Antwerp is a diamond in the rough. No, seriously–this little Belgian town is Europe’s diamond capital. Fun fact: supposedly, the amount of diamonds in the world isn’t as small as they’d want us to believe–diamond epicenters like Antwerp apparently limit the number of available diamonds in order to keep prices high and create the illusion of supply and demand. But even outside the diamond shops, (in the area around the beautiful, art nouveau train station) Antwerp is worth a quick stop when already in the area to visit beautiful Bruges and hipster Ghent! It’s funky, full of chocolate and Belgian waffle shops, and downtown walking the cobbled streets under the shadow of the cathedral spire, one can find plenty of charming places for a Belgian beer. Unusual meets traditional here in this little-known Belgian city otherwise known as the European diamond mine.
Trains whistle as they slowly puff to a halt inside the light and airy station. People hurry to and fro, a newspaper or novel tucked under one arm, a cup of coffee or sandwich in the other. Like any major train station, everybody is either hurrying to board a train or waiting listlessly for their train to arrive. There is an air of travel about the air, as everyone in the station is either coming or going. You, the intrepid traveler, can’t help but feel nostalgic in this slightly old-fashioned station, reminiscent of bygone times when steam engines were chic and classy. What makes Antwerp’s station special is its sheer beauty. The Belgians regard it as the highest quality of railway-related architecture in their country. If you don’t think that that’s impressive enough given the small size of Belgium, how about this? The world-renowned American magazine Newsweek named Antwerpen-Centraal “the world’s fourth greatest train station” in 2009, and just this year, the Anglophone magazine Mashable ranked it the number one most beautiful railway station in the world! With not only its gorgeous facade but also this massively beautiful clock presiding overhead, I think we call agree that it’s one heck of a place to catch a train!
Of all forms of transportation, trains and trams are certainly the most romantic. Visit any city that still uses its old-fashioned trams, and you can’t help but smile at them, reminded of black-and-white films and all that they come with. In the evening light, old-fashioned trams are even more picturesque and romantic – and downtown Antwerp is no different. While the central square of Antwerp is both beautiful and well-populated with tourists, most of the old town is quiet and empty, the kind of streets where one can hear the rustle of leaves and tap, tap of shutters against walls. You walk along the tram tracks, lost in a zig-zag of backstreets lined with brick houses, searching for a restaurant or perhaps just going for an evening stroll, when suddenly in the dim haze, you see a small light in the distance. No more is all quiet; you can hear the clacking of the tram’s wheels against the iron, you can see the swaying motion of the carriages as the tram takes the bend. Flattening yourself against one of the buildings, you watch as the round headlight grows bigger and bigger until finally, the tram chugs by you, disappearing around the next corner–leaving you alone on the street once more with nothing more than the rustle of the wind to keep you company.
The Brama Zielona, as it is called in Polish, towers over the far end of the Long Market (differing from most Polish market squares which are typically square in shape, often with the city hall or some other monument in the centre). The Gate was built in 1568-71 as a residence for the Polish monarchy, and was inspired by Antwerp’s City Hall (in the linked photo, the city hall is to the far left-hand side; google it for further views). This tie to the Belgian city also explains the Flemish influence in the Poland’s Baltic gem. Now a museum of Polish history, it even includes the second president of post-Communist Poland’s office. After traversing Gdansk’s beautiful Long Market, step through the magnificent Brama Zielona to enjoy the city’s beautiful waterfront on the Motława River!
Certainly one of Europe’s prettiest squares is Antwerp’s central Grote Markt—even though outside of this small “island” forming the Old Town, Antwerp is less beautiful, having been swept up by kebab stands and littered streets. But the old town centre is still…perfection. Standing amongst these amazing Flemish guild houses is enough to take one’s breath away! Not only that, but Antwerp’s market square rivals with those of Eastern Europe—which is where you find some of the prettiest squares in Europe! (Note: Poland, Prague, Budapest, Tallinn etc. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the archives). Regardless of the unfortunate Invasion of the Kebab Stands (a very contagious and ugly virus spreading throughout the continent), Antwerp’s Grote Markt is as pretty as it gets!