Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

The enormous Ninth Fort memorial to the more than 30,000 Nazi victims killed there. David is standing substantially in front of it, so the scale is not immediately obvious.

Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara

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Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.

Approaching Kaunas on the E85 from Vilnius

The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.

Ninth Fort

The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.

Exploring the exterior of the Ninth Fort

Interior courtyard of the Ninth Fort
Tribute to a group of prisoners who escaped the Ninth Fort and were able to bear witness to Nazi atrocities there
Ninth Fort grounds. If you’ll look closely at the memorial in the background you’ll see a young man standing atop it. (One of a group of young Spaniards we met, not displaying the best of judgment.) Anyway, he gives an idea of the scale of the monument.

After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626

Interior of Avilys gastropub in Old Town Kaunas

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.

After lunch, the sun was back out in Kaunas Old Town
Interior of the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica
Main square in Kaunas Old Town with the Kaunas City Museum in the white former town hall

Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.

 

Lithuania’s island castle of Trakai

One of Lithuania’s most famous and picturesque sites, Trakai Castle, lies an easy 40-minute drive from Vilnius. Like most historic sites in Lithuania, the castle has been rebuilt. The restoration was well-executed and visitors are free to wander throughout most of the castle where museum displays tell the story of the castle and preserve artifacts relating to its history.

Inside Trakai Castle ward
This type of coin/medallion decoration was very popular
The museum is spread out over many rooms on various floors of the castle keep and in the outer ward of the reconstructed castle

Trakai was once a major power hub, but the city dwindled to a small town and island castle fell into ruins. Old paintings in the museum show the castle ruins looking like a romanticists fantasy. Wars and economics halted the reconstruction many times, but it’s now complete and worth the visit.

Old paintings depict Trakai Castle in ruins

The town around the castle is charming with pastel-painted wooden houses. Stalls and shops line the lake front around the foot bridge that leads to the castle island. In warm weather, row boats and paddle boats are available to rent and there’s a larger tour boat that goes out to the island.

We had lunch in a pretty Italian restaurant with big picture windows facing the lake and castle. In warmer weather, we’d have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Entry to the castle and museum is €3 per adult. Pay for parking on the street around the castle using the meters. Insert coins and put the timed ticket on your dashboard where it is visible through the windshield. Parking is vigorously enforced and the fine is €80 so be warned. In off season, we had no problem finding convenient parking, but I’ve read it can be trickier in the summer high season.

Houses, shops and parking along the street leading to Trakai Castle: Be sure to feed the parking meter and display your timed ticket or risk a hefty fine!

Highways around Vilnius are in good condition and well-marked and GPS worked perfectly for us.

Good highways between Vilnius and Trakai make for an easy drive

Vilnius, Lithuania

Gedimino prospekt, the Champs Elysées of Vilnius

I wrote this live-time in Vilnius, but wanting to focus on our current travels and a shortage of Internet time have me posting later:

We launched our Baltic adventure with a Belgium Airlines flight from Brussels to Vilnius. We cruised through the classic train-station-like Vilnius Airport, picked up our Addcar rental (far and away the best rent car deal I found in the Baltics) and–with only a short walk with luggage in the rain to our car–we were off. Things got a little snarled after that when none of my email servers would let me send or receive the emails I needed to make contact with our AirBnB hostess’ mother. We parked behind the pharmacy she’d used as a landmark in a typical Eastern European graffiti-covered alley/parking area while I messaged our hostess, Ruta, who was vacationing in Paris to let her know I couldn’t reach her mother. Meanwhile, David wandered around asking random strangers until he actually found a co-worker of Ruta’s mom and we finally got things moving. (If only Ruta had said her mother worked in the pharmacy, there’d have been no problem at all!) In minutes, we were settled into our lovely apartment. From that moment on, things flowed smoothly. We love Vilnius!

Maneuvering into parallel parking. Typical back side of an Eastern European apartment: crowded, graffiti-covered and a touch run-down. But it’s an awesome perk to have free parking in the heart of old town! (Graffiti tends to make Americans think “crime,” but I’ve not found that to be the case in former Soviet bloc countries and think of it more as pent-up freedom of speech coming out. I always felt perfectly safe in Vilnius.)
Our lovely AirBnB apartment in Vilnius

Our apartment is just off Gedimino prospekt, a wide, elegant avenue lined with baroque buildings filled with high-end shops, cafes, restaurants and more, it’s the Champs Elysees of Vilnius. A few blocks down, Gedimino ends at the spectacular Vilnius Cathedral.

Vilnius Cathedral

The newly-restored Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum nestles right behind the cathedral. The museum preserves archaeological ruins of the palace under glass walkways at its lowest levels.

The archeological portion of the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

Higher floors house collections of armor and artifacts and recreate period state rooms.

Throne room in the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

The palace tower offers views of Vilnius and the castle tower and three crosses on the hill above the city.

Old Vilnius stretches its cobblestoned streets north of the cathedral. We loved just wandering the surprisingly large Old Town. Crazily capricious spring weather had us ducking in and out of cafes and churches as sudden rain or snow descended in the midst of a sunny day!

The most grim museum of Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide Victims, more commonly known as “The KGB Museum.” The museum occupies the former KGB headquarters just off Gedimino prospekt.

In addition to exhibits and photographs memorializing victims and resistance, restored cells and an execution chamber offer a glimpse into the terrifying world of a KGB prisoner.

KGB prisoner processing room

Two cells with sloped floors designed to be filled with freezing water and a single stool-sized raised disk in the center. Prisoners in nothing but underwear were forced to stand on the stool or in ankle-deep icy water for up to 5 days. They could not sleep or they would fall into the water.

Cell designed to be filled with freezing water

I found a chilling video in the execution chamber hard to watch as prisoner after prisoner was sentenced then dragged into the room, shot in the head, and their body shoved out an opening in one wall into a waiting truck.

KGB execution chamber

Vilnius has overtaken Budapest as Europe’s most affordable capital and we found prices to be very reasonable everywhere we went. We tried classic Lithuanian food at the schmaltzy but fun Bernelių Užeiga very near our apartment on our first night, enjoying hearty food, beer and a local music duo.

Bernelių Užeiga is a popular place with locals as well as tourists
Home-style Lithuanian cooking at Bernelių Užeiga

On other evenings, we ventured out for higher-end fare at Bistro 18 and stylish The Town on Gedimino prospekt.

Dessert at The Town
The Town promotes meats, but we found their fish to be very good as well

David, of course, had to check out a local beer bar and we enjoyed our visit to Alaus Biblioteka a/k/a “the Beer Library.” It’s a unique venue with a good selection of beers from all over the world although we were disappointed to find they did not know much about the Lithuanian “kaimiskas” farm beer that we were particularly interested in trying. They had one beer on tap we were told was a kaimiskas, but we found it to be unremarkable and nothing like the beer we finally got to try a week later when we drove back into northern Lithuania from Latvia.

Alaus Biblioteka, the Beer Library

Alaus Biblioteka uses old library tables and chairs is a cosy place to drink beer, but we found veggie potato chips (cold and like chips straight from a Terra bag back home; fine from a bag, but not restaurant-level) and a shepherd’s pie to be underwhelming.

All in all, we loved Vilnius itself and it offers some really worthwhile and easy daytrips as well. More on those later.

Hallerbos, the Blue Forest of Belgium

Hallerbos, the Blue Forest

A year or so ago, a friend (Thank you, Robin!) sent me an article with an extended list of beautiful places in Europe. Somewhere around 37 of 50, I came across the “Blue Forest” of Belgium. Despite all the time I’ve spent in Belgium and France, this was new to me. When David and I agreed to housesit again in Antwerp, I was thrilled to see that we might be in Belgium for the wild bluebell bloom that turns Hallerbos into the Blue Forest for a couple of weeks a year, usually in the last half of April.

I calendared when I should start monitoring bloom reports from the Hallerbos website and began religiously checking it at the allotted time. Spring started out so warm and sunny that I figured the bloom would surely arrive before our scheduled departure from Belgium on April 21, but a late cold spell slowed things down. Then, we had to dodge the crowds at Easter and fit in Keukenhof and avoid the rainy days that had begun to pop up randomly…but today was the day and we lucked into a fair bit of sunshine and a spectacular natural display of wildflowers!

Bloom time is entirely dependent on nature, of course. The flowers only bloom under Hallerbos’ deciduous trees before they’ve leafed out and shaded the ground, when sunshine can reach the soil to warm it. Cool weather slows things; warm weather pushes up the bloom time. White forest anemones precede the bluebells and they are beautiful, too.

Some of the white forest anemones still in bloom

No flowers bloom in the shade under the few groves of large pine trees scattered through the forest. Hallerbos forest management does a good job of posting updates on the seasonal changes in the forest with new videos appearing every 2-3 days as bluebell season approaches.

We drove to the forest and found ample convenient parking on this non-holiday Tuesday, exactly what we were hoping for. We were able to park in “Parking 8″ close to the start of the bluebell walk outlined on the Hallerbos website. We spent just under 2 hours hiking 3.5 miles, taking our time and taking way too many photos. There were other hikers, but no crowds and we had long stretches to ourselves to take in the beauty of the flowers and trees and birdsong. [A video is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

The paths through the forest are gravel and dirt. Recent rains made it a little muddy in places, but not at all bad.

Hallerbos staff asks visitors to stay on the paths to avoid damaging the flowers.

The paths could stand to be better marked. It’s not like you can get to lost, but several unmarked crossroads found us meeting up with other hikers pondering which way to turn as we peered at maps on phones. It was chilly, so layers were nice. Some paths are marked for horses and bikes as well.

Hallerbos simply means the forest of Halle, which is the name of the nearby town. It lies a short distance to the southwest of Brussels and just shy of an hour by car from Antwerp. Buses run to the forest on workdays and special shuttle buses run weekends and holidays when the flowers are in bloom; check the Hallerbos website for more information on those if you need to rely on public transportation. If coming by car, follow directions on the Hallerbos website and GPS. Parking is free and there’s no entrance fee to the park. In peak season, weekdays are best to enjoy the peace and beauty of the forest minus crowds. The wild bluebells at Hallerbos should be at their peak for at least the next week.

written April 18, 2017

Chimay Blue 2017 vs. Westvleteren 12: a surprise

Maybe it was the little plastic glasses??

David decided it was time to do our side-by-side tasting of Chimay Blue 2017 and one of the Westvleteren 12’s we picked up a few weeks ago at the abbey. While we’d had absolutely no trouble distinguishing a St. Bernardus Abt 12 (in either bottle or tap) from the Westy, we were stunned to find the Chimay Blue 2017 to be startlingly similar to the Westvleteren 12. We went into this side-by-side expecting to taste two extraordinary beers, but not expecting them to be nearly indistinguishable when first opened and served cold. Wow. We were so startled by the similarities that we fetched two new glasses and did a blind side-by-side. (We’d started with four plastic Leffe tasting chalices, knowing we were being slightly sacrilegious, but liking the idea of four identical small glasses.) The differences became more apparent as the beers warmed, but still. The Chimay Blue 2017 is really an exceptional beer…and so much easier to come by than the Westvleteren 12. Thankfully we’ve got 3+ cases of Westy 12 to work our way through (and will do our best to score two more when we’re back in Belgium in the fall), but we know that’s a rare privilege, so it’s good to know the Chimay Blue 2017 is out there.

I’ve already blogged my tasting notes on the Westvleteren 12, so I’ll focus on the Chimay Blue 2017. The color is a warm red brown with a dense light tan head. (The Chimay beer is ever so slightly darker than the Westvleteren 12 but the head is slightly lighter.) I get predominantly rootbeer on the nose with raisin. The taste is full with more of that rootbeer and raisin. It’s a tad sweeter than the Westy, bitter on the back end (in a good way) and with a bit less of the barny-ness that I love in the Westvleteren beers, but still rich, delicious and undeniably Belgian Trappist. The Chimay is effervescent on the tongue and a real pleasure to drink. I’ll say it again: Wow!

I feel kind of hesitant to put this post up. I’ve never seen these two beers described as particularly similar. It’s always the myth of the St. B Abt 12 and Westy 12 being the “same.” Maybe it’s just the 2017 Chimay Blue and this year’s Westvleteren 12. I don’t know, but I know what we experienced. I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s tried this.

Keukenhof: Holland’s magical tulip park

Magical Keukenhof

Keukenhof in the Netherlands is world-famous for its spectacular display of spring flowers, the undisputed queen of which is Holland’s iconic tulip. The park is only open eight weeks from mid-March through mid-May for the spring flowering season. It is the showcase for the Dutch floricultural sector with an emphasis on bulbs. Each year, 7 million flower bulbs are hand-planted in Keukenhof. The season kicks off with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinth. The tulips are usually not in full bloom until mid-April.

David and I felt extra-lucky to be in Antwerp, Belgium, this year from March 12-April 21. This put us in the neighborhood at peak flowering time. (Keukenhof is only 1h45m drive from Antwerp, a very short distance by our Texan standards.) This gave us the luxury of monitoring the bloom reports and weather and timing our trip to avoid holiday and weekend crowds. Easter is this weekend and it’s one of the busiest times at Keukenhof. We read nightmare stories about the traffic jams around Keukenhof and especially at Easter so wanted to avoid that at all costs. On the other hand, we leave Antwerp for Lithuania next Friday, so we were running out of time. Giving the tulips maximum bloom time while avoiding the Easter holiday and taking advantage of the best weather forecast for our remaining time narrowed things down to yesterday for us.

Even though we planned our visit for a Thursday, we decided we’d be best served by getting to the park right as it opened at 8am. (We were missing the Easter weekend bank holiday, but were still during the 2-week spring school holiday here so we worried about the potential for crowds.) That meant we pulled away from our Antwerp house just after 6am and ate breakfast on the road. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy and well worth a little lost sleep. Other than some traffic around Rotterdam, we made good time and were one of the first to arrive at Keukenhof, being directed to park only a few cars from the main entrance with a vast field of open parking spaces left behind us. By the time we left just after noon, cars stretched to the limits of that field and a solid line of cars and buses was streaming in.

No crowds when you’re one of the first to the park

We’d pre-purchased tickets, a printed guide and our parking ticket online via the Keukenhof website. The tickets would have let us skip any lines, but there were none at such an early hour and we were able to wander the park with only a few other people for over an hour, the only sounds being birds singing and the occasional airplane overhead en route to or from Schiphol Airport. [A video is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

The only downside to arriving so early was that the sun was still relatively low in the sky and it was a chilly 49F. It was partly cloudy, too; a far cry from last Sunday’s bluebird skies and high in the low 70’s. Oh well, such are the vagaries of spring and it was still a beautiful day.

Keukenhof park occupies a stunning 79 acres of impeccably designed and maintained flower beds and other flowering displays, art and greenhouses. We entered via the main entrance on the south side of the park and wandered north and a little west before visiting the huge greenhouse and the center and continuing on to a working windmill on the eastern edge of the park. Arriving there around 9:15am, we booked an open boat cruise for 10:30 on the canals that cut through the flower fields adjoining the park. The cost was €6 each for a 45 minute boat ride, including an audio guide available in four languages. It turned out to be a good move to book the boat early as people were continuously streaming into the park and I’m not sure we’d have been able to get a seat if we waited much longer.

View of hyacinth fields from Keukenhof’s windmill

With time to spare, we explored more of the park, taking time for hot tea and a snack in one of the several cafes scattered around the park. There are several buffet-style cafes and restaurants in the park offering tasty dishes at not unreasonable prices. There are also ample immaculate and very modern toilets. The park claims to have free wi-fi throughout, but we were never able to reach any website, receive email, etc. despite our phones showing as connected.

Lovely spot for a tea break

In addition to the spectacular outdoor flower beds, Keukenhof greenhouses showcased vast beds of tulips in one, orchids and art made from orchids in another, and yet another displaying artistic creations made from roses and other flowers. Five hundred flower growers present creations of cut and potted flowers in over twenty flower shows.

By the time we got back to the windmill for our canal boat ride, the crowds were noticeably larger. The canal boats are low, open vessels with a single row along each side and 4 seats in the middle. Each seat has 4 audio jacks, each marked with a flag so you can choose your language. Two boats leave at a time and we arrived in time to be at the front of one line so had unobstructed views from the bow. Of course, that also meant an unobstructed and chilly breeze, but we were happy to pay that price…especially since the breeze smelled richly of flowers, particularly hyacinth.

Ultra-quiet electric engines power the boats so we glided silently through the colorful fields watching farmers gathering bushels of flowers or operating heavy spraying machinery. Beautiful and fascinating and so exotic compared to the farm fields back home!

When we stepped off the boat, we were stunned at the size of the crowd that now swarmed around the windmill. A long line waited to enter the windmill…where we’d wandered in easily earlier in the morning. Mobs of people crowded around flower beds and food vendors where there’d been no one. Photos of the flower beds free of fellow visitors would be almost impossible now. We were so glad we’d gotten that early start!

Where did all these people come from?!

Wanting to retain the benefits of being ahead of the crowd, we decided to eat an early lunch; besides, an early start meant we were already hungry. It turned out to be another good move as we were able to breeze through choosing our lunch and get a table by a window. By the time we’d finished eating, people were scrambling to stake out a table.

A lot more people around as we headed to our last pavilion

We visited the last of the pavilions we’d yet to explore in the far southwest corner of the park. As everywhere else, the flower beds were spectacular, but the pavilion itself held no more than a gift shop, café and toilets so we didn’t linger long. Feeling we’d covered the entire park pretty thoroughly, we made our exit around 12:30pm, a little under 4.5 hours since we’d arrived.

Compare this pic to the earlier one in the same spot: the crowds have arrived!
So much for parking a few spots back for later arrivals…and there’s another lot to the west of this just as full with more on the way

With plenty of time before we had to get our rent car back to Antwerp Centraal at 6pm, we took a back road to admire more tulip fields then stopped off to stroll the charming town of Delft, famous for its blue and white pottery.

Delft, Netherlands
Delft canal

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Find more details on the Keukenhof website. Tickets to Keukenhof are available here and can be purchased separately or as combi-tickets that include bus transportation from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Leiden, or Haarlem. I’ve read that buses can be full on weekends and holidays, and traffic jams are routine so allow for travel delays however you decide to travel. I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of getting an early start if you want to enjoy the beauty of the park minus the crowds. Online tickets are good for a single day only, but you don’t have to specify the date when you purchase them. Tickets are also available at the park. The basic entry fee is €16 for adults ; €8 for children 4-11. Credit cards are accepted throughout the park. The park offers luggage storage.

Of course, actual bloom times for the various flowers depends upon the weather. Tulipsinholland.com claims to do a weekly flower update starting in March (and apparently has in the past), but they are way behind this year and haven’t posted anything since March 7. They did, however, send me an update via email this past Tuesday so were current in that format. You can register for their email updates on their website.

Rent car anomalies; snagging a deal

Our spiffy Skoda Fabia cost us a lot less than if I’d chosen a different code on Avis’ web site

We booked a rent car this week for a daytrip from Antwerp to see the tulip fields and gardens of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. We’ve rented cars several times now in Antwerp that we pick up at Antwerp’s gorgeous Centraal train station. There are several rental companies there: Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar. Avis and Budget share a small office as do Hertz and Europcar. I think we’ve used all four companies now, but Avis seems to offer the best deal for short rentals. It also presents a classic rent car anomaly that I thought was worth pointing out.

Often different rental car locations for the same company within the same city will offer wildly different prices for the same car and rental dates. Sometimes this is the result of extra fees charged for airport, train or bus station locations. Sometimes fees are higher for a mid-city pick-up at a downtown office or hotel. It just depends. (Also, it’s nearly always more expensive to pick up and drop off at a different location, even if those locations are within the same city.) So, once you’ve narrowed your rent car search down to the best-priced company, there’s still some checking to be done if you want to snag the best deal. Sadly, comparing the different total prices creates extra work for the travel planner, but it also creates opportunities to save a lot of money.

Avis in Antwerp offers one of the clearest examples of the quirks of the car rental industry: In Antwerp, Avis’ web site offers two choices at “Antwerpen Central Railway Station.” (Known locally as Antwerpen Centraal, this is the main train station in Antwerp, and the most likely place to rent a car since it’s not only central to Antwerp itself, but also the terminus of frequent and direct trains that run from underneath the international airport in Brussels, a mere 30 minutes away.) The address given for both rental locations is identical. The only difference is a two-letter code at the end of each. But, when you click on these links and check the prices, you’ll find that the final price (including all taxes and fees) for second choice (“TW9”) is much cheaper for the identical car, dates, extras, everything. The reason is that the first option (“AN2”) is considered at the train station so you’re charged $70.76 extra for station fees, while the second option (“TW9”) is simply considered as downtown, so you’re only charged $5.13. For the identical rental from the identical counter in the identical office. Go figure.

Screenshot of a sample one-day rental using the AN2 train station code
Screenshot of a sample search using the TW9 train station code (considered “downtown” rather than in the train station, although it is in the train station. 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code!

I usually find that the Avis quoted car price is cheaper for the AN2 train station rental (sometimes much cheaper–a ploy that could easily lead the unwary to choose an ultimately more expensive rental). But, when the $65 difference is factored in ON A SHORT RENTAL, the TW9 becomes the much cheaper deal. (In the above example, the TW9 rental is 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code. For us this week, I think it was an even bigger discrepancy. And, other companies were wanting 2-2.5x what we paid for our car for similar vehicles!) For longer rentals, the pricing advantage can actually switch back to the AN2 train station rental if the base price is really low, although not by much since the train station fee is not a straight per day fee while the $5.13 fee is. Oh joy, more work for the travel planner.

On our most recent rental, I mentioned this anomaly to the agent checking us out and he confirmed. He then informed me that the “airport” location for Avis in Antwerp is also really at the train station. Avis just taxis customers in from the small local airport which is only about 10 minutes away. Cars have never been available from the airport when I’ve checked, so I don’t have any personal knowledge of those prices, but would expect them to be higher.

I do also check other online travel services, rent car search engines and the like. Sometimes they offer better deals, but surprisingly often I find a better deal direct with the rental company. Also, when booking via a third party I have been hit with unforeseen location fees by the actual rental car company. There’s usually some small print about that being a possibility, so when it’s impossible to check in advance, I sometimes go with the guaranteed final price from the rental company itself. With regards to Avis in Antwerp, they’ve been cheaper when booked directly than via an online travel company like economycarrentals.com, Priceline, etc. Finally, I always use cards that give miles or points for car rentals, check for discount and bonus codes, and check to see if I can use Topcashback for a little extra cash rebate. Most car rental companies and several major travel search companies are on Topcashback.

Mechelen, Belgium: Why is this place not on tourist radar?? (And how awesome that it’s not!)

Grote Markt (Grand Plaza) in Mechelen

Located a mere 15-minute train ride from Antwerp’s Centraal Station and 15-25 minutes from Brussels, Mechelen, Belgium, is an overlooked gem. I’ve seen several lists of “Most Beautiful Towns in Belgium” (Beauty definitely abounds in Belgium.), but none mentioning Mechelen. Old Town Mechelen is delightfully reminiscent of Bruges and Ghent and lesser “most beautifuls,” but without the mobs of tourists. Mechelen is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the medieval St. Rumbold’s Tower that soars above the magnificent St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the Large Beguinage, a complex that once housed a religious sisterhood similar to nuns, but adhering to less strict vows. (Other beguinages can be found in other Belgian cities, including Antwerp.) With the weather forecast calling for bluebird skies and a high in the low 70F’s, David and I hopped the train yesterday (a mere 13 minutes from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station) to spend a gorgeous Sunday wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets and plazas of Mechelen.

St. Rumbold’s Tower soars above Mechelen

Mechelen offers a wealth of cafes and restaurants, chocolatiers, and shops and boutiques of every variety. Tour boats ply the Dyle that runs through the city, there’s a toy museum just across from Mechelen’s Nekkerspoel train station, and eight historical churches to explore. Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery, located a short way from the Old Town center near the beguinage, offers 2-hour tours as well as tour-free visits to their tasting room and brasserie. The brasserie serves all kinds of traditional beer-based and beer-friendly dishes paired with suggested beers. Het Anker brews some world-class beers and is a destination in and of itself, popular with tour groups from Brussels.

Bustling cafés on Vismarkt (Fish Market) Square in Mechelen
Walkway along the Dyle in Old Mechelen

There are not a ton of museums and the like in Mechelen and it’s a shame that some of it’s many preserved historical buildings aren’t open more regularly. Although, from March 11–May 21, 2017, the “Contour Biennale 8, “Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium” art project offers the opportunity to visit six such sites. One of the buildings open during the Contour Biennale is the “Hof van Savoye” from which Margaret of Austria ruled the Netherlands and where both her nephew Emperor Charles V and Anne Boleyn spent some of their formative years. We were able to duck inside the lovely courtyard with some of the people taking part in the Contour Biennale.

Courtyard of Hof Van Savoye
Exploring Mechelen on a gorgeous spring day

St. Rumbold’s Tower is open regularly and worth the climb to the top, both for the view and to visit the workings of the tower, including a crane operated by a huge hamster-wheel-like contraption for humans and a carillon, a mechanized device for playing the tower’s enormous bells.

Crane wheel inside St. Rumbold’s Tower
Carillon rotating drum

The hole through which objects were hauled up the tower by the crane provides a unique view down onto the pipes and keyboard of the cathedral’s massive organ.

Looking down on the cathedral organ

The cathedral itself boasts a magnificent altar, an Antoon Van Dyck painting of Christ on the Cross, and a spectacular carved wooden pulpit. A small museum in the ambulatory holds a limited but impressive collection of relics and medieval sculpture and paintings.

St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen

We had lunch outside a café on the main plaza in front of the confection-like old Staadhuis (Town Hall). Basking in the sun, sipping our Het Anker beers and admiring the fairy-tale view, we told our young waitress how much we loved her town.

View from our café: St. Rumbold’s Tower rising above buildings bordering the Grote Markt
Mechelen’s old Staadhuis with its confection-like roof

She credited the mayor, saying “ten years ago none of us liked our town.” Hmm. Since many of the most picturesque buildings go back 300-600 years judging by the “anno” signs visible on facades, I’m not sure what changes have been wrought in the last ten years, but most of the old buildings have been maintained and/or restored well. There are stylish new residences and commercial buildings amongst the old as well, and the Old Town is clean and prosperous-looking and apparently drawing more visitors. Kudos to the mayor of Mechelen!

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There are two train stations in Mechelen near to the Old Town: Mechelen and Mechelen-Nekkerspoel. We chose Mechelen-Nekkerspoel as the most convenient to Old Town and offering the most scenic stroll into the historic center. It’s also the closest (by a minute or two) to Antwerp. Mechelen Station is also within walking distance of Old Town, just a bit farther. As always, Google Map is your friend for these kind of decisions. Train tickets are available via Belgian Rail and are half-price on weekends. For more information on what the town has to offer, check out Visit Mechelen.

Carnaval de La Louvière in southern Belgium

[Beer tasting, the Tour of Flanders bike race, and general busyness with life in Antwerp distracted me from posting this promptly. The Carnaval de La Louvière was the weekend before last, March 26-28 9 (Sun. – Tues.)]

One of the first things I do after basic travel plans (dates, transport, lodging) are set is check the holiday and festival/event schedule for a destination. Bank holidays are especially worth knowing since they can change opening dates and hours for things you really want and/or need to do. Festivals and events can effect practical things, too (like anticipated crowds, parking, elevated prices, etc.), but they can also be tons of fun and unique experiences not to be missed.

Although we’re currently on our fourth extended stay in Antwerp, Belgium, it’s the first time we’ve been here at this particular time of year: Voila! Potential for new things to see and do! I’ve got several things in my sights for the coming weeks, but we felt like we hit the jackpot this past weekend when we hopped a train down to La Louvière in the south of Belgium for the annual Carnaval de La Louvière “Laetare” festival. I learned about La Louvière’s Carnaval while doing a little research pre-trip. La Louvière is in an industrial area of Belgium and it along with several surrounding towns have been hosting these mid-Lent carnivals featuring local characters called “Gilles” since the 1800’s.

Somewhat like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras “crewes,” various societies form groups of Gilles who participate in various festivities and parades, finishing off several days of festivities with bonfires. The Gilles wear very distinctive traditional costumes in the Belgian national colors of red, yellow and black. The most spectacular feature of the Gille costume is an enormous headdress of ostrich plumes, in gleaming white or tipped with color at the wearer’s discretion.

Otherwise, the costumes are nearly identical: barrel-shaped jackets stuffed with oat straw and matching pants, both covered with felt appliques of crowns and lions; white “caps” worn with or without the ostrich-plume headdresses; wooden clogs; belled belts; lace flourishes.

Gilles at the Carnaval de La Louvière

Each Gille carries a basket of oranges to hand or toss to spectators. The Gilles march along in a step intended to maximize the clacking of their clogs and the jangling of their bells.

A musical band including drums, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, souzaphones and sometimes euphonia and tubas. Periodically, the band would really fire up; then the Gilles would stop, face the band and begin a sort of semi-organized group dance consisting of more stomping and sharp quarter turns. After a bit of this, the whole group would move further along the parade route before the routine would be repeated. [Video of the Gilles’ dance is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

Firing up the Gilles dance
A young Gille with carnival-goers in horse costumes
Lots of spectators were in costume. Hats like these, decorated with dried orange slices, were on sale for those who weren’t in costume but wanted to get in the spirit of things.

The parade–short in length and long in time–ended up on the main square where the various groups of Gilles and other variously-costumed participants converged via two streets. The growing mass group began the final “rondeau” a large circle dance filling the entire square.

Heading for the rondeau; even little ones get into the act
The final “rondeau”

Afterwards, spectators and participants poured out of the square, scattering to restaurants, food stalls, beer pubs and carnival rides until things geared up again later in the evening for more dancing and drinking.

Parade refuse: orange remnants and confetti (and a close up of those clogs)
After the rondeau, we opted for a surprisingly good burger and people watching at Le Goulaf’.

The Carnaval de la Louvière goes on for three days with the final festivities topped off by bonfires. You can learn more at the web site of Amicale des Sociétes du Carnaval Louvièrois. Nearby sister towns host similar Laetare festivals.

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The direct train from Antwerp took about 1.5 hours and dropped us off just blocks from the main action. The Carnaval is free, so we just wandered our way over and arrived just as the parade was really kicking off. We joined the crowd marching along with a group of Gilles, then moved along to other groups at whim. It was easy to get right along-side the Gilles and join in the action. Everyone was friendly and in high spirits…and the oranges were particularly good!

(Although there’s almost no difference between 1st and 2nd class on local Belgian trains, I opted for 1st class out of an abundance of caution, afraid that the train might be full when we were ready to leave. This turned out not to be the case at all, so the extra <$20 was wasted…save for when the conductor made a very loud and food-smelly group move to another car. That was actually pretty welcome as we’d been dozing until that mob plopped into the seats next to us. Anyway, if you decide to go to La Louviere by train, there’s no point in springing for 1st class. If you go by car, be warned that parking looked to be hard to find and several roads are closed off for Carnaval. Book tickets on the Belgian Rail site.)