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Trip Report A few hours in Antwerpen

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As last week almost all hotels in Brussels were booked due to a trade fair, I spent four nights in Antwerpen. I am not a big fan of Brussels anyway so I did not mind to stay elsewhere.

Until June 2012 you still need to take a relatively inexpensive express bus (1 per hr, 45mins ride, €10). Starting mid of June, the new railway connection from Brussels airport to Antwerpen and further north to the Netherlands will be opened. Then Antwerpen won't be more than a 30 minute direct train ride from the airport.

Hotel was the Leonardo, opposite the train station. Rooms were okay, but as I chose it only due to its proximity to the central station (1min walk) it won't probably be the tourist's first choice.

But the Central Station sure is a sight on its own. It's supposed to be one of the world's most beautiful train stations, and there is little exaggeration. Opposite to Brussels' three major stations, this one is renovated with tracks running as deep as three levels below street level. Quite impressive.
Though, while many other stations in Europe got converted into malls, either integrated or annexed, train stations in Belgium are usually just that. Plus a handful of the most needed merchants like newspaper agents or a coffee shop. Surely an opportunity missed when they renovated the station.

Shopping was not high on my list, but even the "non-shopper" should take a stroll down Meir, the main shopping (pedestrian zone) street, from the station to the historic center of town.
You will pass (or better: go inside) the Stadsfestzaal, the city's historic dance hall converted into a shopping center in old glory, all gold and marble.

As the Royal Museum of Fine Arts is still closed for renovation, they display some of the altar pieces in the Cathedral, and several masterwork paintings on one floor of the modern mini-skyscraper of the Museum an de Stroom, or short: MAS.
The MAS is a bit off the major tourist trails, but a pretty short stroll (15mins) from the Grote Markt to the North at the edge of the historic center, and sure worth a visit. And the view from the top floor's observation deck is very impressive. As the MAS has some permanent exhibits but also some only temporary it's a good idea to check the website first.
In between all the modern or rejuvenated buildings, the old cafe Den Beer stands out like a sore thumb. But it's definetely more cosy inside than the museum's new and stylish coffee shop. Friendly people and free WiFi.

Probably the most impressive part of Antwerpen is the off-the-beaten path neighborhood of Cogels-Osylei, between Draakplaats and Berchem station. It's the most unique ensemble of houses built in all styles one can imagine, from a Moorish castle and Italian villa to half-timber gingerbread houses and finest Art Deco mansions. It's just a short ride from the historic city or the central station with tram line 11 to Draakplaats.
Nearby Dageraadplaats is also a nice and quaint spot for dinner or drinks if you want to get away from the tourist crowds.

For a different view of the city you can take another free adventure ride on the historic wooden escalators down to the old pedestrian Sint Anna tunnel. And walk 500 meters under the Schelde river. They also have elevators, but those are no fun compared to the old escalators.

As I most mostly fed in the course of my business duties in Brussels (which is just a 30 minutes train ride away) I cannot comment anything meaningful on eating out. Just so much as it always pays off to get only a few meters away from the major squares in the historic center to find "hidden" eet cafes or other small quirky eateries and restaurants.

A linguistic advice to the overseas traveller:
While Belgium has three official language regions, only the capital region of Brussels is bilingual (with a bias towards French). In Antwerpen and all of Flanders the language is Flemish, a variant of Dutch. And if you don't know that it's wiser to use English than French.
If you go by train or car, you will only see and hear the respective version of any city's name on signs, displays or PA announcements. Anvers exists only on timetables in Brussels and Wallonie, but once your train crosses the border into Flanders the displays will only show the Flemish name Antwerpen.
To make things a bit more complicated, road signs usually give the name in the local language where you are, not where you plan to go. So going from Brussels to Liège, the signage will change from Liège/Luik to Luik and back to Liège as you cross the three invisible language borders.

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