West Flanders: Trench of Death and the Yser Tower museum for peace

Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum for peace)

We just made our now semi-annual pilgrimage to Westvleteren to pick up more of the “best beer in the world.” We admit it; we’re hooked…and are possibly beer hoarders as well. But, this post isn’t about beer, it’s about our latest exploration of West Flanders which took us this time through picturesque countryside and villages to the restored WWI Dodengang or “Trench of Death” and the Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) housed in the 22-story tall iron cross tower that’s both a memorial to Flemish soldiers who died in WWI and a sometimes-controversial rallying point for Flemish Belgians.

Brussel sprouts in a western Flanders field

Leaving the Sint-Sixtus Abbey (where Westvleteren beer is brewed), we drove rural back roads past fields of brussel sprouts and farm animals. It always pains me to think of the absolute destruction wrought by WWI on this peaceful countryside. And, of course, WWII was no kinder to Belgium.

Flemish work horses
Happy Flemish cows

We stopped in the pretty little village of Lo-Reninge, lured by the medieval West Gate beside which stands a tree to which, legend claims, Julius Caesar tied his horse. We admired the UNESCO-designated town hall and belfort, and a lovely old Sint-Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) before continuing on to The Royal Museum of the Army’s venue at the Trench of Death outside of the town of Diksmuide.

West Gate in Lo-Reninge, one of the few surviving medieval gatehouses in the region, built sometime around 1250. (And the “Caesar tree”)
Lo (now part of Lo-Reninge) UNESCO-designated city hall and belfort
Sint-Pieterskerk and a WWI memorial to war dead from Lo

Diksmuide is strategically important in WWI history as the site of a line held by defenders after the Belgians flooded large portions of their country to stop the German advance.

The Trench of Death museum was refurbished in August 2014 as part of the WWI centenary and includes videos, photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Army Museum’s collection.

Trench of Death Museum, a venue of the Royal Army Museum
Exhibits in the Trench of Death Museum

Modest-sized, but effective, exhibits on the second floor (1st floor, european) attempt to tell the story of the Trench of Death from both Belgian and German perspectives. A rooftop viewing deck lets visitors get an overview of the trenches and the adjacent Izjer River before descending to walk the extensive rebuilt trenches.

View of the Trench of Death and the Ijzer River from the museum’s rooftop

The museum’s website tells the story of the Trench of Death in 100 words as follows: “In 1915 the Belgian army tries to dislodge the Germans from the petrol tanks north of the city of Dixmude (Diksmuide). After two failed attempts the Belgians decide to dig a trench towards the drums. The Germans however manage to capture part of it. In order to suppress the German threat, Belgian military engineering creates, by the end of 1915, a breach in the Yser dike. The two camps are now only separated by a mere ditch. The trench is then transformed into an impregnable position, called Trench of Death because of the victims buried there after the German attack.”

Beginning the walk from the museum to the Trench of Death

The museum is well-done and the trenches, like those at the Passchendaele Museum, give a sobering glimpse of trench warfare.

Km 16 marker, the Trench of Death

Germans attacked the Belgians on three sides. German trenches lay less than 50m from the Belgians. Belgian soldiers lived under the constant threat of both conventional and gas attack, and kept gas masks with them at all times.

Concrete bags in the shape of the original sandbags have been used to rebuild the trench. Gravel spares visitors the mud that WWI soldiers endured.

A mere 1.5 km away and visible from the Trench of Death Museum stands the 22-story tall Museum aan den IJzer tower and museum (also “Yser” in English), a giant iron cross in the shape of Flemish headstones used to mark the graves of Flemish soldiers.

A large stone “peace arch” with the inscription “PAX” stands at the entrance to the museum grounds. It incorporates the rubble of the original Ijzer tower which was dynamited following WWII in protest of Flemish Nazi collaborators. (Apparently, the Nazis often exploited separatist sentiments to try to drive wedges between social groups in the countries they sought to invade and conquer.) The remains of the original memorial tower are surrounded by its crypt and a circle of Flemish headstones.

The “crypt” with Flemish gravestones at the base of the destroyed first Yser Tower

Later, as we toured the museum, we learned that after the war, the Belgian government decided to install uniform headstones for Belgian soldiers killed during WWI; the headstones were inscribed “Mort pour la patrie” (died for the homeland), in French, with no Dutch (the Flemish language). Existing Flemish headstones were removed and, in at least once case, broken up and used to make a road. Flemish outrage led to the construction of the first memorial Ijzer Tower, constructed as is the present tower in the form of Flemish gravestones with the letters AVV-VVK, representing “Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus” or “All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ.” Given how much time we’ve spent in Belgium in recent years, we’re always trying to understand the complicated history of Belgian society and the rifts between French and Flemish Belgians. Here was a new and fascinating learning opportunity.

22nd floor of the Museum aan den IJzer

Proceeding past the crypt to the tower, we immediately took an elevator to the 22nd floor, the topmost enclosed floor of the tower. There we found 360 windows surmounted by a painted panorama showing the surrounding countryside as it looked during WWI. Labels with directional lines indicated the names of villages, cemeteries and other sites.

Climbing a few more flights of stairs, we came to the open-air rooftop offering an even more dramatic view. The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the tower well beyond the crypt and peace arch below and into the town.

After taking in the views, we began the floor-by-floor descent through the museum. With so many levels to work with, some of the floors were almost throw-aways, one offering only wall-sized black-and-white drawings and another displaying shelf-upon-shelf of ordinance. But, there were fascinating floors as well. One had us wandering a wooden maze of recreated trenches while speakers played the labored breathing of gas attack victims. Around some corners, a large photograph of victims would suddenly light up. A particularly poignant floor offered a display of clothing along with photographs of Belgians fleeing the war. It posited the question, “What would you take if you had only moments to choose before fleeing your home?” It reminds people that their grandparents were the ones fleeing war with the clothes on their back just as today other peoples are fleeing wars in distant lands. The museum is dedicated to peace. “No more war” is printed in Dutch, French, English and German on the four sides of its base.

Clothing display with photographs of Belgians fleeing WWI along the “Via Dolorosa”

Leaving the museum, we walked back past the crypt with a new understanding of what we were seeing. Looking back at the enormous tower with its “AVV-VVK” we now knew that it, and its predecessor, had become a rallying point for Flemish Belgians and has been the site of annual gatherings. After WWI, the Flemish Movement organized pilgrimages to the graves of fallen Flemish soldiers and the first Yser Tower was built in 1930. After the first tower was destroyed in 1946 and the new tower was built, “Flemish minded people” continued to hold large gatherings at the site that attracted a radical, separatist element as well that was sometimes invited, sometimes not. In the 90’s, the organizing committee distanced itself from this radical element. The current museum focuses on promoting peace and tolerance. While the red poppy is the symbol of WWI remembrance for soldiers, the Museum aan den IJzer chose a white poppy with the word “peace” at its center to commemorate all victims of war, both civilian and military. The Museum asks the question, “What remains of life?” addressing the ongoing loss after war, including the mental suffering and difficulties adjusting to civilian life of returning veterans.

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Practical info: The Royal Army Museum’s center at the Trench of Death is located at:
IJzerdijk 62, 8600 Diksmuide
051 50 53 44
Open daily from 10am-6pm, April 1- Nov. 15, Tues. & Th. only the rest of the year. (Check online for details and holiday changes.); admission €4 for adults, children under 8 are free.

The Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) is located at:
DE IJZERTOREN – IJzerdijk 49 – 8600 Diksmuide – T 051.50.02.86 – info@aandeijzer.be
Open daily, check online for seasonal variation in times.
Entrance is 8/adult, 2.5 for children 7-17, and free for children under 7. 

 

The Jane: a world-class dining experience in Antwerp, Belgium

 

Friends from the U.S. coming to visit us in Antwerp finally motivated us to try The Jane, one of Antwerp’s two 2-Michelin starred restaurants and Diner’s Club pick for one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Occupying the converted chapel of a former military hospital, The Jane is a mere 10-minute walk from our Antwerp home-away-from-home. We’d walked by many times, even eyed their menu online, but the astronomical price and difficulty in getting reservations dissuaded us on previous stays. We had a 4-day window when our friends would be here and, sure enough, there were no reservations available at The Jane during this period. We put our name on the dinner wait list and were able to get a reservation after about 2 weeks. 8pm was the only dining time available, a little late for us given the length of the expected meal and our friends’ early departure the next day, but we jumped on the opportunity nevertheless.

We were greeted warmly at the hostess desk which faces the front door backed by a wall that closes off the main dining room from view. This provides diners with a theatrical first glimpse of the vaulted dining room dominated by a massive modern “chandelier,” a many branched glass-and-steel structure that spans most of the large space. Opposite the entrance, a wall of glass frames the bustling kitchen high above which a whimsical neon sign reads “CAN I STAY A LITTLE LONGER, I’M SO HAPPY HERE.”

The massive light fixture and avant garde decor really work with the backdrop of peeling, unpainted ceiling of the old church and quirky stained glass windows. [See lead photo above.] In keeping with The Jane’s reverential attitude towards fine cuisine, the kitchen occupies the former altar space.

A printed copy of the 14-course menu was on the table when we sat. Our first waiter arrived to ask for our aperitif choices, giving us 4 options (champagne and 3 signature cocktails), to go with the first amuse bouche courses.  (We lost count of how many people waited on us over the course of the meal; I think it was a cast of 8 to 10 people.)

There was no printed description or price list for the drinks. Our preference for wine (a 2010 San Leonardo from Italy; cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, merlot; 95 points on Robert Parker) over aperitifs slowed things down a little, but the first 4 amuse bouches arrived relatively promptly.

COURSE #1. Amuse bouche: Jane-grown tomato with watermelon and burrata
COURSE #2. Amuse bouche: Eggplant in miso draped in French Noir de Bigorre ham served on a warm stone with a side beverage of 6 apple juices and sake.
COURSE #3. Amuse bouche: Ceviche with small white radishes, a dollop of avocado, savory leaves in a citrus-y marinade.

Oddly, it was not until after a few of the amuse bouche courses that we were handed a menu with prices and options for the 13-course menu and wine pairings. This left us feeling a little off-balance and unsure of what to expect throughout the first portion of the meal, but was not a huge issue. We opted for the full 14 courses since choosing the 13-course menu (€20 cheaper) would have deprived us of the langoustine and cep course which really was a highlight. Good choice on our part. We declined the wine pairing options and one of our friends chose several bottles of wine.

The menu gives only a bare description of what to expect. There were many more ingredients and even extra little plates and bowls (and one drink) that appeared with each course. Each course was a treat for the eyes as well as the palate with a mind- and palate-boggling array of little flourishes and dollops and leaves and flowers and frozen pellets and gilded bits. Flavors were generally exquisite with my only quibble being that several were a touch too salty for me, which is unusual since I like salty foods. All in all, it was fun to explore our way through each dish although I readily admit to being unable to identify some of the tastes and ingredients on display. I’m not a professional food critic, so you get what you get with this post.

COURSE #4. Amuse bouche: Glazed local eel from the Schelde River Bai hao Yin Zhen dashi topped with crispy kale, in broth

The prix fixe menus are in effect for 11 weeks with minor changes due to availability of ingredients. (The current menu only recently went into effect.) After an 11-week run, the staff takes a 2-week break and returns to a new seasonal menu that is in place for the next 11 weeks.

COURSE #5. 1st main course: Mackerel with Jane-grown beet and black garlic. Also beet-infused tapioca, 4 tasty dollops of uncertain but delicious origin, foams, vinaigrette and a delicate crisp.
COURSE #6. 2nd main course: Scallop, cucumber & seaweed with freeze-dried citrus balls (giving off a light “fog”) with tasty “leathers” and a dollop or more tasty, but unidentifiable ingredients
COURSE #7. 3rd main course: Langoustine, ceps and zuchini garnished with nasturtium. Absolutely spectacular!

The current menu is very heavily weighted toward seafood proteins, which we loved, but which might be to everyone’s taste: ceviche, eel, mackerel, scallops, langoustine, shrimp, John Dory.

COURSE #8. 4th main course: Grey North Sea shrimp, potato & beurre noisette. For those unfamiliar, the shrimp are small–like bay shrimp, but very tasty.
COURSE #9. 5th main course: John Dory with artichoke hearts and a side bowl of shellfish (mussels) and a tiny bit of pasta

Only the poulet de Bresse (chicken) course, served with sweetbreads and a liver spread on chicken skin crisps, bucked this trend. Items are chef’s choice, although there are options offered to allow for allergies and dietary restrictions.

COURSE #10. 6th main course: Poulet de Bresse, vol-au-vent, carrot with sides of sweetbreads and chicken liver paté on a chicken skin crisp
COURSE #11. “Semi-dessert”: BBQ apple with a mezcalnegroni ice cream and cinnamon

The only flaws: While service started out well and was always friendly and not at all stuffy, something went off-track later in the meal and we started experiencing long waits between courses. A couple of times, wine glasses were left empty for stretches as well. By 11pm, 3 hours into our meal, we still had many courses to go. We were in no hurry and fully expected and looked forward to an extended dining experience, but the lapses became too much. Eventually, we asked a waiter if we could get our three dessert courses at once since our friends had an early train to Amsterdam to catch a plane the next morning.

COURSE #12. Dessert: A chocolate/mocha creation with Tanariva milk chocolate, nocciola (hazelnut) & espresso. This one was so complicated (and delicous!), including a small mousse, ice cream, crisps of varying types, dabs and dollops and gold. I loved it!

To The Jane staff’s credit, they did speed things up after we asked, even bringing the chocolate course ahead of the last dessert. The chocolate was a house-made La Esmeralda 74% dark chocolate bar with dried fruit and salt that came on a marble block with a special weighted tool for breaking the bar, tongs and a bag for taking home any extra pieces.

COURSE #13. House-made La Esmeralda 74% dark chocolate bar with bullseye wrapper to help diners strike the right blow with the special weighted tool provided. Also, tongs and a bag for a take-home treat.
Unbroken La Esmeralda chocolate bar from The Jane at home

We finished dinner sometime after midnight and got the check around 12:30am. The slowed service at the end of the meal wasn’t enough to ruin our meal, but it was a surprising lapse in service by a restaurant of this caliber. It was a particular disappointment since, prior to things going awry, one of our foodie friends had just pronounced every course to that point flawless and the meal as one of the top ten of his life.

COURSE #14. Final dessert: “Kaiserschmarrn”, described as made with “shredded pancakes,” it was like a fluffy bread pudding dotted with raisins and served with a side of rum ice cream. Excellent!

Another minor point: After 4+ hours of dining, the repetitive beat of the looping low-key techno-pop music starts to grate.

Practical info: Our total bill for four persons was €904: €600 for four 14-course fixed price menus, €34 for still and sparkling water throughout the meal, and €270 for 3 bottles of wine. Not something we’d do on a regular basis, but a night at The Jane is an experience as much as a meal.

Dress was smart casual with women wearing pants, skirts or dresses and men in slacks and sports coats, with or without ties, occasionally minus a jacket.

Find more info and book reservations or join wait lists on The Jane’s website. The Jane books full far in advance, but an initial back-up wait list lunch reservation came through for us in a matter of days (via an email which requires you to accept or deny a firm reservation). We waited about two weeks for to get a dinner reservation off the wait list. In that case, David called to see where we were on the list and was told they’d just had a cancellation and we were in for the 8pm time slot. (All that was available.) NOTE: The Jane requires a credit card to hold a reservation and there is a €50 per person charge for cancellations within 48 hours.

Allergies or diet restrictions can be accommodated, but there is a €15 charge if no advance notice is given.

There is a cheaper Upper Room Bar at The Jane where a maximum of four persons can make reservations for drinks, etc. two weeks in advance. Again, find more info on that on The Jane’s website. (Click the top center graphic to get the drop down menu.)

Het Anker: Touring one of the oldest breweries in Belgium

Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery in Mechelen, Belgium, makes the highly-rated Gouden Carolus beers along with several other varieties. David and I had been to their café before and knew we liked their beers, but hadn’t had the chance to tour the brewery. So, when we called on a recent Sunday and heard there were two open spots for the 1pm tour–and none others for the rest of the day–, we dropped everything and headed to the train station and the 10-minute ride from Antwerpen-Berchem to Mechelen. A quick walk, and we arrived just in time for the €8pp tour.

The brewery sits on the edge of the historic center of Mechelen and actually occupies part of the red brick complex that formerly housed religious ladies known as beguines or begijns in Dutch. Like other beguinages/begijnhofs in Belgium, the Mechelen beguinage has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage. [Mechelen is a beautiful little town and free of the tourist hordes that plague other popular Belgian cities. You can read my raves about Mechelen here.]

The tour begins

Our tour (in both English and Dutch) took us through the main “tower” building which, although newer than the beguinhof, is a historical site itself. We went straight upstairs to the malt silos where a bar with barley malt, corriander, cumin, licorice and other items were on display and passed around to give an idea of the flavors that go into the various Het Anker beers. Our guide a rather opinionated and no-nonsense man, scolded a woman in the back for talking while he was talking, not realizing, I think, that she was translating. I understand both of their situations, but it made for an uncomfortable moment.

From there, we viewed gorgeous old copper tuns and a display of old bottles under a lineup of past and present Het Anker owners. Our guide was very critical of the previous owner (who wished to promote pils-style beers) and praised the current owner who wrested control of the business away from his relative to focus on craft-type beers of stronger and more unique flavors and character. I have to admit my own beer tastes side with the current owner (who lives in a red brick house in front of the brewery and next door to the café and tasting room).

Copper tuns
A timeline of changing owners, beers and bottles

Our tour took us past an old copper “radiator” for cooling beer, a device no longer permitted under European Union regulations since it exposes the beer to the open air. According to our guide, only the lambic brewers who rely on wild ambient yeast are exempted from this rule.

A beer “radiator”

Bottling methods were also on display via sample machinery and video.

A final stop brought us to a large open-air coolship (unused due to those pesky EU rules) perched on the roof of the tower and offering a view of the town.

Rooftop coolship, no longer in use
Rooftop view of old Mechelen and St. Rumbold’s Cathedral bell tower

Descending back to ground level, our guide led us to the tasting room located upstairs in the café building. There, at a long table, we were given two 15cl beers: the Gouden Carolus Tripel and the Gouden Carolus Classic, a Belgian dark beer. David and I have enjoyed Gouden Carolus beers on many occasions. I’ll quote the brewery on these two beers as I have no disputes with their descriptions.

Het Anker offers the following about its Gouden Carolus Tripel: “Despite the technological advances, this beer is brewed according to ancient tradition and unites, as before, the best raw materials from our soil as ripe barley and fine hops, to preserve a maximum of pure flavor. This beer was originally brewed for the Knights of the Golden Fleece in 1491.

Full graceful tenderness, with a clean and neat taste, this beer will enchant you: matured in the bottle, exclusively obtained from pale malt, highly fermented and 100% natural. With a full-bodied flavor that still works thirst quenching, thanks to a balanced hopping. For ideal savouring, gently pour out in one fluent movement, at a temperature of 5-7° C (41-45°F). This pleasant golden blond beer is preferred by all who loves heavier, somewhat seasoned and refreshing beer.

This tripel is world-class.
Already in 2002 this beer won the Gold Award at the biennial World Beer Cup in the category ‘Tripel’. In 2010 this beer won gold at the European Beer Star in the category ‘Belgian Style Tripel’. In 2012, again followed the gold award for best Tripel beer in the world (“World’s Best Belgian-Style Tripel”).”

Het Anker describes the Gouden Carolus Classic as: “Dark, very balanced dosed caramel and aromatic malts provide, in combination with a traditional high fermentation, a unique beer that unites the warmth of wine and the freshness of beer. This makes it very suitable in combination with culinary specialties such as stews, wild, pates and even sabayon.

Following earlier prestigious awards, this beer was selected “Worlds’ Best Dark Ale” (WBA, 2012).”

Tasting time

Our fellow beer fans were from many countries: Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, U.S. and many more. We enjoyed chatting over our excellent beers, then David and I walked the few steps to snag a table at the café for a much-needed late lunch. Although we’d enjoyed a previous dinner at the café (of traditional Belgian beef-and-beer stew and a fish plate), I’m sorry to report that we found our lunchtime hamburgers truly awful. The bun was good and the side salad was fine, but the meat was an odd and unidentifiable tan mix fried in oil. Never again. (This wasn’t the first Belgian hamburger we’ve found to be off-putting. Maybe it’s just a case of “different strokes for different folks.”) Oh well, the beers we chose to accompany the food were excellent, so all was not lost.

Sadly, this burger looks much better than it was.

Practical Stuff: Start to finish, our tour and tasting took about an hour and a half or a little more. Individual tours of the Het Anker Brewery are offered Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 11.00 am, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11.00 am and 1.00 pm. The cost is € 8 per person, € 2 for children under 12 years old. Two 15 cl beers or one soft drink are included with the tour price.  Advance booking is strongly advised. There’s a form (in Dutch) online to request a reservation. (The brewery will respond to confirm or not.) or call 0032 15 28 71 41. Group tours are available daily with reservation.

Beer post: Lier rhymes with beer!

Just 10-15 minutes by train from Antwerp, Lier is not only a picture-perfect Belgian town, but is also known for its beer. With a reputation like that, how could David and I resist going? Short answer: We couldn’t.

We chose a sunny Saturday for our day trip so we could check out the Saturday market in Lier’s main square and take a boat tour on the River Nete in addition to scouting out the local brews. [Check out my previous post for a travelogue of our day in Lier.] At casual market-side café ‘t Gomerke, I chose a Caves (pronounced, more or less, like “cah fess”) for my first beer of the day and David opted for a Sint Gummarus Tripel.

Lier beers with a market day lunch

Caves (5.8% alc) is a high-fermentation beer brewed without artificial coloring or preservatives and without adding sugar. It was the most widely sold beer in Lier in the 1700’s. According to the Visit Lier website, beer has been brewed in the town since the 14th century and although there have been numerous breweries in the town over the years, the last one closed in 1967. This ended the production of Caves until 1976 when a guild called De Heren van Lier (“The Gentlemen of Lier”) arranged to have Caves brewed again using the original recipe.

My Caves poured a dark copper color with a white head that laced thickly and persistently. The smell was green apples and molasses with a hint of funk. My first sip was predominantly caramel and a sweet and sour cherry tartness that reminded me of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. I was surprised there was no added sugar because my initial impression was of too much sweetness. Drinking more, I got caramel and brown sugar, Granny Smith apples, dark bread and sour cherries. Medium body, soft carbonation. I really was afraid Caves was going to be too sweet for me, but the sweetness stopped just short of being a problem and I found myself enjoying this beer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was served nicely cold on a gorgeous October day overlooking the Saturday market in Lier’s historic Grote Markt (main square).

St. Gummarus is the patron saint of Lier and two beers–a dubbel and a tripel–bear his name. The Sint Gummarus tripel (8.3% alc) is a golden color with a long-lasting 1/4″ white head. The barnyard nose carries through to the flavor along with caramel, bread, a crisp-to-the-point-of-sharp spiciness, peach and coriander. David noted a slight bitter/metallic trace as well. All in all an enjoyable tripel and distinctive, if not the best we’ve had.

Check out that head on the Kempisch Vuur tripel!

Later in the afternoon at Den Moment yet another outdoor café on the main square (now emptied of the market stalls), I ordered a De liter van Pallieter or simply “Pallieter”, a local tripel. Since we found no Bierke Plezierke beers on offer (Lier beers we’ve sadly yet to try), David decided to venture a bit further afield and ordered a Kempisch Vuur tripel from the nearby town of Pirlot.

The Pallieter (8%) was my favorite beer of the day, a classic Belgian tripel with all the barny “banana” goodness that implies in both the nose and taste. The flavor also has a floral/herbal quality. The beer is a not-quite-clear gold with a white head and lacing that dissipates. Pallieter has a smooth, velvety mouthfeel that buffers the alcohol. This beer is a pleasure to drink.

The Kempisch Vuur tripel (7.5%) had, like David’s earlier Sint Gummarus tripel, a spicy sharpness. An opaque golden hue, it poured a large and sustained meringue-like head. (see photo above) The nose was barny and spicy, the taste coriander and spicy clove. It had a thin, effervescent mouthfeel.

Sint Gummarus dubbel and the Zimmertoren

Our final drink opportunity came with a light dinner at Café Refuge where we sat outside just in front of the icon astronomical clock in Lier’s Zimmer Tower. Once again thwarted in our search for Bierke Plezierke beers, I ordered the Sint Gummarus dubbel. This beer poured a cola brown with a 3/4″ head that quickly receded. Classic prunes and dark bread nose. The taste was also prunes, dark bread, figs, caramel, and smooth spice. Medium body. A tasty dubbel.

In sum, we enjoyed all the Lier beers we tried even if they didn’t make our All-Time Favorites list. I’ve seen some mixed reviews online of some of these beers. The most negative seem so off as to make we wonder at the portability of these beers. Some criticisms were so far removed from what we tasted–and even described very different colors than what we saw–that I have to think these reviews simply got a bad and/or poorly stored bottle of beer. We’d definitely visit Lier again, both for its absolutely stunning architecture and setting and for its beer. Besides, we still need to track down Den Strooien Hoed and Den Blèèèter (yes, I got all those è’s right) from Bierke Plezierke.

Picturesque Lier, Belgium

A Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers tour boat on the River Nete in Lier

Pretty Lier, Belgium, is only a 10-minute train ride from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station and it was top on my day trip wish list for our current cat- and house-sitting stay in Antwerp. (The trip is another 5 minutes or so if you leave from Antwerpen-Centraal, the architectural gem that is the only other train station in Antwerp.) With our sights on weekend-only boat tours of Lier, we took advantage of our first gorgeous October Saturday to make the short trip. Our Belgian Rail weekend fare tickets cost €4.40 apiece, round trip. (Choose the “weekend ticket internet” option when given a choice for the half-price weekend fare. Print your ticket and show it to the agent on board the train when asked.)

It’s about a 10-minute walk from the train station to Lier’s lovely Grote Markt (main square) dominated by the stadhuis (city hall) and it’s attached UNESCO-designated belfry dating to 1369. On this sunny Saturday, the square was filled with market stalls selling everything from clothing to cheese, produce, meats and more.

Lier’s Saturday market with the 1369 UNESCO-designated belfry and stathuis in the background

As always, high on our list of to-dos in a new Belgium town is to try the local beer. Lier, which rhymes with “beer,” is known for beer and has 6 such brews. We ordered two with our light lunch at ‘t Goemerke, a market-side café on the main square with a simple menu. I opted for the unique Caves (pronounced more or less like “cah fess”) and found it to be an enjoyable if somewhat sweet sour along the lines of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. David chose the Sint Gummarus Tripel, a crisp version of the Belgian classic. We’ll do a separate write-up on Lier beers in an upcoming post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

With an hour between the end of lunch at the boat tour, we figured we had time to take in the Breugelland exhibit at the modestly-sized Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron. These paintings are on loan from the long-closed-for-rennovations Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Arts Museum) in Antwerp so we were glad for the chance to see them. This is apparently the seventh and last such collaboration between the two museums (although the Antwerp Fine Arts Museum is not set to reopen until 2019).

We finished up the art museum with just enough time to walk to the riverside starting point for the boat tours put on by Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers (Royal Brave Boat Fishermen). We spent 45 minutes gliding through Lier in a converted eel-fishing boat (with a non-stop Dutch commentary that our companions–all Dutch-speaking–found very amusing). While we would have liked to have learned more/anything from our guide, we really enjoyed the boat ride and the perspective of Lier from the River Nete. Boat tours are offered Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 1 – October 31, 2-6 p.m. Prices are €3.50 for adults, €2 for children.

View of Lier from a tour boat
Old lock house, end of the river for the tour boats

After our boat ride, we wandered charming cobbled streets of the adjacent begijnhof (“beguinage” in French). There are begijnhofs in many Belgian towns and I think all of them are UNESCO-listed. I like to describe beguines as “almost-nuns.” They were religious ladies who lived in these communities and took vows, but these vows did not include forsaking marriage or vows of poverty. The Lier begijnhof is particularly picturesque and the begijnhof church is really spectacular (and a far cry from the tiny chapel in the Antwerp begijnhof). We had the church to ourselves save for an older man playing magical music on the organ. Lovely!

A cobbled begijnhof street. The arch at the end of the lane leads to the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city.
Begijnhof church in Lier

We exited the beginjof onto the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city. We shared the path with other walkers, families and couples, bicycles and baby carriages. This area was part of a walk through town laid out by the nice man in the tourist office in the stadhuis. The downstairs of the stadhuis is open to the public and is worth a look just for the elegant architecture and painted walls and ceilings:

Curved staircase in the stadhuis foyer
Lier Tourist Office in the stadhuis. Maps and lots of brochures (mostly in Dutch) are available along with friendly English-speaking help at the desk.

Back in town, we headed to Sint-Gummaruskerk, Lier’s main church. As we approached, the bells began ringing madly, an at-first-charming call to vespers that continued for 30 minutes, including our quick exploration of the church and our escape to the nearby Sint-Pieterskapel, an unremarkable old chapel save for its painted ceiling. Back outside the chapel, the clanging of the bells of Sint-Gummarus continued to echo off the surrounding buildings and the otherwise-quiet and immaculate residential neighborhoods, a racket that must get old if you live nearby. Enough already!

The bell tower of Sint-Gummaruskerk in the background
Interior of Sint-Gummaruskerk
Painted ceiling of Sint-Pieterskapel

After wandering a further stretch of the riverside park circling the town, we strolled back to the Grote Markt, now empty of the market and glowing in the afternoon sun. Clearly, this was prime time for a couple more local beers at café het Moment. I opted for the Pallieter tripel (a true Lier beer) while David had the Kempisch Vuur (an abbey tripel from Brewery Pirlot in nearby Zandhoven). Again, we found both to be really good, and better than their Rate Beer reviews, especially mine. More details on the beers in a later post.

Afternoon beers on the Grote Markt

Somewhat full from the beer and accompanying snacks, we opted for a light dinner on Zimmersplein, a narrow plaza lined with restaurants and bracketed on one end by the town’s iconic astronomical clock tower, the Zimmertoren, and on the other by the “Prisoner’s Gate” an old jail and part of the long-gone medieval city wall.

Zimmersplein

We snagged another prime outdoor seat, this time just in front of the complicated clock tower in a restaurant aptly-named Café Refuge. We ordered a couple of beers and quiche and salad, not expecting anything remarkable from the food. Happily, both the quiches (one pumpkin and chevre, and one broccoli and nuts) and salads (made with mixed greens, herbs, raisins, grapes, apple, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes) were atypical and excellent. A just-right end to a delightful, low-key day!

Zimmertoren  astronomical clock
Quiche and salad at Café Refuge by the Zimmertoren astronomical clock

Find out more about Lier (in English, Dutch, French and German) at the Visit Lier website.

Bargain First Class to Asia: $18,681.60 in tickets for $34.30 and points!

I love paying for flights with points and miles and David and I try to maximize the points we earn on nearly every purchase we make. But, as anyone who’s tried to book awards flights knows, those “free” flights are often hard to find. Airlines tend to raise the amounts required for convenient times and schedules, offer less award seats on a flight than you need, or simply don’t offer award flights at all on certain flights. Taxes and fees on some airlines and at certain airports (I’m talking about you, Heathrow!) can turn a “free” flight into an expensive proposition. For flights to Asia from DFW, we think Korean Air is the ticket. (Our opinion holds even with all the saber-rattling currently going on between our government and North Korea, although we’ll definitely keep an eye on developments.)

It’s hard to beat Korean Air for both award availability and affordability …and we love their product, too. Last year, we flew Korean Air First Class from Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul for 95,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles plus $204.77 each, flights that would have cost us over $13,000. We only flew one-way because we used repositioning cruises to get to Asia. (Repositioning cruises are one of my favorite, most comfortable and cost-effective ways to cross an ocean without jet lag.) Being pampered with super-soft designer pajamas, a down mattress, duvet and big pillow, plus delicious food, high-end champagne and wine, and attentive service turned a miserably long flight into a pleasure.

We enjoyed our Korean Air experience so much, I searched their flights again when I started planning next spring’s around-the-world odyssey. This time, I was able to book First Class again (DFW-Seoul-Singapore) for the same 95,000 miles each, but taxes and fees were a shockingly low $34.30 apiece. If we’d paid cash, our two tickets would have totaled $18,681.60! We could have booked business class for 75,000 each or economy of 42,500 each. Award availability was wide open in all categories. (Korean Air is partnered with American, but it would take 120,000 AAdvantage miles to fly business class just from DFW to Seoul on the same day and there was no First Class availability.) Korean Air flies to more American cities than any other Asian airline and flies to Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Seoul itself is a fun, dynamic city and Korean Air offers free stopovers at ICN on award flights. (If you have enough time in Seoul ICN and are flying first class, stop by the first class lounge for custom engraved metal luggage tags, a free perk.) See my earlier post for details about combining Korean Air Skypass points with a spouse and family on Korean Air.

We’ve found Korean Air Skypass Miles easy to accumulate using Chase credit cards that generate Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and SPG Starwood points we get from Starwood Amex. Starwood points give a 25% bonus when transferred to their airline partners, but the card and points may soon be phased out with Marriott’s purchase of SPG. UR points are transferable 1:1 to Korean Air Skypass (and many other partners) and are especially easy to accumulate. Last year, Chase offered a whopping 100,000 sign up bonus for the Sapphire Reserve card and my husband and I both jumped on it. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is expensive at $450/year, but that is quickly offset for us by a very unrestricted $300 travel reimbursement that applies to a wide range of travel expenses: airlines, hotels, AirBnB, taxis, trains, rent cars, cruises, toll tags and more plus other valuable travel perks that more than make up for the remaining $150/year. The bonus for Sapphire Reserve is currently down to 50,000, which is still good, but I’d keep my eye open for another super bonus if you’re a frequent traveler, or get the same 50k bonus with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for $95/year without some of the other perks. We use Chase Ink to get 5X miles on office purchases (with includes gift cards from Office Depot for Shell gas, Whole Foods, Amazon and more) and Chase Freedom Unlimited to 1.5X points on everything else purchased in the U.S. (Note: The Freedom Unlimited card charges a foreign transaction fee, so Americans should leave it at home when traveling overseas.) Those points are then combinable with our main UR Reserve accounts. It adds up!

Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.

Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.

If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!

Quick tip: How to keep Google from going local when you travel

When your computer finds itself in a new country, Google will “helpfully” switch to the local version. Even when you type in “google.com,” Google will automatically switch to “google.xx” (e.g., in Belgium, it’s “google.be”). This can be really annoying when you don’t speak the local language and downright mystifying when the page is in an indecipherable alphabet. Often, you’ll see a link option for English or can click through to the U.S. “Google.com” at the bottom of the search page, but I’ve found those options are not always available (or findable). To solve the problem, just type in “google.com/ncr”. This will get you back to good ole google.com. If, like me, you’ve got your browser set to automatically open Google when you open a new tab, just make that default page “google.com/ncr” and you’ll automatically get the standard Google no matter where you are.

Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands & Devil’s Tower: Wait for Autumn Bargains

Mt. Rushmore. The flags of all 50 states line the main approach (see below), but I couldn’t resist this Texas flag view.

Mt. Rushmore should be on every American’s bucket list, and judging by the crowds and prices every summer, it probably is. If you can wait till fall, though, you’ll find the crowds gone and hotel prices much more reasonable. My husband and I did just that, waiting until the third week in October. Yes, the Flintstone Village was closed as was the faux Independence Hall and some mining-themed amusement parks, but we didn’t miss them at all. The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was open, as was the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park (including Needles Highway), and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. We stayed at K Bar S Lodge an terrific, rustic-but-lovely hotel just outside of Keystone, South Dakota, 30 minutes from the Rapid City Airport, where we could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance and hike a nearby abandoned mine. Yes, it was chilly at night and, yes, we risked things like Needles Highway being closed for the winter. But, the flight from DFW to Rapid City, SD, is an easy two hour and fifteen minute non-stop flight on American so we could monitor the weather forecast. [Although pricey in dollars, the flight was a cheap award using our British Airways Avios. We use BA Avios for those short hauls since BA is distance-based and charges us less miles for those flights that AA does.]

Mt. Rushmore exceeded my expectations. Not only are the famous statues impressive, but so is the park itself. The buildings and approach are sleek and stylish, the walkways around the base of the mountain pretty and well-maintained. We really enjoyed a free return visit at night to see the carvings illuminated. The main walkway is not lit until you reach the flags, though, so bring a flashlight.

Mt. Rushmore is especially magical at night, and free!

Custer State Park lies a thirty minute drive south of Keystone. Although we missed the September bison roundup at the park we got to see lots of bison up close in their winter habitat. Pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk and whitetail deer also call the park home. Entry is $20/vehicle for a 1-7 day pass.

Bison in Custer State Park
Pronghorn antelope in Custer State Park

Needles Highway (Hwy 87) runs through the Cathedral Spires Area of Custer State Park. Sitting around a campfire at our lodge one night, I mentioned my huge disappointment in being told on check-in that Needles was closed for the season. The mother-daughter pair who’d offered to share their s’mores with us did even more to make my night when they informed me that they’d driven the Highway that day and that it was open and easily drivable despite a sign at the pay booth saying otherwise. Sure enough, the next day proved them right and we enjoyed a spectacular drive.

Spires along Needles Highway

Another day, we drove an hour and twenty minutes west to Badlands National Park. Entering through a vast prairie dog town, we found an otherworldly landscape of painted canyons. We pulled over to hike out to high observation points providing sweeping pastel vistas and explored walkways through the desert where big horn sheep fed nearby. Like Custer, entry is $20/car for a 1-7 day pass. The passes are not combinable as one is a state and one is a national park.

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
The Badlands: immense and otherworldly

We crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming for our final destination, Devil’s Tower National Monument, a little over two hours’ drive from Keystone. Made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wildly popular with motorcyclists and other tourists, we arrived to find only a few cars in one of its two large parking lots.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
We found another large prairie dog town near Devil’s Tower. They’re adorable, but be careful getting too close or letting pets near: The prairie dogs have plague!

A ranger assured me that, in summer, the lots were full and the web site warns of difficult parking. She particularly noted the craziness at Devil’s tower when the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally is in swing. A half million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, SD, for the famous summer rally. That group makes an excursion to Devil’s Tower. The Sturgis rally lasts ten days and is set for August 4-13 this year. Check the calendar to avoid this horde unless you’re going to the rally.  On this gorgeous October day, however, we saw more birds, squirrels and rabbits than people as we hiked the perimeter of the tower. Entry to Devil’s Tower is $15/car, $10/motorcycle, $5/person arriving on foot or bicycle.

For a fun, economical, but limited-choice dinner, try the antique-filled Alpine Inn in Hill City, a short drive through wooded hills from Keystone. Dinner entree choices are large steak, small steak or vegetarian. [Dinner menu: 6oz. filet mignon = $11.95, 9oz. filet mignon =$13.95 (both steaks served with baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast); German dumplings and cheese with vegetables = $11.95] Lunch offers more variety. The Alpine Inn is renowned for its steaks and its house-made desserts. It’s closed Sundays and doesn’t accept credit cards, but it does have an on-site ATM machine. It’s popular, so make reservations.

Finally, if you like to gamble, South Dakota is for you. In addition to casinos, nearly every business establishment from doughnut shops to nail salons has a slot machine or two. Kitschy Deadwood is at or near the top of gaming towns in South Dakota. We’re not gamblers and didn’t get much out of casino-filled Deadwood’s recreated western town brimming with casinos, but we met people who loved it and went every year. So, if that’s your thing, Deadwood awaits. The people are friendly and the hotels offer some pretty great deals to lure in the gamblers. Enjoy!

 

Limited-time Amex Transfer Bonus Offer: Membership Rewards to BA Avios

I’ve been planning to cancel my Amex Platinum card for a while and I won’t renew it next year. Even with its (limited) $200 travel credit, the $450 annual fee just isn’t worth it to me any more since Amex lost Admiral’s Club membership as a perk. Its other perks are mostly either duplicative of perks on other premium cards I have or just not very useful or valuable to me. (I will miss Centurion Club, though!) And, after this year, the annual fee is going up to $550. The question has been what to do with the Membership Rewards points I’ve accrued.

MR do not transfer to American Airlines AAdvantage, my most frequently used airline. Membership Rewards points do transfer to American partner British Airways, though. Since 2015 until recently, however, the transfer rate from MR points to British Airways Avios has been abysmal: 250MR to 200 Avios. Last week, Amex restored the old 1:1 ratio. But now, only until September 17, 2017, Amex is offering a 250 MR to 350 Avios transfer rate, a whopping increase. I use Avios a lot to get reduced-rate short-haul flights on partner American Airlines. Avios are also good for short-haul flights in Europe and I can share Avios between British Airways and Iberia Airlines making them even more useful. Anyway, I intend to take advantage of this offer and thought I’d give a heads-up.