A week of back ache in the medieval metropolis of Antwerp

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October 30th 2019
Published: November 1st 2019
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Waking up to a golden 9C morning at 6:30 was unusually easy, and waiting out the drop off time for the bike at no sooner than 8.30 meant I could head over to Donau island, ten minutes away. With a few detached accessories in the front of the bike (after the fall), it luckily still worked.

By 7 the sun was well up, fisherman installed at their spots, and joggers were plodding the canals. Not a breath of wind.

The walk to Traisengasse from Jans Airbnb was as quiet as arriving, residential Vienna still at rest. I had pre-planned my actions for the cheapest airport commuting, so as not to have unexpected hassles with station machines on the day. Unfortunately an older lady forcing her credit card into the euros slot significantly held up the works, she reflecting on doing the same at Wien Flughafen 10 months ago. Poor dear!

€4.20 later, the earlier train bought me plenty time to check in with what is forced on you, the easy mechanised bag label versión, followed with mechanised bag drop, and as few people involved as possible. Still, some struggled. The patient gate man kept smiling.

By now the earlier light had reason. Daylight saving and an auto updated iPhone world clock explained the 12 hour time difference when I was video called on WhatsApp. Thankfully it wasn’t an hour forward!

Flights in the Schengen zone don’t require immigration checks, and with a gate not due for allocation for another hour, there were many ways and much time to part with a few more euros. Step through security however and everything seemed about 2-3 times the cost.

The gate was now known. Ubiquitous 16. Travel karma is alive when yet more 16’s appear, and not just gate numbers.

Austrian airlines welcomed me on board. The closest thing to business class was a miniature curtain at head rest height, separating rows 2 from 3 in economy where I was, then, I nearly fell out of my seat when fruit was offered as the snack. Got to love the colour red
Veldstraat SwembadVeldstraat SwembadVeldstraat Swembad

This heritage building is a monument, to swimming
working for them too. How many ginger headed (like me, potentially clashing with red) Austrians have I met so far? None.

Brussels is a nice central point to come into, and the conference venue was even closer to the Netherlands once I got to Antwerp. Being a Sunday the trains ran hourly so just less than an hour later I’d got a ticket for the 3:52. Thirty minutes on and I was stepping out to one of the most beautiful train stations I’d ever seen. This construction style and detail has been well noted, including it’s red steel rail shed and double decker platforms.

Unfortunately the streets (ground level) of Antwerp dropped below that of the station’s beauty. Strolling down to Helmstraat in search of an Airbnb, it was cigarette butt after butt and frequent strewn litter. Probably now being a bit more ‘tuned in’ to litter (having seen that first), this impression unfortunately remained for most of the city scape over the week. Googling Belgium’s clean up efforts, there had apparently been a collection of 120,000 butts in two hours on Brussels streets last month, and if this clean up campaign was the countrywide effort that the headlines were reporting, it’s a very positive initiative.

Accessing the Airbnb was a little tricky with a now dead battery phone and my host contact wasn’t to be seen (she too with a dead phone it transpired!). I begged for some help at the local supermarket, whom both plugged my phone in and lent me their phone when I couldn’t get the Belgium mobile network to recognise mine once functional. A call to the proper host (away in Senegal of all places) plus text(s) and I managed to meet the hosts friend around 90 minutes later.

The introductory night of registration set the scene for catering and the odd useful therapy freebie. I wondered if I was being understood however, when on day one I was asked could I speak English, by a Belgian. Obviously, it’s takes a New Zealander...

Information dense sessions and good catering filled day one and into the days subsequent. The quality remained high and discussions were excellent chances
to share perspectives on the evidence. However one particular dinosaur stood up to comment (rather than question) so frequently that it was by about the 10th go on day two their pattern emerged. The audience collectively eye rolled and those game enough, stepped out.

With tight timing to see Antwerp in the light, I marked a few spots on the map and for the week’s calendar.

Jogging along a disused railway (now converted to a public park and cycling space) was a great example of transport corridors, passing over a very stylish footbridge and into the Port area. The waterways of Antwerp to the far north and west are meant to be home to the plastic clean up apparatus that passively moves through it, and is addressing their water rubbish problem locally. That was a bit too far north for a lunchtime walk though. I’d love to see it.

In the old town there’s plenty of examples of beautiful architecture. Even when I tried out the local pool in a less popular area of town,
Veldstraat Zwembad, it was hard to take my eyes off the engraved white ceiling and lead light windows at both ends. There’s no photos allowed inside, but it’s these Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles that make for some trendy spots.

Back in town, there’s medieval alleys and rooflines everywhere. The open plaza of Groenplaats, where the statue of Pieter Paulus Rubens is, is reached several kilometres walk along the main high street of the Meir from the Elisabeth Centre (beside the train station). At that point I’d had to turn back during the Congress lunchtime, until the final day when I turned the corner past the Cathedral of our Lady.

Met by a lady who’d just celebrated her grand entitlement to exhibit her art there, I took her photo as asked, then glanced around. I’d made it to Pieter Appelmans famed sculpture of the workers toiling, and a well known postcard Antwerp view, Grote Market Square. Trading styles of medieval times have been replaced by restaurants and chocolaterías, cashing in on Belgium’s treats, and scaffolding around City Hall indicates restoration is
underway, but the broad view with Brabo’s (Roman soldier, from which story has it helped gain Antwerp its name) fountain keep the place feeling authentic.

Nor can I forget the view from MAS (Museum Am de Stroom) that opens for free access on the last Wednesday of the month. In the Low Countries, a view on high is invaluable, and definitely gives perspective on the river and it’s reported altered course in the 19th Century.

It’s been a complete week of back ache and Belgium sights, the pearls you get from these events being so very worthwhile. A lot was discussed - the over prescribing of pain relief crises, protecting the patient from over imaging and over medicalisation of conditions, and how to instigate and implement changes in a health system, with a challenge of changing health practitioner behaviour. This might be more a multi year project, although some countries are advancing ahead.

Departure day dawned early, the rude awakening at 3:45am. Disparate train time info meant I decided on going there for the earlier one, and luckily so, as the first one left Antwerp centraal at 4:35. Red eyed, I made my way through the exit points and on to a slightly later leaving Qatar airways flight home at 8am. Snoozing heavily to back to back podcasts passed the six hours to Doha quickly. Lovely, the real name of the head cabin steward, was just lovely and as bright eyed as Qatar staff always seem.

Now I wait out the hours for the final hard-core lengthy 18 hours to Auckland, with no shortage of distractions. This won’t be the last time in this part of the World, and perhaps next time, as indulgent as traveling alone for a fortnight has been, again with P2.

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