By now you should know what a great place Antwerp is for a weekend break. Arrive in Belgium’s second city in true style by high-speed train, and see one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, Antwerp Centraal Station.
Although Antwerp has its own tiny airport called Deurne, there are very few flights to it – in all of Europe it is only currently connected with Manchester and London City. If the local tourism authority could persuade budget airlines to use Deurne, I’m pretty sure Antwerp would become one of Europe’s more visited cities.
But until that happens, you’re more than likely to kick off your weekend at the train station. Visitors from the UK can take the Eurostar from London St. Pancras, which takes about 3 hours 18 minutes in total and involves a change of trains in Brussels for the final leg of the journey.
Returns to any Belgian station start at around £79 if you get in there when tickets go on sale four months in advance (book at www.Eurostar.com).
Alternatively, you could do what I did if you can’t easily/cheaply get to London – fly from your regional airport to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, then take the high-speed Thalys train from Schiphol train station beneath the airport to Antwerp.
Eighty miles separate Schiphol and Antwerp, and although the regular train takes 2 hours 30 minutes with at least one change, Thalys (pronounced “Ta-Leese”) takes just 56 minutes and is a direct service.
Thalys trains go from Amsterdam to Paris, with calling points at Schiphol, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels in between. Single journeys start at €29 – book early at www.thalys.com for the best deals.
Thalys’ baseball capped stewards/bouncers will check your ticket before you board the train at Schiphol, and then you’re off on an incredibly fast journey. The train’s first and only stop before Antwerp is Rotterdam, after just 20 minutes.
Loads of Chinese people boarded the train here – a dockers strike in Rotterdam (the world’s second biggest port) was broken in 1910 by bringing over cheap Chinese workers, so the city now has one of the biggest Chinese populations in Europe.
The train really picked up speed after it left Rotterdam – the track runs parallel to the motorway for a while, and we were going twice as fast as the BMWs and Mercedes in the fast lane.
Halfway into the ride, I received my “Welcome to Belgium” text from Mobistar but by this point I was getting a little bored of the view out of the window (flat and marshy), and was looking forward to arriving at Antwerp Centraal.
A 2009 Newsweek story described it as being the fourth greatest train station in the world behind Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji (3rd), New York Grand Central (2nd) and London St. Pancras (1st).
Getting off my train, I could see what all the fuss was about. The station is absolutely huge – the platforms are multi-tiered on three levels, either side of the main councourse, so when you get off your train there are two platform levels above you – crazy!
I’m not sure exactly how many platforms there are, but my return to Rotterdam was from platform 24B. It takes a good ten minutes to reach the train after paying for a ticket at a machine or kiosk in the main concourse, so make sure you leave enough time to descend the three separate escalators.
My mum’s favourite film is Brief Encounter – a love story set at Carnforth train station in Cumbria, where two strangers meet under the station clock. I’ve been to Carnforth station, and it’s a dump – surely the scriptwriter had Antwerp Centraal in mind when he wrote the script?
When you ascend the escalators from the platforms, and see the glass and steel roof and the station clock, with its touches of gold, you realise train travel is the most romantic way to travel out there.
Antwerp Centraal is to the east of the city centre, and it’s a good twenty minute walk to the Grote Markt and the cathedral in the centre, but there’s plenty to see nearby if you get there too early for your train home. The city’s Diamond District can be found in the streets to the right of the station. 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through town, making it the unofficial diamond capital of the world.
Antwerp Zoo is to the left of the station with a big square – Koningin Astridplein – which was taken up with a fairground when I visited.
De Keyserlei, the street that links the station to Meir, the city’s main shopping street, is a wide pedestrianised boulevard lined with bars and restaurants – a great place to sit at a pavement cafe with a beer while you wait for your train home.