By Richard West
One of the delightful perks of living in this lovely city is the ease in leaving it to explore Holland, a country the size of Maryland, and surrounding regions. Thus on a recent blustery, chilly Saturday my wife and I boarded the French Thalys fast-train and two hours later stepped off in Antwerp, northeast Belgium, to spend the day exploring the city and sampling the country’s three chief excelsiors: frites, beer, and chocolate.
It was our first Antwerpean visit so we’re stunned at the beauty of the rail station, rated fourth most impressive in the world by Newsweek magazine in 2009 behind London’s St. Pancras, Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji. Descending four levels past a food court and a diamond gallery with 30 shops, all under a huge iron and glass vaulted dome 600 feet long, 144 feet wide, the station is truly a cathedral of transportation that perhaps you’ve seen in the “Do-Re-Mi” flash mob video on YouTube or recall from reading W.G. Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz.
Our second trance-fusion is the remarkably wide and pedestrianized Meir, Benelux’s most expensive shopping street that connects the train station with our destination, the city’s largest square, Grote Markt in the heart of the old city. Once past the smorgasboredom of shops and retailia, a charming skein of narrow streets and alleys led us to Groenplaats, Antwerp’s number two square with its centered statue of local hero Peter Paul Rubens.
More important, on the northwest corner, Max, a legendary, small two-storied friterie. An explanatory pause here: they are Belgian frites, not French fries, a mistake thought to have originated from World War 1 American doughboys hearing Belgium’s Walloon French-speaking deep fry cookers. We accept our frite-filled cones, pass on the alarming number of topping squirts for the traditional mayo. Indeed tres tasty. One understands why in Bruge there’s a Frite Museum and a national organization of frite fryers known as NAVEFRI.
Personifying the OED’s definition of “vicambulist” (“One who walks streets”), we strolled into the magnificent Grote Square, (divided from Groenplaats by the enormous Cathedral of Our Lady), with its Brabo Fountain (man holding severed hand above bare-breasted woman) and the towering Stadhuis, the city’s landmark town hall. Again, the more essential destination is again in a corner, the venerable Den Engel pub (not to be confused with the next-door mimetic Den Bengal).
In this greatest of beer nations, Antwerp seems to have almost as many pubs and bars as Amsterdam, yet we do not plan a drafternoon of samplings. But some research must be done so, barkeep, two Koninck’s, please, the city’s local brew, on draft, of course. Our quiet front table provided a view of Grote Markt passersby and time for imponderables: why do you park in a drive way and drive in a parkway? Why do already stale croutons come in airtight packages?
While I thought of more research in pubs like the nearby Café ‘t Parlement or De Muze, just off the square my wife found the perfect chocolate shop: G. Bastin (“Since 1908”) where we bought assortments and immediately bit into the luscious Rubensdukaat, a coin-size bit of heaven imprinted with the painter’s mug.
Before walking back toward the Groenplaats for an early dinner at De Rooden Hoed (The Red Hat), Antwerp’s oldest restaurant (est. 1750), we stood below Grote Markt’s sex-n-death fountain and listened to an impossibly cute teenage Asian choir sing and giggle. Ending daytripping at its best, when all that could go right, went right.
Fritkot Max, 12 Groenplaats.
Den Engel, 3 Grote Markt.
G. Bastin, 106 Paardenmarkt.
De Rooden Hoed, 25 Oude Koornmarkt.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.