travel journal: antwerp arrivals

The clock struck 12:54 in Antwerp Centraal station.

London was three hours away.

It was a Thursday, and we had just arrived.

King Leopold II, they say, felt Antwerp deserved a more prestigious station back in the 19th century. As King's are wont to do, he commanded his people to make it so. With gold, marble, steel, glass, and iron, they created a cathedral station fit for any past, present, and future whims and passing fashions of royalty.

It is unusual for a city's urban transport hub, with its usual swirling flows of ashen-faced commuters, to serve as one of the places that excites us most about a visit. They are increasingly generic and familiar, designed to shuttle us from A to B with minimum fuss and romance, and infrequently places where you will choose to linger for any reason other than a delay. 

And yet in Antwerp, you have the opportunity to step into a 1920s movie scene - save for all the modern intrusions. It was because of this station that we knew flying wasn't an option for our trip to Belgium's second largest city. Instead, it would be tracks and guards, tunnels and platforms, 'we will shortly be arriving in' announcements, and the countryside passing by our windows in a blur.

Said to be one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, Antwerp Centraal is an absolute gem in this city built upon the diamond trade. 

However, when it comes to city breaks in Belgium, Antwerp is the child fighting for attention amongst its rival siblings of Brussels to the south and Bruges to the west, both a short journey along these tracks.

Perhaps that's why we were more inclined to visit; Antwerp needs to go about things differently to stand out, it has to carve out a singular identity as the others lay claim to many who arrive in a country where even the national identity is open to interpretation in multiple languages. 

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We didn't really do city breaks together in the past. 

It was all about saving up for our Latin American adventure, and other spare weekends would be spent getting drunk in London or visiting home. City breaks were for those older than us, those with a bit more disposable income, and those who planned ahead better than either of us. 

But, whilst out in Latin America and slowly teaching ourselves how to appreciate travel on several new levels, we realised that a city break didn't simply have to be something which is cover for a dirty weekend, a lads weekend, a covering of the cracks in a relationship, or a shuttling from one overcrowded landmark to another. 

They can be what you make of them.

We promised that we'd make the time to wander through more of Europe once home - from its grand cities to its post-industrial metropolises, rather than continuing to taking it for granted. 

There is, of course, a necessity to seek out the well known in these places. The photo spots, the famed streets and scenes. To know the must-dos and perhaps-avoids. After all, aside from being in a place for our own enjoyment these days, we are there to write about it for others.

Today, having done more than a few breaks since we've returned to Blighty, we're comfortable with what a city break means for us. With how it's evolved into an opportunity to, on the surface at least, feel that we can plug in to a new place's network and rhythm instantaneously.

A European city break gives the ability to feel - if only for a few days - like you've set up home somewhere else. Like you can be someone else, or at least a better version of who you think you are.

It's clearly an ephemeral and quite selfish feeling - a home without responsibilities, baggage (except that which meets stringent hand luggage allowances), or the need to contribute and earn your keep - but it's that which we seek out.

A city break then, is not to travel, but for finding those moments of belonging. Of feeling not like a tourist, not like a traveller, not like a local - but some fulfilling hybrid of the three. 

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Lazy morning with cups of locally roasted coffee, taking photos of pretty street signs listing the names of men and women we'll never know. Loosely researched stars in our google map plotting our route from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, museum to museum. Spontaneous stops for a sunshine-kissed beer, eavesdropping on conversations in a language where you chime with the odd familiar word or two. Pockets full of paper maps, rattling change, and receipts from late lunches at the place which looks popular with those in the know. 

In Antwerp, a small city if you're based in London, we instantly felt that we didn't have to work hard to enjoy life here. We could amble from Zuid to Vrijdagmarkt. We could cycle against the early summer breeze towards the port's new architectural curiosities. We didn't have to contend with queues of summer holidays and European tour groups. We could simply wander and linger, going incognito amongst those who do call it home, and pretending to be one of them for a few days. 

We found pleasure in the sights that those people probably now take a little for granted, having passed them or experienced them a hundred times. A bicycle tunnel which goes under the river, reached by original 1930s escalators. A reconstituted port area. Half pints of strawberry or cherry beer. Walking hand-in-hand through medieval back streets. Indulging two of our passions at the photography and typography museums. A Sunday artist market, cycle lanes where you feel safe, retracing our footsteps on the Parisian-like streets and terraces of Zuid in the early morning and dusky evenings.

The key to a good city break is when you don't have to really try hard to enjoy it. When, in those two or thee nights you slumber within that urban space that's either undiscovered, up-and-coming, or completely overcooked, you don't have to try hard to escape others to find the authentic or the enjoyable, to chance upon moments and scenes which give you a taster of a place's essence, and that slightly idealised feeling of what it would be like to live there.

When it feels easy.

The clock struck 18:52 in Antwerp Centraal. 

Paris was two hours away to the west, Amsterdam was just over an hour away to the north. 

It was a Sunday, and it was time to depart.

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Plan your own Antwerp city break