AntwerpNovember 7, 2017 in Belgium
Antwerp is Belgium's 2nd largest city, its industrial sea port being the catalyst for development. From Doel, we'd seen huge barges making their way to and from the hub, but nowadays the city centre focus is on the diamond trade and fashion industry.
We'd found out via a motorhome travel business on Facebook that we needed to register the van for Antwerp's low emission zone. It was free and easy enough to fill in the online form and send a photo of the vehicle registration document. About 5 days after doing this we recieved and email confirming we were allowed to enter the city. With more and more urban areas in Europe implementing these zones, we are going to need to keep organised so we don't get caught out. It would be most efficient for each country and ideal for us if we could register with a pan european emissions board, but this isn't the way things are going despite Germany's efforts.
As usual Will had put a car park in the sat nav and we set off towards it. However, the central road systems were in the process of modernisation, meaning they were currently a building site that required diversions, U turns and quite a lot of stress on our behalf! We were entering the same junction for the second time and had just about decided to give up and get out of the city when we found an accessible space to pull up on a wide road next to a park. Looking on the map, we decided it was close enough to the centre to walk, so bought a ticket and began making our way in.
Passing by modern high rise flats, and the grey university complex, we arrived at the harbour where expensive looking leisure cruisers and a few tall ships were moored. Having spent so much time trying to park, it was getting on lunch time. Many businesses were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but there were a number of cafés with people sitting outside. Although we were hungry, these eateries looked like the sort of places people visited in order to be seen visiting and therefore not the sort of place we like to visit. Curling round the side of the dock, we found the Omeletshop; a well presented caravan run by 'Red Sonija', serving a whole variety of omelettes in ciabatta. Sitting on the harbourside at the kitsch ironing board frame that acted as a table, with our made to order Spanish potato and Veggie Xtreme omlette burgers bursting with ingredients, we were happy with our choice! It was a chilly and bright winter day and as we ventured further into the city centre, the tall townhouses and narrow streets meant that one minute we were flooded with blinding light, then plunged into a block of shadow at the next turn. Emerging at the edge of a cathedral, we stood back and craned our necks to try and take in the stonework. We backed up against the side of a pub that turned out to be even more ecclesiastically intersting! Inside Elfde Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment) the walls and windowsills were packed full with hundreds of painted religious statues from cheeky cherubs to proud representations of Joan of Arc. Other than this it was a regular pub serving Belgian beer to a background of light rock music. It was an utterly bizarre experience to sit with our beers at a large round oak table beneath a wooden chandelier supporting wax candles, crowded in by these effigies!
After our refreshments we wandered into a couple of cobbled squares, one of which was being dug up (as it seems much of Belgium is!). Beyond these we reached the wide river and looked down on it from a raised walkway. Alongside it was a long covered boatyard, where vessels, little and large, antique and modern were up on chocks for maintenance. Beginning to head back to Poppy and the van, we passed the relatively small, well maintained riverside castle, then left the water and cut accross town. We'd read that Antwerp had a red light district so we were saddened but not surprised when the street signs changed from advertising frites to anal sex. The all too familiar windows displaying women in various states of undress lined the pedestrian thoroughfare. Perhaps it was the age range (from early 20s to mid 50s), the mainly indigenous looking ethnicities, the city suburb pedestrian zone or the fact that we had mentally prepared ourselves, but this red light district didn't disturb us as deeply as the one we drove through soon after entering Belgium. It could also have been the fact that this was the second time we had seen this setup in this country and our brains had already begun to be inured.
Nearing the van there was still time on the parking ticket so we detoured via a set of interesting bridge arches covered with graffiti. A police van was parked underneath, the two officers sitting looking out of windscreen, while behind them an artist added the final touches to his work. The area, which included a skate park, had obviously been designated for graffiti and it ranged from talentless tags to amazing portraits of famous scientists. As we wended our way in and out of the arches we passed a homeless woman on a makeshift bed, wrapped up in layers of clothing, her belongings bundled in plastic bags around her. Antwerp was no different to Belgium's other major cities, we'd seen beggars in every one of them, outlining the inequality Europe has yet to overcome.Read more