Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Two Hours in Antwerp

Wow. What can I say?  Want to get the gist of a city in 2 hours?  Hire a guide.  Want a more personalized tour?  Become friends with a little old lady on a train who calls the place her home.  This was the surprise of the trip.

It started out simple enough.  Traveling from Bruges to Amsterdam required us to switch trains twice (a little inconvenience for such cheap tickets) and it can all get confusing in a strange place.  I kindly asked a little old couple next to me when the stop for Antwerp was...I had never even heard of the place.  "I'll show you.  That's my stop," she said in broken but perfectly understandable English.  Let's just say she was good to her word.

Antwerp came and we got off.

"Where are you going?" she asked.
"You come with me."

She immediately started showing off the beautiful Antwerp Central train station, boasting of it's history and unique beauty.  "It was almost torn down because people are stupid!  You see?!"

She took us to the big board that shows the train schedule.  Amsterdam wasn't on the board.  Did Riki and I make a mistake?  Very possible.  But no worries, we had her.  We followed her to the ticket station where she started talking in Flemish to the man behind the counter.  It didn't take long for her to realize that a train for Amsterdam took off every hour until midnight.  It was roughly 4:30pm.

She turned to us, "Do you want to grab a beer?  I will show you some of my city and then we get a beer.  One hour, then I'll take you back and you catch your train."  Riki and I looked at each other.  We were already tired from traveling and hauling our bags around, but how could we turn down an offer like that?  "Sure," we said with a little hesitation.  What exactly were we getting into?

"Where are you from?"
"New Orleans, Louisiana."
"New Or-leens!"  She started singing Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans.  "I have been there many times in my travels.  I love jazz music!"  She imitated a trumpet player.

Clearly this lady was awesome.

George, Riki, and Philly.

One thing led to another and before we knew it we were seeing half the city.  This lady was incredible.  I was having trouble keeping up with her- I'm not kidding.  Poor George was struggling.  The poor chap didn't speak a word of English, and at one point he was grasping for air so hard I though he might keel over.  "Are you ok my prince?" she would ask in Flemish.  "Ya, ya," he would say between gasps.  He had a great attitude, but just like us, he had no idea what he was getting into.  (Oh, and they weren't married, just "good friends.")

We learned so much in two hours.  She was so excited to show us her city.  We would be walking down the street and she would tell us to follow her into a random building.  "You see, Napoleon stayed here!"  She would climb a set of stairs.  Now, keep in mind that I have a 80 pound suitcase with me.  At this point I've been rolling over people's toes all day.  But no matter...drag it up the stairs I did.  And honestly, I was so enthralled by what she was saying I didn't even notice the weight.

We eventually made our way into her favorite pub, a place that had been around since she was a child.  "My mother used to take me here.  Come, look at this!"  She took us inside.  It was slammed.  Old music played out of the biggest jukebox I've ever seen.  "Come, come," she said as she literally pushed people out of the way.  "Excuse me," she said to a table full of people, "I'm trying to show my friends the jukebox."

The table full of people kindly got up and let us squeeze in their space.  Behind the jukebox was a glass panel showing the insides of the machine.  This is not the jukebox you're thinking of.  It took up a quarter of the room.  It was huge.  It had real instruments.  A trumpet, sax, piano, drum name it, all played by compressed air that was read by sheet music with holes punched in it.  I realize that's a horrible description, but it's the best I got.  The thing really was awesome...and loud.  It's apparently the only one left in Antwerp...maybe in all of Europe.  They were all dismantled and replaced by the record playing American variety after the war.  It's 75 years old, and was there when she was a little kid.  Her excitement was palpable.  She was a schoolgirl again, showing off one of her favorite hangouts.  It was really cool.

She bought us the much promised beer, and we sat and drank and laughed.  We eventually made our way back to the train station, where she walked us all the way to our train, despite our telling her it wasn't necessary.  "Oh no, I will see you off until the very last step."

She was good to her word.  She gave us a big fat hug and kiss, and gave us her address to write.  "I don't have a computer, but my friend does, so if you want to e-mail, I go to her house."  Like every other grandparent on the planet, she then emptied her purse.  Life savers, gum, a pen, wet wipes (which actually came in handy) a smushed up half eaten sandwich (no joke) and a random booklet (in Flemish) were all given to us as departing gifts.  We literally couldn't refuse them.

She and George waiting and watched us through the window of the train until it took off, blowing us kisses and mimicking horn players the entire time.  She absolutely fell in love with us, and we fell in love with her.  I'm pretty sure we are now written into her will.  I wouldn't be surprised.  I'm planning to print of bunch of pictures and send them to her with a long letter.  I know she's checking her mailbox everyday in anticipation, and I can't let her down.

An unused room at the station.

This photo describes the day perfectly.  George just hangin' out in the back.

Antwerp Central Station, built between 1895 and 1905, was in serious danger of being demolished in the 1970's, but was thankfully saved due to public outcry.  The building was heavily restored and expanded in 2009 was named Newsweek's 4th best train station in the world.  I've seen some pretty cool train stations, and this one tops them all.  Who thought it was a good idea to demolish this??

[Side rant: How many beautiful buildings around the world were lost in the 1960's and 70's only to be replaced by the ugliest architecture the world has ever seen?  Screw those city planners and architects and builders.  Screw them.  That may seem harsh, but there is not one redeeming quality about anything designed during these decades, and I'll stand by that.  They cheap and horrible buildings, and they look even cheaper.  Thank goodness that buildings like this still stand, no thanks to these idiotic and short sited politicians and city "planners".]

Not that you can see the price tag on that huge ring (at the top), but it reads €2,570,000 (or $3,499,826 at the current conversion rate).  No biggie- just chillin' in a window display.  Apparently Antwerp is at the center of the diamond universe.  Who knew?

These buildings were also almost torn down.  Idiots.

Stadsfeestzaal, roughly translating into City Festival Hall, was built at the turn of the 20th century as the city's premiere party center.  It mostly burned down in 2000 but due to it's historic status, was rebuilt to the same exact plan and standard as it was in 1906.  Now it's just a really fancy shopping center.

It may not look like much, but this is the old Antwerp Stock Exchange, beautiful and abandoned.  If you've been following my work for any amount of time, you know I'm obsessed with abandoned buildings, and this one is the mecca of them all.  I have had my eye on this one for years.  I knew it was in Antwerp, and I also knew that I would never see it.  When we randomly stumbled upon it, just off the main street, my jaw dropped, my knees almost gave out.  I immediately recognized it.  I told Philly I needed to check it out and she told me to go try to get it!  What a cool lady!  Of course it was locked up, and of course I wouldn't have been able to do it justice without a tripod and about three hours, but now I know where it is.  I cannot tell you how cool this is.  Now I need to figure out how to get in.  

Check out a fascinating view of the interior here.  I've got to get in.

Unfortunately I can't find anything about this chapel online, but I wanna say it was from the 1400's.  It was unique because it was located in an unassuming building right in the middle of everything and hasn't changed since it was built.  You'd pass it up everyday without giving it a second glance.  We made it just after they closed, but good ole Philly talked our way in.  

The Cathedral of our Lady, circa 1352 (and added on to over the years).

The tower, added in 1518, is still the tallest structure in Antwerp.

Antwerp City Hall, built between 1561-64, designed to showcase the city's wealth and power as the most important commercial city in the world.  Think about that.

Grote Market, the town's main square.

So long Antwerp!  I'll be back!


  1. James, Thanks for sharing... I did get to Bussels and LA Hulpe, but did not get a chance to go to Antwerp. The story and photos are awesome!

    1. Thanks Cedric! Belgium is amazing, and way too overlooked!