Karneval time in Cologne is frighteningly busy: there are crowds everywhere (huge portions of which are drunk), terrible music (schlager, of course) in every bar and none of the shops are open. There are of course the charming traditional parades and celebrations but for me, it is all bit much.
Instead, we embraced the fact that Mark Sultan (aka BBQ) was touring Europe and playing a show nearby in Antwerp, Belgium to take a long weekend away from the insanity. We took the train West on Friday, checked into our flat then grabbed a dish of frites and headed straight to see Mark Sultan perform.
He played at a bar that was completely dive-y except for the delicious Belgian beers on tap – the crowd was young and very hip, the space was crowded and the indoor smoking ban was completely ignored. I am so seldom in a smoking venue these days that I have almost forgotten how normal it once was.
There were two local bands supporting, although we only heard the first supports finishing up. Following them were Thee Marvin Gays who had quite a lot of sound problems but who were having such a great time, it actually didn’t matter too much. Then Mark Sultan came on and blew the crowd away with a great set. He played a great mix of old and new and the whole crowd was dancing and getting really into it. After the gig Tom went to buy the new album and it turned out that he had actually released two new albums at the same time, so obviously we went away with both…
During the break between bands we got chatting to three young Antwerpers who initially wanted us to rate their moustaches and then enthusiastically gave us lots of advice for our visit. we didn’t follow a lot of their advice, though, but mostly because I kept mixing it all up my head. I blame the venue volume and Belgian beer.
On Saturday, we found a great little coffee shop near our flat where they do pourovers and use Caffenation beans. Kolonel Koffie pretty much kept us going through the weekend as we hadn’t brought any beans/aeropress with us. We spent the day wandering through the different parts of the town and trying to find an Antwerp tourist teatowel for my collection (we found generic Belgium ones, but not a specific Antwerp one, unfortunately). Since it was raining most of the day it was hard to motivate ourselves to do much.
We did find a great market at Theaterplain with loads of moroccan-influenced stalls and had lunch there – moroccan pancakes with olives, feta, figs, honey and roast veggies. It was so delicious! After that we tried to visit the MAS (Museum an der Stroom) museum, but it was closed so we went up to the viewing platform on the roof instead. The grey weather made the view a little depressing, but on a sunny day I’m sure it would be lovely to see all along the river and harbour.
In the evening we remembered a tip from our Belgian music friends and found Aahaar, a great vegetarian Indian restaurant not far from the main station. There, we filled thalis with yummy curries and left feeling completely stuffed.
The next day was actually rather sunny and we headed out to the Caffenation cafe itself while we discussed plans to meet up with two friends from Leuven. On our way to meet them at the main station, we detoured through the Theaterplein market again to fortify ourselves with another pancake.
After meeting up, we wandered through a different section of town towards the Fine Art Museum and had a late lunch in a cute little cafe nearby. The museum is being renovated, so we decided to take a slow walk along the river instead. We wandered around without much planning and ended up just north of the main town centre and not far from a pub that had been recommended in various places. After making our way through a winding and confusing part of town, we found ‘t Waagstuk pub and settled in for a few local beverages.
The beer was of course delicious and even better as we were catching up with some friends and chatted together for several hours. Eventually, our friends had to leave to return to Leuven and get ready for work the next day so we all walked back to the station and said goodbye.
To get around town, Tom and I had been using the ‘red bikes’, or Velo Antwerpen, the local bikeshare scheme. We’ve been sceptical of these in some places, but in Antwerp it really worked great for us: much more convenient than taking taxis or walking very long distances and really quite cheap at only 8EUR to use a bike at any time for a period of a week! The only difficulty was actually finding the stations easily – a map integrated into the handlebar area of the bike would make that a thousand times easier.
On our last day, we had a lot of trouble finding an open spot for breakfast – it seems like museums and cafes are always closed on Mondays for some strange reason. After a little more wandering around, it was time to head to the station and jump on our train home. We arrived in the early evening and it felt like the last day of Karneval was still winding down – there were marching bands in the streets and groups of costumed people even in the turkish restaurant where we had dinner.
I really liked Antwerp; there was plenty to do and lots of young people around. It’s fashionable and historic without being snobby or particularly touristy and of course, the chocolate/frites/waffels are excellent…