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24 hours in Antwerp

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I didn’t know much about Antwerp before I visited it. My main source of information came from my chip-off-the-much-younger-block grandmother, who left me with the immortal words: “I once went to Antwerp. I fell over on the tramlines and smashed a bottle of Amaretto.” Which is telling. Kind of. I knew to expect trams, Italian liqueur and tipsy coach-tripping pensioners, at least. 

I know more now. Did you know, for instance, that the world’s first newspaper was (maybe) printed in Antwerp 400 years ago? Or that the name Antwerpen is alarmingly similar the Flemish word Hantwerpen – which means to cut off the hand of a giant as he rampages across the city and through the medieval pages of low countries folklore? Or, most importantly, that the city has the best waffles in Belgium, and, therefore, the world?

Now you do.

One of Belgium’s slightly overlooked cities, Antwerp sits in the north of the country, close to the Dutch border. Due to the fact that it is such a tiny country, we drove from Lille (in the very north of France), across Belgium and into Antwerp in less than five hours.

If you’re looking for a vaguely surreal experience in Antwerp, I suggest you pay a visit to De Kathedraal. De Kathedraal might not be your first choice on your Belgian waffle/ chocolate and Amaretto fuelled weekend away, but if you don’t at least peek in its vaulted doors you’ll be missing out. As it happened, due to the fact that we were slightly lost/ cold, we wandered in and found ourselves in the midst of a Catholic mass.

Listening to an entire mass in Flemish is an experience, especially when half way through the congregation turn around and start spontaneously hugging each other. Confusing? Yes. Friendly? Well, definitely.

We made a hasty exit when it came to wine and wafer time though, because, as my companion pointed out, we aren’t Catholic and hanging around purely for communion wine sustenance (and a bit of biscuit) would probably be an unholy thing to do.

Instead, we walked down to the port, where we were faced with the strange statuesque concoction that you see on your right. What it is? Something to do with sailors? We can but question.

Our next stop was for the obligatory chocolate fest. You will also do this. I don’t need to tell you what this consists of. You will find boutique chocolate shops on every corner, Flemish chocolatier ladies in aprons will ask you whether you prefer praline or caramel or liqueur or, what the hell, a selection of everything the shop can offer. You will agree wholeheartedly and it will be a beautiful moment.

If you have 48 hours in Antwerp (we didn’t) I would also recommend that you purchase an Antwerp City Card, which will get you into all manner of Flemish museums and other cultural attractions. Starting at just £24, the pass will get you into the Zoo Antwerpen, The Diamond Museum (if you desire), and even the brewery. It will also give you substantial discounts on boat trips and the ‘Touristram.’

If you’re feeling adventurous you could also check out Pirateneiland (Pirate’s Island), Antwerp’s underworld, or the Pancake Boat. Sadly, we didn’t have time.

You will need a similar sense of adventure/ fearlessness to stay at the Elzenveld Hotel & Congrescentrum, formerly the St. Elisabeth Hospital. The Elzenveld is a three star hotel in a historic location, with friendly staff, decent sized rooms and a well stocked buffet breakfast to set you up for the day. Get over the fact that you might see a spectral nurse pushing a wheelchair across the leafy quad when you peer out of your window and you’ll be set. Beware of the statues when you first enter the gardens. Rumours of haunting are entirely unfounded (I will leave our experiences for your conjecture). Steel your nerves when visiting.

I would also recommend you visit Berlin - not the city, but a busy restaurant where you will be greeted by mainly Irish staff (no, I don't know why), who will explain the Flemish menu in detail before serving you, if you so wish, with three perfectly done steaks, lobster spaghetti, a bottle of wine, various cocktails and two diet cokes and only charging you €130 (£80) for it. Go there.

So, let’s stop ignoring Antwerp/ forgetting it’s there/ thinking of it as the understated little brother of Bruges and Brussels. It has a million chocolate shops (probably). It has the oldest fish and chip shop in the world, Frituur Max (allegedly). It has a bizarre statue by the port of a couple of tiny stone men doing something questionable with a horn (definitely).

Also, there is a man who lives in a shop next to where the Eurolines bus pitches up, who is willing to barter down the price of already only €1 beer (quality debatable) to a mere 75 cents if you've spent all your money on chocolates and tram journeys.  

Antwerp has its own personality. Check it out for more than just its chocolate shops.

Lucy travelled to Antwerp with Eurolines.

Eurolines has special offers throughout the year and customers are advised to book ahead to take advantage of the best deals.

Fares to selected European cities start at £9 one-way or £15 return including booking fees.

Visit: www.eurolines.co.uk

Visit the Tourism Flanders website here

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