Although my hotel was just around the corner from Antwerpen Centraal station, it took me several hours after first arriving in the Belgian city, to eventually check in to it. This was not due to any difficulty finding the hotel, but because I was so mesmerised by the splendour of Antwerp’s main train station, I simply lost track (no pun intended with the use of the word ‘track’ here) of time. Centraal station is a stunning turn-of-the-twentieth-century building with an eclectic mix of architectural styles that surprisingly complement each other.
I eventually pulled myself away from the station and its surrounds, only to reach the start of Meir, Antwerp’s equivalent to London’s Oxford Street and New York’s Fifth Avenue. Again, I was desperately distracted by yet another delightful pic ‘n’ mix of architectural styles: Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau, Art Deco… such beautiful buildings, all in fantastic condition, and stealing the limelight away – for me at least – from the high street brands displayed in their windows.
Disappointed that I couldn’t get beyond the entrance to the Boerentoren – there used to be a viewing platform on the twenty-fifth floor, but this is now (2016) closed to the public – I consoled myself by walking into the neighbouring Stadsfeestzaal instead.
The Stadsfeestzaal was built at the start of the twentieth century by Alex Van Mechelen, the City Architect of Antwerp. It was designed to be used as a banqueting hall and exhibition space. One hundred years later, the building had fallen into disrepair. A project to redevelop and rejuvenate the Meir district was given the green light by the city at the end of the last century, and work began in 2000 to restore the Stadsfeestzaal to its original splendour. However, just as the restoration work started, a fire ravaged the Stadsfeestzaal and almost destroyed the whole building. Although some of the historic building could not be saved, the main hall was salvaged and rebuilt. It took eighteen months alone to apply the thousands of sheets of gold leaf to the restored ceiling details. The building is now the Shopping Stadsfeestzaal hosting shopping units, offices and apartments.
Almost nothing appears to have escaped being gilded in the new Stadsfeestzaal. Even the corridor leading to the public toilets glistens, although the cubicles were not so sumptuous.
At this point I realised it had been nearly four hours since my train pulled into Centraal station and I still hadn’t checked in to my hotel. As I left the Stadsfeestzaal, I mistakenly turned left instead of right and instead of walking back towards the station, I walked past the Boerentoren, past the beautiful gothic Cathedral of Our Lady (and couldn’t resist popping in to have a look inside), crossed Grote Markt (spending several minutes marveling its Brabo Fountain) and ended up by the banks of the Scheldt where another building caught my attention. It was the Art Deco entrance to the innovative Sint-Annatunnel (Saint Anna’s Tunnel), a tunnel built underneath the Scheldt in 1933 to give pedestrians unlimited access to and from the left bank of the river. It is still used by walkers and cyclists today, is opened twenty-four hours a day and entrance to it is free. I just had to go down and take a look.
Thankfully, Van Eeden station was just a short walk away from the left bank entrance to Saint Anna’s tunnel, so I didn’t have to drag my suitcase all the way back along the tunnel to the right bank. A tram brought me back to Centraal station direct within fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, for my weary feet and suitcase, once I stepped off that tram I just couldn’t resist looking around Centraal station once again.
I did eventually check-in to my hotel, just a five minute walk away, but six hours after my first arrival into Centraal station.
How Antwerp avoided being named after a fancy detail on a woman’s bra, and how the Virgin Mary helped some Antwerpians to avoid paying tax (allegedly)