Weekend trip to Antwerp

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

As you may have noticed, we are WAY behind in t-pods. So in this t-pod you get a weekend trip to Antwerp, Belgium which we took the weekend of Jan 18. Coming t-pods will cover a weekend in Paris taken the following week, Maastrich, Netherlands and Orval, Belgium the first few days of February, a visit with our friend LeeAnn, and a new boat! We'll try to keep it short enough to be interesting. If you get bored, just jump ahead!

Our American friends, Stephan and Julie, had this idea to take short weekend trips to the towns bordering the Netherlands. Basically, anything that is close enough to get up on Saturday morning, drive there, and come back on Sunday having seen something of a town is fair game. We thought this was a good idea, so offered to drive if they let us tag along on their planned weekend in Antwerp.

Antwerp is about a 3 hour drive from Amsterdam - if you don't stop and search for the Beer Paradise on the way. Our friend Rick, who owns the beer café Gollem, has told us several times that there is a great big beer warehouse on the Netherlands/Belgium border - where customs used to be. We've stopped several times in search of this place, but had not yet found it. We were making pretty good time getting to Belgium, so we convinced Stephan and Julie to let us go on another "Hunt for Red October" looking for the place. So, we got off at what appeared to be the right exit. We drove around all the places that looked like they had been customs areas. We drove into a couple of little villages. We ended up in some transportation center that was full of warehouses and trucks. We drove into the countryside. But no big beer warehouse. After about 30 minutes of this we decided we were no longer making good time and got back on the road - much to Stephan and Julie's relief - and still made it to Antwerp in time for lunch.

Once in Antwerp, the next task was to find our B&B. Chris had printed out a map, but had used draft quality, so we couldn't read the names of the streets. Stephan and Julie must think we're idiots because exactly the same thing happened when they came to Brussels with us. But, this time we were in luck because the GPS was loaded with Antwerp details. Also, Stephan had a different map showing where the B&B was. Thus began the battle of the maps - paper versus GPS. Throughout much of the weekend, Stephan used a paper map and Chris used his GPS and it was generally a competition to see which map would get us to a place faster and easier. The GPS won the B&B competition, but Chris thinks the others were a draw. Melanie thinks that the advantage of a paper map is that you actually look away from it periodically, so you get to see more of the city. Here's a picture (by Stephan)of Chris intently trying to find our way to the Cathedral.

We didn't know much about Antwerp other than it was old, has a great beer reputation and the shopping is supposed to be better than in Amsterdam. It is actually much bigger than we expected. Our B&B was technically in the center, but it did not feel as if it was. The neighborhood had a bit of a bohemian feel to it. Nice and quiet due to not being right in the middle of things and still an easy walk to the center and the old part of the city.

In the old center is a magnificent Cathedral - Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal. It has four paintings by Rubens as well as a beautiful painting in the ceiling's cupula. The Cathedral is surrounded by a pedestrian area with lots of wonderful chocolate shops where, of course, we bought chocolate. Around the corner is the grand market where the old guild houses stand. Antwerp is even older than Amsterdam and its age is evident in the beautiful guild houses.

After the Cathedral we stopped at this bizarre café, Elfde Gebod, that was full of religious icons. We had some coffee to warm up (it was really cold!) and admired the angels and Christ figures before moving on to the shopping district.

Julie and Melanie were both looking for clothes and shoes, but the stores were a bit crowded, the brands mostly unfamiliar and the guys impatient, so neither of us found anything. Also, we seemed to have a knack for wandering into only the very expensive stores. The whole time we were wandering down the shopping street, Chris was admiring bicycles - looking for one that was a match for the one that was stolen from him in August - which, coincidentally, was also from Antwerp.

After an afternoon of touring and shopping we stopped for a beer at a local cafe where it was difficult to find a seat despite the fact that many chairs did not have butts in them. It seemed like everybody used the chairs for their coats and just stood. This would have been fine except that by the time we got there not much standing room was left and so we really wanted to sit in an empty (except for coats) chair. Finally we found a place to squeeze in and have a beer. Melanie now has a new favorite: Gordan's Scottish Ale.

Antwerp has several interesting beer cafes. One of them, the Kulminator, sells mainly vintage beer. Stephan had a 1986 Chimay which was amazing. Very rich and full - almost port-like.

Chris had a Westvleteren #6 red cap, which is no longer brewed (they ceased production in 1998!). The beer menu was about 20 pages long with many vintages available. The place is small so we ended up at a table with two locals who were quite friendly and gave some good suggestions for places to go, as well as their opinions on the American president (they think he's an idiot).

On Sunday, Chris had to meet somebody who was interested in buying a military watch, so we all went to the train station and then Julie and Stephan went to investigate the diamond district while we waited for "the watch connection". The person only spoke French and Italian so Chris had a little difficulty communicating but collecting transcends language barriers and a good deal for buyer and seller was made. The meeting point was at the entrance to the zoo - which is directly behind the train station and quite impressive. Antwerp has one of the oldest zoos in Europe and the mosaics at the entrance are really beautiful.

Antwerp is also the center of diamond trading in Europe. Most of the dealers are Hassidic Jews, so they are closed on Saturday but open on Sunday. Julie is looking for a diamond band ring, so after the watch deal we went to find a diamond dealer so she could look at rings. The sales process was fascinating. The salesman simply asks what you are interested in and brings out samples. There are two desks and two salesmen and if they are both full then the next customer(s) must just wait. The salemen say very little. They sit completely silently with hands folded on the desk while you examine the articles and they watch for clues regarding what you really want. Unlike in the U.S., there is completely no pressure -- other than the fact that they are completely attentive to your needs so it must be hard to say no if they find what you really want. Julie did not find what she really wanted, so Stephan saved some money and Chris and I enjoyed observing the experience.

We happened into several flea markets while in Antwerp. One of them was really strange because it had all sorts of animals for sale. There were chipmunks, hamsters, gerbils and other small mammals, chickens, ducks, parrots, chickadees and other birds -- all kinds of animals. The flea market was in a square close to Rubens' house right in the middle of the city -- not out in the countryside. Very strange.

Another highlight was Rubens' house. The painter Rubens had a grand home in Antwerp which has been preserved as a museum of his and other paintings. One of the most amazing things about the house was the embossed leather wallpaper. Almost all of the rooms were papered in embossed leather. It gave the rooms a very elegant and warm feeling which Melanie really liked. There was also lots of carved woodwork and marble. And, of course, great paintings. Not so many by Rubens himself, but lots of Flemish masters.

After Rubenshuis it was really time to head home. After a bit of noodling, (including a stop for Belgian waffles) we had dinner at a place with either great fondue (according to us) or bad fondue (according to Stephan and Julie) and then headed home.

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