Antwerp, the ancient and the modern

Northern Belgium feels a lot like the Netherlands. Antwerp is only an 80 minute train ride from The Hague and less than 10km from the Dutch border; although you hear people having conversations in French, mostly people speak Dutch; street and shop signs, which I’d assumed would be Dutch and French, are predominately Dutch; the buildings don’t look dissimilar to their Dutch counterparts; and there are cycles and cyclists everywhere.

What could be more Dutch than that? If there were a few more canals it would be the Netherlands.

I Love Antwerp, Belgium
I Love Antwerp, Belgium
The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium
The ornamental Centraal Station, Antwerp, Belgium
Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium
Bikes, Antwerp, Belgium

You only really see a difference with food. With the exception of a few die-hard bitterballen fans, no one would claim that the Netherlands has a world beating cuisine. Belgium on the other hand benefits from a French influence that differentiates its food from its northerly neighbour, and comes as welcome relief to the taste buds of those who live over the border.

This was my first visit to Antwerp and it came with high expectations. Everyone I know told me it was wonderful; every travel article I read praised its history, restaurant scene, vibrancy and culture. That may all be true, but Belgium is also the greatest beer nation on the planet. I was keen to sample some of the finest beers available to humanity.

Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium
Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium
Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium
Grote Markt, Antwerp, Belgium
Busker, Antwerp, Belgium
Busker, Antwerp, Belgium
Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium
Buskers outside the Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium

The reverential and excited way people talk about Antwerp, and the rash of gushing travel articles about the city, you’d almost think it was having a second Golden Age. The first Golden Age in the 16th Century was driven by trade in spices and precious metals, bequeathing the city a glorious medieval centre rammed full of beautiful buildings and atmospheric, cafe-filled streets. It’s a spectacularly attractive town.

Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium
Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium
Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium
Holy Cocktails, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp’s modern revival has been driven by cutting-edge fashion and design, arts and and culture, and creative industries that include a huge clubbing scene (whatever that is). According to my guidebook, Antwerp is Belgium’s ‘capital of cool’.

Luckily Antwerp gives substance to the hype. It’s a fascinating city, full of life and energy. I already know I’ll be going back. When the sun shined, and it didn’t always, cafes in the pedestrianised centre were packed with people. The whole place seemed to have a happy buzz. There was a big food market when we were there, cue sampling lots of different specialities.

Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium
Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium
The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
The Pelican Cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium
Belgian beer, Antwerp, Belgium
Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium
Shrine on a house, Antwerp, Belgium

We’d bought Antwerp City Cards for €32, giving us access to lots of museums and historic buildings, including the interior of the extraordinary cathedral. We were sorely tempted to spend our time outdoors while the weather was good; ‘luckily’ on Sunday morning it was raining, forcing us to find indoor entertainment and to make good use of the cards. We visited several historic buildings housing collections of art or museums, but the newish MAS museum was the must see highlight.

The MAS is a daring modern building, not as glamorous as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but still pretty wonderful. It’s the centrepiece of a redevelopment of the Eilandje, the old port area. This was Antwerp’s main port for hundreds of years and is full of history. Had it not been raining, we’d have spent much more time exploring the area.

Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium
Tram map, Antwerp, Belgium
Statue, Antwerp, Belgium
Statue, Antwerp, Belgium
The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium
The Place For Ribs, Antwerp, Belgium

The port regeneration is clearly ongoing, in the meantime it retains a rough edge. Walking to the museum on Sunday morning we found ourselves in the middle of Antwerp’s red light district. Strangely it was’t marked on my tourist map, but this is a port area after all. I can honestly say, there are few more dispiriting sights than a red light district on a wet Sunday morning.

*A bitterballen to anyone who can spot the hidden film reference (to one of my favourite British films) in this blog…

10 thoughts on “Antwerp, the ancient and the modern

  1. “They have them cold in Alex”? (andria)
    A WWII movie about the war in the desert before Montgomery took El-Alamein.

    1. Ice Cold in Alex. A great film, and still the best reason to make a hazardous crossing of the desert…cold beer.

      1. Was that the movie? A great one indeed. 1958. Way before your time. With Anthony Quayle (whom I sometimes confused with Anthony Quinn) Haven’t seen that in ages. need to download it somehow. 🙂

  2. Belgium is a beer paradise. You must cycle down to Brussels (A bit of a long way i admit) and have a Kriek on the Place de Brouckere!
    Have a nice week-end my friend

    1. I’d need more than one Kriek if I’d cycled all the way to Brussels! The skill and craft that goes into some of the beers is incredible, I never really know what to order when confronted with a beer menu longer than most food menus but I’m learning…and the learning is fun!
      Hope all well Brian.
      Paul

      1. “Une Blanche de Bruges”. You’re right, the beer menu is sometimes longer than the food menu. Imagine a Brit having to learn about beer!? You going home a bit for the holiday?
        All is well in Paris. Though, Alas, this is my last week. Plenty of days still. Take care.
        Brian

        1. Enjoy your time in Paris, I do need to visit Brussels but I also need to visit Paris. I haven’t been for too many years.
          I’ll hunt out the Une Blanche de Bruges for sampling – sadly British beer has a lot to learn, as do Brits about drinking culture, which is also entirely different here. Luckily there seems to be a beer revolution in the UK these days, with lots of microbreweries being more adventurous. It will take a small miracle to change drinking culture though!
          All the best,
          Paul

  3. Withnail & I?!

    1. One bitterballen en route to London! And they were the finest beers known to humanity!!

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