Saturday, May 28, 2011
This is my first posting of the 2011 tour and its from Antwerp where I went with my brother Jan to watch Roger Waters "The Wall" tour. Really nice city and great show. But that was last night and today I've been the tourist.
I like taking a tourist bus tour (even though the Tourist Information lady tried to talk me out of it) as it shows you some of the highlights and more importantly provides some bearings of where things are and how far away they are. Then I did what the TI lady said and walked. I'm staying near the neo Gothic (I think) and quite beautiful central station and it is 20 minutes to walk to the old town with the Grote Markt being the aiming point. That makes Antwerp a very walkable city which is what I like. And today I did.
The city itself is full of little lanes, many pedestrians only, with shops a-plenty but even more places to consume food and drink. Its also a nice mix of old and new and the new is done with great taste. Antwerp certainly seems affluent enough -- apparently 60% of Belgium's GDP comes from hereabouts presumably from the never ending dock system. But I did get shaken down by an African guy for money who said he had no job and was hungry so I guess things are relative. There certainly seem to be less wealthy parts of town.
But I am jumping ahead of myself for I wanted to add a few other notes. My son Alistair met me at the airport where we had planned to exchange suitcases -- however as noted before mine/his bag was then in Rome so the exchange would have to be postponed. I made him tramp all over the west end of London for breakfast and ended up in Mayfair where it has to be noted -- the fund guys and suits are trickling back. Maybe not up to where it was, but things were buzzing. And then to Southend on what used to be called British Railways but now has been privatised and is now called C2C where Jan lives now and where we were brought up. Things seem to have got better in Southend from when I was last there 3-4 years ago. Jan says money has been thrown at rejuvenating the sea front and you can see it. Also there are way more nice cars around. However it is a bit of a stretch to say Southend has been 'gentrified' and I suspect it will always be that way.
I managed to tick off quite a few boxes in my two days there -- cockles and whelks at Osborne's in Old Leigh with a couple of pints of Adnams from the Crooked Billet was a fine introduction. Add in some standard English fare -- curries and fantastic fish and chips from Ye Olde Chippy on the seafront -- washed down with more wonderful English beer and I was very happy indeed. I also managed to catch up with some ex-school chums some whom I hadn't seen for 30 years which was very special.
But what a lovely experience flying from London City Airport. About half an hour on the train, one stop on the Tube and a few more on the DLR and you walk into the Departures Hall. I did get body searched though for the first time which Jan thought was because there were so few people there and the staff wanted to do something.
And then Antwerp where the airport is practically in town too. Fortunately Jan and I found a wonderfully named bar called Bier Central nearby on De Keyser Lei where we decided to work our way through their beer menu. Belgian beer is very, very nice. But a few beers makes you peckish so when we were informed at the restaurant next door that mussels were out of season -- mussels are THE food of Antwerp if you don't count chocolate -- we had to do something and after the RW show chose that prince of Belgian foods, the frite.
The show was at the Lotto Stadium just out of central, a short tram ride away and was great. However where the show used to be self indulgent and whiny with fortunately lots of wonderful parts, RW has updated it to all the other stuff and added over blown and in some parts ridiculous as well but without the other 3 original guys. The show of course is the thing and it was very impressive in a big way. RW has even hauled out the pigs from the Animals tour and added graffiti. But it was just what we expected and we'd still go again ... and in fact I am.
Back to the frite. Some may consider the frite to be a humble accompaniment but not the Belgians. They love the frite. They revere the frite. They venerate it. They serve it on its own with several hundred different toppings, the best of which in my opinion is with satay sauce and chopped up onions. 'Frituurs' are all over the place, one 3 doors away which at gone midnight after the RW show was just the place to be. It was jammed mainly with young people, all slim, chowing down with fried everything and a fried what looked like Mars Bar on top. Fabulous. Died and gone to heaven was how I felt at the time but a mere hour or so later the 'gone to heaven' bit had gone and in retrospect it probably was not the ideal just before bedtime snack.
I was able to resolve the mussels oversight today though at the nice, traditional Restaurant Maritime on Suikerrui just outside the Grote Markt. Chef's recipe includes 18 different herbs and spices and came in a nice big bucket. Wonderful but I certainly cannot manage 2 meals like that each day. I read in the window of a couple of restaurants what I thought was a spelling mistake but it appears that Michelin indeed HAS added a category "best for gourmands" in their annual guides.
I like Antwerp and I like the people. Belgians seem to be able to speak every language in the world and appear truly happy to do so and not be grumpy about visitors not even trying to speak their own language. I don't know why it is but presume it's the beer and mussels. Long may it continue. I am looking forward to tomorrow and a solid day of museums.