Antwerp, or Antwerpen, is one of those interesting destinations that does not pop up frequently in people’s minds, at least if you are not based in Europe. It is however, a fantastic little destination, which is best approached by train from Amsterdam, for the best arrival experience, at least in my opinion.
All that glitters
Arrival in to Antwerp via high speed train from Amsterdam or Paris is definitely the way to go. A short-ish 2 hour train ride away from Amsterdam Centraal, this gem of a destination will definitely feel like it as you pull in to Antwerp Centraal. This grand baroque cathedral of a railway station will definitely remind you of a city built on trade and diamonds.
Once the opulence and gild of the railway station settles in to your imagination, the city’s plazas and boulevards will set your imagination alight in this the major city of Flanders, the predominantly culturally Dutch part of Belgium.
Just next to the railway station is the Diamond Quarter, aptly named ‘Diamant.’ Do not let the bland exterior fool you: those stores and plain façade hide the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, numerous jewellers skilled in cutting the finest and among the most sought-after gem sets.
Straight out from the main façade of Antwerpen Centraal and Diamant is De Keyserlei, continuing on westwards to Teniersplaats and the Meir, all grand entranceways in to the central of Antwerp. Antwerp is a very walkable city, with wide shaded boulevards, ample trams, a lot of pedestrian space and monumental vistas that are arguably on par with Paris’s Champs Elysees, Newcastle’s Grey Street and Edinburgh’s New Town.
Antwerp can pleasantly surprise you, even if you have high expectations of a city of this magnitude. Walking along the wide boulevard of the Meir, the city’s commercial heart, shopping arcades blend in seamlessly with art-deco constructions, baroque edifices and 19th century opulence.
The Rembrandt House has a fine collection of Dutch works, set in a beautifully restored house, tucked away in the corner along the Meir. Given the right spring day, not your usual street performers will be enthralling you on this boulevard, with my particular highlight being a well-tuned soprano.
Amidst this avenue, you will still be reminded that this is a city in flux, that tries to balance all her commercial interests in one go. In between the medieval city and renaissance quarters, art-deco towers rise up, reminding you of the commercial importance of this city, but unlike other edifices, these almost seemingly blend in at street-level and only really pop up once you see the city from the opposite bank of the River Scheldt.
For an interesting view of Antwerp, head to the banks of the River Scheldt, where, next to the Grote Markt, is Sint-Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that links communities on both sides of the river. This 1km walk under the River Scheldt was built in 1933 and has beautiful painted tiles that tell the story of this unique construction.
The Great Market
Like all great trading cities in the low countries, Antwerp pay homage to her grand market square, the Grote Markt, where the statue of Brabo, or the Brabo Fountain, lies prominent in front of the City Hall. Fantastic beer gardens and bars line the square and the surrounding alleyways, a departure from the formal lines of the renaissance city on the Meir.
The great belfry of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekatheedraal, or Cathedral of Our Lady is a prominent landmark in Antwerp and provides a good juxtaposition to the spires in the Grote Markt. The interior is, to put it simply, divine, with many beautiful Dutch Masters, Antwerp resident Peter Paul Reubens in particular, hanging in-situ as they would have been when they were initially commissioned. A very interesting way to bring in the people to church: turn it in to an art gallery.
Adjoining the Grote Markt are the old quays and docklands, some of which have been repurposed as art spaces, pop-up markets and warehouse nightclubs. As Antwerp once was one of the great trading conduits linking the interior of Europe to the great outside, Antwerp now becomes the great conduit that links the outside art world to this section of Europe. The Museum aan de Stroom or MAS, is in itself a piece of art and houses a fine collection of works from across the world and is arguably one of the more interactive museums out there. It also has fantastic views of the city from the top terrace.
Chocolate, Chips and Shells Trails
Think Belgium and Belgian Chocolate would surely pop in to your head. Apart from the usual Godiva and Leonidas, Antwerp has a fantastic array of small, artisanal chocolate shops, all tucked away in the old city. These small establishments are worth the hunt, and are consistently as good as their more famous counterparts.
The chocolate trail combines with the, as I now call it, the chips trail. Fries, pomme frites, chips, call them whatever but they taste pretty good in Antwerp, and you cannot go wrong with whichever shop you go in to. However, one particular shop, at the Groenplaats, seems to get the crowds. Queue looks long, but it is fast moving, and as it is next to a Leonidas and a few good bars, you might as well add on a chocolate trail and pub crawl while you’re here.
Another interesting feature you may notice as you walk around Antwerp would be the small bronze shells you see embedded in the pavement. It was only after a visit to the St James’s Church when I realized that there is a third trail that converges in Antwerp: the Way of St James, or the Via de Santiago de Compostela. Yes, that famous Pilgrimage Trail actually starts up in the low countries and passes through Antwerp.
Little did I know, my travels would converge in a nexus where the trails of commerce, art, diamonds, chocolates, beer and religion meet. It helps that it is still one of the largest ports in the world (the Port of Antwerp actually almost reaches the Dutch border) and one of the grandest railway stations around.
WiFi? The City of Antwerp has free decent speed wifi available city-wide, so there is no worry for you to hunt around for free wifi if you are too lazy to get a local sim or pay for roaming.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains and Thalys provides excellent connections to Antwerp with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Antwerpen within the hour.
If there is one monument to the majesty of the House of Chakri and the devotion of the Thais to the late King of Thailand, Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, this grand structure bedecked in gold would surely be it. At USD 90 million, little expense was spared.
Fit for a king
Located in Sanam Luang, also known as the Royal Lawn, in front of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, for more than a year from October 2016 to December 2017, there was restricted access to the site. Throughout my frequent visits to Bangkok between that period, news headlines in the paper displayed in the hotel lobby or foyer kept me updated on this, the grand farewell.
Naturally, I was curious and wanted to see what it looked like. Having missed the construction period due to the chaos of the site during that period, the restrictions when the site was completed, and not seeing the funeral ceremony in person, I did the next best thing: wait until the ceremony was over.
Luckily, the site was still open for viewing in mid-December 2017 when I went to visit, the viewing period extended by a month. The wait was worth it. After being told to wear trousers (which I should have known, and I bought those cheap THB 100 ones for this event), signing a ‘foreigner’s guest book’ and going through 3 layers of security, I was handed a muffin and a small bottle of water.
I was then led to a tented holding area with a crowd, as we waited for our turn to enter the site. As there were a number of school groups before us, it took a while. When our turn came up, we were offered umbrellas as shade from the mid-day sun, and when we proceeded from the tents, there before us, the great spires of the cremation pyre: the Royal Crematorium.
Form and function
As much as I love architecture and the decorative arts, I would not dare start with a study on the cultural and artistic elements of this site. What I can start on is my walk around the grounds itself. Navigating my way past the crowds of school children, I noticed I was among the few foreigners on site. Most visitors were Thais, who wanted a memory of this transient monument.
The dominant structure here is the Royal Crematorium itself, spit over four floors, each having a form and purpose. The central pavilion rises up to the sky, unmistakable in its regal form, from the royal nine-tiered umbrella at the pinnacle to the delicate artwork along the screens. Designed to evoke Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, the central structures, 8 side structures and terraces are surrounded by a pond and sculptures of mythical creatures.
Surrounding the Royal Crematorium are a number of pavilions, from pavilions for high ranking officials to a royal waiting pavilion. The grandest and longest pavilion, a great hall by itself, is basically a royal audience chamber, with unrivalled views of the Royal Crematorium. This is the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, where the royal family, royal guests, diplomatic corps and other high officials of state were seated during the ceremony.
Now, except for the royal waiting pavilion, all the other pavilions house exhibits ranging from the life of the king to replicas of architectural and artistic elements and dioramas of the Royal Crematorium.
A study in high Thai arts
All the pavilions incorporate classical high Thai architecture elements in their design, and during this viewing period, houses beautiful pieces of replicas, scale models and information boards on the Royal Crematorium’s construction.
In one pavilion, you could see the entire site in a scale model, and cut out scale models of the Royal Crematorium and auxiliary pavilions. In another pavilion, beautiful plaster cast replicas, first models and actual casts were on display. The other pavilions had displays of palanquins, replica chariots and actual wheels used to transport the Royal Urn from the Grand Palace to the crematorium. One of the highlights was the pavilion housing replicas of the artwork on the fireguard screens.
A central feature of the Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition is the exhibition of the life of King Bhumibol. Located in the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, this large airconditioned space was a perfect spot to seek refuge from the midday sun. Despite the uncharacteristically cold (but absolutely perfect) 20*c mid-day weather in Bangkok, a little air conditioning is always a good idea.
Inside were murals and write-ups on the king and his achievements during his long reign. Displayed in 5 ‘chapters,’ they displayed how highly the Thai king was seen and revered. The exhibits covered the following, and were a very interesting read:
What really captured me in this space are the views. The great hall was indeed great, and the view from the central axis towards the Royal Crematorium is unrivalled, perfectly framed by windows and arches.
Like all good things, and in all things in Dhamma, there is a continual cycle. From beauty, decay; from death, life. This beautiful structure was never meant to be permanent, and this fine piece of high craftsmanship, of delicate artwork and intricate passion, would eventually be dismantled. A shame, but that is life: live in the moment, for we are all transient.
How did this study on a Royal Crematorium suddenly became an introspection? Oh, wait, I just answered my own question.
The Royal Crematorium is currently being dismantled and will be fully demolished by March 2018. The site is no longer open for viewing as of January 2018. However, sections of the Royal Crematorium will be preserved and moved to a specially constructed museum near the National Archives in Pathum Thani province.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.