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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…