Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp Home Swap and Neighbourhood

Getting from Toronto to Antwerp to start our Belgium home swap vacation was uneventful.  Our Love Home Swap membership gave us free access to the airport lounge at Toronto Pearson airport, which was a nice perk that allowed us to load up on curry chicken with rice and other treats prior to our flight.  This turned out to be a good thing since I did not find the food served on Air Brussels to be very appetizing.  Once we landed in Brussels, our plan was to search for a place to buy a Belgian SIM card with a data plan for our phone.  To our delight, there was an Orange Telcom carrier booth sitting right at baggage claim (which we had to walk through even though we only had carry-on luggage).  We were able to get 4GB of data for 15 Euros lasting 30 days.

To get to Antwerp, we took a Diabolo train, which ran directly from the Brussels airport to Antwerp Central Station in just over 30 minutes.  Not wanting to figure out how to use the ticket vending machines, we bought our tickets from a live ticket agent, explaining where we wanted to go.  We took our tickets, climbed aboard the first compartment that we saw, and sat down.  Not long afterwards, a ticket collector came by to check our tickets and declared that we had “second-class” tickets but were sitting in the “first-class” compartment.  We had not even realized that there was a difference and the original agent that sold us the tickets did not offer us the upgraded choice.  Maybe we didn’t appear well-heeled enough to want to buy a first-class ticket.  We picked up our bags and shuffled one car over to the “second class” compartment, now noticing the number “1” on the car that we were in, and the “2” for the one we were headed towards.  We found out later that first class costs an extra 7 Euros and offers more leg room and a quieter environment, but we really didn’t notice much of a difference, especially for such a short ride as we were taking.

Once we reached Antwerp Central station, we used Google Maps to try to find our home swap location but ran into unexpected trouble.  For some reason, Google Maps misread our current location and sent us in the wrong direction.  Being quite jet-lagged from our sleepless red-eye flight, we didn’t notice and blindly followed its suggestions to turn left and right for over 20 minutes before reaching a home that we thought was our destination.  I was feeling depressed about how much farther from the train station the home was relative to where I thought it was.  Just as we were about to knock on the door of this house, we checked one more time on Google Maps and realized that we were on the wrong street and way off track.  Back we trekked, rolling our carry-on luggage on the cobble-stoned pavement until we were almost at our starting point of the train station again.  Reapplying the Google Map search, this time we received the correct route and actually found our desired street.  We arrived at the house but were worried that there were flyers sticking out of the mail slot, seemingly indicating that no one had been home for quite some time.  We rang the doorbell several times but received no answer.  At this point, we were chilled to the bone and started to panic.  Not sure what to do, it occurred to me to double-check the address on our Love Home Swap website.  Sure enough, I had written down the wrong house number!  Relieved and sheepish, we trotted over to the correct house and were welcomed by the person waiting to give us the key.  As a result of this experience, I ended up taking pictures of three houses, two of which were not our intended destination.  It was a long trip from Toronto, with the last 30 minutes of it feeling like the longest, but we had finally made it “home”.

Home swapping has given us the opportunity to stay in some unique places around the world including a house in the South of France that was built into a Medieval wall, and a villa overlooking the Lagoona in Venice.  In Antwerp, we stayed in a gorgeous four-storey 19th Century house with high ceilings, hardwood floors, wooden banisters, ornate chandeliers and light fixtures, elegant crown moulding and finishes, and stained glass windows.  It also had the most incredible library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a wooden rolling ladder that seemed right out of an old bookstore.  This was the perfect location for me to work on my travel blogs.  It is always interesting to stay in a home in a different country, especially an older period home, and be able to compare the differences to our condo in Toronto.  While we did not have a bathroom on the same floor as our bedroom, we did have a sink in our room, which made it very convenient to brush our teeth at night and in the morning.  We also learned about the heating system where each room is heated individually as opposed to having central heating/air conditioning.  Each room has a radiator with an oval knob with settings from 0-5 that you turn in order to increase the heat, and the door should be kept closed to prevent the heat from escaping out of the room.

Once we actually found the correct house and the “short-cut” route to get there from the Antwerp Central train station, it turned out to be a short and pleasant walk that passed by the back of Antwerp Zoo, highlighted by several metal giraffe sculptures along the path.  Once, peeking through an opening, we even spotted some actual giraffes strolling around in their pens.  Established in 1843, the Antwerp Zoo is oldest animal park in Belgium and one of the oldest in the world.  The main entrance to the zoo is in the large square next to the historic part of the Central Station and features a sculpture of a Moor riding a camel, mosaics of a tiger and a lion, and sculptures of birds in flight that looked like an eagle and a heron.  You can walk into the beautiful central courtyard of the zoo and see the flamingos for free prior to the point where you need to purchase a ticket.

We had heard about how incredibly beautiful the old Antwerp Central Railway Station was, so we were surprised when we got off the train and saw a modern building made of glass.  We soon realized that we were in the new part of the station and needed to walk through it to get to the original station.  Built between 1895 and 1905 at the impetus of King Leopold II who wanted a prestigious train station for Antwerp, several different architects designed different sections, resulting in its eclectic styles.  The main building, where the ticket booths, service areas and waiting room halls were located, was built with a stone façade and a vast 75 metre-high dome flanked by two turret towers.  The viaduct that held the train tracks leading into the station featured large panes of glass and  decorative steel that was later painted burgundy as it was restored and repaired after being weakened by bombings in World War II.  While both exterior sections of the station are quite striking, they seem a bit odd placed side by side.

Designed by a third architect, the interior train hall is just breath-taking to behold and is really the highlight of the station.  Designated as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, it has elements of Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau and other styles, achieving the “railway cathedral” that King Leopold II desired.  It is shocking to think that in the mid 20th Century, the building had fallen into such disrepair that there was consideration of tearing it down!  Luckily wiser heads prevailed and it was restored and preserved instead, but also expanded with the new addition in order to meet growing commuter needs.  Today the Antwerp Central Station has four levels of tracks supporting high-speed trains and is no longer a terminus station but now a through station with trains traveling in all directions.

Antwerp has been the focus of the diamond trade for several centuries and used to be the hub for cutting and polishing the precious gems, using a machine called the scaif invented by 15th Century jeweler and diamond cutter Lodewyk van Berken.  In the late 1800s, the diamond trading industry rose, establishing the area now known as the “Diamond Quarter”.  According to Wikipedia, today about 84% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded through this district and over $16 billion in polished diamonds are handled by 3500 brokers, merchants and diamond cutters.  Walking by the streets adjacent to the Central train station, you can see store after store advertising diamonds.  It is interesting to wonder who is buying all these diamonds from so many stores, since you don’t see people walking around flaunting their jewels?

The main shopping street in Antwerp is Meir, a pedestrian-only boulevard that spans west of the Central Station towards the City Hall in the Grote Markt.  Along this path are some magnificent Rococco and Beaux Arts mansions that seem like former royal palaces.  In fact, the historic building at Meir #50 was once the residence for Kings of Belgium.  Today, the bottom floors of many of these buildings have been converted into commercial spaces for clothing stores and restaurants.  It is particularly jarring to approach this stretch and see giant billboards featuring models wearing skimpy Italian swimwear being displayed immediately next to a palatial mansion complete with turrets, gargoyles and stone sculptures.

One of these buildings on the Meir was originally completed in 1908 as a Neo-classical banquet and exhibition hall, where fairs, festivals, exhibitions, balls and parties were held for many years.  In 2000, it was decided to turn the building into a shopping mall but a disastrous fire almost gutted the place. The building was painstakingly restored to its former glory including its oak floors, glass dome, swooping staircase, gold leaf, mosaics, crown moulding, wall reliefs and other ornamentation.  It reopened as the Shopping Stadsfeestzaal Center in 2007.  Today the mall houses 40 shops and restaurants distributed over 4 levels.  It is quite the experience to walk through and inspect the restoration efforts achieved to return the main hall to its former glory.

The shop “The Chocolate Line” resides in another historic building that has been converted into commercial space on the street Mier.  The elegant structure was once a palace where Napoleon Bonaparte hosted important guests and dignitaries .  Napoleon apparently loved a cup of chocolate, so it is quite appropriate that the building now houses the Antwerp location of a premium chocolate store that started in Bruges.  It is owned and run by award-winning Belgium chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who is known for his innovative chocolate and praline recipes and designs.  The main reception halls of the palace still display their 18th Century features including paintings, gilded friezes and ceiling ornamentations.  These rooms now act as the sales areas for the shop.  The former kitchen was gutted and modernized but the original stove was retained, restored and is still in use today.  Large-scaled whimsical and elaborate chocolate creations designed by Persoone are on display in the kitchen including a “Frog King”, a robot, a Buddha, a racoon and an intricately decorated egg.

We were anticipating eating much chocolate in Belgium and especially in Brussels, the “Chocolate Capital of the World”.  We figured that we might as well get a jump-start in Antwerp, and the Chocolate Line was the first store we tried.  There were so many unique flavours to choose from, although we had to guess what some of them were since the labels were in Dutch.  There were some weird flavours including wasabi, Bombay Gin, rice vinegar/soy sauce/caramel/sesame seeds/sansho pepper, fried onions, basil/sun-dried tomato/black olives, Earl Grey Tea and more!  Rich and I are quite conservative about our chocolate so we stuck with relatively standard choices.  We tried a milk chocolate with hazelnut praline shaped like a horse’s head, one shaped like Napoleon’s Hat made with dark chocolate containing marzipan and banana ganache, a dark chocolate with hazelnut praline, puffed rice, cherry blossoms and Sakura rice vinegar, a milk chocolate with almond praline, crispy bacon and quinoa and a dark chocolate covered almond praline, poppy seeds and a crisp of candied sugar.  Rich also bought a dark chocolate covered marshmallow cookie, which turned out to be a recurring theme as we traveled through Belgium.  In addition to chocolates and truffles, The Chocolate Line also sold brittles and some fun items including chocolate “lipstick”, “massage cream”, and “pills”.

The chocolates were so good and the store location was so convenient since we had to pass it to get to most places, that we returned the next day and hinted that this might become a daily affair. Getting free samples each time helped earn our loyalty as well, but alas, not enough.  There were too many other chocolate shops beckoning and we soon spurned our first love and decided to play the field when it came to buying chocolate.  More will be discussed about the “Belgium Chocolate Experience” in a future blog.

We had multiple dining goals to accomplish while we were in Belgium and we knocked off a few items at Bier Central, which was on the square across from the train station and the zoo.  One goal for Rich was to try Belgian beers, so we were enticed by Bier Central’s boast of over 300+ different types of beers.  They were not kidding, since we were not handed a beer menu, but rather a large beer “encyclopedia”.  After some careful consideration, Rich chose the Bourgogne des Flanders, a brown ale with low alcohol content and a complex flavour that was very smooth, less bitter and easy to drink. I have tasted Rich’s beers back home and have not found any that I would consider drinkable.  To my surprise, I really liked this Belgian beer, so much so that I ordered a beer for myself for the first time ever!  This was indeed a momentous occasion.  As we continued on our trip and ate at more Belgian restaurants, I found more and more Belgian beers that I liked, or at least didn’t hate, but this one will always be remembered as my first.  Since “tap” water is not an option at Belgian restaurants and beer costs only a Euro more than bottled water, it became a staple for our meals.

Bier Central was a fun place to eat since we were literally seated within a beer barrel, which was a cool thing to experience, but the benches not very comfortable.  We checked off another eating aspiration by ordering the Flemish beef stew with fries, which is a traditional Belgian specialty.  Belgian Fries were also on our list, but unfortunately the ones served with this meal were once again the “fat” fries like we found last year in our trip to Ireland, as opposed to thin crispy fries that I prefer.  We did not count this as our ultimate Belgian fries experience though, holding out for ones from a frites shop that come in a cone and choice of sauces.  While almost every meal comes with fries, at least they also come with side salad or greens so that I did not need to separately order a salad.  The stew was good with a nice sauce although the pieces of beef were a bit dry and tough.  We would have a much better beef stew later in our journeys.  In Belgium, and also in other European countries, the jaunt to the toilets were often a bit of an adventure.  Very seldom were the toilets located on the same floor as the dining area.  You either had to climb or descend steep and sometimes narrow, windy stairs to get to them.  At Bier Central, I had to walk by the “doors” of the men’s room in order to reach the ladies, but these doors were only chest-high (and that’s for my 5-foot tall height) with the urinals clearly in sight.  As I passed by, I caught the eye of the man using one of the urinals and then we both quickly looked away.

After walking around the first day, we realized what a convenient location our home swap was.  It was easy to get to the train station, which was useful since we would be taking a road trip by train to Ghent and Bruges, and then traveling to Brussels after our stay in Antwerp.  Just walking around the immediate neighbourhood, we were able to see so much and we were within a 30+ minute walk to any of the sights that we planned to visit.  Having familiarized ourselves with the area near us, we were ready to set out further afield.

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