On holiday recently, while based in Amsterdam, we took a day trip by high-speed train, via the Thalys route, to Antwerp, Belgium. It’s a little over a 100 miles distance between the two cities. We purchased 8 tickets in advance of leaving the states to be sure we had seats on the train during the busy Christmas season. We were a group of 8 which required we have advanced reservations to nearly all of our activities including dining out. Yes, you must plan ahead.
The best cities in the world are founded with a myth, and Antwerp is no exception. The legend has it that, to cross the river Scheldt, you first had to pay a toll to a fearsome giant Antigoon by name – or risk invoking his wrath and losing your hand. Of course a hero was needed, and he arrived in the form of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo. Brabo slayed the giant, cut off its hand, and tossed it into the River Scheldt. And given that the Dutch for ‘hand thrown’ is ‘hand werpen’, a city’s name was born. The story has led to a white hand becoming a symbol to be found on many a crest in the city.
The day trip worked out well as we departed on time from Amsterdam Centraal a couple of days past Christmas, around 8:30 a.m., and arrived in a little over an hour at the venerable Antwerp Station. We had the whole day ahead of us to explore the city. But first, we took time to admire the architectural wonder of the Antwerp train station itself. The Antwerp Central Station, also known as Middenstatie (Middle station), was first used in 1905. The structure is made from a steel platform covering and a stone station building in an eclectic style. In 2009, the American magazine Newsweek chose the Antwerp Central Station as the fourth most beautiful train station in the world.
After arriving and getting our bearings, we walked toward the central plaza of the city but first stopped off for a visit to the artist’s Ruben’s home who painted around the same time as Rembrandt. The house contains many of his masterpieces along with artwork from artists that he trained in his studio also located here. Ruben favored religious figures, some landscapes, a few self portraits, as well as hunting scenes and animals. Lots of grays, blues and greens — too dark for my taste. You could still smell the oil paint in the house or at least I imagined I smelled it — the paint was so thick on the paintings and so many oil paintings in such a small space. Many famous artists passed within these old walls over the years. If walls could talk, eh?
Afterwards, we devoured Belgium waffles from a local street vendor (if you could only smell the warm waffles, sweet chocolate and winter air) and then, partially sated, we traveled on toward the popular plaza area where the Christmas market is located at the base of Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp. The north church spire towers into the blue sky above us and we put on our sunglasses for the first time since arriving in the Netherlands. We welcomed the sun. Inside the cathedral, the spiritual space is impressive with its grizzly crypt, artwork by Rubin and other baroque masterpieces and architecture.
Outside the cathedral there are ample chocolate, diamonds and lace shops surrounding us on all sides just enough to satisfy the tourist shopper in all of us. Needing a break, we found an old tavern, squeezed up a narrow, spiraling staircase to a small second floor overhang to sample some of the famous Belgium beers with the locals. Our favorite was De Koninck bolleke. We even found the local brewery later in the afternoon, took an interactive, quirky tour and sampled even more of their beer offerings. The tour ended with purchases from their gift shop for friends back home.
The day was so full of festivities for locals as well as tourists. The trains and sidewalks were packed with families enjoying a day off, eating and drinking samples from the Christmas market stalls and enjoying carnival rides. Many in our gang, bravely went up on an old Ferris wheel to get a better view of Antwerp even in the cold and windy, late afternoon winter weather. I tried the famous Belgium fries with curry catsup and mayo dipping sauce and found them top-notch especially eating them from the classic paper cone.
After walking miles on cobblestones exploring the city, we headed back to the station for the last train back to Amsterdam. Sore feet and tired legs but a great day exploring a little bit of Flanders with my sweet family.