Antwerp’s Central Station: Waiting Room of Dreams

The novelist E.M. Forster wrote, “Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and unknown…

Our mystery girl and thousands of other immigrants like her (including my own grandfather) passed through Antwerp’s Central Railway Station from all over Europe, before alighting at Antwerp, their jumping off place for the Red Star Line and a new life in the Americas.

Perhaps the sense of awe that railway stations evoke (especially those built at the apex of the industrial revolution) helped cement the Central Station’s nickname as “The cathedral of railways.”  It has also been named one of the world’s most beautiful rail stations by both Newsweek and Travel & Leisure.

Built between 1895 and 1904, the Central Station would have been new at the time of our girl’s departure from Galacia through Poland or the Ukraine to Antwerp.  She would have traveled by rail carriage from a large city in Poland like Lodz and passed through its gleaming halls and domed waiting room.  These were designed by the Belgian  architect Louis Delacenserie and considered the height of chic at that time.  Neo-classical in style, but highly influenced by the whiplash style of Belgian and French Art Nouveau, the station was an icon of modernity when our mystery girl traveled through it.

Today, visitors to the Red Star Line Museum will be able to visit the original station, which has been sensitively restored and rendered up-to-date with a complicated network of tracks around and beneath it.  While the trains that rush into these tracks are now high speed modern bullets, the graceful iron and glass that surround those tracks are largely the same structures that greeted our girl back in 1905.

I visited the station on my last trip to Antwerp.

There was something magical about it – almost surrealist.  I felt like I had stepped into a painting by that enigmatic Surrealist, the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux, who delighted in painting naked women walking blithely unaware of their nakedness though similarly palatial railway stations.

My footsteps echoed, even in the crowded station around the huge dome and against the many tons of marble that remain as cool and smooth as they were a century ago.  There was a distinct feeling of excitement, possibility, the glamour of a trip not yet taken…of many tracks leading to unknown destinations.

When the Red Star Line Museum opens its doors in 2013, visitors will be able to arrive through the very station their families left from – intact, incredible and still vastly full of dreams.

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