A Secular Cathedral of Great Grandeur

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on August 18, 2013

Antwerpen Centraal – a.k.a. Antwerp Central station – is one of my favourite buildings in Antwerp and a place I always enjoy visiting, even though it’s for the purposes of catching trains or arriving on them. I don’t feel anything like this level of enthusiasm for most British railway stations with the possible exception of Kings Cross St Pancras, but Antwerp is really rather special. Thanks to my occasional use of the high-speed Thalys between Amsterdam and Antwerp, I get to visit the station several times every year and it never fails to make me smile.

There was a time when railway stations were the secular cathedrals of our world, the giant constructions that stood as testimony to our faith in the sort of progress that was represented by the great railway networks. These were times when rail meant glamour, sophistication, industry and empire, times when building a new station was a work of immense civic pride and only the best and most impressive architecture would do. Cities competed to outdo one another in the grandeur of their stations, the public walked around open-mouthed with wonder at these behemoths of the steam age. Antwerp’s station dates back to late Victorian times and was built between 1895 and 1905, located on the site of an earlier but rather more modest station. The architect was a Belgian architect from Bruge called Delacenserie and he must have eaten up the entire architectural design handbook before burping up this mixture of style elements.

Antwerp Central fascinates me because it maintains a grand old exterior which gives way – once you pass through the main entrance hall – to a modern giant of transportation. From the outside it’s a grey stone wedding cake of arches and turrets, a building so complicated in its mix of architectural styles that it defies classification. Step inside and there’s an entrance hall with a domed ceiling of awesome proportions – in the strict old fashioned sense of the word awesome, not the more modern devalued one. A massive square area of open space gives plenty of scope for comings and goings, reunions and farewells, with sweeping staircases fit for anyone young or older girl to play out her wildest Disney Princess or Gone with the Wind fantasies. Stop and have a look at the carved stone, the stained glass and the glories of yester year. The designer went crazy and used more than 20 different types of decorative stone in this hall and it’s more like a palace than a station.

Once you’ve settled to the idea of the cathedral like proportions and the grandeur, head further into the building and you’re confronted by extreme modernity as well as enormity. The total length of the building is nearly 400m – think about an athletic track pulled straight and you’ll get an idea just how big this is. For 185 meters of the building’s length it has a spectacular glass roof that stands 44 meters high. Then when you’re completely ‘gobsmacked’ at the length of the building, look down and see how it extends into the bowels of the earth, reaching down two further subterranean levels. At the uppermost level there are six platforms arranged in two groups of three and these are slightly above street level. Level minus one is 7 meters (22 feet) below the street and has two pairs of platforms and level minus two is a massive 18 meters (almost 60 feet) below the street.

Before you head down, take a wander around the street level interior of the station. There are cafes and restaurants, shops of a wide variety, and most noticeably (most Antwerpian) there are dozens of diamond shops because Antwerp is the heart of Belgium’s diamond industry.

If you don’t like escalators, you won’t like Antwerp Central. These extra-long escalators reach way down into the building to the lower levels of the station. Some take a kink in the middle before they continue to head down. Check carefully for your platform number before you start the descent as Antwerp is not a station where it’s easy to run between platforms due to the three dimensional layout.

I take the Thalys, the high speed super train which plies its trade between Paris and Amsterdam and it always runs from the bottom level of the station. The slightly less impressive Fyra uses the same platforms. I appreciate the way that the trains always stop in exactly the right places so that the carriages align with the signs on the walls that help you get yourself into the right place to ensure that the short stops these trains make are long enough to off- and on-load all their passengers. Allow a good few minutes from getting dropped at the station to getting to your platform because it really can take a while to work out where you’re supposed to be and how on earth to get there.

An article in the American magazine Newsweeek in 2009 named Antwerp Central as the fourth most beautiful railway station in the world (in the opinion of the author of the article). I was quite surprised as I know relatively few people outside the Benelux who’ve ever been to Antwerp. It being an American magazine, I guessed the top three would all be American and that New York’s Grand Central Station would be up at number one but I was surprised. First place went to St Pancras in London, second to Grand Central, third to Chhatrapati Shivaji station in Mumbai and fourth to Antwerp. I’m in the lucky position of having visited all four and I’d actually agree with the choices, if not necessarily the precise positions.

If you find yourself in Antwerp do please go and look at the station. It doesn’t matter if you have no plans to take a train, still go and have a wander around. Go up and down the escalators, look in the windows of the diamond dealers and soak up the atmosphere that comes with this unusual mix of old and new, past, present and future. It could just be the best free attraction in the city.
Centraal Station
Koning Astrid Plein
Antwerp, Belgium, 2000
+32 3 204 20 40


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