Antwerp: A delight in its own right
ANTWERP, Belgium — It’s hard to choose gifts for people in a city like this.
Should it be a tin of expensive, seashell-shaped chocolates, or an ivory cigarette extender? Would mom want a cut jewel from the Europe’s most prestigious diamond-selling district or just a nice, aging set of caribou antlers?
These are the options you have in the city of Antwerp, a place that embodies the very definition of versatility in a European city, and makes for an underused holiday destination for United Kingdom-based servicemembers.
Located in northern Belgium about a 90-minute train ride from Brussels, Antwerp can be reached by rail from London (via the Channel Tunnel) in less than five hours. Few cities within that distance offer such variety.
Stacked with the cobbled lanes and ornate architecture that create so much of the atmosphere in a continental city, Antwerp also is loaded with the traditional treats people associate with its home nation.
Beer, chocolate and powerful, delectable coffees are part of the normal diet here, and people by the dozen can be seen walking the streets with a warm waffle in hand, bought at a street-side vendor for 1.50 euros.
A tour of the city often begins at the towering central train station, in the heart of the diamond district. Here, the city’s official tourism Web site proclaims, “More than 40 percent of industrial diamonds, 85 percent of rough diamonds and 50 percent of the world’s cut diamonds are traded.”
The reality hardly fails to impress, as the streets outside the train station are essentially walled in glass by the merchants offering the jewels and their various settings.
But for those without thousands to spend on valuables, the other treasures of the city — both edible and aesthetic — await within a 15-minute walk of the station.
Radiating from the hub of the Cathedral of Our Lady, restaurants, chocolate shops and cafes pack the store frontage not taken up by the city’s fashion and high-end furniture stores.
Wandering through the alleys will likely take visitors through one or more of the small weekend markets that also pop up in various squares and small parks, where vendors hawking all types of curios — from World War I helmets to stuffed eagles — have tables set up. And then, of course, there is the beer, available, well, everywhere.
But one of the greatest assets to U.K.-based servicemembers is Antwerp’s proximity to Brussels, one of the main stops for the Eurostar, the exclusive train that uses the Chunnel (Ryanair doesn’t fly to Brussels from London).
Package deals combining Eurostar tickets and accommodation in Antwerp are available through a number of dealers, including the Eurostar’s main site (www.eurostar.com), Directline city breaks (www.directline-citybreaks.co.uk/antwerp.cfm) and Leisure Direction (www.leisuredirection.co.uk). Alternatively, some London dailies offer travel promotions to more affordable hotels.
When booking, however, it’s important to remember that the Eurostar leaves from Waterloo station in London, and most tickets start there — meaning a little extra travel time to get to the train. However, some multi-day deals are packaged as two-for-one deals with Brussels, meaning that they leave time at one end of the weekend for a few hours in the capital city, but no hotel stays.
The Eurostar is comfortable and relatively roomy, but for those expecting a thrill from traveling at high speed under the English Channel, prepare to be disappointed — it really is just a half-hour ride through a dark tunnel.