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Traveling in Europe: Antwerp Part II

Europe 2011: Antwerp click to enter album

Most of these memories are from my second day but in some cases it’s a mix of the two days in Antwerp. I was actually kind of glad that I decided not to go to Brussels. I was still feeling somewhat sick and my feet were starting to hurt from all the walking. I went to St. Paul’s Church and possibly St. James’ Church. In fact, I’m not sure anymore if I did go to the second one, and it’s possible one of these churches didn’t allow pictures inside. St. Paul’s church had the statues of calvary outside, with rough hewn stones forming a grotto. I couldn’t tell if it was of recent or older centuries but while St. Paul’s was of an earlier era, the calvary statues were added in the early 1800s I believe. It was in one of these many cathedrals, where I listened to piped in organ music, looking at the patterns of light through stained glass, staring at carved wooden and stone statues and admiring triptychs by the masters that I thought, even if a person wasn’t religious they would be hard-pressed to not feel moved by all the fantastic accomplishments and beauty of humanity.

Shops opened late on Monday because, as one person told me, people might be hung over still. 🙂 I wandered around the old area and noticed there were enough chocolate, frites and waffle shops. The Belgians love their chocolate like the Dutch love their meat.

While I still had to work at dodging bicyclists and nearly got run over twice; it’s not really clear who has the right of way so I always tried to look in all directions. I think the order is first trams, then cars, then bikes then pedestrians, almost reversed from Canada. Most of the street corners have fewer lights and cars and trams drive down the same narrow streets. At one point the tram was stuck because someone had parked too close to the track. The tram drivers kept ringing the bell for about ten minutes till the guy ran back and moved his car.

food, travel, Antwerp, Belgium, portions, tourism, history

This was a great lunch with three large pieces of halibut. About 17 euros including wine.

More people smoke than I’m used to but it didn’t seem as prevalent as Holland, however no matter where I went I seemed to smell cigarettes and people can sit on restaurant patios and smoke. I had a smoked halibut salad for lunch, which was quite large, making up for the 15 euros I paid. The portions are more than I’m used to. Unless ordering a bottle of wine, it was only one type of house wine so there was no point in asking for a type. At 3.5 euros a glass it was more reasonable than the water. Chocolate isn’t that cheap but the frites are, which come with an array of flavored mayo sauces. Being Canadian I’m used to dunking my fries in flavored mayo so it wasn’t that odd.  I wandered into a few stores and found shoes really expensive as well, which curtailed me buying any.

St. Paul's interior. This life size statue of Mary (holding a plate with eyes) has had the stain rubbed off of her hand from centuries of worshippers.

I actually wandered along the Scheldt River the day before, which is one of the biggest shipping ports in Europe. There is a plague commemorating Canadian troops liberating the city in WWII, and a couple of statues. Walking farther along is Het  Steen, which means the rock. It’s the oldest fortification in Antwerp and is rather small when you think of it as a castle. There wasn’t a lot to see as it was locked up (probably considered a museum) but it has a good imposing look to it.

I ran into an Egyptian-Belgian and he insisted in taking me to the best waffle shop where I had a waffle with chocolate sauce. I’m actually more used to waffles being like quilted pancakes but this was so airy that it was easy to eat and tasty. Down near my bed and breakfast was an area of the city that housed Art Nouveau buildings. While this man would have loved to show me around for several hours, the light was going to be gone soon and I love Art Nouveau. I made my way to the area and took some pictures of the truly amazing architecture from about 1910-1920.

That evening I at near the B&B in a square which had several restaurants. I had mussels and when the came in the giant pot with several slices of bread I was stunned. I ate nothing else and couldn’t even finish the mussels. Here in Vancouver, that meal would have fed three, but then the price was about the cost of three portions. I certainly didn’t go hungry.  After I walked down to this cafe and sat outside writing in my journal and having a couple of glasses of wine. These two women bought me a drink and we talked. One was on her way to Seattle for her sister’s wedding and was considering moving there, much to her friend’s surprise. Then three men arrived, with one being of the flaming variety of gay. He was very friendly and began chatting with me, telling me to join their table. Partway through the evening he said he loved me, but oh, not that way. I smiled

Art Nouveau, Antwerp, Belgium, architecture, history, buildings, travel

One sample of a fantastic Art Nouveau balcony and architecture.

and said that was fine, I knew that.  (In fact, I saw a fair larger gay population in Antwerp than I did in Amsterdam.) His friends were getting mad at him for not talking with them and then at one point, the one guy (two were from Hungary) whose English wasn’t that good started yelling at me and blaming me for all the “horrible” things Canada was doing to the Indians.

I said it wasn’t that simple or black and white and that yes there were good and bad things done. He kept at me and I asked, “If your brother killed someone, would you be guilty?” That didn’t deter him so finally I lost it and retorted, “Fine let’s look at what the Hungarian Magyars did to the Gypsies.” He got more worked up yelling and walking around that the two women were telling him to shut up in Belgian. The bartender came out and said he was going to call the police. I was bewildered. Here were some of the friendliest people I’d met in my travels and some of the nastiest all at once. I couldn’t take the ranting so I thanked those who had been nice and went back to my lodgings. That one incident was bizarre but I’d go back to Antwerp again because I certainly didn’t see it all.

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Traveling in Europe: Antwerp Part I

Antwerp, churches, gothic cathedral, sculpture, iconoclasts

The Cathedral of Our Lady is a great example of Gothic architecture.

I spent about seven to eight days in Holland and from Den Bosch took the train to Antwerp. The B&B hosts I was staying with, Mabuhay Holdings, would not be home till about 8 that night so I stowed my luggage at the train station. The problem was that the luggage lockers were all full except for two rows that weren’t working. And here, the bottom stand that kept my suitcase upright decided to fall off. I managed to tape it back on but the cheapness of the suitcase was becoming apparent. At the other end of the Antwerp station was another set of luggage lockers. The other end was a very long walk that equaled about three city blocks, past covered shops and lots of gold and diamond stores. This was also one of the few places where I had to use a credit card to secure a locker, as most restaurants and B&Bs in Holland and Belgium do not accept  anything but cash.

There was a helpful tourist information booth in Antwerp station where I was given directions and a map. I then headed toward the old city. Antwerp is a blend of old and new in a way the other cities weren’t. Often, centuries-old cities are more medieval and ancient at the center and as they expanded they became more modern. Of course, there will be a blend when old buildings disappear  but maybe not  that much when they’re historical. However, I suspect that Antwerp’s blend comes more from the aftermath of WWII than from a conscious effort to modernize. (Indeed, a quick google check confirms this.)

Antwerp, guild houses, grote markt, history, culture

The historic guildhouses in the grote markt, Antwerp.

As I walked along I could smell the waffles, a famous Belgium food. Luckily, while Antwerp is open and modern, there are still many historical buildings. The square that holds the stadhuis or townhall also has a row of historical guildhalls, with gilded statuary at the top. One was under repairs but they are four-five centuries old, having experienced a fire in the 1500s.

The square, also called the grote markt, holds the Brabo fountain, where a Roman warrior named Brabo, standing on a dragon is throwing the hand of a giant into the Scheldt River. Antwerp’s name means something close to this (Brabant, hand throwing). As I walked through the square, the Cathedral of Our Lady’s bells began to chime. They chimed for 15 minutes and were just lovely. Mary is obviously a patron of the city and Marian statues can be found on various building corners. In fact, you can wander down different streets and come across large statues of Jesus and Mary, or other saints. The cathedral was stunning, airy and light, and very large. It had quite a range of triptychs throughout, including Rubens and  Caravaggio.

Rubenshuis, architecture, Ruben, marble, history, Antwerp, Belgium

In the courtyard of Rubenshuis; the angular aspects and different colored stones are typical Rubens.

In fact, by far one of the best museums on my trip was Rubenshuis, the studio and house that Rubens built and lived in. I had always known he was a painter but what I didn’t realize was that he was a renowned architect, so much so that his work influenced architects of his time and for those to come. Rubens in turn was influenced by Greek and Roman architecture and styled his house after a Roman villa. His use of marble, rectangular designs and angular openings gave a particularly vibrant appearance that seemed apparent in parts of the cathedral. One side was dedicated to his paintings; the other to his architectural studies and influences. Like many museums, taking pictures is not allowed. One of the rooms had the walls covered in about tw0-foot square panels of embossed and stained dark red leather. This would have warmed the room visually and as an insulating layer. Amazingly, most of these leather-covered walls are preserved. Because Rubens built his house opening into a courtyard, the windows all face one side. Truly beautiful and stunning centuries later. I spent most of the day just in Rubenshuis alone, and the rest in the cathedral.

I arrived on a Sunday and it turns out most museums are closed on Mondays, I decided to spend a second day in Antwerp and skip Brussels. There is definitely more than enough to see. Also, while Amsterdam seemed to be big on Argentinian steak houses, Antwerp’s most popular style of restaurant was pasta and pizza. These restaurants were everywhere.

Rubens, architecture, art, sculpture, Belgium, Cathedral of Our Lady

This side chapel exhibits Rubenesque uses of colored stone.

While the guidebooks said that even in restaurants they would charge for toilet use, that wasn’t true though it was for every store I went in. You cannot get a glass of water at restaurant and must pay for it. In fact, water costs as much as a glass of wine. I ate in the old part of town that night and then with some confusion, managed to catch a tram to my lodging. It was unclear which tram stop I needed so I ended up waiting a long time and when I got down to the convergence of three streets, the bus driver said it was close but to ask the police and transit man who were standing there discussing something. Perhaps it was a small comfort as a directionally challenged tourist that when I asked them where Drakstraat was they had to look it up on the map and it turns out it was the street the tram had gone down and we were pretty much standing on it. Even the locals don’t know the names of their streets.

More in my next post on Antwerp, with the photo album of the trip.

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