I was determined to squeeze in one more visit to another country before my departure, so I took the train to Antwerp last Saturday. There are few things that make me happier than a train ride in Europe--plenty of time to read and write, picturesque landscapes out the windows. Speaking of picturesque, Antwerpen Centraal is quite charming in and of itself.
I exited the station onto a large shopping street. Just your average stores--H&M, Zara, all that stuff. The buildings were lovely though--stately and dignified, like so much of Europe. (Of course, it's important to keep in mind that the "stately and dignified" appearance came from wealth plundered elsewhere. Colonialism is the worst.) I especially enjoyed this rooftop statue of a winged woman wielding thunderbolts, as though she were about to zap unsuspecting passersby.
My first stop was Theaterplein, where they hold the "Exotic Market" every Saturday. (Colonialism again.) There I found stall after stall after stall filled with delicacies from around the world--nuts and fruits, mussels, cheese and meats--as well as Belgian specialties. To stay the market was bustling would be an understatement; I had to push past all the people lining up to make their purchases. Several people had brought their dogs, and let me tell you: Belgium has some beautiful dogs! They were all large with glossy coats--it seemed like they were ready to compete for a blue ribbon. I pet as many as I could.
For lunch I grabbed a Moroccan wrap filled with feta and honey (sorry Tim--I skipped the olives), as well as some Vietnamese spring rolls, because food is delicious.
Chocolate is also delicious, and Belgium is famous for it. That's why I headed to The Chocolate Line next--one of the most popular chocolate shops in Antwerp, known for its bold flavor combinations. I watched the chefs at work in the kitchen, pouring the glorious gooey substance into intricate molds. I admired some chocolate robots. And of course, I bought a few treats for myself: The Marrakech (topped with mint), The Provence (filled with lavender), and an extra-dark chocolate piece.
After exercising impressive self-control and pulling myself away from the chocolate, I switched gears to more spiritual pursuits. Though I'm no longer religious, I love wandering through cathedrals--I can never quite believe that all that gothic architecture came together without modern technology. Plus, there's nothing like a good crypt. The single spire of The Cathedral of Our Lady looms above the buildings of Antwerp, and I was drawn to it immediately, an opulent beacon.
Amsterdam is great and everything, but the fact remains: nobody does over-the-top splendor better than Roman Catholics. (Mostly because they plundered the wealth of their poorest parishioners. I'm sensing a theme.) The features inside were wonderful--I especially enjoyed the elaborately carved wooden pulpit, adorned with peacocks and other non-European birds. Maybe it took inspiration from the Garden of Eden? The alcoves were painted with vivid colors--I'm always impressed by how little they fade throughout the centuries. I must say, however, that the crypt was only so-so. And I know my crypts.
Antwerp's Royal Museum of Fine Arts is currently being renovated, so they've moved several of the most famous works into The Cathedral of Our Lady. They're all Biblical scenes--which makes sense, based on where they've been relocated. But at least I was able to see some paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, who is The Artist You're Supposed To See While Visiting Antwerp. I can't say I loved his work, but he was clearly more talented than many of the other artists they displayed in the cathedral. I think his subjects look like puffy cloud people. Don't they look like puffy cloud people?
My views on art are so sophisticated, n'est-ce pas?
I'd heard about this famous medieval alley called Vlaeykensgang, tucked into the heart of the city, so that's what I tried to do next. Tried being the key word. I searched and I searched, but all I found were charming boutiques. I didn't realize this before I visited, but it turns out that Antwerp is a big fashion city. If you enjoy shopping, Antwerp's a good choice.
However, I do not particularly enjoy shopping--although I did pick up a nice notebook in a little store called Jules Unlimited, which only sells either vintage or handmade products. My notebook was handmade--with a Jesus Christ Superstar LP, no less.
I did eventually find Vlaeykensgang. When they said "alley," they really meant it. It's not so much a small road as a nearly-enclosed path between a few buildings. To get there, I had to walk into what looked like a private residence--until I got through the door. Then it was just quiet and cobblestones, wobbly glass on the windows.
Jenever is a sort of proto-gin, a strong liquor made with juniper. I'd read that jenever tasting was a must for any visitor to Antwerp, and that De Vagant was the place to do it. When I sat down at the bar, the old gentleman behind the counter looked at me funny--I guess single women don't often pop in for a quick drink in the early afternoon. But he warmed up to me when I told him that I wanted to try the original kind of jenever, rather than its fruity cousin. I ended up with the jenever-of-the-week, from Brouwerij Verhofstede, which was made with hops. It was tasty, but fair warning: that stuff will knock you off your feet. Thank goodness they serve it in the tiniest of tiny glasses.
From there I meandered down Kloosterstraat, famous for its exclusive fashion boutiques, its pop-up shops, and its antique stores. Antique stores in Europe are way better than antique stores in the United States. It's not uncommon to stumble across items from the 1700s--a history-lover's dream, even if they are in relatively poor condition. Obviously, I couldn't afford most of it--not that I could fit it in my suitcase anyway. My tipsy self was very nervous about breaking things, but all crises were happily averted. If I had to do it again, I'd do the jenever after the antique shopping.
I wound up in a trendy store called YOUR, which featured various international fashion brands. Again, I couldn't afford anything, but it was cold outside, and the clothes were pretty. At one point, I turned around to find a woman offering me a glass of champagne. I didn't really want champagne, but you know...carpe diem.
By the time I left, the sun was already low in the sky. I walked back up the waterfront--which was difficult to see, thanks to the harbor full of cars. That is, it was difficult to see until I found a walkway above the Scheldt River. I imagine that it's pleasant and crowded during the summer, but it was practically deserted this late in the year. I watched the sunset, and then I went to Het Steen, the medieval fortress that is also Antwerp's oldest building. Now it hosts children's art classes. How adorable is that?
I wanted to eat dinner before I caught my train back to Amsterdam, so I decided to try De Groote Witte Arend. It seemed so quaint and authentic. I suppose it was quaint--but authentic? Not so much. Unless authentic beef stew means literally nothing but beef in a salty sauce. At least they gave me a hearty helping of fries--with mayonnaise, as is the Belgian way.
I'm glad I left a decent amount of time to get back to the train station--it was a longer walk than I remembered. And then it was just a two-hour ride with only The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories to keep me company. I'm sure there's more I could have seen, but overall I think eight hours was the perfect amount of time to spend in Antwerp. I'll have to come back to Belgium, though. There's still Brussels and Bruges and Ghent and...