In the nearly 12 years that I lived in Brussels, somehow I never got my sister Sabine to discover Antwerp. Even though it is possibly one of my favorite places in Belgium.
So we were set for a day trip to the city which is only some 40 kilometers from Brussels, due north, just before crossing the Dutch border.
When we woke up, to the usual Belgian grey skies and rain, out heart sank. A shopping and sightseeing spree through Antwerp in the rain…? Ain’t no fun.
Still we left, and just in time for our arrival in Antwerp, the sun came out.
We first visited the amazing Antwerp Central station, a massive, church-like dome, a beautiful iron-and-glass roof construction spanning over the train tracks, and – engineer’s miracle – a top notch modern train station underground that transformed the old terminus.
Underneath the old tracks and roof there’s a new tunnel where the high speed trains from Paris and Brussels shoot underneath the city, cross the border and arrive in Amsterdam only a bit later.
Off we went, heading to the old centre with it’s cathedral, and, above all, its beautiful shopping streets.
Antwerp has a massive pedestrian zone, the Meir, which houses all the world know chains, from Zara to H&M.
However, if you take a tiny detour and follow one of the parallel streets, you’ll be walk past an endless chain of unique little stores, cafés and international and Belgian design fashion stores.
Despite my vow to stop buying stuff in the future, I got two pants, one red, one green, in order to brighten up my wardrobe that sports only grey, blue and brown hues… and I really needed to diversify a git – I cannot wear the same two pants to work forever.
We proceeded to the market, where we sampled whatever we could find – olives, different cheeses and creams, various cheese croquettes, Braadworst, and Pad Thai. Quite a combination.
Luckily, Antwerp wasn’t destroyed too much in the two world wars. It was liberated in September 1944, when the harbor, pretty much still functional, became one of the most important supply hub for the allied troops.
Germany responded with V2 rocket attacks, which hit the city, but not the harbor.
I like the funny legend about the name of Antwerp – which literally means ‘to throw a hand’ in Dutch.
Legend has it that a brave guy named Brabo fought a giant, who exacted a toll from those crossing the river Scheldt (and cut off a hand of those who refused and threw it in the river).
Brabo cut off the giant’s hand, and is now remembered with a statue in front of the town hall.
The city center of Antwerp is really amazing to stroll through, from design shops to used record stores, cafés and little bars, art galleries and bakeries.
The sun was burning down and we should have worn protection… but it was just too tempting, and so we sat down in another sunny café for cheese cake, lemonade and coffee.
Today, Antwerp is Belgium’s biggest city, although the Brussels region is bigger.
It is clear that it has a glorious past, hosting the world fair’s three times, as well as Olympic Games in 1920. It’s also the biggest port in Belgium, and the third biggest in Europe.
Diamond business is flourishing in Antwerp, and run basically by Jewish or Indian families.
It is also the home to Europe’s first ever high riser, the Boerentoren. Even though the Cathedral of Antwerp was always taller, it was the tallest building on the continent by roof height until in 1940.
On a clear day you’re supposed to be able to see the Atomium in Brussels on the horizon.
We were knocked out from the sun and the walking, and took a train home to Brussels in the early evening.
Surprisingly though, we managed to head out again after a shower and joined Sven and a few friends in our Brussels watering hole, the Fontainas, for close the day with two Mojitos.