So we went on a trip, an idea first posited by Ingrid which we polished (oh who am I kidding, she polished – I was just a witness) into an eleven-day, three-city, three-country vacation at the end of 2009.
London was the primary location seeing as our friend Shannon (member of the Z-Rays and now a music teacher) had moved there a couple of years ago – it’s always easier when you have a friend in a strange town, especially when it’s a massive place like London. Ingrid had gone there for a visit in late-Spring (it was during this time that we bought our first house…without her ever having walked into it). In the summer, Shannon came over and stayed with us while we renovated and had the electrical pulled out. It only seemed natural that she be the person we see to end the year (and decade) and since I’d never been to London, it was the perfect choice.
Thing is, it was also an opportunity for me to visit relatives in Holland – and when I say “relatives”, I specifically mean my second cousin who lives outside the city of Leiden (notable, aside from its aged beauty, for its university – the second oldest in Europe).
Seeing as how the Eurostar train made its way from England to the continent via Brussels, Belgium, it occurred to me that it would be an excellent reason to check out a city I’d always wanted to investigate: Antwerp. Why Antwerp? Well…it’s between London and Leiden and neither Ingrid nor I had ever been there, with the exception of a couple of instances in past visits when I had to switch trains at Antwerpen Centraal station. The city always looked like a gothic gem from the station, which is quite a complement seeing as Antwerpen Centraal is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world – seriously, it’s dubbed “The Railway Cathedral” and worth the trip, if only just as a stopover.
The plan was set. And, regardless of the various chaotic things happening around (thankfully not to) us (the halted airline terrorist attack on Christmas, the stranded Eurostar trains just before then, a snowstorm in the UK just as we were leaving) it all went remarkably well, save for one missed train to The Hague.
Antwerp is a wonderful place to visit, with a mind-blowing mix of architectural styles, including some stunning Art Deco neighbourhoods. We stayed at the Mabuhay Lodgings, a conveniently located and very comfortable B&B with two very gracious hosts (and their two very cute cats). It’s a gorgeous city with much to offer and I look forward to spending more time there. I tried speaking Dutch, but between my elementary knowledge of the language and the dialect spoken in Antwerp, it was easier just speaking English.
Leiden, in the province of South Holland, is a spiritual home-away-from-home for me. 15 years ago I had stayed with my cousin and her husband, just outside of Leiden (in the village of Zoeterwoude), after I’d graduated from college. Like Antwerp, we were a little rushed for time (the aim was to celebrate New Year’s with our friend in London), but it was great to see the city again and spend time with my cousin (not to mention introducing Ingrid to her and her friends in the neighbourhood). We both look forward to returning, particularly when it’s warmer. If there was one drawback to our trip, it’s that it was unseasonably cold at times (and one can only flex one’s Canadian-ness in the cold so often before you just want to wimp out and stay inside all day).
London surprised me. It was the one place I had no ideas or preconceptions about – I never had anything against it, but alternately never had much of an understanding about it beyond the clichés. It’s a big, bustling, maze-like place which still somehow retains a convivial vibe; facing colder-than-normal temperatures while we navigated from place to place, I never felt the “silent sneer” you get from people in Toronto. I loved the pubs, I loved the beer, I loved Brick Lane (which reminds me of Kensington Market), I loved (again) the architecture, and was happy to have visited the Tate Modern (which had – coincidentally – curated a retrospective of artist Theo van Doesburg at the Stedelijk Museum in Leiden while we were there) as well as other sites and sights of interest. And yes, we even managed to hop onto one of the few remaining Routemaster buses in operation. We also met some of Shannon’s friends and enjoyed a lovely Sunday roast with them at the Carpenter’s Arms (a pub the notorious Kray brothers had bought for their mother). So much more to say, but that’s it in a nutshell.
Not bad for eleven days (mind you, at least one full day was spent travelling). Photos to follow…