Friday, November 22, 2013

The European Union and Antwerp

Alrighty, let's wrap up this Belgium trip, shall we? I am sure you are all tired about reading how great a time I had and how delicious the food, chocolate, and beer was...but there are still some tales to tell.

First up, the EU! Brussels is the de facto capitol of the EU (there's no official EU capitol) and is home to the seats of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, as well as one of the European Parliaments. The public doesn't have access to these buildings right now (due to "renovations"--which I think means security issues), but the European Parliament's Visitors Center, the Parlamentarium, is open for business.

Old and new meet at the EU buildings.

My friend Jonathan and I visited the Parlamentarium the Friday I was in town, and I honestly didn't know what to expect. Visitors centers can be tricky, they are usually just be a boring collection of exhibits with no real context. I am, however, happy to report that the Parlamentarium was really interesting and well worth a visit.

Admission is free and audio guides are provided in tons of different languages. The center is the most technologically advanced I have ever visited and the story of the EU is presented through documents, photographs, maps, speeches, etc. All the features are interactive and allow visitors to focus on what they find specifically interesting. For me that was pretty much everything, since my knowledge of the EU is limited. I took a government class on it in college, but let's be honest--that was more years ago then I care to confess.

 Hmm...this audioguide is actually pretty cool.

Moving through the exhibits at the Parlamentarium.

After you learn about the history of the EU, you get a chance to see the parliament in action--kinda. You go to a room with a 360 degree huge screen showing the members voting, speechifying, and otherwise conducting the business of the day. It's completely immersive and also gives you a chance to play a kind of "choose your adventure" game where you use an interactive screen to put together a piece of environmental legislation. I am sad to report that Jonathan and I both failed as our bills didn't pass, but I'm not sure how much of it is our fault. The process by which things gets done in the EU is agonizingly slow and labyrinthine, it's kind of amazing anything gets done there at all.

At the end of the tour, you can move kiosks around over a huge map of Europe and screens display information and videos of what goes in various EU facilities and cities. 

I'll spare you any poetic words re: the EU, but I will say that it's kind of amazing how the countries have been able to tie themselves together so closely as to render the possibility of armed conflict impossible. Can anyone really imagine France and Germany going to war now? (cue smartass response)

And now, on to Antwerp! On Saturday, Jonathan and I took a day trip to the second most populous city in Belgium and home of one of the busiest ports in Europe. I don't know much about the history of the city, except that its economic development was limited in the seventeenth century as punishment for its role as a center of Dutch revolts. Things really turned around for Antwerp though in the twentieth century and now it's a bustling place. 

Strangely, the most impressive feature is actually the train station. It was built between 1895 and 1905 and is covered with glass and iron. Once you come out of the train station, it's a short walk down the main shopping street to the Grote Market, the touristy and medieval center of the city. We followed the Rick Steve's self-guided walking tour which pointed out the main historic sites, but nothing really grabbed our fancy.

Inside the Antwerp Centraal Train Station....

....and the outside!

We couldn't afford to get distracted as our trip to Antwep had a purpose. And that purpose was two-fold: fashion and beer.

Our first visit was to the Mode Museum (MoMu), the museum of fashion in Antwerp. Turns out Antwerp has quite a reputation for fashion, starting with the Antwerp Six, a group of fashion students who made a big splash at fashion shows in London in the 1980s. Since then, Antwerp has been known for its avant garde fashion designers. The MoMu was showing an exhibition celebrating the last 50 years of fashion from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwep, the years when the Academy really made a name for itself on the fashion map. 

The exhibition includes pieces from various collections created by fashion students through the years, loosely grouped by the inspiration. 

Our next stop in Antwerp was de Kulminator, considered the finest beer bar in the entire world. Let me say that again in case you didn't catch it:

I went to the best beer bar in the WHOLE WORLD.

And I can see why. If you are looking for character, yeah, it's got that in spades. The place is tiny and other than the long bar when you first walk in, makes you feel that you are drinking in the cozy (if cluttered) home of the older couple proprietors. There's almost a Harry Potter/Diagon Alley vibe to the place; I don't think I would have been too surprised if a house elf popped up behind the bar or a Hogwarts professor walked in the door. There are stacks of newspapers, books, board games, and other random items everywhere.

It looks modest outside...

...and is crammed full of stuff! Check out the papers and games taking up the entire table in the foreground. 


The beer bible, aka the menu.

Don't expect fast service though. The bar is run by an older gentleman and his wife; you order with her at the bar, he trundles down to the basement beer cellar to get most items, and then she brings you your beer in the appropriate glass. When the place gets busy, as it does quite easily thanks to the small size, it can take about 20 minutes to get your order filled. But the ambiance, people, and menu are so interesting at de Kulminator, you'll never be bored. Jonathan and I struck up a conversation with a nice guy from Amsterdam (by way of Finland) who shared our table and had a great time just sitting and drinking some beers.

Well, that's it! Thus end my tales of Belgium. Thanks to Jonathan for an amazing trip and I am already planning when I can go back in 2014! After all, there is still lots of chocolate to eat and beer to drink!

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