|Charlotte enjoying beer brewed in-house at t'Pakhuis, Antwerp.|
|Kolsch beer served in traditional 200ml glasses, Cologne.|
Next stop, Antwerp. We had visited a couple of times before but once for only a night and another time as a day trip. We felt like we knew the old town and the tourist bits quite well, and really loved it to the point of saying it was our European city of choice to live in. This time we got a hostel at the other side of the railway station, in fact “the other side of the tracks” is a fitting description and metaphor. It was more of the real Antwerp I suppose, near the Diamond District. It is a little more rough around the edges, a lot of character and cultural diversity. We really loved our hostel (AB Hostel), it was on the site of an old chocolate factory. Unfortunately, no trace of the chocolate any longer! It was only a small factory, as the hostel only had 2 dorms and a private twin, so at capacity there wouldn't be more than 20-25 people staying. It was fairly quiet seeing as it was early January. It was probably the best hostel we have stayed in; really friendly owners, a huge lounge and dining area, well equipped kitchen etc. If anyone wanted a model hostel to base a new one on, I would say this is it. Only problem was that being an old factory there wasn't much natural light, a bit of a bummer in winter especially. There was a roof terrace but since it was mostly cloudy and drizzling we weren't tempted!
Our time was spent exploring different parts of the city. The first evening we headed to Huisbrouwerij 't Pakhuis, a brewery/restaurant. No surprises there then. The beer was excellent; sorry France but you can't compete with Belgian beer! We found out this night that Baby Isaac was born (Bekah and Mark's baby), so we of course 'wet the babies head' (a tradition I wasn't familiar with but Charlotte filled me in: Apparently it is traditional that the father goes out and gets drunk after his child is born – sounds responsible!). The rest of our days were spent exploring on foot areas such as Chinatown and the marina. We paid a visited to a famous pub called the Kulminator which must sell every single kind of beer brewed in Belgium (which is a lot), including lots of vintages. Literally hundreds of choices, and we thought the Devonshire Cat or The Tap in Sheffield had a lot of choice! We also headed to our favourite bar in the old town, Cafe Pelikaan, more of a local place than a tourist place. Drank some excellent Orval beer and an old guy gave us some tips on Flemish cooking. His English was good but it must have taken us about 10 minutes to understand him saying 'onions'. “Enjons, enjons” he repeated, increasingly frustrated. The gist of the recipe was diced beef and onions, roasted for 2 hours in 2 bottles of dark Belgian beer. Sounds good to me. He said we should start up a restaurant in England serving Flemish food, in the hope that we might improve English food culture. The cheek!
On the only sunny day we hired bikes and cycled around the Diamond District and Jewish areas, and found a lovely square with bakery and cafe to enjoy lunch. Some ridiculously grand and extravagant architecture nearby, which apparently was going to be torn down by the council a hundred years ago but were saved by artists and musicians squatting in them. Would have been a shame if they had gone, but those squatters must have become seriously rich if they sold them (somehow I doubt they saw any money) as they are now very nice houses.
The last day was pretty miserable on the weather front. We stayed dry by visiting an art gallery in an old chapel, and walking through the 500m tunnel under the river to another part of the city. It still has the varnished wooden escalators that were put in in the 1930s, so it looks pretty classy. We also visited a Jenever (gin) bar for a late afternoon pick me up. Orval beer and Orval cheese was our main meal for the day later at the hostel, a winning combination.
We then took the train to Cologne to spend the afternoon there before our night train to Copenhagen. We just about had enough light to see the town and pay a visit to a mustard museum. We tried a lot of different mustards, always a good thing, including some pretty awesome honey mustard and chilli mustard. They even had mustard jam! We didn't go in the actual museum in the end as "we wouldn't understand it" as the helpful German guy tactfully pointed out. Besides it was getting late and we wanted to sample a few Kolsch's (typical Cologne beer, served ice cold and in a tall, thin 0,2l glasses with waiters wandering around with trays to replace as soon as you finish one) and get some grub before our train. We ended up at a Latin bar eating pizza, we weren't really in the mood for pork knuckles and dumplings! Strangely enough we had to 'sign up' to be members as they allowed smoking, some kind of concession to their national smoking ban I think. Coming from Belgium this didn't really bother us as they don't have a ban there at all. I am definitely all for banning public smoking though, I had forgotten just how much the smell clings to your clothes for days on end even if it wasn't a particularly smoky place. Not nice!
And so after some delay and a lot of running down the platform to find our carriage (it was seriously the longest train ever, with trains from maybe four different countries which split off in Berlin). The cabin was very cramped, 6 people in the tiniest space imaginable. No option but to lie down and turn the lights off as soon as we were on as people were already sleeping. After drifting in and out of consciousness for a few hours (the temperature seemed to vary from boiling to cold quite frequently) we were greeted by the Danish police knocking on the cabin, with probably the friendliest police dogs I have ever seen. And with that the Danish chapter of our trip began!