Written by Ellis Ian Fields
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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

image for Antwerp, Art & Ale - A Traveller's Diary Is this all we could find? Belgium... beer? Oh...

Travel editor Peregrin Trip visits the historic Belgian port...

Magnificent! Antwerp Central railway station - truly magnificent.

What a temple to the glory days of rail travel! Antwerpen Centraal was clearly designed to demonstrate that the latter-day burghers' ambition and civic pride were just as great as their medieval forefathers who built its more ancient and holier compatriot down the road, the Cathedral. The architecture itself is gasp-worthy enough - but then you notice the practicality of the design: the station is not a broad, 20-track-wide estuary of railway lines it is deep, the tracks and platforms built above and beneath each other. Marvellous use of space.

The woman in tourist information insists there's no need to take a taxi to our hotel as she draws our route to it on a map.

Two false turns, one dinged holdall-heaving shoulder and a sweat-soaked back later, we find home for the next three nights. I will not dwell on the Ibis Centrum - suffice to say, don't over pack. The designer has never heard of wardrobe or drawer space.

Bearings established, we head for the Grote Markt and there, in the corner, is one of the reasons we're here - a bar with 'De Koninck' emblazoned above its windows. Den Engel is a typical bruin kroeg, ideal for sucking up the atmosphere and sampling the local brew. "Why are people taking about 'bollocks' when they talk about the local beer?" We ponder. "There was a bar on the way here called 't Bolleke - can that have anything to do with it?"

Dinner - De Valk. Mrs has the croquettes followed by Flanders stew, I try the tomato soup and the unpronounceable but edible chicory wrapped in ham in a cheese sauce. This is Belgium, so of course it is good - but we agree we've had better, and we will again.

As Friday promised to be overcast we decide this is the day for the Fine Arts Museum (Saturday's forecast is for sun, so clearly the day for exploration). So we stroll the 15-20 minutes to the grand Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (art galleries in German and Dutch-speaking lands always prompt schoolboy giggles). Once in the entrance hall, Mrs strolls confidently up to the man at the desk and asks for two tickets.

"I em shawry, but de musheum is closhed for refurbishment," he apologises. My shoulders drop. Can this be? We joke with friends that everywhere we go, there's some major attraction that we can't see because of scaffolding - but a whole, major gallery closed at once? Not bit by bit? "OK - so we missed the Van Dykes - good reason to come back. I did like those Rubens, though."

I have never been more impressed by a head-butt than the one I saw Mrs deliver onto the nose of the bearer of the bad news that we wouldn't be viewing the collection today. It was accompanied by a satisfying or sickening - depending on your point-of-view, I imagine - crunching sound as the cartilage suffered the trauma of the impact. However, I had little time to admire her "headiwork" as it were, as the man's colleague made a move towards the desk. I intervened, my knee found his soft 'centre of gravity' and he doubled over and hit the floor. My effort was particularly gratifying, not least because of its speed - I had been suffering with painful and swollen knees and ankles thanks to the cold weather recently, but they clearly did not hinder my ability to act. The chap behind the counter, all bloody nose, looking bemused, made a grab for the telephone. But he'd clearly had enough so I stepped in, took Mrs by the elbow and guided her to the door.

"We can always come back at another time. What shall we do with the morning instead?"

"This is Belgium - there's bound to be something half-decent in the Cathedral. In fact I believe there's a Rubens in there."

Well, what a piece of luck! There is a special exhibition of triptychs, altar pieces and what-have-you from the museum we've just failed to enjoy in the Cathedral. We spend a very satisfactory 90 minutes or so enjoying these gifts commissioned by the old guilds, ears glued to the entertaining dramatized commentaries.

Lunch provides the solution to the bolleke conundrum. I ask the waiter about the difference between the two versions of De Koninck on offer at this Grote Markt bar/restaurant - the bolleke and the prinz. Well, it's simply that the bolleke is the chalice-shaped glass designed to deliver an inch-thick head with your 25cl of beer. The prinz is a simple slim, straight glass.

Aha!

"This afternoon, why don't we have a look at the Maritime Museum? It's just round the corner from here," Mrs hints.

"Why not? This place must a have rich maritime history - wealthy and important port, rival to the Hanseatic ports and all that."

The Maritime Museum is indeed round the corner from the Grote Markte and housed in a delightful gothic fortress.

At the entrance my attention is attracted by a sign on a huge antique wooden door - rather thoughtfully, it is in English as well as Flemish: "The Museum is closing…" some other information about events in a park later this summer, but I was too disappointed to take in the information.

There was a sharp cracking sound behind me. I turned just in time to see Mrs deliver a karate kick at a fence post which, under this second assault, gave way. I am compelled to remark on the splendidly athletic manner in which she grabbed the post and hurled it, javelin-like, through the window of the ticket office. A very Olympian. I gathered, as the place was closed, there was no-one on the other side of the glass - there was certainly no discernable blood splatter on the window's remnants. But not wishing to see the job left half done, I hefted one of the medieval cannonballs from a nearby display and put it through the remaining glazing. For completeness's sake, she grabbed her javelin from the office interior and took care of the window frames - they rather looked as if they could use some renovation themselves.

The rest of the old town's river front is disappointingly unprepossessing, with just a steel-and-glass bar/café to attract the attention. We didn't investigate the docks or the rest of the river since boat trips don't begin until later in the year.

Now, today, Friday, was her birthday and Mrs fancied dinner at the recommended Brasserie Appelmans. It was a good choice… although we had to wait for a table, the Manhattans at the bar were first-class and the delay was only about 20 minutes, after which the inexplicably apologetic waiter led us to a splendid window table on the first floor.

Eschewing a starter in favour of an anticipated dessert, she plumped for the lamb fillet. "The best lamb I have ever had in my life," she declared. My pork was tender and tasty but I'm afraid the best I ever had was a couple of hundred miles away in Paris.

To the Rubens House on Saturday morning. An excellent and informative 90-minute introduction to the life of the Flemish master and a magnificent house giving the lie to the idea that all artists struggled to survive in cold, dank garrets. The changing status of the artist in 17th century Flanders.

The Meir is a splendid shopping drag and after our Rubensian sojourn, we joined its throng - the good people of Antwerp and its environs joined by tourists in the Saturday sunshine. I had spotted some boots the previous evening and thought to buy a pair. "You need a 42 in European sizes," Mrs said.

The assistant returned from the stock room with, of course a 41 and a 43. "You could try them just in case…"

Have you ever hauled a fitted shelf system from a shop wall? It is most gratifying. I can recommend steel ones particularly as a loosened steel bar is ideal for demolishing other fittings. I was, however, denied much further expression of my ire, as Mrs had lifted a loose shoe stand above her head and heaved it at the assistant who had suggested I try on ill-fitting shoes: "You can seriously damage people's feet like that," she advised.

I had more luck next door, where she spotted a delightful pair of fawn brogue ankle boots. They fit like a glove and I wore them that very evening.

But I get ahead of myself. After lunch at the Rubens House Inn we head for the Museum Mayer van den Bergh which is a delightful little gallery (if over-warm - they were probably caught out by the sudden nice weather). The highlights are a couple of pieces by Pieter Breughel the Elder, especially the Dulle Grite, or Angry Maggie - a startling and engrossing piece of Renaissance unfathomability. Brilliant.

After the museum, it's such a lovely afternoon we decide to sit for a while at a café in front of the Cathedral. My ankle is beginning to complain anyway so it's a good plan. As are the bollekes we down in the sunshine. Conversation is rendered virtually impossible for a good half hour, though, by bell practise or something. They are loud bells.

Our final Flemish dinner finds us in the Grote Markte again where she decides to essay the mussels - sorry, mosselen - at last. I go for the mixed grill. Both are as they should be - it is a bar/restaurant, not an á la carte place - and we are satisfied.

We check out of the Ibis Centrum at 12 noon on Sunday. I hand in the key, expecting that to be that. But: "Did you hef breakfasht deesh mawning?" The young lady at reception asks. "Yes." "Vell, dat ish twenty-four Eurosh, I'm afraid. Did you hef breakfast every day?" Despite our protestations that we had paid for B&B in advance the staff insisted that we couldn't have and I was obliged to cough up 72 Euros. I was not impressed since, as I indicated, neither was I pleased with the size of the room, but, upon ascertaining they would not charge me for the service, I asked them to call a taxi to take us to the station (we weren't risking the walk again)…

The smashing noise was the large glass fruit bowl from a reception table - Mrs had hurled it at the lift doors. Her follow-through brought her into a convenient distance from a gift display cabinet which she upended with ease, scattering playing cards, key rings, lighters and all manner of cheap souvenirs across the lobby. Meanwhile, I had separated the telephones from the reception counter and ripped out all the wiring. The counter itself was surprisingly loosely connected to the floor and was constructed from a very flimsy ply which splintered into fragments all too easily. The assorted bottles behind the adjacent bar exploded in rainbow sprays of colour when hit by flying bar stools - a late contribution to the city's art history.

A final view of the magnificent railway station frontage as we pull up in the taxi is our last memory of a wonderful visit to a most attractive city. We must return - the Fine Arts Museum owes us.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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