I’m going to admit something. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but we’re all friends here, right? I
know knew very little about Antwerp. Ok, if I’m really being honest, just about zilch. Mayyybe I could have placed it as a city in Belgium. Maybe. But let’s just say if the final category on Jeopardy was Antwerp, my wager would have been $0. And yet, as is par for the course on this patchwork journey of mine, I found myself in Antwerp, with some time to explore, and in the process, learn a thing or two about the city.
Their train station will stop you in your tracks. When your first impression of a city looks a little something like this:
it makes a good impression. I stayed just around the corner from Antwerpen-Centraal, and although I crossed its path many times in my stay, the wow factor was not diminished.
Traveling solo for this leg of my journey, I opted to take myself out for a nice meal of moules et frites at Het Vermoeide Model and then ducked around the corner to Paters Vaetje to sample a Belgian beer or two. I whiled away an evening there chatting with a fellow from Australia and a fellow American from Seattle. The bartender was helpful with recommendations, and the bar itself sits in the shadow of their famed cathedral.
I woke the next day desperate for caffeine (I’d dutifully cut myself off after two drinks the night before, but one of which was Kriek Boon, a tasty but sweet beer, leading me to the conclusion that anything with *Boon* in the title leads to hangovers. If you’ve ever had Boone’s Farm, you’ll know I’m right). I made my way to Viggo’s coffee shop. Even with an unnecessary loop added into my walk courtesy of GPS directions (ok, it was probably user error) I found it worth the extra walk. The baristas were friendly and eagerly complied with my wish for the largest or whatever had the most caffeine. Explaining they didn’t have multiple sizes but their filtered coffee has 3x more caffeine than coffees pulled from espresso, I nodded and mumbled my approval. One barista (with an Aussie accent I think?) asked where I was from, I said the U.S., then Ohio. “Ohio?!” – I was surprised at her enthusiasm for what I have to imagine does not typically generate much international excitement. “Where in Ohio exactly are you from?” “Columbus.” “Columbus!! Wonderful! That is where my husband is from!” It’s a big old world out here, but it is a small world indeed. The atmosphere was just the kind of vibe I needed. Relaxed and comfortable, a hodgepodge aesthetic of painted brick, sanded plywood wall, and mismatched chairs. I pulled up a seat at the large communal table. Two young women that knew each other greet each other and catch up, flanking me as I sat writing, talking across me in at least three languages that I could identify. Far from being annoyed, I found it incredible to listen to them slip seamlessly from one language to the next, drifting in and out of Flemish and French, with occasional English peppered in. Music was playing in the background at the all to rare perfect volume. Citrus infused H2O, Biscoff style cookies, and a WC were all free. This place was like a unicorn of European coffee shops.
I’d drafted my plan for the day:
1)Stadtspaark > bunnies
2) Groen Plaats
3) Grote Markt
4) Cafe Storm > Top Museum aan de Stroom >harbor view
I’d read a tip that suggested an enjoyable thing to do in Antwerp is to go to the Stadtspaark and see all of the bunnies. That sounded adorable so I put it at the top of my list. I don’t want to call anyone a fibber… but I walked the entire park and saw not one bunny. What I did find however was a lovely oasis in the city and a tree I named Teresa. Does anybody else affectionately name plants and trees? It’s a habit I picked up from my best friend in high school and now any time I’m smitten with a plant, I give it a name to fit its character. This tree had a humongous presence, and it provided much shelter and comfort, hence Teresa. I digress.
Groen Plats and Grote Markt are public squares just around the corner from each other. Both are good for admiring architecture, people watching, and restaurants abound. I chose Da Giovanni’s. In the ongoing controversy of pie slices vs. square, one restaurant dares to opt out of the decision making and let you choose your own adventure by serving it uncut. Pie wedges, square cuts, roll it and eat it like an animal, the world is your oyster. Order a local Antwerp DeKoninck to wash it down and feel pretty content.
Following another tip, I headed to Café Storm, where I’d read for the measly price of a cup of coffee, you could enjoy a stellar view of Antwerp’s harbor from the cafe’s vantage point on top of Museum aan de Stroom. Fibs and lies I tell you, fibs and lies! Café Storm was distinctly on the ground floor. I asked the waiter if there was a second location and we had a good laugh when he told me the roof of the museum is taken up by a two Michelin star restaurant. As I walked around the harbor anyway, I noticed what I previously thought were just abstract decorative studs adorning the building were actually…severed hands. Antwerp I learned, has a real *thing* with severed hands. The legend goes that there had been a giant living in Antwerp, wreaking havoc and charging a hefty toll for anyone who wanted to pass through. Those who couldn’t pay had their hand chopped off and thrown in the river. Enter their hero, a soldier named Brabo, who fought the giant, and fittingly cut off his hand before ultimately slaying him and rescuing the city from his terror. Weird folklore, lovely parks, picturesque architecture, and friendly, welcoming people added up to make Antwerp a really enjoyable, surprise stop on my trip.