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Belgium Day 1: Antwerp

BELGIUM | Thursday, 12 November 2009 | Views [746]

We met the nicest people in Antwerp - the nicest people we met on the entire trip, and the nicest people we've met on any trip. When we arrived in Antwerp, we were flush with newly exchanged Euros, but all of our money was in notes, and we had to have coins to take the metro to our bed and breakfast.

We didn't realise this until we got to the underground metro and found that the only way to buy tickets was through a machine that would only accept coins. To add to the confusion, the tickets were priced according to how many 'zones' you wanted to travel through, and there was no map or guide to show us how many zones away our desired stop was.

But then, a lady came over to help us pick the right ticket. And when we realised we didn't have the coins to pay, another lady came over and forced us to take her money! So we made our way to our B&B on kindness from strangers.

Later that same day, we had an old man call out to us from across a street, asking us where we wanted to go and how he could help, because he saw us looking at a map.

And the next day, after asking another old man at a bus stop what bus we should take to the train station, he not only gave us the answer and specific instructions on how to spot the right stop, he also talked to the bus driver and told him to call out to us when we had reached our stop so that we wouldn't miss it.

They weren't the only ones. People would just stop in their tracks and ask us what we were looking for when we were standing around looking lost. What a great place to live!

Our B&B in Antwerp was called Het Singelhuis, and was the best accommodation we had for the whole trip. It's the home of Jeff and Magda, a retired couple who decided to rent out two of their rooms to travellers when their own kids grew up and moved out.

The room was large and spotless and comfortable. The only drawback to it was that it didn't seem to have a heater, so it took me a while to get warm before I slept, which I did by rubbing all the cold parts of my body on Lianyi while he screamed in agony. Weird observation: every night when we got back to our rooms, I would be freezing all over while Lianyi would be warm. Is this a blood thing?

The breakfast each morning was generous - a spread of different types of bread, cheese, some kind of meat or fish, eggs, yoghurt, juice, tea or coffee and biscuits. On our second morning they also specially bought for us a Belgian pastry called matten, which we certainly would never have tried if it weren't for them. (It was sweet and reminded me a bit of almond croissants without the fragrance.) We had breakfast each morning with both Jeff and Magda and it was really nice just to chat and swap stories about the countries we came from. For example, they had no idea what a Malay was. 

After checking in on our first day, Magda handed us a map and a transport guide and we set off to the Grote Markt, the main square in the medieval centre of the city.

It was a revelation for me. This was my first time in Europe, remember, so I was completely awed. It really did feel like I'd been transported into another world, one that only used to exist on TV. The square was ringed with historic buildings, one of which housed the tourist information centre. When I was doing my research on Belgium, the main attractions highlighted by the guidebooks were museums, museums and more museums. So naturally, I thought we should check them out. The guidebooks also said it would be worthwhile to buy city passes in each city that for a fixed price, will give us access to all of the major museums and unlimited rides on public transport. And so that was the first thing we did - buy a city pass.

We pretty much spent the rest of the day going from museum to museum. And well, that pretty much describes all of our days in Belgium. We were so sick of museums by the end of the week. The worst part was, I'd booked city passes for Bruges and Brussels online beforehand to get a discount, so even when we'd gotten sick of museums, we still had to force ourselves to visit more, just to make the passes worth it. Lianyi was really mad at me but in my defense, that's what the guidebooks told me to do!

But back to Antwerp. Among the museums we visited that day, the standout for me was Rubenshuis -- the house of Belgium's most renowned painter, Peter Paul Rubens. I think though that this was mainly because we received a free audio guide upon entry, which meant that unlike in the other museums, I was properly learning and understanding the meaning and context behind the artefacts and artworks I was looking at. It was quite interesting to learn about the life of this painter I'd never really known much about before, and to see where he lived and what his interior decor tastes were like!

Another highlight for me that day was just walking through Antwerp's shopping area. Antwerp's known as the fashion capital of Belgium and according to Jeff and Magda, people from The Netherlands like to visit Antwerp on the weekends just to shop at its unique boutiques. But all I bought that day was a wool hat from H&M to keep my head warm.

I bought that hat just before 5 p.m. and it was disappointing to see that even in the fashion capital of Europe's capital, shops closed promptly at 5. But it was just as well, because we were both exhausted from the flight and hungry too, so we had an early dinner (we hadn't even had lunch actually!) of giant salmon and cheese sandwiches and went to bed at 8 p.m.

Tags: antwerp, belgium

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