6 March 2014

Attractive Antwerp

The plan always was to make some trips out of Brussels, rather than spending the whole week in one place, and after visiting Bruges the next obvious destination was Antwerp in the Flemish north of Belgium.

That was confirmed to be a wise decision the moment I got out of the train to be greeted by this station.

I have seen some pretty impressive railway stations on my travels but I can recall none as pretty as this one. The whole building is as grand as this but I have had to limit myself to just one photo of it due to the need to show some of the other delights in Antwerp.

It took me quite a while to get out of the station as I was so busy looking at it all and taking lots of pictures. But I had a city to explore and eventually I managed to leave it behind me.

From the station, it was a short walk west to the ring road that formed a boundary on that side of the city and once across that I was on the main pedestrian thoroughfare towards the centre of old city.

The next highlight was the cathedral and the squares to the side and front of it. I approached from the side (south) and was welcomed by this delightful view.

There was a smaller square (a triangle actually) in front of the cathedral which while dark because of the tall buildings around it also gave the opportunity to step back a little and appreciate the decorative entrance and the tower above.

A few steps from there through a little lane brought me out in to the Great Market and the heart of the old city.

Commanding the square was the City Hall, dating from 1561, and in front of it was the statue of the hero Brabo throwing a giant's hand in to the river and so giving Antwerp its name (Antwerp means to throw a hand).

The square was a popular meeting place and while I was there I had to share the it with many other tourists (revealed by their cameras and maps) and also a school trip. The square expected visitors and there were plenty of seats for them. I chose one facing the City Hall and had a little rest to recover some of the energy spent on the walk from the station.

The other sides of the square were wonderfully old and charming too, as this picture of some of the buildings on the north side demonstrates.

Having made it that far the next obvious place to head for was the river, the Scheldt, just a couple of hundred metres further west. I was not sure what I would find there, and the map gave few clues, so the discoveries were a nice surprise.

First there was the chip van and I had a another rest with a portion of frites with tartar sauce served in a traditional paper cone. One of the joys of travelling is to try the local cuisine.

Then there was the haughty statue of Minerva overlooking the river. To me she looked like Britannia thanks to her round shield.

And running along the side of the river were lines of boating sheds each made of decorated ironwork and headed with a crest. There were a couple of old boats in the sheds but these were there as part of a museum rather than any current use.

There was a raised walkway on the river side of the sheds which I went along to get a closer look at the corrugated iron roofs with their weathered colourings. I do that sort of thing.

From the walkway I could see a castle on the river along the river just to the north and that became my next destination.

The castle, with the imaginative name Het Steen (The Stone), was first built to fend off Vikings and had been in its current form since 1520.

More recently it had been renovated and seemed to be largely used by young people to experiment with film. As elsewhere in Antwerp I was defeated by the lack of information in English, or French, to find out what was really going on.

I could get a handle on the cafe though and had another break, this time with a hot drink.

I then headed east back in to the city with Rockox House as my intended destination.

The journey there was as important as the destination and I walked a circuitous route being tempted by several buildings along the way. The final temptation came in another pretty square and another cafe. This time I had a light lunch and a beer.

Rockox House shared its feel and history with the Wallace Collection in London.

The museum is in the house of a former mayor of Antwerp, Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), and is built on the works of art that he collected.

The layout was also remarkably similar with brightly coloured rooms stuffed full of objects and it was this overall feel that I liked rather than any specific objects, though it was nice to see some works by the Brueghels.

The afternoon was running out on me by then so I was pleased that the museum was not that large and I could see it all (twice) in under an hour before heading back outside to see a little more of the centre of Antwerp while the sun was still shining on it.

That meant walking back along the main shopping street and taking more pictures of its welcoming buildings.

There was just time for a final stop in the Arts Cafe close to the station which had some irresistible cakes. There is nothing quite like a good coffee and a fresh cake to give a boost after a walk.

I saw and did more in Antwerp than I have been able to describe here and I am sure that I managed to miss many good things too (for example, the Rubens Museum was closing just as I got there).

Antwerp is clearly worth another visit but I have to be realistic and assume that I'll never get back there, after all it took me 57 years to go there the first time,  but if the opportunity does arise then I'll be keen to see it again.

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