From beer, culture to a penchant for speaking in Dutch, Belgium’s second-largest city has much to recommend itself.
ANTWERP, Belgium – I am sitting at a small table with a big beer in a restaurant with a mystery name: Het Elfde Gebod. After five days here in Antwerp in the north of Belgium, where they speak relentless Dutch, I’m used to such mysteries.
I’m also getting used to surprises. Antwerp’s full of them. I am reminded of this once again as I sit here in Restaurant Whatever, with yet another Antwerp surprise. I get to drink and dine in the gaze through the bubbles still rising to the foamy top of my brew, to the slightly rippling figures of saints.
Saints, well, religious figures at least, gaze down upon me from every corner of this warm and noisy cafe. I am a little squeamish, at first, about drinking alcohol in their presence. I remind myself that this is, after all, Belgium, famous for its beermaking monks.
Besides, I ordered the St. Bernardus. This St. B. is apparently the king of beers. And now, to my somewhat marginally better critical eye, I can begin to appreciate it. The beer is dark, and I can smell the perfume of it from a foot away. The glass is beautiful, a serious and sturdy-looking cross between a wineglass and a classic Coca Cola bottom. In the background, past the saints, out the window, the sky has gone from all-day bright blue to the navy just before nightfall.
I take a sip.
You remember Snuffles, the cartoon dog? You know how when he finally got that cookie treat, he’d clutch his stomach, writhe in paroxysms of joy and float skyward?
I was, in that instant, Snuffles-ecstatic.
It was the beer, sure. It was the accompanying meal. It was the garrulous, friendly crowd, the babble of everything but English. And if the religious statues, paintings, icons and whatevers weren’t actually channeling a heavenly vibe, their very presence in this unlikely situation, and their abundance, too, fueled the good cheer.
Later, I learned that Het Elfde Gebod means The 11th Commandment in Dutch. The restaurant owners say that commandment is: “You shall enjoy,” a departure from the “shalt not” litany, and definitely an easy commandment to follow.
Not just at this restaurant, either. But all over Antwerp.
Belgium’s second-largest city after Brussels, Antwerp — with more than a half-million people — was a real revelation. Full of surprises, as I said, and the biggest surprise of all was how little I’d heard about Antwerp over my decades of traveling.
Until earlier this year, when I learned about the new Red Star Line Museum opening in September, I was only familiar with the name of the city.
The museum, housed in the original buildings of the steamship company that brought more than 2 million emigrants to the United States, would be telling the other side — the beginning, really — of the Ellis Island story. Antwerp, it turns out, was a crossroads of commerce and culture in Europe — had been for centuries. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Where to start? The beer? The architecture? The cutting edge arts and fashion scene? The diamond trade? The gorgeous train station?
Yes, let’s start there. Most visitors do. Antwerp does have its own airport, but international flights are much more plentiful into Brussels. From there, it’s 30 or so minutes by train to Antwerp’s Central Station.
For big cities in Europe, a central train station is the perfect place to establish a killer first impression. And Antwerp’s, designed by Belgian Louis Delacenserie in 1895 and opened in 1905, will most certainly slay you. It has not one but two gorgeous neo-baroque facades, so either approach seems like the most important one. There’s an enormous iron-and-glass dome over the train platforms, sweeping staircases and marble everywhere — along with gilded metalwork and sculptures. The building itself incorporated so many architectural styles that it was difficult to categorize as one period or another. In the end, it’s just endlessly grand.
Emerging from the station, you’re thrust into one of Antwerp’s busiest squares. Attempting to figure out where I was and get a grasp of the neighborhood, I guess I was subconsciously trying to figure out the local population. The only conclusion was that it was too diverse to neatly categorize.