I have a soft spot for Antwerp as it was the first place on mainland Europe that I visited after arriving in the UK.
I travelled to Antwerp with a group of other recently-ex-students to attend a famous student boat cruise. I had also just quit a bad job and it was my first birthday away from home. All these things combined to create a sense od excitement around this trip. My memories of that weekend are now fuzzy, but what I had seen my short time in Belgium meant I had developed a strong, if inexplicable, connection to the country.
Beautiful and historic town squares, coffee always served with a little biscuit, the crazy bi-lingual-ness that means some places have completely different names in French and Flemish, bicycles everywhere, the convenient train service connecting the country, great food, great beer and of course, genever. (Genever, or flavoured gin, may be a reason why my memory of that first visit is so fuzzy.)
My second visit was some years later, when I brought my friend and boyfriend to Antwerp for a “beer-tasting” weekend. On this visit we saw the cathedral, but what I remember most are some of the cafes. We made the long walk to De Bierhuis Kulminator (Vleminckveld 32) for its legendary 1000-strong beer menu. We drank in ‘t Elfde Gebod (Torfbrug 10), a bar heavily decorated with religious statuary. Amanda and I also had some jenever at De Vagant (Reyndersstraat 21), the jenever bar, while my boyfriend watched rugby in an Irish bar.
At dinner, our waitress spoke perfect English, translating the chalkboard menu for us except for, “I don’t know the name for this one but it’s a large bird and it comes from Africa.” The novelty of seeing ostrich on a menu meant we had to order it.
My third visit to Antwerp was a day trip from Brussels with the boyfriend who was now my husband and another couple who had never been to Belgium before. We were on a mission to convince them that Belgium is not the boring place that everyone says it is.
And now, my fourth visit.
Arriving by train in Antwerp you are immediately impressed by the station itself. Trains arrive on several different levels so you may need to go up or down to leave the building. And when you approach the main building you will be struck by the ornate central station building, built in a time when travelling by train was an event, and no doubt to show off the city’s wealth.
Antwerp’s wealth came originally from the river Scheldt which made it an important trading centre. The riverside is now a bleak area, not helped by the motorway that runs alongside it.
There are some signs of regeneration in the area, like the MAS building.
This new modern art gallery has 10 floors of galleries, but what seems to attract the most people is the free viewing platform on the roof which gives you an appreciation of Antwerp’s historic skyline as well as the scope of the modern industrial zone.
Turn of the century buildings line Meir, the main centre shopping street. But you will also find art deco gems, like the KBC building which has an aura of Gotham about it.
Antwerp is also an international centre for the diamond trade. If these sparkly gems interest you, there are plenty of outlets around town that will take your money.
But if you like beautiful shopping spaces, check out Stadsfeestzaal on Meir. Even if you buy nothing, it’s worth going in to look at the roof and walls. Originally a concert hall, this building was destroyed by fire in 2000. The reconstruction is amazing, you would not immediately know this was not original.