Antwerp, Belgium: Home of Wonderful People and the Worst Tourist Office Agent of All Time (Mike)
We took the hour-long train (everywhere in Europe seems to only be an hour away) from Amsterdam to Antwerp on Thursday morning. The skies were gray and cold yet again. Apparently (and somewhat ironically), Northern Europe is going through some sort of Global Warming-related cold spell right now. It’s supposed to be sunny this late in May, but the weather has been rainy and cold for the past few months. Bad timing, but it’s a testament to how great the Netherlands and Belgium are that we loved them both despite the consistently dreary weather.
Antwerp has a more modern feel than Amsterdam, but was still gorgeous in its own way, especially the absolutely enormous central cathedral which looms above the whole city and has one of the most beautiful bell towers in Europe.
We toured the house of Peter Paul Rubens who was the most important Baroque artist and also a diplomat and also the richest badass for miles around. He designed the house which now serves as a beautiful museum housing the fruits of his very busy workshop and also the works of other contemporary masters. Rubens was friends with all of them and would swap works with them to increase his private collection and also spread his own fame. I told Laura he reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, just without the Declaration of Independence.
We also strolled through the small but beautiful Staadtspark where we encountered a wild bunny standing on two legs to eat from some low-hanging branches. Very cute. For some reason, we’ve encountered lots of out-of-place wildlife. In Amsterdam it was a huge Heron on a car in the middle of the street, in Antwerp it was the bunny, and yesterday it was a flock of little lambs in the middle of a hidden garden in Bruges. Hopefully the weird managerie theme keeps up!
Food has been great on the whole trip, but it took center stage in Antwerp because it is White Asparagus Season in Belgium. The season is short and they are going positively apeshit over it here. Every restaurant had a huge sign at the top of the menu that says “Asperges!!” It was so common that for a while we thought that “Asperges” was Dutch for “menu.” Not so.
Anyway, we ordered the “Asperges!!” and we were blown away. It is a beautiful vegetable and incredibly tender (almost like meat). Ours were served with smoked salmon and slathered in Hollandaise sauce. Yep, it was as good as it sounds. This was preceded by excellent tomato soup with tiny meatballs.
And of course, the beer. My god, the beer! It’s so absurdly good here. Each beer comes with its own unique glass to maximize the flavor and to get the appropriate bubble consistency (they are really into bubbles and beer menus will have descriptors like “tripel with extra fine bubbles, pour with a single motion into glass”). They are very particular about it and the results are delicious. The bars literally have to serve each different beer in a specialized glass and the beer companies will pull their product if the rules are broken. At one underground medieval pub (this was also as cool as it sounds), I ordered a beer call Kwak (Yes, we made some “Boy, I have a huge Kwak” jokes. We have low-brow humor) and the waiter says “Okay, but I have to tell you that if you break the glass it will cost $15 extra.” Got it, good to know. The Kwak was delicious (another one!) and came in a glass that looked like a science experiment with a rounded bottom and narrow neck with its own wooden stand. Totally worth it, although I spent more thought trying not to break the thing than I spent actually enjoying it.
As in every city, we spent much of both days wandering around and looking at stuff. On the first day, we stopped in at the Tourist Office and the agent strolled over to us. “Hi,” said Laura politely, “We’d just like to get a little orientation about the city and to hear about the sites.” (A reasonable and standard request at a tourist info office, don’t you think?) “Well, what do you want to see?” was his curt response. After a brief pause while we looked at him in disbelief, Laura said “That’s exactly why we’re here, we don’t know what we’re supposed to see.” He started back. “It depends what you like.” Slap own face. This was going nowhere fast. Finally, Laura just said, “Can you please just show us where some museums are on the map?” He circled some and we thanked him and walked out. Least helpful tourist office guy in the world. In retrospect, I’m starting to realize that this is part of a general theme throughout Northern Europe: people do not like to make recommendations. We’ve asked several people for restaurant recommendations and the response is always “I couldn’t possibly recommend anything, there are lots of options.” Sheesh, we know, that’s why we are asking! The waiters are the same way. They guard their opinion of the food as if it were a state secret.
Although it’s hard to get a solid rec out of these people, I have to say that they are, across the board, extremely friendly. Here’s a perfect example from Antwerp: we decided to go out to a local bar with live jazz music. The place was awesome, with three stories of small tables, filled with people chatting and drinking their beers. We ended up sitting at the bar and the guy next to us politely moved over so that we could both fit. After we thanked him, Laura struck up a conversation with him and as we conversed, he discreetly started buying our drinks, without even saying anything. People all over Belgium have opened up to us very quickly and they just insist on buying us drinks. Such nice people!
This particular guy was named Frank and Frank is, simply put, the man. He spent the next two hours teaching us about different beers and explaining the complicated political situation in Belgium (the current prime minister is gay and Italian). He never once rolled his eyes at our annoying tourist questions. After our long conversation he took us on a walking tour of Antwerp’s surprisingly clean, safe and professional red-light district, which features tons of good-looking women in skimpy clothes standing behind windows and propositioning passerby’s (the going rate is $50 euro for 25 minutes). The whole thing was bizarre but fascinating and you could tell that Frank really enjoyed showing us his city.
That what’s so great about traveling: meeting complete strangers and two hours later sharing laughs with them while you pass windows full of naked women. Well, it’s not EXACTLY that, but it is that feeling of discovery and wonder and seeing something that you’ve never seen before. Thanks for the beers and the tour Frank, we won’t forget it and we hope to see you again!