There was a movie that I saw back in the 90s where the opening was set in Antwerp. There was a group of conservative Jews with their black hats, black suits, long beards, and those cool curley bits down the side, walking into what appeared to be a diamond shop. They were buzzed in, and walked into the room, and all of the sudden the guns were out and they were screaming for everybody to get down on the floor. They then proceeded to empty all the diamonds, including a rather large diamond, into a suitcase at which time they left the store and headed back to England. That scene was one of the best openings to a movie that I had seen in a long time, and seeing a bunch of conservative Jews robbing a diamond store was pretty cool (though they weren’t actually Jews, there were just described as such). Anyway, I didn’t much more of it until I got off the train in Antwerp.
Well, I was expecting the Jews, namely because a friend of mine at work, who used to live in Dusseldorf, told me that Antwerp has a huge Jewish population, or at least a huge population in a specific quarter of the city, so when I was wandering around the area near the railway station and saw a large number of conservative Jews, and some incredibly well dressed children, running around on their bicycles, I wasn’t all surprised. Actually, what did surprise me was how well dressed the children were – when I was a kid when I went out to play I would have my play clothes on, clothes that Mum didn’t mind me getting dirty. These children where wearing clothes that looked like my Sunday best, which makes me wonder if these are their play clothes, what do they wear on the Sabbath?
However, the other thing that caught my attention was not so much the large number of Jews that lived in Antwerp, but the large number of diamond stores that were clustered around the railway station. In fact I counted twenty diamond stores between my hotel and the railway station and I my hotel was basically just across the road. Actually, the hotel was even getting into the game because next to the concierge’s desk there was a glass cabinet full of diamonds. Needless to say I didn’t buy any.
A Cathedral to the Train
Ah, the railway station. It is a cathedral to the god of trains, if there happens to be one, which being a Christian I’m going to have to say there isn’t – I am a monotheist. However, where I found quite a few huge, incredibly decorated, churches across the continent (or at least where I roamed) here I came across a railway station that literally blew my mind away, which does take an effort to do because I have seem some pretty impressive railway stations. In fact, there seems to be a habit in most cities that the most decorative buildings are the Church, the Post Office, and the Railway Station. In fact until recently (that is in the last one hundred odd years) these three buildings would be the highest buildings in the city, or town. I guess that was so that everybody knew where they were.
However, the funny thing is that while Railway Stations are these absolutely gorgeous buildings, airports are anything but – in fact the thought of spending any time at an airport tends to fill people with dread. Okay, some airports go to incredible lengths to make people’s time there as painless as possible, though these tend to be the transit airports such as Singapore and Hong Kong – with airports that are basically your final destination you tend to spend as little time as possible there (though it is always good to get there early just to give yourself enough time to get to your plane).
However, I suspect one of the reasons that railway stations look so much better than airports is that many of the railway stations that we know and love were built in the late 19th Century, back when people took pride in the large and important buildings that they built, while most of the airports were built in the later part of the 20th Century. From the outside most airports look pretty dull – they tend to be this huge glass screen that looks into the check-in area and the baggage collection area. However, I have also noted that many of the railway stations that were built after the war tend to be much less appealing than the stations built prior to World War I.
Wandering Around the City
Outside of the railway station I found that the city was, well, pretty dull. Mind you, Antwerp did suffer from being the target of a number of German V2 rockets during the war, but one of the reasons that it had a big target on its back was because it was a major allied sea port. Actually, Antwerp is a major seaport full stop, though it isn’t Europe’s largest seaport – that title is held by Rotterdam. However, it was still a major allied base during the war, so of course it was somewhat a target. Being a target meant that, in some cases, when they began to rebuild the city they took some liberty with how they went about it. Mind you, it wasn’t completely leveled as was the case with some cities (such as Rotterdam and Amiens), but it did suffer some damage.
At this time though I wasn’t particularly interested in its history, just the location of a laundromat. This trek lead me around in a circle, which involved stopping off at an old man’s pub for a beer. That is something that seems to have come into circulation – an old man’s pub. I’m not necessarily going to give the credit to Yelp for the invention of the term, namely because I’m sure it was floating around beforehand, but it is fitting for those pubs that you walk into and a see a bunch of old men sitting around the bar, nursing their beers, and bemoaning on how things were much better when they were younger namely because, well, they happened to be younger. As for this bar, I ordered my drink and went outside.
Which is something that I didn’t pay much attention to this time in Europe – the fact that you can actually drink out in the streets. In Australia you can’t, or at least you can’t in most parts of the city. Actually, before Boris Johnson became mayor of London you could even drink on the London Underground, and as far as I know, you can still do it in Berlin (but apparently you can drink anywhere in Germany). Mind you, it is a bit of a thrill the first time you do it, especially when you make sure you have a beer in your hand when you catch the train, but this time, well, the novelty had worn off, and so had the thrill. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t remember all that many people actually wandering around the city with open bottles of beer in their hand, but then again I wasn’t actually looking all that hard.
Exploring the Churches
One of the annoying things about traveling is that sometimes it is hard to really take a city in as much as you would want to, and also hotel accommodation can be quite expensive. In fact, one thing I discovered is that unless you book ahead then the cost of accommodation gets even worse. There was one time when we traveled along the east coast of Australia, grabbing the first motel that we found and paying on the spot, but when I was planning on doing that with Europe my father suggested that we plan ahead instead. When I discovered the price lists printed on the front of the hotels when we arrived I am glad I eventually made that decision.
Anyway, as was typical, one of the first places we went to when we arrived in Antwerp was the Cathedral, though the problem was that you had to pay to go inside. This posed even more of a problem because once again I forgot to take money out of an auto-teller, so I then had to go on another trek to find one, and unfortunately there wasn’t one in the main square. However, the admission fee to the church also included entry to the Mayer Van Den Bergh museum, which made it somewhat better. However, the Plantin-Moreus Museum, which is a world Heritage Site, unfortunately was closed for renovations. That didn’t pose much of a problem because there were plenty of other things to see. In fact there was more to see than unfortunately the two days that I had planned for the city allowed.
One of the interesting things that was on at the time was a special tour of the churches, something that I had picked up as I wandered through the old city, but not really paid all that much attention to. Well, to describe it as the ‘old city’ is a bit of a misnomer because Antwerp is a bit like London, with a mixture of old and new buildings. Sure, the main square still retains its old heritage, but there is a huge shopping mall, and a shopping strip that runs through the middle of the city, which seems to be clustered full of much newer buildings. Of course you find all of the popular fashion shops there including H&M and Sephora. In fact I had never realised how big a brand Sepphora was until I went to Europe, but then again I’m one of those people that believes that the beauty industry is a huge con.
A Few Drinks
My wonderings around Antwerp took us down to the riverside where we discovered an old river fort, though it is interesting that Tripadvisor suggests that the harbour to the north is also a tourist attraction. This sort of baffled me because how could a modern harbour actually be a tourist attraction – it is basically a massive port full of cargo ships. Sure, it is somewhat fascinating looking at it from Google Maps, or flying over one as you come in to land at Hong Kong or Singapore (or looking at it from the top of a tall building), but it isn’t necessarily a place I would spend huge amounts of time wandering around. Then again I probably shouldn’t criticise people who do because I do happen to like trains.
However, I was now in Belgium, even though it is the north-eastern corner of the country, and if there is one thing that the Belgiums are famous for it is their beer. However, I wasn’t actually going to discover the full extent of Belgium beer yet because that was something that wasn’t going to come to the for until I actually reached Brussels, which I wasn’t planing on doing for about a week. However, I did get the opportunity to sit down at some of the cafes, and also visit a couple of bars. One of them was Quinten Matsijs, which happens to be Antwerp’s oldest pub. Well, it is actually listed on Google Maps as being a cafe, but as I have mentioned in the past, the idea of a cafe in Europe is somewhat different to the concept here in Australia, or even in England – in a sense they are more like would we would consider a traditional pub. There was another cafe that I visited which was labeled as Antwerp’s best pub (or at least the best pub that was open because a lot of them were closed over the summer break, which I thought was a bit silly because the Summer would probably be the high season for all the tourists), and while it was pretty cool, the problem was that since it was so popular, all the seats, at least the seats outside, were taken.
I probably should also mention Rubens, since this was his home town, and as is typical where you have a city which gave birth to a famous artist, you are constantly reminded of him. For instance you have a statue of him in one of the squares, as well as being able to visit his house (and his garden). Mind you, the garden wasn’t all that flash, but the house, as can be expected, was chock full of paintings. Oh, apparently they also have some of his paintings on display in the Cathedral, but that wasn’t something I realised until I read it on a review on Yelp. However, our time in Antwerp was coming to an end, and the next morning, after grabbing breakfast as Starbucks, namely because the hotel that we were staying at insisted on charging us 10 euros just to walk into the breakfast room (though breakfast was on the house), we grabbed a car and headed off into the Belgium countryside.
Though I probably should end with a rather interesting experience I had in one of the cafes. After getting rather annoyed at discovering that the beggars appeared to speak multiple languages – namely French and German as well as English, I made a comment in the bar while speaking to a couple of Americans that I should probably learn Russian simply to give the beggar the impression that there was no way that he would be able to communicate with me (though most of them are smart enough to realise that I probably could speak one of the three major European languages). It was at that point that the guy sitting at the bar next to me turn around and proceeded to converse with me in Russian.
I think I’ll just stick with French and German. Anyway, here is another video of a tram.