Monday, April 5, 2010

Fri 2 April - Sun 4 April: Antwerp/Antwerpen/Anvers

My favourite place in Belgium so far. And this despite the weather still being cold and damp, with the limited sunshine made irrelevent by the strong wind. Antwerp is so northern it's virtually in the Netherlands. In fact, for 15 years in the first part of the 19th century, it actually was. It's Belgium's second largest city with a population of just over 470,000, of which 15,000 are Jewish, most identifying themselves as orthodox Jews. This doesn't surprise me since I saw over a dozen Hasidic Jews (a branch of orthodox Judaism) and their families when out about. It's actually the first time I've seen Hasidic Jews outside of London. The area near the impressive train station is sometimes known as 'Jewish Antwerp,' because of the concentration of Jewish people living there. Historically, this was down to the fact that it was near the diamond bourse, where a large number of Jews used to work. The present day Jewish community was established in the city from about 1816. The current number living there is half what it used to be before the Holocaust.

The main Central train station is a museum in its own right. A quite incredible landmark that greets you as you get off the train. I had to stand still every now and again just to marvel at its beauty and enormity.

Our time was spent doing the usual wandering, taking in as much of the city as we could see. Every street, every square, every alley made me warm to the city more and more. Parts of it reminded me of the Le Marais in Paris. It had the cobbles, the stylish shops, endless cosy looking caf├ęs and small restaurants. It also has a tram network, which when I create my own 'fantasy city' in my head, is a must. It also has lots of Dutch speakers, naturally. And the more I get to know, and speak to, the more I realise how wonderful the people are in this part of the world. Maybe it's their flawless English that seduces me. Or maybe it's because they just remind me so much of the British, and I'm a big fan of the latter!

We found ourselves in a terrific, non-smoking (not an easy thing to find) bar on the Friday night, just as the heavens had opened. I just loved it in there. A nice, long, beer menu, a jukebox in the corner playing anything from Motown to 1950s and 60s rock 'n' roll music, good looking bar staff, and a mixed crowd of old and young folk. The kind of place where the men walked in to the bar wearing the kind of hats men used to wear. We returned the following night, perched ourselves on the last free stools at the bar, and watched the staff get progressively more drunk as they chatted and sang along with the customers.

We even got talking to a handsome young chap after he had noticed that I had drunk one of the foulest, and most bitter beers I'd ever tasted. Apparently, it was meant to be drunk with something sweet, or topped with something sweet. Couldn't quite work this out. He had never been to England, yet his English was immaculate. He was flattered when we told him how much we liked his city. He said that people who live here are very proud of their city and never want to leave and I can see why. He also provided yet more anecdotal evidence of the cultural apartheid that exists in this country by admitting to have never visited Wallonia. And, if I'm being brutally frank, if you came from Flanders, why would you ever want to. Although, the south is home to the Ardennes which is still to be visited.

Saw the main cathedral, home to several Rubens, and paid €5 for the privilege. Also used the trip to take advantage of Antwerp's reputation for jewellers and find ourselves our wedding rings. But, in 'rip-off Belgium,' a bog standard gold wedding band will set you back well over €1000. Another thing I won't be buying here.

We spent our final morning in one of the Zuid (South) districts of the city which allowed us to see more of the 'real' Antwerp, but it still felt rather hip and trendy. Food wise we ate out at a very good Thai place on the Friday, and an Indian on the Saturday. Much cheaper than the Indian in Bruges, but still small portions. I don't want to leave a curry house not feeling bloated or slightly sick. They just don't make em' like they do back home.

Antwerp is somewhere I definitely want to return to and get to know even better. Preferably, when the weather finally gets warmer and I can sit and drink coffee and beer outside at one of the many inviting spots the city has to offer.

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