Part III: Antwerp, Mechelen
My last free day in Mechelen began late — very very late — 11 AM! I do not know if it was the jet lag or the fact that I had pretty much used up every minute of the previous days roaming around town with a lump of a bag on my back, but I just could not manage to get up! By the time I had gotten up (or forced myself off the bed), I had missed the breasfast hours and was heading dangerously close to the lunch hour! My original plan had been to take the 10 AM train to Antwerp, but I only managed the 12 PM one. Thankfully antwerp was just 20 minutes away and I got out and walked straight to the Indian restaurant that I had (cleverly) marked out earlier. I found the place with ease and managed to overeat the somewhat average Indian food and also managed to gulp down a nice glass of mango lassi. Having satiated my growling stomach, I was now ready to see Antwerpen.
Antwerp is one hell of a crowded city — especially on weekends. While known for its diamond trade industry, Antwerp also sports hoards of trendy clothes and stuff shops which are easily filled to the brim by ever eager women and their poor pathetic partners who are forced into acquiescence and are relegated to the duty of a mule, carrying the ever-increasing load, while bearing mute witness to their hard earned money being blown away by their frivolous (better?) halves. I realized that in order to avoid the crowd, all that I had to do was to walk behind a couple, since more often than not, the woman would spot something in a store and would draw her husband/significant other + kids away from the road, leaving me a nice little area to walk freely on! I kid you not — the crowd reminded me of the streets of Mumbai — only Antwerp was much cleaner.
The walk from the train station (a beautiful piece of architecture in itself) passed through the Jew/Indian dominated diamond market — a series of shops (many closed on Saturday) housing nothing but diamond jewelry, before hitting a plaza filled with cafes and shopping centers. I stopped by the house of Reubens (euro 1 for students <26…amazing!) — which was laid out with the works of art he had collected over time as well as some lesser known of his works. I walked out through the crowded plaza and then through an abandoned set of streets (as per instructions from my guide book) to pass a Cathedral and a museum that preserved the house layout of rich victorian residents, before I reached another small square, again lined with cafes and taverns and sporting another small Cathedral (open for mass only, not tourists!). A short walk led me to the Groktmarkt and the imposing Cathedral that formed the center of the town. As should be obvious by now, there were some more cafes and some more taverns and some more restaurants around the markt — all crowded with tourists and residents. I also managed to catch a glimpse of some Japanese dignitary who happened to be leaving the main hall in Antwerp — which violates possibly every known security rule (it is right in the middle of a crowded square that is open to everybody; I was literally 10 yards away from the dignitary — maybe he was not that important!).
I stopped by the cathedral and walked through the small side roads, each of which had a personality of its own. I was tired by then — the jet lag possibly refusing to leave — and did not wish to walk to the harbor-like area, and so I sat down for a rest and a cup of shitty espresso (supposedly illy — could not believe that!). I found a nearby metro stop and hence quickly managed to get back to the Antwerp Centraal station, from where I was lucky to make a fast train back to Mechelen. I took all of 30 minutes from that cafe in Antwerp to my hotel room in Mechelen — a far cry from my long road home in Ghent! I was thankful for the short trip back and quickly slept for a couple of hours before making it out for dinner.
I went to this small Greek place near the Robuskathedraal in Mechelen — just so that I could take some pictures of the town center at night. The place was overpriced and the service terribly, although the quality of the food itself was top notch. His baklava was unlike any that I have tasted before — do Greeks make different types of Baklava? In any case, a longish dinner and some neat snaps found me back in my Hotel room, packing for the next day’s trip to Brussels.
Antwerp was nice — but far too big and far too crowded a city for me to enjoy as much as the smaller and culturally richer Ghent. I could not help but sneer at the Subway and the Starbucks that the Antwerpens had readily accepted into their fold — the extreme globalization of the whole place made it loose some of its sheen. I have to say though that I saw Starbucks coming soon! plastered across Ghent as well…damn it!
Mechelen was a wonderful host town and I thoroughly enjoyed the small neighborhood that I could walk across in less than an hour. The people were pretty friendly and the place itself was exactly what I look for when I am in Europe. Thank you Mechelen for a wonderful time. All of this classical pampering is going to ruin the touristy and more modern Brussels and Bruges for me — but Mechelen was sure as hell worth it!