On Saturday we decided to visit another part of Belgiumland: the beautiful and apparently rather trendy Antwerp. Or Antwerpen, if you're Flemish. We had a cold but mostly clear day, with a strong wind but thankfully no rain. I liked Antwerp. It is an undeniably pretty city, with a large old centre, but there's also a lot of new building around the port (not as good as Rotterdam, obv.) and that's where we started our day.
The Museum Aan Der Stroom is an amazing building. But, although we loved it, we both thought that it had been built rather for itself without much thought to the internal exhibition space. There are a lot of escalators and a viewing platform on the top which gives spectacular views of the city, but as a museum there's a mish-mash of stuff inside. Of the permanent collections, the sections about Antwerp as a world city and as a port were the best. I was particularly enamoured of the floor filled with model ships. I do like a good boat, it has to be said. And the 'interactive' elements were good too - write a message in a bottle, chalk yourself into the skyline...
After marvelling at the wavy-sided walls and 'sporting life' escalator-installations, it was time for lunch. Man oh man, it was goooooood.
The excellently-named Balls & Glory specialise in stuffed meatballs. For 12 Euros you get a massive serving of stoemp (Belgian mashed potato with vegetables in - ours was carrot, pea, and mushroom), two sauces (a rich meaty gravy I would have happily swum in, and a sort of Thai-spiced creamy fennely affair which, whilst good, didn't really go with the rest), and a STUFFED MEATBALL. They sell lots of flavour combinations to take away, but have two choices hot and ready for lunching. The Dutchman went for a blue cheese filled ball, I had a cherry filled one. And god was it good. Breaking into the meatball I released a rush of purply sauce and steam. The cherry sauce was just the right blend of tart-sweetness to complement the meat, and the gravy and stoemp were side elements which shone. And they had lemon water and fruit for free on the tables! The restaurant itself was part of a larger enterprise, with another restaurant and a food market, and was full of satisfied people. We could quite easily have had a nap, but it was time to move on and see some more of Antwerp.
There are two churches which regularly feature in 'top ten things to do in Antwerp' lists - the mighty Cathedral and St. Charles Borromeo, whose interior was designed by Rubens. The Cathedral - which dominates the skyline and the old town - was closed for services (bloody Catholics) but we kept catching glimpses of it above the houses and it loomed at us round corners. St. Charles Borromeo, on the other hand, was a glorious Baroque masterpiece, gilded and cherubed all over, with a huge Rubens altarpiece depicting many fat cherubs and women of ample bosom. (The Rubenshuis, which I want to go into, was closed by the time we got there, unfortunately, but that just means that we'll have to go back!)
As the evening drew in, we wandered around the old town (that's the Cathedral, top and middle left). We spied a square with these lovely trees strung with lights, and then the Dutchman remembered that there was a cocktail bar through an archway which of course demanded a visit. Cocktails at 9 (which also has rooms) was a lovely little place to stop. I loved my Rose Garden cocktail - made from gin infused with cardamom, elderflower, rose, and some other things I've forgotten - and I also loved the laid back feel, with cosy armchairs and hipster barmen who didn't impinge. We had dinner in a restaurant close by, a typically Belgian feast with excellent chips and, for me, the perfect Flemish stew: beef cooked until fork-tender in dark beer with nothing else but a bay leaf or two. We drank the Antwerp beer, De Koninck, which was strong and caramel-malty and very very good.
We headed back to the station - an awesome cathedral of the rails to rival St. Pancras (photo top right) - with a quick detour to peer into, first, the eerily-silent locked gates of SintJacobs Kerk, where Rubens is buried, and second, the rather impressive zoo next door to the station. It was a lovely day out, much fun was had by all, and I would love to go back. Clearly my reasons for returning would be cultural and not purely based on my desire for more stuffed meatballs or delicious cocktails. Ahem. No, I am a big fan of Rubens, and want to see where he lived, is all...