Once again, the boys from Jersey had their alarms set. They had overslept yesterday and missed Amsterdam so were trying it again today. The night before, when I’d gotten in, I mentioned the double alarm and gave my permission for one of their number to hit the guy who hadn’t woken with his alarm the day before if he did it again. I figured that was fair. This time, though, I was ready. I realized I had basically six days in Belgium and had spent two in Brussels. I also knew I had a hostel waiting for me for two nights in Antwerp and in Ghent but that I could arrive whenever so it was a flexible plan. But it was cold in Brussels and I kinda wanted to see what else this fair country had to offer.
So again, up before the sun, I was out and at the train station in no time, and finding a train to Antwerp proved incredibly easy. As someone later in the trip said “Trains in Belgium are like busses in other cities.” The distance between the two cities, largest and second largest, was a mere 44km and there wasn’t any time during the 45 minute ride when I couldn’t see some sort of village. The axiom I keep spouting, that “in America a hundred years is a long time, but in Europe, a 100 miles is a long way” becomes really apparent when you realize I used to travel more than 44km to go across town to visit my sister from where I lived in Vegas. So the bus analogy made sense. Places really were that close.
The train station in Antwerp is beautiful and everything in town was still coming alive as I tried to find my way to the Antwerp Student Hostel (ASH) where I’d be for the next two nights. A false turn or two hindered my progress (I blame the early morning and the cold) but I eventually made it and walked in to the chaos of multiple check outs. This was a Sunday morning so all the weekend visitors were leaving. Kindly, they checked me in and let me store my bags so I was able to go off and explore.
Now, I don’t know much about Belgian cities and my time with the tourist information guy was two days ago. Yup, he told me (and gave me maps) for Antwerp, Brugge and Ghent, but I don’t remember the particular details of which city has the good chocolate as opposed to the one where they have the antique shops. So I’m walking up the main street pointed out by the girl at the hostel and everything is a chain store, not open on Sunday (or not open until the afternoon). I do know Antwerp is known for diamonds – you can’t enjoy 70s spy movies and NOT know Antwerp and diamonds go together – but I also thought there was an old town and some sights to see. In the distance I could make out a steeple of what I assumed was the city cathedral, so I aimed for that in hopes of hitting the city center. Naturally, when I looked at the signposts, they pointed in the opposite direction of where I was heading so I was rather confused.
Finally, I went with my gut (and some locals pointing the way) and ended up in first a square along the backside of the cathedral and then into the main square itself. There I did a little victory dance and looked around for another tour office (seriously, these places are your best friend – except in Brugge, but I didn’t know that yet). It was noon when I walked in and the place was packed! I wasn’t sure if they were all in line or not, but no one seemed to be at the counter, so I walked up and apologized if I was cutting in front of someone. “No,” said the woman. “They’re all here for a tour.”
Perfect! I wanted a tour, too! “This one is in Flemish.”
“We have one in English and French at 2 if you’d like to take that one?”
Of course, this gave me two hours to kill so I asked about the maritime museum (which was housed in a castle) I’d read about in my guidebook. “You must have an old guidebook,” she said. “That museum’s been closed for years.” It was true. My guidebook was last updated in 2007. This is why I don’t trust guidebooks. Then she suggested a new museum called MAS, where some of the old maritime exhibits were on display. But with only a few hours… “You can go up to the roof for the view, and that’s free,” she suggested. I thought it was a fine suggestion so I made my way along the river bank towards the museum, passing the really cool castle where the maritime museum had been.
Since I was just meandering, I walked closer to the water than the road and somehow, ended up on the wrong side of a short wall which I was going to have to climb over (or double back) if I wanted to get to MAS. At the spot where I was going to escape, there was a free-standing chain link fence with a heart design in he middle and a bunch of locks fastened on. This is an old tradition which has been gaining traction in the last 20 years or so. Here, there was a couple looking at the locks so I said, “Yeah, I think it’s a great tradition.”
“We’re just trying to figure what the code is,” one responded.
Code? It seems the couple, Marcel & Monique, are geocachers and they had been led to a large lock on the wall which was openable with a 4 digit combination. Inside, presumably, was a document to sign your name or something to indicate you had successfully found the site. But whoever placed this particular one wasn’t going to make it easy. I tried my hand (unsuccessfully) but while I was there, Marcel figured it out and got the lock open. There was much rejoicing and while I was heading off to the museum, they were going to find more caches nearby. They explained it was a great way to travel. I’d known about geocaching for years, had even done an article on it 12 years ago or so, but had never done it myself. Of course, with the impending arrival, my mind has certainly been on future family friendly activities and this qualifies.
We said goodbye and I continued on my way. The MAS building is amazing. It’s the largest museum in Antwerp, comprising nine floors of various exhibits relating to the area and its history. I bypassed all of them to head directly to the roof where you could see all around the city. There were high plexiglass walls for safety, but once or twice along each edge, the builders had cut circle in the walls so you could put your camera through to take clear pictures. Who am I to disappoint them. I took pictures.
I also visited some of the free pavilions on the grounds, including one about the harbor (largest harbor in Belgium, second largest in Europe) and one about the diamond industry (at least 80% of the world’s diamonds come through Antwerp at least once, and often twice, as they go from rock to jewel).
Back at the main square, I was still too early for my tour so I had a quick coffee at Daily Roast before finally getting the tour started. When I had initially checked, and again when I paid for the tour, I was the only person scheduled. This was exciting. Maybe a private tour! Alas, it was not to be. When I arrived there was a young couple there as well, who spoke French. So we would have a bilingual tour in French and English. No problem.
Our guide took us to the center of the square and gave a really succinct rundown on the history of the region, including the legend of Brabo (and where the name of Antwerp comes from). Seems that there was a giant who lived in a castle (same one where the Maritime museum used to be and I walked past on my walk) who demanded tribute from all the boats that sailed by. If they couldn’t pay, the giant would cut off their hand. Then came along the Roman Brabo who fought the giant. He beat him and in retribution, cut off the giant’s hand and threw it away. “Hence the name Antwerpen, from Dutch hand werpen, akin to Old English hand and wearpan (to throw), which has evolved to today’s warp,” What was interesting is the couple also spoke fluent English (he was from France and she was from South America but they lived in Brussels) and let our guide know she could speak English and it would be fine. Yet every now and again, with no rhyme or reason, she would bust out her French to elucidate some point or other. Fascinating, really.
During the course of the introductory history lesson, we were also told we would be shown the tallest point in Antwerp. Cool! So we walked along, our guide pointing out various sites and telling stories until, at one point she stopped and explained we were now standing on the highest point in Antwerp. Yup… we had summited Coral Mountain, so named because there used to be merchants here who sold items made from coral. And from where we stood, it was true, all directions sloped slightly downwards. According the guide, we were 10 meters above the average level of the nearby waterway (part of a 26 mile long harbor). Other summits on our tour were Fish Mountain and Blood Hill (this last was aptly named due to its proximity next to the Butcher’s Hall).
Continuing along we were led to the Museum Plantin-Moretus. This home/office was the site of Antwerp’s most prominent printer/publisher from the 16th century. Our guide suggested that of all the museums in town, this was the one to visit. As it was almost four in the afternoon and the museum closed at five (and wasn’t open the next day, being a Monday when no museums are open), I jumped ship on the tour (at the prompting of the guide, who continued on with the couple to look at the fashion of Antwerp, which didn’t interest me at all) and headed into the museum to look at printing history!
The museum housed two of the oldest original printing presses in the world as well as two impressive libraries. There were some great exhibits on the copperplate process of illustration and the type room has over 80 different type faces, some of them still in their original wrapping. For a word/book geek like me, this was the best place I could have spent time. I was enraptured. I was also kicked out when they closed.
As I was walking back to the hostel, I started thinking about my plans for the next day. It was Monday and as I had been told, all the museums are closed on Mondays. And I’d seen and walked a lot of the old town. Sure, there was some shopping possibilities but I don’t have any money and I didn’t want to see the church so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Then I remembered those guys from Jersey.
When I got back to the hostel I asked the girl working how far Amsterdam was. She wasn’t sure but suggested instead Rotterdam. She had been there a few days prior and really enjoyed it, said it was less than two hours away and I should give it a try. I also asked where a good place to eat was and she suggested Señor Taco, a Mexican place around the corner.
I tried the food and she was right. It was great! So with that recommendation in her plus column I certainly figured Rotterdam was a fair bet to be a fun day, too.