A couple of months ago - the weekend before we got the puppy - we went to Belgium for the weekend.
Our annual Belgian summer weekend trip is becoming something of a tradition: Bruges in 2010, Ghent last year, and now Antwerp. The trip started, as always, with a glass of champagne in the long bar at the magnificent St. Pancras station, with the Olympic rings hanging proudly at the southern end.
The next day started with a meander through the pretty Stadt Park (not exactly an enormous park given that it's one of the city's biggest parks - you get a bit spoilt in London, I think) and headed south-west towards the 't Zuid area (South), which had been recommended to me by an old friend who grew up in the city. It seemed a little less seedy than the area around the railway station and had some beautiful architecture.
We found a popular café on a small intersection and sat down to a delicious breakfast in the sun.
We noticed lots of "youths" walking past in the same direction, all looking as if they'd made an effort to look different; all looking the same. After we'd eaten we headed in the direction of the crowds to see what was going on. We wandered along a main road to get a good view of an interesting building (a pointy Sydney Opera House, perhaps), which is the Antwerp Bar building (Balie Antwerpen).
We passed cars pounding with techno music and packed with teenagers, some keen to have their photo taken, stuck in endless traffic.
We followed the crowd to the entrance of the Summer Festival - an open-air festival consisting of a bunch of DJs that I'd never heard of. I seemed to be the only person around with a camera, so snapped away avidly, some people posing gladly for me again. It was quite mesmerising watching the hoards coming, girls in short shorts, guys in "funny" t-shirts, all different, but all the same, with a backdrop of stacks of shipping containers.
Finally we tore ourselves away and headed north, towards the city centre, a few stark spires marking our way, stopping for a coffee along the way. We soon stumbled into a procession of kids and adults dressed up, dancing along the narrow streets (not sure what the occasion was, perhaps a samba thing!).
Soon we found ourselves in the middle of the old town, with beautiful cobbled squares surrounded by the typical Flemish buildings with crenellated roofs. The sun was still shining. The tower of the city's masterpiece church, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of our Lady), towered over the surrounding buildings.
We moved on, heading north and found the new Museum Aan de Stroom, an interesting red-brick building with glass tubes as windows. Instead of actually going inside (not feeling very cultural after the beer) we sat in a cool little café opposite and tried the jenever. Not a bad little tipple, but wise to just have the one.
Hunger now took over and as we headed back towards the beer tent we popped into a popular Italian restaurant, the first choice place found on the Antwerp App not appearing to exist any more. As we ate the skies finally opened. Our pizza and pasta were washed down with more Belgian beer; I had a Grimbergen.
The rain didn't stop, and we'd left our umbrellas at the hotel, so we ran down the street, sheltering under doorways, until we found a suitable-looking bar. One more beer for the road. A man by the window had had so much that he kept falling asleep. People were prodding him to wake him up, and when he finally did the barmaid threatened to throw him out if he fell asleep again.
He nodded off again within a couple of minutes. He was actually with someone, and eventually he woke up and the two of them left. We followed soon after and returned to Bierpassie, buying another couple of tokens. We ran into the English couple from the previous night, Nick and Shirley, in the Delerium Tremens tent, the first Belgian beer I'd ever tasted, 21 years earlier in Chalk Farm's Belgo. Murray bought an elephant hat, as had another man, bringing lots of stares and laughs.
And so it was back to Kulminator, where Nick & Shirley were already happily ensconsed. A few more beers there (including an expensive €12 Trappist Westvletern, at a mere 10.2%!), before being kicked out and heading home; it was only 12.30am, but the owners clearly didn't want to stay up into the early hours.
We woke up a bit late, but still had plenty of time to fit in a bit of culture before our train home at 6pm. We wandered into the centre, looking for somewhere to get pancakes for breakfast. The place we'd found on the internet no longer existed (story of our visit), but eventually we found a nice little café K50, where we had enormous tasty sandwiches. Afterwards we headed to the big cathedral, but didn't want to pay the €6 entry fee! We did, however, pay to see the wonderful Rubenshuis, a marvellous museum and the former house of Peter Paul Rubens. The architecture is stunning, with a baroque portico and peacful gardens, and a house crammed full of art and trinkets. No photos allowed, sadly, and not much to see from outside.
Our last stop was Zurenborg, an area in the south-east of the city, famed for its art nouveau architecture. It was saved from demolition in the 1960s following protests, not only from residents but people throughout Belgium and further afield. It was well worth their battle. There are a few streets where the buildings don't seem real - huge fortresses and palaces with gothic spires and towers, curved windows, with the odd new-build thrown in.
As we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags it coincided with Synagog coming-out time, and the streets were full of orthadox Jews, women dressed in black and white with matching wigs pushing old-fashioned prams, flanked by 5 or 6 small, ringletted children. Sadly this was about the closest we came to exploring the diamond district!
And then it was time to come home, via a nice easy train ride to Brussels and then on the Eurostar to bring us home, checking the European Cup football scores between tunnels.