Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hitting the Streets in Antwerp: Literally

I admit it; the first time I visited Antwerp I was not so impressed. I've no idea why, but it left me a bit cold. I think it was the main streets out of Antwerp Central station: lined with chain shops with buildings that reminded me of some of the suburban NY downtown shopping centers I used to frequent as a high school kid--blocky and chilly.

But Antwerp is Belgium's fashion capital,  it has a vibrant art scene and there is a Manhattan-like feel to the place. Get outside of those blocky shopping strips, and you find the good stuff. And Antwerp's main train station, Antwerp Centraal, is a gorgeous spot on its own.

On arrival to the station, you see this:

The interior of the station retains its grandeur:

But in recent years, they've made it more multi-modal friendly and added coffee bars and shops. One thing that struck me: a Starbucks. With all the good coffee found here in Belgium (Mokabon in Gent is my particular favorite) I was surprised by this. But one girl in a local Antwerp coffee shop told me she liked their coffee and that they had the best muffins. Go figure.

But the real standout in the station for cycling visitors: the immense parking facilities. There are elevators to bring you down to the bike parking area. I asked one fellow Brompton user for a little guidance to the bike parking/rental area. We both hopped on the escalator. Here, you'll come to a hallway that features a little artwork.

Then it's down the corridor towards the garage. To the left, you see two women heading upstairs to the street level.

You'd think hauling a full-sized bike up the stairs would be a huge pain, but check out the design feature included in this access to the street:

That small groove makes a big difference. Bike users don't have to clog escalators and elevators to get up to the street. So they didn't have to build a special access just for bikes. They just had to tweak the design for a staircase used by most everyone.

The garage is sprawling. Security guards and cameras keep an eye on your bikes:

And instead of packing you in to impossibly tight spaces, each bike slot allows (in theory) plenty of space for your bike, without the need for untangling a mess of handlebars. I say in theory because when I came back for my bike, I found I had to finesse it out of its spot thanks to someone who just jammed theirs into the slot next to mine. Our handlebars had established a level of intimacy that meant I had to tear them apart, poor things. My bike told their bike: "It's not me, it's you. You're too clingy. I have to go." I think the other bike took it ok.

One thing I liked about the garage was how well-lit it was. And when I spent what must have looked like an inordinate amount of time getting my bike locked up, a security guard checked on my progress. I've noticed this before. At Gent Dampoort, when I was snapping photos of the bikes, a security guard came out to ask me what I was up to. I was happy to see that anyone who seemed to need help or looked suspicious, would not be ignored.

So now it was my turn to hit the street, which I did, literally, but more about that later.

I had checked in with the tourism office, and they suggested the most bike-friendly routes. At first, I was told the immediate route to the Grand Place, the Groote Markt, was not so bike-friendly. I actually found it very bike-friendly, but it just shows you how relative that can be.

Wending my way towards a bike path that is just off the Grote Markt and puts you along the Schelde, I shot some footage of one of the streets that is closed off to auto traffic.

Antwerp on Two Wheels from Kate Ryan Reports on Vimeo.

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