“Two People, Two Days — Take the Train”
We wanted to escape for a weekend to somewhere we hadn’t been before. From Paris that’s very easy — Amsterdam is a little more than 4.0 hours by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), London is 2.5 hours, Brussels 1.5 hours, Avignon 2.5 hours, etc., etc. When you book on the last minute, less than 7 days in advance, the tickets aren’t that cheap and they become sold out very quickly, so plan in advance when you can (book online at http://www.sncf.com).
We hadn’t. And so the tickets were becoming more expensive by the moment as we were humming and hawing about where to go and how to go trying to keep time and expense at a minimum.
In a desperate act, I got on the phone with Auto Europe, a car rental broker that will beat any agency’s prices. Over the years, I have found their service to be the best. For less than 100 euros, I rented an automatic four-door with AC for two days (it turned out to be a Mercedes!) and considering this was one-third the price and even less than any of the train schedules I had checked, we agreed to drive and have the freedom of going anywhere.
Early Saturday morning, we showed up at the Europcar desk in the Gare du Nord and within a few minutes, we were driving out of the parking garage and headed north, first to Ghent (“Gent” in Flemish, “Gand” in French) and then to Antwerp (“Antwerpen” in Flemish, “Anvers” in French), where we had never been. No one ever speaks about either of these Belgian cities as destinations, and now after having visited them both, am totally perplexed as to why.
The drive was “du gateau” (“piece of cake”). The weather was beautiful, the car perfectly comfortable, the roads smooth as silk and within three hours, we were parking next to the cathedral in Ghent searching out a restaurant for lunch. So far, so good. Ghent is gorgeous.
Ghent has proof of human settlement from prehistoric times, but during the Roman period, the nucleus of the city began to grow near the confluence of the two rivers Scheldt and Leie. It is thought that the Flemish name “Gent” is probably derived from the Celtic “Ganda,” which meant “confluence.” It is the fourth largest city of Belgium with about 250,000 inhabitants and is certainly less touristed than Bruges or Brussels. It’s classic Flemish architecture is stunning in its geometric symmetry, simplicity, sturdy brick construction and forthright manner.
We parked near the center, strolled in one of the market squares, along the canals and in the ancient streets to find a restaurant to have Belgian mussels and fries with a glass of white wine before heading northeast to Antwerp, just 60 kilometers away. Driving there couldn’t have been easier until we hit the Kennedy Tunnel under the Scheldt River on the western edge of the city, taking a left where we should have gone right only to discover kilometers and kilometers of the uninhabited Belgian landscape surrounding Antwerp on endless highway with no return, slowing us down by about 30 minutes and costing us an additional 5 euros in tolls.
Oh well, we began to think, if we had only taken the train…
Once in Antwerp, it was no easy task to maneuver the cobblestone streets of the center city, slowly tagging behind the horse-drawn carriages transporting gawking tourists around the old town to seek parking, of which there was less than none. Underground parking became our saving grace, not too far from the hotel I had booked online, just opposite the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) — an A-rated location, b
ut a C-rated hotel I won’t bother recommending.
Antwerp is Europe’s best-kept secret. It’s the country’s second largest with about 500,000 inhabitants. The people are known for their lack of modesty (and from the size of the shoes on display in the shops, big feet!) with as many facets as the diamonds for which the city is famous. By contract, however, we found them very unassuming (unlike the French who generally sport an “attitude” we all know and love).
The architecture is splendid, most of which dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. We visited the Peter Paul Rubens House, the 16th-century house of the greatest and most famous of all the Antwerp painters, that he had embellished and turned into one of the most elegant Renaissance-Baroque houses of the Low Countries, with a beautiful restyled garden and an impressive entrance.
Nearby is the open air Vogeltjes market, where on Sundays, is complete with a bird market where you can buy small birds, roosters, chickens and other varieties, as well as rabbits, other small beasts, their cages and feed.
The city abounds with more restaurants, cafés and bars than any European city I’ve ever visited. Forget the shopping (except for diamonds in the Diamond Quarter) and instead, eat and drink. Mussels and fries are a must, at least once, but every sort of ethnic cuisine exists, too. In the quest for something simple, we ordered omelets, expecting something resembling what a brasserie in Paris serves, only to discover something much more elaborate, filling and delicious.
Antwerp, is the diamond center of the World. We visited the Diamond Museum and ogled the precious gems, both in the museum and in the neighboring shops. The diamond district surrounds the central train station and is well known to be the Jewish Quarter where you can also see many Chassidic Jews in traditional garb.
The church bells rang, waking us early on Sunday to snow flurries and as the day progressed, so did the downfall. Once we had done all we wanted to do in this little-known European Mecca, we headed out of town late afternoon in a virtual blizzard, making the roads icy and slow going. With plenty of time under the snowfall in the car to reflect on what we had learned, after having spent a total of 235 euros on car rental, gas, parking and tolls, not to mention 8 to 10 hours of driving (counting getting lost, looking for parking, picking up and returning the rental car) compared to 300 euros for two round-trip tickets by TGV and 4.25 hours total by train, we decided…
If it’s two people, and you’re only going for two days — take the train.
A la prochaine…(and Happy Valentine’s Day!)
Editor, Parler Paris
Email [email protected]
P.S. I have a few brief announcements…
1. Parismarais.com is offering 30% off apartment rentals during the month of February: 4-star suite 90 euros/night, luxury attic apartment 70 euros/night, romantic studio 65 euros/night with champagne included for special Valentine’s Day celebration! Visit http://www.parismarais.com/visit-our-flats.htm or email Pascal at [email protected] for this special offer.
2. We celebrate Valentine’s Day at Parler Paris Après Midi tomorrow from 3 to 5 p.m. at La Pierre du Marais! Visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for more details and be there!
3. I will be speaking out on Hurricane Katrina at the American Women’s Group (AWG) February Coffee next Monday, February 20, 2006 at 10:00 a.m. Visit http://www.awgparis.org for more information. Call or write for details if you wish to attend: 01.42.73.36.74, [email protected]
4. Sign up today for the Parismarais newsletter, The Art of Living Guide to Le Marais. It’s FREE and it’s out the 15th of every month, do don’t delay. http://www.parismarais.com/parismarais-newsletter.htm