Thursday, August 21, 2014

DAY 66 – 20 August 2014; Den Hague to Antwerp

Musthafa had scheduled a visit to FloraHolland in Naaldwijk to experience the flower auction. Accordingly we were to be at his residence by a quarter past seven in the morning. A combination of factors delayed us. While checking out there was some confusion with the charges to be paid. Finally when the amount was decided the net connection went on the blink and delayed the card transaction. All was well when we hit the street. However, a wrong turn almost cost us in dents and fines. I turned into a one way street with vehicles rushing head on. I managed to find an exit just at the right time before the traffic police could arrive. High beams and gestures from the drivers of the vehicles told their side of the story!

Holland was the crucible of floriculture development and trade, where it became an industry over the past century and more. While floriculture is being increasingly internationalised and spread across the globe Holland retains its primacy. Acres and acres of green houses can be seen all along the way where flowers and plants are cultivated in controlled environment. FloraHolland is a conglomerate of auctions of cut flowers and plants. It is the largest of its kind in the world and brings together the cooperative efforts of buyers and growers. Apart from providing a platform for demand to meet its supply and vice versa the organisation also provides valuable and reliable market information to both parties. This makes FloraHolland the gateway to International Trade in floriculture. Without knowing where to go we wandered into a large warehouse where pallets of carefully packed and packaged cut flowers were being expeditiously towed into containers for shipment. Our presence in the warehouse did raise some eyebrows among the workers there a security guard came by cycle and gently told us that we were trespassing! He did tell us where to go for a tour of the premises. Since we had enough time to appreciate the goings on we skipped the rest and set course for Delft, where Shihana would be dropped at her workplace in TNO.

Delft is a hugely historical city in that it is reportedly inhabited for the past 800 years and gained in importance as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company that traded between Europe and Asia since 1602. William of Orange settled in Delft and led his revolt against Spanish domination and won freedom for what is now The Netherlands and a substantial part of Belgium. Upon his assassination in 1584 he was buried in the New Church in Delft and his successors to the throne who still rule The Netherlands are buried here, continuing with the tradition. Delft is now a popular tourist destination in Holland as it lies between The Hague and Rotterdam on the Rhine. It is one of the oldest technical Universities in Europe. The 13,000 plus student population from all over the world testify to its prominent position in today’s educational environment. The Blue Pottery of Delft is one of its main exports and revenue earner. Vermeer, the famous 17 century painter, is a proud son of the city.

In Delft, apart from looking up the churches and the railway station, I also got time to exchange currency, which the Western Union counter did effortlessly. Before leaving the city we had a second breakfast in HEMA, which is popular with the locals for the excellent offer of a full breakfast for under Euro 2! The place was full to overflowing. Thereafter, we drove to the outermost point that led to the highway leading to Antwerp. After another cup of coffee at the fuel station we bid goodbye to Mustafa and his son. He and his family have been a great support for us and will always remain dear to us in our hearts.

The drive to Antwerp in mixed weather conditions was mostly eventless. When we entered the City of Antwerp and neared the location of the Hotel the Navigator became quixotic. It did lead me around a bit till I saw a parking garage that had the name of the street where the hotel was located. Apart from large number of 4 wheeler parking spaces the garage had almost two levels exclusively for bicycle parking! We parked in the garage and went on an exploratory walk to locate the hotel. It was indeed most interesting to discover that the hotel was just 10 meters away from the exit of the garage! The Hotel, booked by Mirus our travel agent, was centrally located, almost diagonally opposite the Central Railway Station. The hotel also promised a 25% discount on the parking charges of Euro 20 for 24 hours. The hotel room was small – we had booked a double room – but was adequate. The hotel did not have a restaurant but there were many eateries around the hotel. We decided to look around after putting luggage in the room. After scouting around a bit we decided on the Dragon restaurant. We ordered a shrimp fried rice and another with chicken. It was supremely tasty. A feature of the meal was that the water cost almost as much as a Kriek beer!

Once the siesta was done with we spent time in the Antwerp Zoo and the grand Central Railway Station, which were a few meters away from the hotel. The Zoo is one of the oldest in the world, having been established in 1843. The unique architecture of the Central Station emphasis the vibrant life in the city. The historical railway station with its 75 meter dome constitutes an important tourist reference point of the city. The platforms are at three levels with another two levels exclusively for passenger circulation. The magnificent station was named as the fourth most beautiful in the whole world. I personally felt that the Giant Ferris Wheel in front of the Central Station ruined the façade of the station building. Around the station is the heart of the Diamond quarter. The trade of diamonds in the city, I understand, is now monopolised by Indians.

Afterwards we walked along the main street from the Central Station to the Old City. Along the way were the statues of David Teniers, the famous Flemish painter and Van Dyck, the renowned Dutch baroque painter. Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish painter par excellence, built his home and studio in Antwerp. The stately building and its courtyard was his design. It is now a Museum, which was closed at the time of our visit. Rubens is buried in the Jacob Church, not very far from his home. The Cathedral was closed at the time but the Leonidas, the famed Belgian chocolate maker, was doing brisk business.

The 16th century City Hall is one of the central pieces in the Great Market of Antwerp and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. The legend of Antwerp is moulded in bronze in front of the City Hall. It is said that the passage through the River Scheldt was at the mercy of the giant Antigoon who collected massive fines from ships passing by. Those refusing to pay had their hands cut off and thrown away. This practise was stopped when a Roman soldier, Silvius Brabon, slew the giant and threw his severed hand into the River Scheldt. The name of the city is also derived from the act – Hant (hand)-werpen (to discard). The granite severed hand in the city centre is also a recollection of the legend. The elaborate guildhalls stand testimony to the flourishing tradesmen of the day.

After that we walked along the water front admiring the River Scheldt in low tide. A short walk away is the Hetsteen, the oldest building in Antwerp. The 9th century fortification has been a defence establishment, a living quarter, a prison and a museum along Its history. The Port of Antwerp, the majestic building that now houses the pilot station, old buildings that have seen the tumultuous happenings of the past and a few beers later we retraced our route back to the hotel. On the way we stopped by at the Kellys Irish Pub, where I met three Indians who were doing diamond business in Antwerp. Youngsters all three, they were keen to know details of the journey. The fish and chips portion was quite good and so was the waffle with strawberry and sugar. 

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