My Belgian adventure continues…
I think it is safe to say that almost as soon as Amazing Annie and I met up in Brussels, we knew that one evening in each other’s company just wasn’t going to cut it. Thankfully, with my work commitments all wrapped up, I had a Weekend in Europe coming up — all to myself. I had already decided to spend Saturday on a day trip to Amsterdam, where I’ve never been, which meant that Sunday was up for grabs or now — for Annie and Anna to have an Adventure.
I wanted to see more of Belgium. Charming Brugges is rightfully Brussels’ go-to day-trip destination, but I have already been there, done…etc back in the day, so Antwerp, the second largest city in Belgium and the somewhat unofficial capital of the country’s Flemish half (Flanders) was the next logical choice. Plus it’s the largest diamond center in the world — seriously! More that 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through Antwerp every year. Yay shiny!
Annie, being her ever-accommodating self, asked me what I wanted to see or do there. In entirely uncharacteristic Anna fashion, I said, “nothing.” Trust me, it was just as shocking to myself. I have done no research on Antwerp’s landmarks, had no sightseeing itinerary for my destination — honest to God, that was a first. Like, ever. But I was utterly spent — physically, mentally, and travel-plannigly — from my Amsterdam mad dash (coming up next), and craved a proper day off, from everything. While Annie, who was somewhat familiar with my travel style through my blog (that style, in three words is: PLANNING! PLANNING! PLANNING!), was processing that bit of information, I lightly amended my Antwerp to-do list with “Well, there’s got to be a pretty central square, right? and a massive cathedral next to it? I want those please. OH – and I must get some Waterzooi Stew. And beer.”
Inspired by that super-ambitious agenda, we decided to head to Antwerp at the crack of dawn (8-something am), so that we could have a really long, relaxing day of nothing and beer.
That morning, Universe woke up and felt that there was something out of balance. Anna “taking it easy” on vacation required immediate and thorough course correction. And so it began.
Though I packed up my suitcase and checked out of the hotel with plenty of time to spare, I needed to put my luggage in storage for a day. Which, as it turned out, was a lot more complicated than just handing it to the valet. There was a room and a code and a locker that had to be fed with small Euro coins, WHICH I DID NOT HAVE! By the time I found an elderly Italian couple who did not speak a word of English but could sense my distress to sponsor my locker rental, and shoved my bundles in there, I was running way too late to make it to the train station on food. Get a taxi, you say? Sure, why not – except the hotel, located on a quiet little side street, needs to order those in advance. Off I go running to the nearest busy intersection, praying to all that is holy that there will be an available cab driving by. HALLELUJAH! I jump in, and we make it to the station with about 3 minutes to spare — just enough to find Annie and run, run, run to the train, boarding literally at the last minute.
One hour and we are in Antwerp. I really love it when travel destinations, especially European ones, live up to their cliché ideal, and Antwerp did not disappoint. Antwerp train station, aptly dubbed Railway Cathedral? Breathtaking in all its baroque meets industrial art nouveau glory. Palatial buildings lining broad boulevards? Made complete with cute shops on the ground floor, and impressive sculptures atop the porticoes. The central square and the cathedral? Both whimsically Gothic and grand.
Wait! We haven’t gotten there yet. We’re still at the train station, which we cannot leave because it is pouring rain outside, and of course neither Annie nor I took an umbrella, and of course there is no place in sight to buy one. Annie and I looked at each other, shrugged, and with “oh well, it’s just rain” attitude started speed-walking toward the city center, darting from oning to oning whenever we could.
“Oh – cute dress!” “Oh my – look at those shoes!” The fringe benefit of skirting store fronts for safety from the rain is that you indubitably find something pretty to try on. Alas, not this time. It’s Sunday, so the stores are closed. WHAT?! Obviously, Universe and my wallet conspired to keep me away from the most perfect pair of burgundy suede flats and sky-blue, billowing-sleeves maxi-dress.
Oh well, on we go, to explore an interesting-looking neighborhood off the beaten path as the rain eases up — and get promptly yelled at by a policeman for crossing the street in a non-designated spot! When there are no cars moving in either direction for the entire length of the street! Come on, people! >.< Anyway, we get out of the cop’s sight, and explore the ridiculously charming cobblestone streets of Antwerp, while slowly making our way to the Central Square. Which we find completely overtaken by some racing event and 3-storie-high inflatable Gatorade bottles and some such. Picturesque it is not, at least not at that moment.
Fine. I am determined – or is it resigned? – to have a stress-free day, so I refused to be annoyed by these petty inconveniences. Lets get a beer somewhere, say I, and while we’re at it, how about some Waterzooi?
Here I should explain what my deal is with Waterzooi. For those who do not know, it is a chunky chicken, potato and vegetable stew in a light, creamy broth. It is a quintessentially Flemish that is barely found anywhere else, the perfect cold-weather comfort food, and totally delicious to boot. I have not had it since I fell in love with it a decade ago, and that was the only thing really I cared to check off my very short Belgium to-do list.
Sure, says Annie, lets get some Waterzooi.
Ha. As if. As we pop in and out of “authentic Flemish” restaurants we are met with puzzled, clueless looks at every mention of this local specialty. I ever write it down – nothing. What the what? Not one to give up in the face of adversity, especially when something tasty is at stake, I drag poor Annie all over town in search of this strangely elusive delicacy. It’s chilly, and gray and intermittently rainy, and we haven’t even had breakfast, but Annie just smiles and indulges me on this single-minded, borderline-maniacal pursuit. Girl, if patience is a virtue, you’re getting a massive piece of real estate in Heaven. I’m talking Versailles.
Anyhoo, sticking to the mission we crisscross Antwerp’s old town, check out the Scheldt River embankment and an 800-year-old castle, and even work in some movie-montage-worthy shopping at a miraculously-open fashion boutique. Yet when it comes to Waterzooi, we keep coming up empty-handed. By the time we make it to the cathedral square I can sense that even Annie’s divine patience is starting to wear thin. This is it, my final attempt, I assure Annie – and take off running to every restaurant in the square while she takes a few photos. Nope, nothing, nada — just more bewildered looks from the hosts and waiters. I…gave up. I mean, I think both Annie and I were kinda on the verge of fainting, which made capitulation just a wee bit palatable. The new plan was to plop our tired butts down at the place of Annie’s choosing.
At that particular moment Annie and I were standing in the outdoor area of my “last chance” restaurant, just steps away from the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady. We were slowly doing a 360-degree turn-about to see if there were any cafes in the square that we found cuter, our exhausted selves contemplating just staying there, when I noticed a massive chalkboard menu that listed – among other things – the FRIGGING CHICKEN WATERZOOI STEW! Did I mention that I just walked out of this same establishment having been made feel like a fool for inquiring about this dish?
Oh, screw it. VICTORY! I actually think that at that point Annie was happier about Waterzooi than I was. So, we sit down, and are attended to by the same waiter who gave me the “what in the world is Waterzooi?” attitude minutes earlier (did I mention that I had that thing accurately written down IN FLEMISH? It’s not like I was screwing up the name), who speaks no English or French (Belgium’s other national language), or seemingly any other language but Flemish. I don’t buy it. Or at least don’t get it. It’s great if you want to preserve your native tongue, but there are roughly 5 million people in the word who speak Flemish, and many, many times more people who come to Antwerp as tourists from around the world and make this city financially solvent, and you work at THE tourist-baity cafe at most tourist-baity spot in town, so PLEASE make an effort to help me order a beer? Yeah, that was not happening. Instead we succeeded in getting a lovely and friendly English-speaking waitress to help us, and were finally able to kick back and relax with soothing ambers, hearty Waterzooi (so worth the quest!) and gorgeous views of the square and cathedral before us.
Not for long. Because the skies open up again and we have another downpour. We relocate inside, our spirits still super-high because beer and adventure and relaxing. This is when the best part of the whole trip begins. And it is: food and beer, and more beer, and hours and hours of girl talk, and tasting of the local specialty liquor, and strawberry waffles and more chatting the day away…
Everything was going swimmingly for like, five hours. Too swimmingly, perhaps. Then a call from Mr. Montgomery quickly brought us back to reality. You see, Justin awesomely offered to drive me to the airport so that I could catch my red-eye to Moscow. So he called to inquire about our ETA back in Brussels, which is when I looked at the clock and realized that OH MY GOD my flight is taking off four hours from now in a whole different town!
Reluctantly we get up and head toward the train station, when yet ANOTHER downpour begins. We take cover at a pub and of course use this opportunity to grab the quick last round. When the rain stops we pick up the pace, and I get a brilliant idea to check on the clothes I bought during out mini-spree, to see if the rain got on any of them. Whaddayaknow? Bright red tissue paper has bled right onto my brand-new pristine cream skirt! >.< I get SO freaked out, and frantically search for a place where I can pop in for a wash…. yeah…
Luckily, we find the shadiest looking pub in Antwerp and while Annie is getting a half-pint I am frantically scrubbing the skirt in the bathroom. Thankfully, the stain seems to come off, and with some twenty minutes left to catch the last train which would allow me to make my flight we set off running toward the Railway Cathedral, my white skirt waving in the wind in my misguided attempt to dry it a bit — in the drizzle! I have NO idea what was going on in my mind at that moment, but man, what a sight that must have been! I am sure Universe was having belly laughs.
We did make the train. And I got my stuff from the hotel, and Mr. M even brought be delicious snacks for the road, and I made my flight, and everything. Unbelievable.
Through all of it — the rain, the Waterzooi quest, the skirt-washing, the utterly mad running around — Annie was just unbelievably fun and light and spirited, and made the whole day into one of the best adventures of my entire travel experience. I, too, am ready to play again.
For Annie’s take on my visit, check out this aww-inducing Visitors Itinerary!