Timeline: October 29th – 31st
After an easy drive to Antwerp, we ran into heavy traffic on the outskirts of town, then again just a few blocks from our B&B, causing us to give the B&B Alegria a call twice to let them know we’d be delayed. We arrived after dark at their location in the Permeke District, parking where we could in front as they’d suggested; no sooner did we open the doors then one of the owners, Rob, came hustling down the sidewalk to greet us.
We’d booked a parking spot in a nearby garage; while Rob and I navigated to it, Joanna and the other owner, Johnny, carried our luggage into the house. Car parked, Rob and returned, I completed our registration and walked up the steep flight of stairs to the Piaf room, our home for the next three nights. I was pleasantly surprised at the charm of our three-room suite, with its spacious remodeled bathroom, separate bedroom, and large and comfortable front room.
Rob treated us to a welcome beer apiece, the local De Koninck, a tasty Tripel that reminded us of why we like being in Belgium. After relaxing a bit, we set out to grab a bite to eat. The Permeke district of Antwerp (also known as Seefhoek district), is home to many nationalities, brought here over the years by the trade that has moved through this vibrant port town. After just a few blocks we came upon a Kebap shop where we enjoyed a large Shawarma wrap apiece, fries, and two soft drinks for 12 Euros.
Breakfast the next day, served in our room, was delightful and included bread, fruit, meat, cheese, yoghurt, and nicely scrambled eggs. Our tanks topped up, we prepared for a busy day ahead. Being our anniversary, I asked Rob for a recommendation for dinner that night and he suggested Bourla, serving well crafted local fare in a nice setting. We made a reservation for 7:00 pm and unbeknownst to Joanna, I set up delivery of a cold bottle of Cava by Rob and Johnny at 5pm to start off our evening right.
We collected the Highlander from the parking garage and drove it the five miles or so out to Gosselin Forwarding (local agents for Schumacher Cargo Logistics) and the same place where we had picked up the car five or so months earlier. Finding the location was easy enough and within 45 minutes we’d completed the paperwork, moved the car to the warehouse, and turned over the keys, hoping that Bart’s prediction that it would ship about ten days later would prove accurate.
After walking a couple of blocks to a bus stop we took a short ride to the front of Antwerp’s Train Station. Built around the turn of the century, it’s a mixture of industrial age and Art Nouveau.
We then began walking down pedestrian friendly De Keyserlei Boulevard, ground zero for the area known as the Diamond Quarter, one of the world’s top centers where diamonds are sold and cleaved (split into smaller pieces to prepare them for cutting). Each side of the street was lined with shop windows glittering with diamonds and golden jewelry.
Continuing along the boulevard, which had now become the Meir, we passed two grand facades that exemplify the style called Historicism, all the rage in the late 19th century, an architectural character that borrowed bits and pieces of past styles to wow the viewer.
We passed by the Stadsfeestzaal shopping mall,
then made a detour down a side street to view the exterior of the Rubens House, former home of Peter Paul Rubens. We decided to skip the tour given our limited time and its expense and continued down the Meir to Groenplaats, home to a statue of Rubens with the Cathedral of Our Lady just around the corner.
Antwerp’s largest church, its 400-foot tall spire dominates the nearby skyline. Without much compelling to see inside, we passed on paying to visit the interior and instead turned our attention to a small beer shop in Handschoenmarkt Square in front of the church.
It was a warm day and we were a bit thirsty, so the thought of enjoying a fine Belgian Ale had a certain appeal. A well-stocked shop, we sampled a Westmalle on special that day and then, purchasing a bottle of two different offering, sat outside on a bench enjoying our drinks in glasses provided by the shopkeeper.
Finishing our beers, we walked a block or so to the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main square, dominated by the Cathedral’s tower on one end and the City Hall on the other. The rest of the square is populated with guild houses, celebrating the trade associations of each of the city’s industries, each topped with a golden statue representing that guild’s patron saint.
The fountain in the middle of the Markt illustrates the tale of Druon Antigoon, a mythical giant who lived in Antwerp and exacted a toll from those crossing the river Scheldt. For those who refused, he severed one of their hands and threw it into the river. Eventually, he was slain by a young Roman soldier who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river. Legend has it that this is the origin of the name Antwerp: Antwerpen, from Dutch hand werpen—akin to Old English hand and wearpan (= to throw.
We exited the Markt and two blocks later found ourselves down at the Riverfront. Historically important, this now derelict waterfront is where the shipping settlement of Antwerp began in the Middle Ages. All that is left now is an empty castle and 19th century industrial age steel canopies that formerly functioned as warehouses. Popular as a walking and hanging out space amongst Antwerpenaars, this area is awaiting development, local authorities recognizing the value it would bring by turning it into a lively people zone.
Our last stop for the day was Antwerp’s red-light district, Belgium’s biggest hub of legalized prostitution. Lacking the touristy patina of Amsterdam’s, it seems more commonplace, reflecting the Low Countries pragmatic integration of the practice into society at large. Here it is believed that concentrating prostitution in a single neighborhood makes it safe for both the sex workers and for city residents at large. Belgians believe that when a prostitute needs help, its better that a policeman rather than a pimp comes to her rescue.
We returned to the Alegria and right on time, Rob and Johnny delivered an ice bucket with our bottle of Cava, surprising Joanna just as I had hoped. After 32 years together, we both knew that this trip, spending this much time together, would be a test of our relationship, one that could make us stronger or not. Sharing that Cava that night was an affirmation of the best kind, two folks still in love.
Refreshed and relaxed, we walked back over to a square not far from Rubens house for our dinner at Bourla. Situated in an older building, it is nicely furnished and provided just the right touch of atmosphere for our celebration. We started with a couple of glasses of champagne, and then ordered the Borla Menu (three courses) and the Swordfish as a separate entrée. Our starter was the soup of the day, a creamy and rich Lobster Bisque.
My Swordfish was grilled and served in basil oil and aioli along with seasonal vegetables, a taste sensation in every bite. Joanna’s Salmon with Squid Ink Pasta and Vegetables provided a different taste each time she lifted her fork.
We finished the meal with a crème brulee and cappuccinos, and then walked back to the Alegria. We had one more day to spend in Europe and were looking forward to seeing some more sights to round out our stay in Antwerp. It had been a long day but a good one as many had been for us, yet another fond memory to share.
B&B Alegria: http://www.bbalegria.be/English.html
Gosselin Forwarding: http://www.gosselinforwarding.eu/
Antwerpen-Centraal railway station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antwerpen-Centraal_railway_station
Rubens House: http://www.rubenshuis.be/museum_rubenshuis_en
Cathedral of Our Lady: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Our_Lady_(Antwerp)
Druon Antigoon: http://www.figy.be/legenden/Antwerpen_Brabo.htm