerp’s own drop, De Koninck, went down very nicely.
So after an afternoon in Antwerp, I headed back to Dordrecht. I was disappointed and pleased at the same time; disappointed that nothing bad happened to exploit in a blog, but pleased that I’d had a good day nonetheless. And, at the end of the day, I’d pick a successful travel day any day of the week.