When my family and I lived in the Netherlands, my husband and I used to get up on a Sunday, look at each other and say, “What should we do today?” If it wasn’t raining, the answer was often, “Let’s go to Belgium!” We drive and park and wander the streets of Antwerp admiring the architecture, the wide boulevards, visit the Bric-a-Brac market in Sint-Jansvliet and inevitably feast on a waffle from our favorite stand in the train station. We’d head back to Leiden before dark. We’ve visited Christmas markets in Brussels, Brugge, Paris, and Aachen. For some strange reason, it never occurred to us to explore the Christmas market in one of our most favorite (and closest) cities to our home in Leiden.
Lucky for us, we live in Antwerp, and we’ve found a wonderful babysitter. Last year was our first visit to the Antwerp Christmas Market. My husband and I planned a date night for a Sunday evening, the day after the market opened. Adorned with hats and boots, we stepped off the tram at the Groenplaats stop, joined in the hustle and bustle up the stairs, and stepped into the magical wonderland Antwerp had become! A sparking outdoor ice rink had been erected around the Petro Paulo Reubens statue in the middle of Groenplaats, complete with a Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra Christmas soundtrack. A long gas pipe stretched the entire length of the rink, creating a hundred-yard flame which illuminated the faces of the onlookers sipping on cocktails as they watched the ice skaters circle. The aroma of Oliebollen and waffles whispered through the air and my husband followed his nose to the booth. We had dinner reservations later, but we figured a little appetizer couldn’t hurt.
“I’ll have two oliebollen, please,” he requested.
“Minimum order seven,” the stout woman responded.
“Seven?” he blinked. (Olliebollen are like gigantic donut holes fried in oil, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Once consumed, it feels kind of like a warm baseball in your stomach, but it’s so worth it. However, we didn’t need seven baseballs, that’s enough for a few balls and a full count. . .)
“Ja, Seven,” she nodded. Growing impatient.
“Okay, I’ll take seven,” he nodded back. We consumed two and tucked the others into my purse for breakfast in the morning. I’m sure there’s powdered sugar (amid crushed goldfish crackers) in the bottom of my purse.
We weaved through the ancient cobbled streets. We turned a corner to see the Onze-Lieve Vrowekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) decorated with glowing icicles on each balcony. A large Christmas tree decorated with red ornaments glowed outside. It was gorgeous and breathtaking (in part because the wind is really cold in the part of the city) but the main attraction was around the corner – The Grote Markt. The entire square was illuminated in a magical glow – the Stadhuis (City Hall) was decorated with white Christmas lights from end to end and icicle lights from the balconies.
“Can you believe we actually live here?” my husband asked me. I smiled back. No, I couldn’t. And I couldn’t believe we hadn’t visited this most gorgeous Christmas market before. We bought chocolate and champagne truffles from one of the chalets and headed towards the river. A large Ferris wheel with the Antwerp “A” in the center flashed and rotated in the distance.
The “Het steen” Castle on the river glowed with blue lights and while noisy kid rides were tucked in the corner behind it. Chalets selling everything from cheese to hats to ornaments stretched between the Ferris wheel and the castle. “There’s supposed to be mini golf around here somewhere. . . “my husband exclaimed. We entered into an igloo colony and found a few awkward green spaces with holes perched upon wood chips but it seemed mostly like decoration to the bar in the back. Perhaps it was more of a daytime activity.
After laughing at the imitation mountain and the inter-tubing youths sledding and screaming down the plastic Alps we headed back into city to gawk at the Grote Markt one more time. Now that we scoped it out and completely enjoyed ourselves, we agreed to bring the kids next time.
One year later, we made good on our promise and took a family trip into the city on Christmas Eve. All three of them indulged themselves on Belgian waffles, gawked at the ice skaters, and held their ears as the church bells rang. The energy of the city was electric and giving – each passerby’s smile wide with gratitude and hope for the upcoming evening. Gluevein steamed from paper cups, lights and cameras flashed through the evening sky, while my children tugged at my sleeve.
“Mama, don’t we need to go home? We don’t want to miss Santa!” they protested.
“We have time,” I smiled. “I know it’s already dark, but it’s only 5:00. He won’t be here until midnight, we have time. Want to go on a Ferris Wheel ride?” I asked. The idea had mixed reviews. But I urged them on, despite my fear of heights. We piled into a cabin and went round and round on the grand Ferris Wheel to the squeal and shrieks of my seven, six, and three-year-old. With glowing cheeks and hearts we exited the ride and stepped back into the city towards the Meir station, ready for Santa.
Pearl of Wisdom: The Groenplaats station does not have an elevator, which can be tricky with a stroller. The Meir station is just a few additional steps away and is complete with an elevator.
The Antwerp Christmas market is open until January 7, 2018.