Antwerp 25/1/12

Meir, the main street in the centre of Antwerp, is just like Swanston Street or Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD. The biggest difference is that Meir has lots of shoe shops and lingerie stores. Other than that, being there was like being home.

There are small cafes and bistros skirting the edges of the town squares: at Groen Plaats (where a large statue of hero artist Rubens takes pride of place) are a couple of Italian restaurants that remind me of Lygon Street. The owner of one is even standing at the entrance attempting to entice people in for a pizza, gelati or a glass of vino. I ignore him and make a beeline for McDs next door as I desperately need to visit the Ladies’. There were signs at Antwerp Central station indicating that toilet facilities exist, but following the signs proved to be fruitless.

A countdown of Antwerp’s top 3 (from what I saw):

3. Het Steen/Steen Plein

Originally a fortress built in around 1200, Het Steen later became a prison and then a shipping museum. It’s not nearly as cool as Gravensteen in Ghent, but it’s impressive enough. Walk along the Scheldt River foreshore at Steen Plein to read the legendary story of the giant who chopped off hands and threw them in the river.

2. Sint-Annatunnel

Thirty-two metres below the river runs an incredible art-deco era tunnel that takes you to the Linkeroever (‘left bank’) of the Scheldt. I was too cold and tired to walk the five minutes to reach the far side, but apparently once you get there, it’s a great view of the city skyline. I really like the simplicity of the white tiles, the rickety old wooden escalators and the potential to create a noisy echo as you watch cyclists and pedestrians disappear down the tunnel.

1. Antwerp Central Station

The station building is another example of brilliant European architecture. Marble columns and the magnificent iron and glass vaulted ceiling are among the reasons this is considered one of the greatest train stations in the world. The station entrance hall was the scene for a flash mob performance of ‘Do Re Mi’ from ‘The Sound of Music’ in 2009. If you haven’t already seen it, you can check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EYAUazLI9k

Amsterdam Wed 25/1/12

I experienced a Dutch breakfast today. I had no idea what it was beforehand, but was assured I would enjoy it. Too right! Initially I was served a jug of coffee and a hard-boiled egg but I knew there had to be more. And there was: three pieces of bread with the option of toast, two small pots of butter, a large bowl of strawberry jam, slices of ham and Dutch polony, slices of cheese of different varieties (yum!) and a glass of orange juice. To top it off, the ‘cook’ sat down for a chat about language, culture, education and World War II. A pretty heavy discussion for 8am! I was surprised to learn from our conversation that the Dutch newspapers recently reported on an Australian teacher who became pregnant to her 16 year old student. He (the cook) couldn’t see the problem with this situation so I hope he’s more enlightened following my explanation about age of consent and duty of care.

Upon check-out, the receptionist asked for my impression of Amsterdam. Well… there’s the matter of a negative first impression as I arrived in the city, but apparently the area surrounding the central station has been in need of upgrading for some time. While it’s a shambles at the moment, it’s for the long-term good. I’ll look forward to seeing it in the future as Amsterdam is a city I’d like to spend more time exploring. The stench of marijuana as one walks by a coffee shop in the evening, and the overwhelming presence of sex shops in the city centre, may be a little off-putting, but it’s a charming city with its canals, museums, squares and narrow streets. There is a sense of freedom and open-mindedness that can no doubt be attributed to the relaxed nature of the laws and lawmakers. Even obeying traffic signals appears to be somewhat optional!

Something I haven’t seen before: a user-pays security parking facility for bicycles. Again, look out for bikes and scooters as they fly at top speed across all surfaces including tram tracks.

Amsterdam Tue 24/1/12

I’m sitting at a window table in the Hard Rock Cafe and looking out at a family of ducks as they swim along the canal. As they disappear from view, I realise this is the third HRC I’ve been to in eleven days. It’s not exactly a cheap eat, but the meals are big and super yummy. The service is fast and friendly and it’s obvious the staff either really enjoy the job or they’re darn good actors. The other great thing about Hard Rock Café is that I can get yet another pin for my yard duty sombrero. As a canal boat glides past I wonder: How many ducks are run over by canal boats each year?

Rewind five hours.

Forty-three minutes after the train pulled away from Den Haag, I stepped out of Amsterdam Central station and thought “Oh crap!” There were trams, road works, building works and people EVERYWHERE! Thankfully the tourism centre is within spitting distance of the station (I’ve realised this is always a good place to start in an unfamiliar city), so I grabbed a local map and began my trek to the Freeland Hotel. Having been checked in, I quickly headed for Anne Frank House. I had my entry ticket for 4:15 and didn’t want to be late as I’d have to wait half an hour and that would defeat the purpose of having bought the ticket online to avoid queuing in the cold. Fortunately, I got there with a few minutes to spare🙂

The ‘House’ actually consists of two parts – the old and the new. The old is, of course, the building that Anne and her family lived in, which included offices at the front and the secret annexe behind and above. The new part is the neighbouring property which, connected to the house, contains short AV presentations, glass-encased artefacts, a bookshop and cafe. It’s easy to imagine just how isolated and trapped Anne felt in the annexe. Have a look at the website www.annefrank.org if you want to know more.

By the time I left Prinsengracht, it was dark and all the museums were closed. Although I’d love to see the amazing artworks they possess, I’m just as interested in the external architecture and have learnt that prominent buildings are lit up well at night, so with the streets alive, I felt no fear wandering about the city centre and exploring. There are so many incredible places to see and I’m impressed that older buildings have been maintained, now often housing clothing stores or souvenir shops. Souvenir shops themselves attract attention, if not for the entire wall of clogs they sell, but the clogs also hang from the ceilings. It reminds me that I’ve not yet tried Kwak, a Belgian beer that requires you to hand over a shoe to the barman as a security deposit for the unique glass in which the amber fluid is served. That can be one of Saturday’s tourist tasks!

It’s happenin’ in Den Haag Tue 24/1/12

The Hague is a pleasant and busy city where strangers give a smile as you walk past or they offer assistance if you’re looking confusedly at a map.

The tourist centre was hard to spot and I found it quite by chance just a short walk from the station. The clerk was very friendly and helpful, providing a free map of the city and marking places of interest such as the gates to Chinatown which are ornate and colourful.

There are shopping bargains to be had in The Hague: I barely escaped buying a pair of jeans for €18 and a ripper of a green faux leather satchel bag for €24. There are shoe stores everywhere and the prices are quite reasonable.

I had no luck locating the Australian Embassy and actually wondered if there was one in The Hague (I now know there is). It wasn’t that I needed it; it’d just be kind of cool to find a patch of Aussie turf in such a far-off place.

Four hours was all that was required to see the major attractions, including the Mesdag museum and the breathtaking panorama of Scheveningen. Each person let out a gasp of awe, often accompanied by a quiet “Wow” (which translates the same in any language!) as they reached the top step and caught their first glimpse of this incredible masterpiece. The World Peace Flame and garden, although small, are quite moving as one contemplates their significance. The Noordeinde Palace compound is enormous and it’s a pleasure to wander around the tranquil gardens.

I was tempted to have lunch at the Lyonnais Café, especially considering their menu included a main dish of various cheeses. But at €12,95 and with limited time I pressed on and settled for McDonalds again. Although a little more expensive than Australia and France, it’s more affordable than a fancy schmancy eatery, you always know what you’re getting and I figure I’m walking it off in any case. Maccas seems to be the place for local teens to hang out. Clogging the footpaths (pardon the pun) and swinging around Happy Meal balloons was the order of the day.

As I made my way back to the train station, I was approached by several beggars including one very persistent fellow who wouldn’t let me past until I yelled at him. I also spotted a few gypsy women playing their accordions on street corners and asking passers-by for money. It seems the needy of The Hague sleep in until lunch time as I certainly hadn’t seen any in the morning!

London: It’s a jungle out there! 14-15 January

After an enormous English breakfast complemented by yoghurt, fruit and two cups of coffee, I made my way to Portobello Market for an early start. I had been told there was a good selection of antiques and art deco homewares at reasonable prices so was hoping I might find something special for a certain house in Carnegie, but all I found was overpriced crap that wasn’t particularly interesting. The market is quite amazing though: it’s not at all like the Queen Vic in Melbourne; rather, it’s stall after stall lining Portobello Road with vendors flogging everything from cheap made-in-China souvenirs to jewellery and clothing, to kebabs and over-ripe fruit. The strangest thing I saw was a ‘bureau de change’ that, although legitimate, looked rather unofficial. I’d even go so far as to call it completely dodgy.

I battled the late-arriving tourists to return to Notting Hill Gate and jump aboard a hop-on-hop-off tour bus. It’s a great way to see the major attractions in central London, although I would have preferred to combine walking with catching the Tube so I could follow my own plans. My hip had other ideas though. Consequently, I missed several places I wanted to visit, so I’ll save them for my next trip! We drove past Marble Arch where there was a rally taking place. Apparently events like this occur frequently at the arch, so the average Londoner doesn’t pay too much attention, but a strong police presence was evident.

I took leave of the bus at Baker Street station and queued up for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. At the entrance we were told to expect a wait of ‘up to one hour’ but after 45 minutes and having progressed by only about ten metres, I decided I didn’t want to waste my day standing in line when there was so much else to see in London.

The bus took us on to Oxford Street where thousands of people were bustling about to take advantage of the sales. I couldn’t take two steps without having to change direction as the footpaths were absolutely jam packed. I bagged a bargain of my own at Gap: three long-sleeved tees and three pairs of socks for just £24.95… great value as they have certainly come in handy! After another short bus stint, I hobbled past Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament where a small crowd hoped to catch a glimpse of PM David Cameron, but to no avail. I felt absolutely miniscule standing in the shadows of Big Ben and the glorious Westminster Abbey. A brief walk along the Thames and through Victoria Tower Gardens revealed statues of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Burghers of Calais, as well as the humungous London Eye.

As the sun began to set, I boarded a bus for the final time and sat back in the icy wind of the open top deck, to enjoy a recorded commentary about St Clement Danes (of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ fame), the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. I learnt more about Jack the Ripper as we passed the London Dungeon and the Great Fire of London as we travelled close to Pudding Lane.

With the day coming to a close, I desperately wanted (correction – NEEDED!) a great Indian meal. Mughals Restaurant, just ten metres from the hotel, had average reviews on Urbanspoon but it looked inviting and I didn’t have the energy to look further. If you’re in London and you like curry, go there! The lamb korma was divine, the rice fluffy and the Magners cider washed it all down perfectly.

Sunday morning was a lazy affair with a lengthy breakfast and the train to Slough to meet up with Maddie and Imran. The drive to Dover was uneventful but we were rewarded with some beautiful views of the cliffs as we were ferried away from England and toward the shores of France.

A retrospective: Welcome to London

At the passport checkpoint I was studied closely by the customs officer:

–           When did you arrive in Brussels?

–           This morning.

–           And you’re leaving for England now?

–           Yes.

–           Why?

–           Well… I’m visiting my sister who lives in Belgium but she and her boyfriend have had some car trouble in England, so I’ve arrived without her here and am going to England to meet up with her. We’ll be coming back to Belgium together on Sunday.

–           Ah. That’s ok then. I thought it strange that you’d just arrived but were leaving already.

With that, she stamped my passport, permitting me to enter the UK.

A few hours later, after a smooth ride on the Eurostar but getting a little lost due to building works near Paddington station, I checked into the Cardiff Hotel in Norfolk Square. I was pleasantly surprised to have been allocated a room overlooking the gardens and had a lovely chat with the receptionist who had recently visited family members in Perth!

I offloaded my luggage and set off for an afternoon walk. I meandered through Kensington Gardens, enjoying the Italian Garden with its fountains and the playfulness of two squirrels. I made my way to the far side of the gardens to the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall as the natural light faded and buildings were lit up. I strolled alongside Hyde Park and to the south eastern corner of central London to begin my search for the Hard Rock Café. My first evening in Europe was a cold one and my body was not impressed with the sudden influx of movement following almost two full days of sitting on planes and trains. The HRC seemed to be playing hide and seek, so I was on the verge of aborting my dinner plans and heading back to Paddington where I’d seen some restaurants and pubs that looked promising, when two young women asked me for directions to… the Hard Rock Café. I agreed to accompany them on the search and have dinner together. It was delightful to meet sisters Anna and Alex and to chat over some delicious food. They asked if I was nervous travelling alone then answered their own question, suggesting that if I could survive all the dangerous Australian native animals, then surely London posed no threat. With the throngs of people I encountered the following day, I would beg to differ.

Lille Fri 20/1/2012

The weather looked a little ominous as I arrived in Lille but after only the lightest sprinkling of rain in Paris yesterday, I wasn’t concerned. I’m growing accustomed to the wintery conditions despite knowing it is warm and sunny back in Melbourne. An hour after I stepped off the train, I was cursing a little. I was soaked through. What had appeared to be drizzle was actually a decent rain shower but I hadn’t really noticed as my beanie, gloves, scarf and jacket were protecting me from the elements. It was only as I opened the map to get my bearings that I realised how wet I was. The map didn’t escape the rain either but luckily it was intact enough to serve its purpose for the day.

I like Lille. There aren’t as many beggars – or sleazy dudes – as there are in Paris. A council worker tried it on by using ‘tu’ to say hi and ask if I was alone. I raised an unimpressed eyebrow, said nothing and kept walking. I can’t decide if it’s confidence or arrogance but these approaches aren’t something I’ve experienced in Australia and I wasn’t subjected to it in London either. I find it quite uncomfortable and certainly not complimentary.

I momentarily lost my sense of direction… again! I should keep it on a short leash, I know. I was standing in a square (Place de Louise Bettignies as I soon learnt) and turned around to check the street name on the corner building. As I turned, something caught my eye. I rotated slightly more to the right and there, directly in front of me, was The Australian Bar! I guess the English, Irish and Australians have quite a reputation for their pubs as they seem to be represented rather fervently in far flung places.

After five and a half hours of non-stop walking, I figured lunch might be a good idea so decided to eat at the first place I could find. That turned out to be McDo, as they say in these parts. I must be getting better at feigning Frenchness as both the girl who served me at Maccas and the woman serving at FNAC – where I’d earlier done a touch of shopping – didn’t even blink… although the FNAC cashier had thought it odd that I had an ‘English’ bankcard (the EFTPOS machine automatically switches to the official language of the country where the card was issued).

I’m beginning to understand why the occasional person asks me if I’m English. It’s very difficult to discern between Australian and English accents against the smooth speech of the French. A few times this week, I’ve thought there was an Aussie nearby, just to listen a little harder and discover it was an Englishman. Yet tonight, I heard it clear as can be – an Aussie voice from a guy who looked as if he were on his way home from work. I wonder how many Australians live in Lille?

It’s a very nice city that’s less in-your-face than Paris but still has character. There is a lovely balance of the old and the new: Older, historic buildings are clearly being restored – or have been already – whilst modern architecture is also evident, particularly to the east of the city centre. Interestingly, the Cathedral Notre Dame de la Treille combines the two. Building plans were agreed upon in the mid 18th Century but construction didn’t begin until around 100 years later. It was then gradually constructed in the neogothic style of years gone by, but the façade design took a twist and was finally unveiled in 1999, revealing a very modern style of architecture. It’s very unusual, kind of quirky I would say, but I like it.

I’m a touch disappointed to have missed the ‘free zoo’ as Maddie puts it, but I didn’t come across it, nor did I see any signs for it. I did however have a nice little surprise in the form of two gorgeous ginger tabbies. One was a little shy but the other was so friendly, ‘speaking’ to me and even giving me a gentle head-butt kiss when I suggested it in French. I miss my babies. Big snuggles when mum gets home, my beautiful puss kittens.

I take back what I said in a Maastricht post about the trains running on time. Twice now I’ve missed going swimming and today it was courtesy of train delays. Given I left my togs back in Melbourne (I didn’t think we’d be swimming in winter) so bought some earlier this week, I really hope I get to use them here. Anyway, the important thing is that I finally returned to Leuven then my awesome sister and her awesome boyfriend brought home kebabs and frites for dinner. They were delicious!