A few months back, I had an opportunity to travel to Europe for a work-related conference and did what I could to take full advantage. My conference, Interaction 14 (of the Interaction Design Association) was in Amsterdam. Since I don’t make it to Europe very often, I opted to meet up with old friends who I haven’t seen in some time.
When I found out back in November that I was going, I emailed some of the people I met as a student at a language institute in Angers, France, in 1992. My friend Gitte, who lives near Antwerp, Belgium, planned to be available to meet me on the day of my arrival. As the date of my trip got closer, Gitte and I determined that I should take a train down to Antwerp for the day, instead of having her take the train up to Amsterdam. She convinced me that she had been to Amsterdam several times, but I had never been to Antwerp, so this would be a great opportunity.
My arrival at Schiphol Airport brought back fond memories of the last time I had been in Amsterdam, 10 years ago. Because of my experience there, I knew the easiest way to get from Schiphol to my hotel was to take a train to Amsterdam Centraal Station. The beauty of Schiphol Airport is that the train station is in the lower level of one of the terminals, so you don’t even have to leave the building. Once on the train, it is about 15 minutes to get to Centraal Station and be on your way. My hotel was adjacent to the station, so I was able to drop my luggage there and head back to the station to wait for my train to Antwerp.
As I waited for my train, I looked for something to eat. While there are American staples (Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King) located within the station, I chose to get a freshly made sandwich (egg salad with bacon) and a double espresso from a little cafe near the platforms. My ticket was for the Thalys (high speed) train that reduced my time on the train to just over an hour, rather than the nearly two and a half hours the local train would have taken. My time on the Thalys allowed me to reminisce about how civilized it feels to ride the train. Sitting and watching the landscape flash by is so much more enjoyable on a train than in any car or bus. In places where passenger trains have adequate infrastructure, there is an efficiency and even a romantic notion about this mode of transportation.
I have previously passed through Belgium (on the train from Paris to Amsterdam and back and transferring flights at the airport in Brussels), but I had never seen anything not visible from the train. The architecture of the old train stations in Europe never ceases to amaze me. When I departed from the train in Antwerp, I was two levels below the street, in a very modern part of the station. As I looked up, I could see what appeared to be a modern shopping mall of sorts, with touristy shops interspersed with a number of cafes. At the top of the stairs and escalators I saw the old station building, with its beautiful stone arch and steel framed panes of glass radiating out from the arch. Below the clock, on the face of the stone is the coat of arms and the name of the city, Antwerpen.
After meeting Gitte, we made our way out into the city. She had planned ahead, printing out many pages of information about Antwerp and giving me a tour that included as much historical accuracy as possible. We ate well, trying some local delicacies (Belgian chocolate is my favorite by far), and we saw as many of the sites (the Cathedral of Our Lady, the Grote Markt, the original stock exchange, the home of Peter Paul Rubens and Het Steen with its neighboring statue “The Langewapper”) as we could in the afternoon.
After a great, brief tour, I caught my return train to Amersterdam, walked to my hotel and crashed.