Thurs. July 10, 2014:
Bruges to Antwerp, Belgium
Our hotel had super heavy black-out curtains. I woke up very confused, I was certain it was still the dead of night. The breakfast buffet consisted of the same food as the day before except this time I found individually packaged Speculoos cookies. I ate the cookies and promptly went back for more. I still had coffee left and it was begging for more cookies. They taste so good when dipped in it, just like the IKEA cookies back home.
After checking out we had a long slow walk to the Gunpowder Tower. I had seen it on the map and it was featured in a few paintings we had seen thus far. It was also kind of, sort of, on the way to the train station, you know, if you decided to circle the outskirts of Bruges rather than cut across? In the paintings it had been shown as a tower with a bridge attached to it or building with a throughway. It appears to be 2 separate buildings that were just combined into one in the paintings.
The rest of the walk through the park was very nice; we saw a black bunny in the grass and a heron hunting in the water. The air was so fresh and most importantly: it was not raining. We got to the train station 40 minutes early. I did not mind at all, my legs were hurting from all the stair climbing and walking. It was nice to just sit; the train ride was an hour and a half.
The train station in Antwerp was architecturally beautiful. You could tell by the size of it that we were now in a much bigger city. We were too early to check-in at the hotel so we stuffed our bags in a locker. However, I did not have change to pay for it and therefore had to run off to Starbucks and buy a white chocolate raspberry cookie (as if I needed an excuse to get a cookie) to make change. Rather than being given a key to the locker, we were given a barcode printout that we would later scan to get our bags back. I was wary of it; a piece of paper is much easier to lose than a key.
It was cloudy outside but thankfully the rain held off. It felt so nice to walk around without my backpack weighing me down. We had a leisurely walk along a promenade of shops on our way to Rubenshuis. It was more just Peter Paul Ruben’s house. It wasn’t just a collection of his paintings in his former house. It was that and as well as his own private collection of art. The gem of the collection was a unfinished painting, you could see what he had sketched out as well as changes he had made to the original concept (which resulted in one guy having three arms). We are so used to seeing the finished pieces, not much attention is given to the work that goes into it: the layers of sketches, the improvements, the thought process etc…
No visit to a European city is complete without visiting at least one church. We had to pay admission to go see Church of Our Lady Antwerp but it was well worth it. We got to see some more Ruben’s paintings and beautiful stained glass windows. Most importantly: this church was featured in a lot of Flemish paintings, it was nice to recognize aspects of it from paintings we had seen (later in the trip we would see more as well). The one thing missing in the church that was in pretty much all the paintings: the dogs. For some reason most of the church interior paintings (various churches, not just Church of Our Lady Antwerp) featured dogs running about- making church seem more fun than it is. It is also the largest church in the Low Countries.
Brent’s other maps were in his bag…in the locker… in the train station. Given we were going back for our bags and not to another gallery; we stopped at a beer store so Brent could refresh his supply. There was a Speculoos COOKIE BEER that for some reason, Brent was not at all interested in. Back we went to the train station, along the promenade, beers in tow. On the way we stopped at the “Smallest Waffle Shop” so that I could get one last waffle (this was our last full day in Belgium). It really was a small waffle shop, amounting to a stall between two stores. The waffle was pretty good on its own, better than the one in Bruges, not as good as the one in Brussels. As we walked I was a little bit taken aback when I saw public urinals on the promenade; amounting to a half open bathroom stall that just barely obscured what was inside: a urinal.
We plozted in the hotel and contemplated what to do next. The galleries were a 20 minute walk back the way we had come from. The next morning there was no rush to leave hence the morning was open. On an impulse we decided to go to the zoo. It was across the street from our hotel, behind the train station. On the way we stopped at the grocery store, I wanted Speculoos to munch on. We got to the zoo at 3:30pm; we figured we had plenty of time to see everything before it closes at 7pm. As soon as we walked in I wandered over to the flamingoes, they were being loud and obnoxious and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I never did figure it out, but I was thoroughly amused by one drinking water with his head upside down. After that we went back to the map and visited the exhibits in numerical order.
It was really odd seeing penguins in an outdoor exhibit; to my naïve mind they belonged in frigidly cold conditions and being out in the open air just seemed wrong. Then I learned that they were South American penguins- who knew?! Then my discomfort just shifted to the logistics of the exhibit space: the walls were low, you could easily lean over and touch the penguins… which some dumb people were very slowly, cautiously trying to do. I cannot believe how dumb people can be.
There were some lizards that were so lazy they did not care that there were crickets on their backs and heads. They just sat there chilling… with their dinner walking all over them. The lion exhibit took the cake though. The lionesses were all asleep; the lion however was wandering about until he noticed a pigeon. He circled around, found a good spot to prowl from… slowly approached and ran for it. The pigeon took off. A minute later… the pigeon came back!! We watched in awe as the lion ran for it again. This time the pigeon took off and did not come back. Second place goes to the tigers. We kept hearing a weird low sort-of-growl noise. We narrowed it down to the tiger enclosure. But when we got there the tiger was just licking itself. As we started to leave… we heard the sound again. We rushed back. Sure enough, he was roaring lazily. Then we heard a response, there was another tiger at the other end of the enclosure inside the building responding!
There were owls with huge eyes, just staring at us, watching our every move. It was really unnerving and further solidified my fear of birds. As did the birds of prey demonstration we watched from the lookout into the lion enclosure (it was across the path from them). The lions were also watching the demonstration. The turtles were in a wacky mood. One would grab another one, stacking themselves and hold on for dear life while the bottom one tried to buck off the top one. Eventually three turtles stacked themselves like this but they toppled over. It was not what you think. We got to see the elephants eating; it was hilarious watching him grasp straw with his trunk. When the other one came in to eat, the first one would make low grunts at the other. In one pavilion they had a hatching cubicle set up… we were watching chicks hatch in real time! Alas, we only had 5 minutes until closing time and could not stay to watch. On the way out I noticed that even the vending machine was selling waffles, alas I was hungry for real food, no more snacks.
I encountered a bit of confusion at McDonalds, it turned out that the 9 piece nuggets were not available as a meal, just solo. Rather than cause more confusion by changing the order, I stuck with just chicken nuggets for dinner. At least that way I had room for dessert: vanilla and Speculoos macarons. McDonalds should stick to simple things like McFlurrys, the macarons were more lie chewy cookies than light and airy dessert I am used to. The best item on the McBelgian menu is probably the royale with cheese, that or the barbeque sauce (which is much better than the one in North America). I still could not get used to fries with mayonnaise; the McMayo was slightly better, but still not as good as ketchup. I had a bite of Brent’s belgo burger but even that was unimpressive, nothing special. I was still hungry after the macarons and so I had a second dessert: M&Ms McFlurry with chocolate sauce. The sauce was too much but it was still one of the best McFlurrys thus far. It was so much easier to order it from the self-serve kiosk.
After resting in the hotel, watching True Detective and drinking beer (Hoeegarden citrus was not that good) we headed out for an evening walk as had become our vacation tradition now. Turns out our hotel was next door to China Town, it also turned out that China Town was just a bunch of Asian businesses all crammed onto one street and nothing was open (where was the late night Chinese food?!)
On our way to the cathedral Brent popped into the Hilton hotel to use the bathroom because the alleyway we walked down had security cameras everywhere. While he was in there I saw a small car speeding down the road and it sharply turned to the left down an alley. A minute later a cop car came racing from the same place but instead turned right, going down the alley we had just left. Either I had just witnessed a police chase or I have been watching too many movies.
The cathedral was gorgeously lit up against the dusk sky. It was hard to really appreciate it though as the square was barely big enough for us t o walk back far enough to get a good view of it without having to lean our heads far back, owing to its giant size. As we were walking to the canal we happened upon the main town square and got to see city hall, also lit up beautifully. By the canal there was a raised walkway and we could get a good view of both the canal and looking back towards the town centre, the cathedral looming over everything else.
The patios were full and the streets were mostly empty. That is, except for one drunken idiot trying to entertain the patio crowds. He was twirling around for their amusement and he almost nailed us with his guitar as we tried to squeeze by. We witnessed a cyclist go through an intersection without stopping to look, a bus almost hit him and the driver laid on the horn. The cyclist did not care at all. Now that the shopping promenade was empty people would drive down it, it was very confusing. I did not know if it was just that Belgians are bad drivers or the rules change at night? back at the hotel I realized that this was the first place we had stayed at where we actually had a queen size bed. Up until now it was either two singles (the first night at the hostel) or two single beds pushed together with queen sheets on them. So weird.