Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walk this way...

rooftops of Antwerp

Antwerp differed from our other stops in that we had no plan, didn't go to a single museum or Place of Great Historical Significance. Also we weren't even really sure what the local language was. Flemish? Dutch? French? An amalgam of all of the above? Strangely, this didn't really bother us too much. Everyone spoke English anyway. Convenient.

We'd figured out that Jupiler (not Jupiter, as we'd initially thought it was called) was the beer of choice, located an Irish Pub within half an hour of setting foot in the city, and our hotel room at the Radison Blu was elegantly modern and close to the railway station.

which is stunning, a tourist attraction in it's own right. had we a guidebook we would have known that you can tour the rooftop...but we didn't. Ah well.

We also didn't go to the nearby and famous Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world,


nor did we search out anything to do with diamonds, even though Antwerp is the mothership. Some 70% of the worlds polished diamonds are traded there. Eh, diamonds schmimonds.

Instead of doing what we might have done had we been in possession of a guidebook, we first figured out the local train system. After spying it on a map we (OK, I) just had to hunt down Elisabeth Station. It's spelled the same way as Bethy's full first name, you see, therefore I needed a cheesy photo.

There. Perfect souvenir. We walked around on streets like these and didn't worry about what time it was or getting lost or anything else.

Grote Markt, the central square of Antwerp was an obvious direction for even the most oblivious tourist, so we trotted obediently in that direction, following the bells of the Cathedral of our Lady.

We decided on principle against paying to enter the cathedral proper,

which may or may not have been worth the entry fee as it is very grand indeed, as you can see from the door.

Later in the day we paused at the doorway again to listen to a violinist playing a nearly flawless and very fast Bach's violin concerto in E major. This particular piece happens to be my personal nemesis. Mike recognised it instantly even though I haven't tortured him or myself with practicing it for a good ten years. This is no reason not to enjoy someone else playing it.

There was no charge to go into the gift shop, (go figure!) so we went in there and peeked around to see the sanctuary. It was fortunate we did this; had we not we would have missed what we irreverently christened "Holy Rollers" for sale:

These six-sided pieces of wood have a different grace on each side, available in the language of your choice. I think they would be great for kids...roll the dice and say yer grace, children.

The Grote Markt,

where cars are forbidden, is a marvelous place to walk around and admire the Flemish renaissance architecture, such as the 16th century city hall:

Many of the buildings were crowned with multiple gold statues, and the cathedral soars above them all. We watched a wedding party gather, including little flowergirls in their darling, overpoweringly frilly white dresses in front of the Brabo Fountain which stands in the middle of the square.

Now, this fountain depicts a man holding a large severed hand aloft with water flowing intermittently out of the chopped end. Tasty.

Antwerp is a port city and in days of old, the legend tells, a nasty giant charged high tolls to the sailing crews wishing to enter the city. If the sailors couldn't pay the giant, in a very giantish way, took the sailors' hands as payment. Not terribly friendly, and an interesting take on the arm-and-a-leg pricetag.

Fortunately for the sailors, a hero named Brabo took things into his own hands (sorry, couldn't help myself) and vanquished the giant by whacking off his head and in a tit-for-tat move, one of the monster's hands. The statue shows Brabo flinging the severed limb into the Scheldt River, freeing Antwerp to become a major trading center.

Nowadays you can buy a nice giant's hand made out of Belgian chocolate as a souvenir to bring home to the grandkids. Can't you just see the t-shirts? "My grandma loves me and went to Antwerp and all I got was this lousy severed hand."

Actually, depending on the kid, that might be pretty cool.

We heard a clop-clop-clop sound and turned to see a tall carriage drawn by honest-to-goodness Belgian draft horses. It's entirely possible I went a little cuckoo with the camera.

There wasn't even a line to ride, so we climbed happily up to the seats, plopping ourselves down onto buttery leather seats. The team stood patiently, patted and cossetted by small children until the dour-faced, white haired, hatted driver reappeared and with gruff sounds and hand gestures shooed them away, a flock of disappointed little birds.

He may have been cranky to children but, not speaking a word, he gave us each beer coupons after we paid a reasonable amount for the tickets. Taking the reins, he clucked to the horses, and they began to pull us easily along a route they'd obviously traversed before.

If you ever get the chance to ride in a carriage I would highly recommend taking it. People's faces lit up as they smiled and some even laughed delightedly at the sight of the team pulling a carriage over cobblestone streets. We were like rock stars, swaying gently back and forth high above the adoring crowds that gathered to watch and photograph us.

There is something terribly romantic about travelling through a city as someone might have hundreds of years ago. Not only was it a wonderful way to see the area, it was also made it easy to plan where we would explore on foot later.

Antwerp is very, very European, not postcard perfect but darned close, and so unpretentious it takes no effort whatsoever to relax at a streetside table enjoying the view and people watching as you also enjoy a beer and a thick slice of meatloaf smothered in saucy cherries with tiny potatoes.

At least, that's what I did. Also highly recommended.

I'll leave you with this bit of graffiti, one I found funny only because it was next to the "Omlegging" sign, which I believe translates to 'detour.'

Isn't that the perfect Dutch-esque name for that fellow?


Mumsey said...

Great story and photos. I feel as if I was there. Maybe someday...

Anonymous said...

Those hands are called Polletjes I would say little fists.
I am glad to know the story of the chopped hands. Been there as a child and people living there never told me about that!
I always thought it so sweet!I even have a keyholder of one, so thanks for enlighting me!
Hope you had breadpudding.

Nathalie said...

Thank you for sharing your lovely photos! I hope you brought back Belgian chocolates (the BEST in the world IMO!)

*Paula* said...

You really ought to consider writing a guide book. Seriously! Love your reports. Now I want to go to Antwerp. I agree with Nathalie - Belgian chocolates are awesome. :) And I so love that you take goofy photos of signs and graffiti - I do too.

paris parfait said...

I do like Antwerp; my friends live there and last time I visited, I left two antique iron and leather (!) dress forms w/ them. Antiques are less expensive in Antwerp than Paris. Now how to get those dress forms to Amsterdam (not sure they'll fit in a car). :) x

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