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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Brussels to Rotterdam

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Mechelen would have been an easy day trip from Brussels but since it was on the way to Rotterdam I left it for our departure day. Mechelen is just a small town these days, reduced to anonymity between the relative behemoths of Brussels and Antwerp, but it was a significant player in medieval and Renaissance times. As soon as we exited our parking garage in the town center we were overwhelmed by the breathtaking sight of the belltower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral. If this tower had been built to the original specifications it would have been the tallest church tower in the world to this day, but construction of its upper levels was abandoned due to a lack of funds. Its truncated shape and the absence of any other tall buildings around it give the tower a strong Middle Earth vibe. It seemed that Belgium was delivering one extraordinary medieval building after another almost as if to mock our complete ignorance of its architectural wealth.

On the far side of the cathedral was a small park with a bright yellow sculpture of a giant sprawled on his back with his arms and legs thrown into the air. I didn't know it at the time but this was a representation of the town mascot called Opsinjoorke. Apparently in medieval times there was an unsavory fellow who was in the habit of beating his wife in a drunken rage. One day his neighbors got hold of him and tossed him repeatedly on a linen sheet that they held between them. Somehow this tossing became a town tradition that was repeated on special occasions with a large wooden doll. A smaller version of Opsinjoorke is rendered in brass on a pedestal in front of the town hall. A rather unimaginative vandal had added a booger and other unflattering messages to the giant's yellow surface. It was quite surreal to watch our kids focused on the task of surmounting each of the outstretched limb against the background of this formidable five hundred year old tower.

We didn't have much time allotted for Mechelen since we wanted the kids to have a few hours of fun at the Technopolis Science Museum a that afternoon. We decided we would just stroll up the main street of IJzerenleen until we found a good place to have breakfast. This beautiful cobblestone street is so wide because there was once a canal that ran through the middle of it, although it was covered centuries ago. The street is lined with classic Belgian brick buildings and also contains the original Gothic town hall that is now a museum.

We walked as far as the Dyle River without coming across anywhere that we found tempting to eat. On the other side the town seemed to be getting more modern and commercial so we decided to turn back. The Dyle is closely identified with Mechelen and there is a popular promenade along the left bank of the river.

Once again TripAdvisor came through for us with an awesome breakfast at a hole in the wall restaurant we never would have found without the app. Even once we had a name and address we had some difficulty locating the entrance which was hidden between two boring sidewalk cafes. We were the only customers in the tiny restaurant and I was worried the kitchen wouldn't be open at that odd hour of the morning but they were happy to take care of us. The omelets were especially outstanding and we all ate enough to carry us through to dinner.

The town's Grote Markt was close to the cathedral but was filled with kiosks and carnival rides that had been covered with tarps to protect them from the drizzle. It seemed Mechelen might be having their own version of the Ommegang that week. Unfortunately none of the rides were open and none of the kiosks were selling anything tempting, so the only effect of all the paraphernalia was to spoil the effect of the beautiful old buildings around the main square. A burst of rain signaled the end of our visit to Mechelen and we hustled back to our underground garage.

Science museums have been a pretty good bet to entertain the kids throughout our travels with some of the best being in Osaka, Gothenburg, and Houston. Technopolis is just outside of Mechelen and was well-reviewed by travelers so we decided to check it out. It was a fairly large place and all the exhibits were in good working order so the kids were thoroughly locked in for all the time that we could spare for the place. The biggest hits were a machine that printed fake money with the kids' pictures and the "Chain Reaction" that propelled balls through a series of Rube Goldberg obstacles with some help from the attendant. Ian was able to figure out the trick to unlock a safe with an unconventional mechanism, which gave me some hope that he might have a promising future as a burglar. Eventually we had to drag the kids out once we were facing the prospect of missing Antwerp entirely if we stayed any longer.

It was chilly and gloomy when we arrived in Antwerp. Belgium's second city's journey to greatness was the inverse image of the decline of Bruges. As the Zwin channel that fed trade to Bruges from the North Sea silted over in the early sixteenth century, ocean trade shifted to Antwerp and the city's size and wealth grew rapidly. At the same time Spain and Portugal became major colonial powers and Antwerp became one of their preferred ports to trade their American and African sugar and spices for northern European wine, cloth, and wheat. Antwerp at one point was the wealthiest city in all of Europe. Although the city wasn't able to sustain its preeminent position for long the Grote Markt still testifies to Antwerp's days of financial glory. The square is dominated by the belltower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, which at 123 meters just squeaks by the Bruges version for the title of the tallest church tower in Belgium. The cathedral narrowly escaped the fate of the even taller Cathedral of Liège which was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Most of the belltower is currently shrouded in scaffolding but the intricate and ornate upper stages were still visible.

The square is surrounded by beautiful buildings including the Renaissance town hall and rows of dignified guild halls, most of which are nineteenth century reconstructions similar to Grand Place in Brussels. In the center of the square is an odd sculpture of a naked man gathering himself to hurl an amputated oversized hand as though he's competing in some bizarre Olympic event. The statue commemorates the local legend of Silvius Brabo, a hero who killed a giant that was terrorizing the town and cutting of hands of boatmen who refused to pay him a toll. Brabo cut off the giant's own hand and threw it into the Scheldt river. Part of the legend is that the town's name of Antwerp is derived from handwerpen, which means "hand throwing" in Dutch, although historians favor other etymologies.

The historic center was a bit of a ghost town when we arrived during the quiet period before the restaurants opened for dinner. The chill and the intermittent drizzle probably contributed to the lack of pedestrian traffic as well. It was a handsome, well-kept neighborhood that was probably filled with energy and charm during warm summer evenings. We made a point of exploring Vlaeykensgang, a narrow alley that winds through the middle of a city block between restored brick buildings from the Renaissance era.

The next time on my short list was St. Anna's Tunnel, the pedestrian tunnel under the Scheldt that was built in the 1930's. This tunnel remains popular with bicyclists although there are more modern tunnels for vehicular traffic. Part of the allure of the tunnel is that it retains the original wooden escalators that were a major novelty at the time. The tunnel itself appears to stretch infinitely into the distance as the cylindrical wall converged into a point. We could hear the bicyclists before we could see them, a low hum that increased in amplitude and frequency until they whizzed by us. There weren't many pedestrians, understandable since there wasn't a whole lot to do in the Linkeroever area on the left bank of the Scheldt.

We made it all the way across the tunnel and emerged on the other side. Linkeroever didn't seem very inspiring but there was a park at the river bank from which we could see the skyline of the old town which was completely dominated by the belltower.

By the time we got back to the old town it was raining in earnest so we found a couple more angles to take photos and hightailed it back to the car.

I had marked the Het Zuid neighborhood as being worthy of exploration but in the rain and gloom there seemed to be no point, even in the vehicle. Instead we drove slightly north of the old town to the Het Eilandje port area to see a couple of modern architectural marvels. The first of these was the MAS art museum which was built in 2010. The concept is a series of sandstone treasury boxes stacked in a spiral with the empty spaces connected by glass. At the top is a roof deck which offers views of Antwerp that could only be matched by ascending the cathedral belltower. Even if it hadn't been pouring rain the museum had already closed so the roof deck was out of the question. There was nowhere to park so we decided that Mei Ling would venture outside for photographs while the rest of us waited in the car. I pulled up to the curb behind another car that was also temporarily stationed there with its motor running.

At this point we had the most frightening and unsettling experience of the entire trip. Just as Mei Ling had gotten back in, the driver of the car which was idling in front of us decided he wanted to leave. Because of a lane divider we were blocking his reversal path so I began to reverse as well towards the open street. It seemed we weren't reversing quickly enough for the other driver's taste because he began to pick up speed and got uncomfortably close to our car. I should have simply ignored this behavior and continued to reverse through the darkness and rain at a speed I felt comfortable with, but I let myself get flustered and I accelerated to match his speed. Suddenly our car slammed to a jarring halt and I was sure I had struck another car or a barrier as all of us rocked back and forth in our seats. I quickly realized there hadn't been any sound of a crash and that it was the car's automatic braking system that had violently activated. I looked to my left and saw a shadowy figure scurrying off near the rear of our vehicle. Someone had decided to walk behind our reversing car despite the rain and extremely poor visibility and only the cameras and the automatic brake had prevented us from possibly killing him. This is a phenomenon I've marveled at in the United States and throughout the world, the apparent obliviousness of pedestrians to the danger of walking across the path of a reversing car. Rather than simply waiting a few seconds for the vehicle to complete its movement they prefer to force the driver to stop by entering its trajectory. That's all well and good when it's a good driver who isn't distracted and has optimal visibility, but it seems to me that eventually the pedestrian's luck will run out if he regularly pursues this strategy. In this rainy, gloomy twilight someone's luck had almost run out for good. We were so shaken we decided not to bother hunting down the Port House, the other famous modern building in the area.

Part of the reason we had been rushed in Antwerp was that we wanted to get to Rotterdam in time to eat at Markthal. Aside from having an awesome selection of food options the pictures indicated this would be one of the coolest buildings we had ever seen. It kept pouring as we crossed the border into the Netherlands and continued onward to Rotterdam. It was clear right away that avant garde architecture was a major aspect of the Rotterdam zeitgeist. Mei Ling was snapping photos constantly through the rain-splattered windshield as we drove past an endless series of daring geometric structures en route to the center.

Markthal was as beautiful as it had appeared in photographs despite the persistent drizzle and gray skies. The unique archway design effortlessly fuses the apartments and offices within the arch body with the market hall on the ground floor. The front and back of the archway are walled with enormous glass panes supported by a lattice of steel cables. The interior of the arch is covered by an enormous, colorful mural called "Cornucopia" which claims to be the largest artwork in the Netherlands. I can imagine that many developers would look at Markthal and cringe at what appeared to be wasted space in the interior but I could see the point that the architects were making that had won them the contract. A building can be much more than a device to cram as much living and work space as possible into the smallest footprint on the ground. The originality and open space of Markthal made it one of the few apartment buildings that I, a committed land owner, might consider living in.

My only criticism of Markthal was the early closing at eight PM. We arrived just as the food stalls were beginning to shut down and had to race around just to get a look at what was being offered. Fortunately the restaurants at the base of the arch stayed open later and we found a Japanese noodle place that turned out to be really good. Our four night stay in the Netherlands was off to an excellent start.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:02 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp road_trip family family_travel travel_blog mechelen tony_friedman family_travel_blog technopolis

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