Port of Katakolon, Greece: Ancient Olympia, a winery & beaches

Katakolon waterfront, just off the cruise pier

Katakolon, Greece, is an easy port for cruise passengers. Although Ancient Olympia is the main draw, the quaint waterfront town of Katakolon sits just at the end of the cruise pier. I’d visited Katakolon and Ancient Olympia years ago with my sons. We’d taken an excursion to Ancient Olympia then, but I wanted more freedom on this visit so I’d arranged a Sixt rent car for the day.

In doing my pre-trip research, I found Sixt to offer the best price as well as port-side car drop off. Sure enough, a nice young woman was waiting with a car when we walked off the pier. Some paperwork and a quick inspection of the car to make sure there were no dings or malfunctions that might later be attributed to us and we were off.

Doing a little paperwork for our Sixt rental car

I’d downloaded driving directions to Olympia and the Mercouri Estate winery pre-trip and added them to my calendar. Coordinates and addresses at the ready made it easy to program in our destinations and T-Mobile had us connected in Greece and data-ready so Google Maps had us covered. The roads in the area nice and well-signed and it was an easy 30-40-minute drive to Ancient Olympia. Our only slight snag was when Google Maps took us to the tour bus parking. A few questions and a little luck put us in a free parking lot right by the Ambrosia Garden Restaurant and a wide paved footpath that lead across a small creek to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. (The path is wide with white stone lines laid across concrete and regular intervals. If Ambrosia is on your left, the museum is ahead. The path is visible on Google satellite view of the area.)

Archaeological Museum of Olympia

We paid €12 apiece for a ticket that granted entrance to the archaeological site and three associated museums: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia. We decided to save the museum for later and went straight to the archaeological site where we spent a couple of hours wandering the many ruins.

Ancient Olympia Archaelogical Site
Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia

The Archaeological Museum was a great ending to our site visit. Although not large, the collection is impressive and well laid out. The building is modern and well lit and there are clean modern toilets available in an area accessible downstairs and to the left of the main doors as you exit into the outside courtyard. We opted to forego the other two museums.

Praxiteles Hermes, superstar of the Archaeological Museum of Olympia

Walking back along the footpath to our car, we decided that Ambrosia offered a too-easy and appealing place to stop for lunch. We ate outside under a vine-covered lattice and thoroughly enjoyed our Greek lunch.

Hearty Greek lunch at Ambrosia

Back in the car, we drove about 30 minutes straight to Mercouri Winery only to slip through their wide gate just before closing time. I’d downloaded their brochure, but completely forgot that they close at 3pm, Monday through Saturday. Our hostess was a little less than welcoming, but all turned out well. She sold us a tasting of wine and left us to wander on our own, just asking that we avoid a cruise ship tour that was on the property. We preferred to be on our own anyway, so that was no problem…if a little less-than-flattering in her delivery. Oh well.

We explored the gorgeous grounds, sipping our wine and charmed by the peacocks we found, especially the male in full display, slowly rotating at the top of a split stairway leading to the slightly-crumbling original estate house.

Old Mercouri Estate House (with a peacock in full display on the landing just above the main arched door)

A marble marker proclaimed a self-rooted vineyard to have been planted in 1870. Oranges and flowers, antique wine-making equipment and an old well decorated the winery while the sea sparkled in the distance. It was all achingly picturesque.

From Mercouri, it’s a less than 10-minute drive back to Katakolon. With plenty of time until we had to be back aboard ship (and the car rented for 24-hours), we decided to check out a local beach before heading back to town. We found long, sweeping beaches near town lined with houses and totally deserted but with tire tracks showing that these were, as in my native Texas, drive-on beaches. When you have a wealth of beach, it’s a thing.

Beach near Katakolon (cruise ship was visible in the distance to the right)

We dropped off the car in the same spot we’d left it, rendezvousing with the same nice young woman. In our remaining time, we explored the quaint, touristy streets and waterfront of Katakolon. We sampled local food and drink set out in the many shops, finally buying a bottle of honey wine before heading back to the ship.

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Practical info:
I rented our little 4-door Volkswagen hatchback online from Sixt for €38.49 including all taxes and fees. (There were lots of taxis waiting at the port as well as cars and vans available for on-the-spot rental. There is also a €10/person  train that runs from near the port to Ancient Olympia, but if you miss it coming back, you’re on your own.)
Entry to Ancient Olympia and its museums was €12/person.
Mercouri Winery usually charges €10/person for a tour and tasting. We were charged something less, but I forget what.

By way of comparison, the ship offered a 5h30min. excursion to Olympia and the Mercouri Winery for $179/adult and $159/child. A 5h15min. excursion including a tour of Ancient Olympia, the Archaeological Museum and free time cost $119/adult and $99/child. Neither excursion appeared to include lunch.

Port of Piraeus, Greece: Athens

On the Acropolis: The Erechtheion and its beautiful caryatids

After transiting the Suez Canal, our first port in Europe was Piraeus, Greece, the nearest port to Athens. I’d been to Athens a couple of times before, but it had been awhile and I’d never been with David, so we were both really looking forward the day. We wanted to do Athens on our own, though, and planned to take advantage of the Metro system. Not only did the Metro offer freedom of movement, but it is also very cost-effective, particularly when compared with exorbitant cruise line excursions.

Celebrity “Constellation” docked at Terminal C, Gate E12 of the Port of Piraeus

Our ship docked at Cruise Terminal C “Alkimos” of the massive Piraeus port. Our Gate was E12, although the gate itself referenced Terminal B “Themistocles” which I think was the terminal building just next to ours where another Celebrity ship was docked. In any event, cruise ships dock at Gates E11 and E12; Gates E1-E10 are docks for the many ferries that service Greece’s scattered islands. The Piraeus Metro station is near Gate E6, a walk we made in about 30-35 minutes. There are buses that run between the far gates and the Metro Station and nearby train station, but we had too little information regarding buses at that point to be sure which one to choose (although we could have asked a driver or waiting passengers) and we were curious to at least see a little of Piraeus before we headed into Athens for the main show.

We started walking down this road from Gate E12 towards the Metro and train stations. The water is on the left here. To catch a bus going to the stations, we would have had to wait at a stop on the opposite side of the road from the bus approaching in the photo.

We walked on a wide sidewalk with the water of the port on our left. The Metro station was eventually on our right, across a broad street. There is usually a pedestrian bridge over the road to the Metro station and nearby train station, but it was closed due to construction along that stretch of the road. Still, between Google Maps (thanks to our T-Mobile international data plans) and following the crowds of people moving with the purposefulness of commuters, it was easy to find the crossing to the station. Just inside the station, we split up with me heading to a bank of ticket machines to the left of the main doors and David getting in line for a live teller to the right. I was easily the “winner” and flagged him away from his slow-moving line as soon as I had our 5-ride passes in hand.

Live tellers to the right as we entered the Piraeus Metro Station
Ticket machines to the left of the Piraeus Metro Station doors as we entered

Since Piraeus is the terminus of the Green Line 1 of the Athens Metro system, there was nothing to picking the right train. Metro Line 1 that runs between Piraeus and Athens is the descendent of a steam railway opened between the two cities in 1869. It’s the only one of the three Athens Metro lines that runs primarily above ground. The cars are nice and modern, although on our return to Piraeus in the late afternoon our car lacked adequate air conditioning and I was too warm until I could move into a seat where a breeze through a high, open blew directly on me.

All departing Metro trains in Piraeus are going to Athens

Hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we wanted to check the Acropolis off our list first. We rode the Green Line 1 eight stops to Omonia and changed there for the Red Line to ride three stops to the Akropoli Metro station. We just followed signs and found navigating the Athens Metro to be easy.

Athens Metro signs are easy to follow

The escalator from the Metro station opened onto a cobblestoned, mostly-pedestrian street. A short walk straight ahead in the direction we exited the Metro and a turn to the left found us at the entrance to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, a not insubstantial line was already formed. Given the docking time of our ship, the 8am opening time at the Acropolis, and the travel time to Athens (which was not appreciably longer by Metro than it would have been by bus or car through traffic), we knew there was no way to beat the crowds, but this was daunting.

Line for tickets to the Acropolis

The hold-up appeared to be only two tellers and an inefficient charging system. Guides hawked tours, promising to the ability to cut the line, and we considered it, although we didn’t want a guide, just the cut. A nearby sign tantalized with the information that online tickets to the Acropolis will be available soon. Oh well, we just waited. It actually wasn’t too bad and we through the line in about twenty minutes. (It did get warm in the sun, though, even in early May. An umbrella/parasol wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you find yourself at the Acropolis in the summer.)  Although a €20 ticket for just the Acropolis and its slopes is available, we opted for the €30 package ticket that includes the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and more.

Crowds were spread out across the expansive slopes and walkways leading up to the Acropolis, so we could view the approach, theater/odeon, etc. relatively comfortably. But, crowds were funneled back together at the main stairs.

Southwestern slopes leading to the Acropolis
Odeon of Herodes Atticus

This is one of the frustrating facts of visiting someplace on a cruise or when a cruise ship or ships are in port: hordes of people wanting to visit a major site all at once. Having visited on much less crowded occasions, I regretted that this was David’s first glimpse of the famous ruins.

Hordes on the main stairs to the Acropolis

Moreover, extensive work is being done on the Parthenon and other structures, so large areas are cordoned off and work-in-progress is visible from nearly every part of the Acropolis. Despite the drawbacks, it is still one of the great wonders of the ancient world and it was good to be back.

Parthenon
Parthenon

Descending from the Acropolis, we headed north this time, following signs to the Roman Agora. We wandered this small rectangle of ruins, admiring its unique octagonal Horlogion or Tower of the Winds which once housed a 2nd century BC water clock.

Inside the Roman Agora with the octagonal Horologion of Andronikos of Kyrrhos a/k/a Tower of the Winds in the background

Leaving the Roman Agora, we walked down a street bordering a fenced off area containing the ruins of the Library of Pantainos, then turned right down a street (Vriskaiou) drowning in graffiti towards the ancient Plaka district and the much larger grounds of the Ancient Agora.

Acropolis beyond the ruins of the Library of Pantainos
Vriskaiou Street

Like the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora was included in the combination ticket we’d bought at the Acropolis. Highlights of the Ancient Agora area include the massive Temple of Hesphaestus and the beautifully rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a many-pillared, 2-story building with long open porticos and which houses a small museum.

Temple of Hesphaestus
Looking over the Ancient Agora with the Stoa of Attalos to the left and the Acropolis in the distance
Lower portico of the Stoa of Attalos (The museum is inside to the left.)

The grounds are also lovely with paths wandering through flowering plants. There’s also a small Byzantine church on the site dating back to the 11th century, The Church of the Holy Apostles, with stunning wall paintings once hidden beneath plaster.

Frescoes inside the Church of the Holy Apostles

Hungry after our busy morning and ready for a break from the heat, we chose a restaurant, To Uovli, just outside the entrance gate to the Ancient Agora. Their lunch special offered “homemade” fare, including great bread, a hearty Greek salad for 2, moussaka and chicken gyros plus two glasses of beer for €28. Sitting outside in the shade and overlooking the Ancient Agora, it was a near-perfect break, marred only a tiny bit by the too-dry gyros.

Happiness is a great Greek salad and ice cold beer in the shade on a beautiful day in Athens

Sated, cool and happy, we headed off after lunch to explore the rabbit warren of shops in the Plaka a we made our way to the Athens Flea Market.

Old mosque near the flea market

Syntagma Square and the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building was my ultimate destination. There was no way I would let David miss that unique ceremony!

We arrived at the front of the Parliament right on schedule and staked out a spot at the front of a growing group of people. The ceremony was everything I’d remembered from previous visits, the unusual uniforms, over-sized pom-pom-bedecked shoes, and almost-absurdly-stylized steps a unique mix of solemn and almost funny. I couldn’t shake images of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks no matter how hard I tried to focus on the somber symbolism of the ceremony and the eternal flame in front of the tomb of an unknown World War II soldier.

After the ceremony, we ducked into the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne to admire the beautiful lobby before taking an elevator upstairs to admire the view over Syntagma Square from the top-floor bar. (We also availed ourselves of very nice bathroom facilities. An early lesson I taught my sons when traveling with them: You can often skip unpleasant–and often for-pay–public bathrooms by dressing neatly and walking confidently into a high end hotel. I’ve never been stopped.)

View from the Hotel Grande Bretagne’s rooftop bar: Parliament, Syntagma Square, and the Acropolis

Happy with our day and ready to head back to the ship, we got on the Metro at the Syntagma station, rode two stops to Omonia and changed to Green Line 1 for Piraeus. Scanning a bus schedule at the Piraeus Station, we saw we had several options for buses back to the ship. We walked back to the main road on the waterfront to a nearby bus stop and caught bus 843 which dropped us off in less than 10 minutes right at Gate E12 and our ship.

Piraeus bus to Gate E12; enough English to get us there

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Practical info: The Athens Metro/Tram/Bus tickets cost €1.40/ride and are sold on a non-personalized ticket for €7 for 5 rides in 24 hours and €14 for 10 rides in 3 days. You can reload the cards at machines in every Metro station. I had no trouble paying at the machine in Piraeus with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.

The Acropolis is open 8am-8pm with the last entrance at 7:30pm. Tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 and the combination tickets are 30 and include 1. Acropolis and its slopes, 2. Ancient Agora and the museum at the Stoa of Attalos, 3. Roman Agora, 4. Hadrian’s Library, 5. Olympieion, 6. Kerameikos (Archaeological Site and Museum), and 7. Aristotle’s Lykeion. Pay in cash or card and the entrance to the Acropolis. Hopefully, TICKETS SHOULD AVAILABLE ONLINE SOON to avoid the long queues.

By way of comparison, Celebrity offered a 6h45m excursion which included motor coach transportation, entry to the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum (which we decided to skip in favor of the Agoras and Syntagma, but which does look excellent), a souvlaki lunch and free time in Plaka for $179/adult and $159/child. We spent €102 (about $119) in total for our day (Metro/bus tickets, Acropolis combination tickets and lunch).

Trying out De Waterbus: Daytrip on the Schelde River to Kruibeke Polder and Castle Wissekerke

De Waterbus at Steenplein in Antwerp

We got our first chance to try De Waterbus yesterday, the river bus that leaves from Antwerp’s Steenplein and makes a 30-minute run to nearby Hemiksem via Kruibeke. De Waterbus is new as of July 2017 so not yet in service when we were here last spring and not so appealing during the cold days when we were in Antwerp last October-November. Yesterday, however, was perfect: warm and sunny; just right for an explore.

The Waterbus leaves every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour from Steenplein (the pier where the free cross-river ferry to Linkeroever docks, near Het Steen castle). The cost is 3 for a one-way trip or 5, round-trip. De Waterbus has plenty of room and racks for bikes and a nice, air-conditioned interior and public toilets.

It’s fun to watch the bustling water traffic on the Schelde while the banks are mostly high water reeds and grasses or industrial structures. Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe after all.

The Waterbus made a quick stop on the right bank at Kruibeke, but we stayed on to Hemiksem on the opposite bank where walked a short distance to De Veertoren Taverne a pub I’d spotted online for lunch. There’s nothing else near the dock save tidy new homes.

Terrace at De Veertoren
Wednesday lunch special at De Veertoren: a hearty and tasty steak/frites

After a nice lunch of steak, frites, salad and ice cold Gouden Carolus Tripels, we hopped the free cross-river ferry to the Kruibeke side of the river. (This ferry runs every half hour on the 14 and 45.) I’d seen Castle Wissekerke in the village of Bezel online and wanted to visit, but had been discouraged in the past by the apparent need for a car. I was excited to realize we could actually walk from a Waterbus stop. Checking Google Maps, I saw it’s actually a much shorter walk to the castle from the bank opposite Hemiksem (2 km) than it is from the Kruibeke Waterbus stop (2.5 miles) even though Bezel is in the Kruibeke municipality. The ferry dropped us off at a small parking lot that gave way immediately to the bike trails of the Kruibeke Polder. “Polders” are manmade emergency flood plains that also serve as extensive biking trails connecting towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands as well as being nature preserves and walking paths. We were the only pedestrians getting off the ferry and we would have loved to have bikes, but it’s still a nice walk and we enjoyed our stroll through wild wetlands and marshy forest. The bikes are routed away from the cobblestone walking path which is an added benefit for those on foot.

Kruibeke Polder just off the cross-river ferry from Hemiksem
Walking path in Kruibeke Polder
Marshy alder tree forest in Kruibeke polder
Sluice in Kruibeke Polder

In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.

Castle Wissekerke

Entrance is 5/adult and happily included an English-language booklet with two paths through the castle, one for the nobility and one for servants. We were turned loose to explore the castle which we had almost entirely to ourselves. It was fun and refreshing to be allowed to look through documents, open secret doors, climb a bell turret, descend to the medieval cellar and kitchen, and generally wander and indulge our curiosity with minimal restraint. (There’s a children’s academy of some sort using a portion of the building and that was one of the few areas we weren’t encouraged to visit.)

“Vestibule” of Castle Wissekerke
Gothic-style living apartment, a change from the majority Napoleonic/Empire decor
Servant’s stairway to bell tower

The castle was the home of the family of Count Philippe Vilain XIII and is mostly decorated in restored Napoleonic glory. There are many original items as well as period pieces. Although the castle dates back to the middle ages, it’s current iteration is more a mansion than a fortification. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Wissekerke and are happy the Waterbus and ferry made it doable on foot from Antwerp.

Neglected belfry
Dining room with original china, crystal and silver on display
Chapel of Castle Wissekerke

We wandered through the terrace of a charming café called Bistro Den Duiventoren next door to the castle and peeked in a little “free museum” and bar across the street which is only open on the weekends before retracing our steps to the cross-river ferry and then catching De Waterbus back to Antwerp.

Cross-river ferry dock at Kruibeke Polder with ferry visible on opposite bank at Hemiksem

Posted June 7, 2018

Ladies only: Visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris’ steamy, dreamy hammam

Massage and lounging area of the hammam of the Grand Mosque of Paris

I visited my first hammam years ago in the Marais during my second stint living in Paris. I’d been super intrigued and curious about the hammam experience, but with my then-fairly-limited French, cultural uncertainties, and doubts about dress and modesty and expectations and such, I hesitated to go. When a friend who’d been living in Paris many more years than I had and who swore by semiannual “gommage” (exfoliation) treatments at a favorite hammam invited me to go with her, I jumped on the chance. It was a fun–and kind of crazy–experience, lounging around with lots of other naked and semi-naked women in clouds of steam, then being roughly scrubbed by a burly Tunisian woman (who nearly smothered me with her ample bosom as she leaned over me to work) before sending me off to recover with hot mint tea. I felt like a prize heifer ready for the show. The hammam was a far cry from the gentle, pampering spas favored back home in the States, but boy, was I scrubbed pink and seriously exfoliated!

On our current stay in Paris, I’d put another round of gommage high on my to-do list. Older and more confident, less modest, with my one hammam experience under my belt, and with much-improved (if still sadly lacking) French, I was ready to give it another go. The old hammam in the Marais is now closed, but I’d always wanted to try the hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris so figured now was the perfect time.

A quick check online showed that reservations aren’t required and that the hammam at the Grand Mosque is open every day but Tuesday. I settled on Wednesday, reasonably early (around 11am), hoping for a less-busy time, and that’s what I found. So, for those intrigued by a visit to the Grand Mosque’s hammam but maybe feeling a little intimidated, here’s a step-by-step walk-through of my experience and what to expect:

Start by entering at the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton (across from the southernmost corner of the Jardin des Plantes). The door is literally set into the corner. [The entrance to the mosque itself is a block away, on the far side of the building from the Jardins des Plantes on rue Georges Desplas, although the mosque gives its official address as 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 75005 Paris, which is a small square off rue Georges Desplas.]

Main entrance to cafe and hammam on the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton

You walk through a pretty little courtyard and enter as if you were going to the mosque’s café.

Courtyard between street entrance and the entrance to the café and hammam

There’s a counter with pastries on display; the cafe is to the right, the double doors to the hammam are tucked inconspicuously in the corner, just to the left of the pastry counter as you face it. No need to talk to anyone at this point, just push the door and go on in.

You’ll find yourself in a colorfully painted waiting room/seating area with another set of double doors on the far wall. Go through those doors to find the welcome counter/front desk of the hammam where you choose and pay for the services and any items you’d like to purchase or rent for the day (exfoliating glove, soap, towel, bathing suit, etc.)

Waiting room/seating area. Go on through the double doors to the hammam front desk.

Options ranged from a simple entry to visit the hammam and enjoy its sauna and bathing facilities (18 €) to various “forfaits” or package deals, the most expensive of which includes lunch. I chose the “Forfait 53 €” which included:
1 Entrée Simple (unlimited time to use the hammam’s facilities for the day)
1 Massage 20 (a 20 minute massage with orange blossom-scented oil)
1 Gommage (exfoliation)
1 Savon Noir (a packet of special black soap of a soft-wax consistency)
1 Thé à la menthe (a hot, sweetened mint tea to finish off my visit)

I also paid €6 for an exfoliating glove (“gant”). The hammam accepts cash or credit cards.

The lady at the counter gave me three plastic disks on stretchy wristbands to act as tickets. These were engraved with “GOMMAGE,” “MASSAGE 20M,” AND “THÉ.”

The hammam front desk where you pay in advance for the day’s visit and treatments. The massage area around a central fountain is in the middle background. The white door in the far background leads to the shower/gommage and toilet areas and then into the steam rooms beyond.

The lady indicated two boxes of plastic shower slippers behind me opposite the desk and told me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of slippers. I wore these for the rest of the day until ready to leave.

Adorned with my “bracelet” tickets and carrying my glove and packet of soap as well as the bag containing the towel, a hair clip, dry underwear and a few toiletries I’d brought, I headed across the massage area and through a door to the right that leads to the long, narrow locker and changing area. Only one other woman, a Frenchwoman of about my age, was in the changing area when I arrived. We exchanged a few words as we disrobed and tried to figure out the system; it was both of our first visit.

I chose a locker near the door. A popular choice, I found out later, when several of us were trying to use side-by-side lockers while a vast expanse of space was left wide open.

Unlike the previous hammam I’d visited, signs state that the hammam of the Grand Mosque requires a “bathing suit” in the interests of hygene; total nudity is not allowed. The term “bathing suit” is very loosely interpreted, though. Panties/underwear or bikini bottoms are fine. Tops are optional and quite a few women, myself included, opted for topless.

On a slow Wednesday, there were many unused lockers. The hair dryers on the wall require payment.

Be sure to bring a 1€ coin to operate the lockers. You can’t lock or remove the key (also on a stretchy wristband) without the coin. It will be returned to you when you return the key.

Insert a 1€ coin at the top of the lock, inside the locker, to allow you to lock the locker and remove the key. The coin will be returned (as in the photo) when you return the key and unlock the locker.

Leaving the dressing area, the showers and toilet areas are through a door to your right (directly across the vaulted massage area from the front desk). Toilets and sinks are to the right through that door. Showers and hard plastic gommage tables are to the left. Showers are mandatory before using the hammam, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work, so I originally brought my towel with me to the showers. Mistake. Leave your towel in the locker until the end of the day, or at least until just before your massage. There’s nowhere to set down a towel that isn’t wet and you’ll be soaking wet (and plenty warm) from the steam anyway.

[Photos aren’t allowed in the hammam and I was able to take these after I’d re-dressed only because it was a slow day and no women were in the rooms at the time. From here on out, I can’t offer any more photos from inside the hammam.]

Communal, two-headed showers are on either side of the gommage space with a stone ledge along one wall between the showers. When I arrived, a gommage was in progress and two ladies were lounging on the ledge. One, an older, solid-built woman was topless and had her underwear pulled aside while she did a bit of exfoliating on her own with one of the rough green gloves sold at the hammam and a bucket of water. So much for American modesty! The other, smaller woman appeared to be in a bra and panties. Above them on a high ledge, stacks of plastic buckets were available for visitors. On a central table, a hammam employee scrubbed away at a guest on one of the hard plastic gommage tables. (There is a small private room with tables just outside the shower and toilet area that I gather can be booked for those uncomfortable with the communal atmosphere of the hammam.)

The showers were so hot as to be nearly scalding. Attempting to moderate the heat simply turned off the flow. Hmm. I made quick work of the shower, using a bit of the oily black soap from the packet I’d bought with my package.

Finding the shower/gommage area to be small and not particularly attractive, I moved on to the next room which was mildly heated with a ledge and garden hose with sprayer on the far wall. A couple of women were sitting there, but I moved on to the next room, the main steam room, a lovely and large, multi-vaulted space.

Two long marble ledges run down the long sides of the room, divided into six separate seating/lounging areas (three on each side), each with an alcove on the back wall with hot and cold water faucets and a little basin. These long ledges flank a large round central platform (10′ or so across), also of marble and sporting a large 8-sided star motif in red, yellow and black. A central dome rose above, collecting a cloud of steam. A couple of women sat on one of the side ledges, splashing water from a plastic bucket onto themselves as they leisurely washed and visited. I chose the central space on the opposite side and stretched out on the warm, wet marble. I closed my eyes or gazed up at the mottled blue of the painted vault above me, occasional drops raining down. This room has the look of a classic old hammam: off-white marble covers the floor and ledges; red granite lower walls give way to blue mosaic tiles on columns which in turn support the mottled blue upper columns and vaults. Small colored windows high on the walls let in a soft light and a little occasional sound from the street, but offer complete privacy.

When I felt ready for a little more heat, I moved into the farthest room of the hammam. This smaller space offers a low marble ledge to the left, a faucet straight ahead with delightfully cool water, and a raised, red granite hot-tub-sized dipping pool to the right, all under a high vaulted ceiling. Today, the pool was unfortunately empty–but pristine–for some sort of maintenance. The heat is such in the room that there is a huge difference depending on where you sit. On the lower ledge to the left, it wasn’t so bad. If I moved to sit by the little pool, up higher, the moist heat was so intense it burned my lips. I could only take short stays in this room, but enjoyed moving back and forth between this space and the large vaulted steam room. I soon claimed a plastic bucket and would fill it up with the relatively cooler water to splash on myself from time to time as I lounged in the large vaulted room and daydreamed. It was a pattern the other women followed as well.

I exchanged a few words with the other visitors, but mostly people kept to themselves or visited with the friends they’d come with. The older lady from the gommage/shower area asked me to hand her down a stool from a high ledge. People commented on the heat or shared info about the hammam, but mostly we just lounged about. At most, there were maybe only a dozen women, of various ages and body types. I felt like I’d entered a scene from some long-ago-far-away place, relaxed and dreamy in the clouds of steam, unselfconscious in the all-female atmosphere.

Periodically, one of the gommage or massage ladies would walk through the steam rooms, eye the tickets on our wrists and beckon to one of the guests. Eventually, it was my turn to follow one of these women back to the gommage area. I laid down on the hard white plastic table and handed her the gommage glove I had purchased. She put it on and went to work. Wow. At one point, I wondered if she might scrape me down to raw meat. (I think I should have re-slicked myself with the weird black soap beforehand, although when I asked her about that, she told me it wasn’t necessary. She may have been more worried about her schedule than my skin, though.) She scrubbed me pink, lifting my arms, pulling aside my bikini bottoms to get at my haunches, the dead skin sloughing off onto the table. (Sorry! But, that’s how gommage works.) When she was done, she hosed off the table and floor while I hit the showers again before heading back to the steam rooms.

I visited with two English-speaking ladies in traditional bathing suits in the smaller, least-heated room until I was called for my 20-minute massage in the beautiful main massage area by the front desk (see top photo above). I went to my locker to deposit my glove and soap packet and dry off beforehand.

The massage began face-up on a padded, towel-covered table. The masseuse used copious amounts of orange blossom-scented oil, covering me from head to toe, even oiling my chin and the sides of my nose, massaging my temples and scalp. If your complexion can’t handle oil, just let them know not to do your face. It was delightfully relaxing, though, albeit leaving my hair a total oil slick. Oh well, I’d known a shampooing was in my future after the hammam anyway.

Once again, modesty is at a different level than in the States or many anglophone countries: Another masseuse worked on another guest at a table maybe six feet away. Oh well, I closed my eyes and totally forgot about them. “My” masseuse rubbed chest and belly as well as back, neck legs and arms. The hammam massage is more a firm rubbing and kneading than some sports massages I’ve had where elbows and knuckles are used to break the grip of painful knots. It’s relaxing and luxurious and a delightful way to end the day (and recover from the more business-like work of the gommage).

With the massage done, I tried rinsing some of the thick oil off in the shower, but found it pointless. So, I just wiped off as much as I could with my towel and got dressed save for my shoes and coat. (The plastic grocery bag I’d brought for wet things was put to good use.) My hair was so oily that I just slicked it back and re-clipped it for the ride home on the Métro. Not exactly glamorous. Again, oh well.

I exchanged my one remaining plastic ticket at the front desk for a small tray with paper napkin and a steaming glass of sweetened mint tea. I carried these to one of the padded ledges around the massage area where I kicked off my slippers and stretched out my legs to enjoy my drink. I’m generally not a fan of sweetened tea, but this was delicious! As I sipped, the older full-figured lady I’d first seen topless in the shower/gommage area added her last layer of black, traditional Muslim clothing before heading out. I bid her “au revoir” and a “bonne journée” which she returned. It’s good to be reminded how we’re all just people under our clothes.

In the gardens of the Grand Mosque of Paris

Practical info: I spent about 2 hours total at the hammam, feeling that I’d done things at a comfortable, leisurely pace. With company, it wouldn’t have been hard to stay longer. The hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris is open every day but Tuesday from 10am to 7pm. Details about the hammam are online here. Note: the hammam is cleaned with chlorine for anyone having a sensitivity.

The nearest Métro stops are Jussieu (lines 7 and 10), Place Monge (line 7) and Censier-Daubenton (line 7).

Things to bring: a towel, a euro coin for the lockers, a credit card or money, a clip or tie to get hair off your neck, dry undergarments, basic toiletries (shampoo, if you want it; cosmetics, etc.), a brush or comb, a plastic bag for your wet towel and bathing suit.

Don’t wear much or any make-up to the hammam, especially mascara; it will be steamed off you or smeared down your face in no time. Don’t expect to get out of the hammam with presentable hair.

David and I visited the adjacent mosque before I sent him away to enjoy my time at the hammam. Entrance to the mosque and its gardens is €3 per person. Head coverings are not required for women, although I did wear a scarf out of respect. Prayer rooms are off-limits to tourists. Open 7 days/week, find more about the Mosque here.

 

Free Sunday at the Louvre Museum: Is it really too crowded to enjoy?

A manageable crowd on Free First Sunday at the Louvre

Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month (December), which means Free First Sunday of the Month at the Louvre and many other Paris museums.  (The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. See the bottom of this article for more info.) I’ve heard and read the horror stories about Free First Sunday hordes, so wanted to check it out myself so I could report what I found on Wanderwiles. I’ve been to the Louvre more times than I can remember and am a past member of Amis du Louvre, so I’ve always avoided these Sundays. Since we’re just in Paris for a month this time, David and I decided we’d give the Louvre a miss on this visit unless First Sunday surprised us…and it did!

No hordes here!

First off, we decided NOT to be waiting when the museum first opens at 9am. Although I’ve seen recommendations to do that, I’ve also heard that there are huge lines waiting at the opening which thin over time. Also, we wanted to go to the first Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral at 11am. So, we went to church, walked the pedestrian-only Champs-Elysées (another first Sunday of the month thing), then rode line 1 of the Métro to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre stop so we could enter the museum by the underground Carousel du Louvre entrance (thereby hopefully avoiding any line at the above-ground pyramid…and the cold drizzle of the day).

We could see the line still formed outside the glass pyramid from inside the Louvre where we’d been happily touring for over an hour.

Walking past the shops (put l’Occitane on your left) towards the upside down pyramid suspended from an atrium, our first glimpse of a huge line of people was disheartening.

Uh oh. Line to Carousel du Louvre security entrance

We slipped around them to the upside down pyramid where we could see that things were backed up and crowded in the hall beyond (which leads to the main atrium of the Louvre below the courtyard glass pyramid). It seemed the horror stories were confirmed.

Yikes! Not looking good. View from upside down pyramid, looking back towards shopping area from which we’d just come.

But, I wanted to give it a little time to be sure the crowd we were seeing wasn’t just a backlog of groups. (That seemed to be a possibility.) So, we browsed the shops for maybe 15-20 minutes. Stepping back into the hall, we saw that the line had completely disappeared. We walked back to the upside down pyramid atrium and crossed right into the hall beyond which leads to the main atrium/ ticketing and information center of the Louvre.

15-20 minutes later, the line was gone and we walked right in.
The main atrium, under the glass pyramid, was bustling with people.

Once in the main Louvre atrium, you are presented with three escalators going up to the three main wings: Richelieu, Sully and Denon. I figured most people would be going to Denon to see the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance paintings, Winged Vicory, etc. Although the Denon hall of paintings (“La Grande Galerie”) is one of my favorite places on earth and I like the museum “stars” as well, we’ve seen those many, many times, so I opted for Richelieu. I love the French sculpture rooms of the Richelieu wing and thought they might be less crowded, too. Sure enough, they were delightfully uncrowded.

Plenty of open spaces and free benches among the French sculpture
There were other visitors, but the numbers were very manageable

We found much of the Egyptian exhibit and earlier Mesopotamian exhibits to be equally horde-free. As were the Louis XIV rooms and objets d’art exhibits in the Sully wing. Sure, there were other people, but there really wasn’t a problem or anything remarkable about the numbers. This was great!

Enormous column capital from the palace of Persian king Darius I, 510 BC
Marie-Antoinette room
Egyptian bust “Salt’s head” in a beautiful setting

We ended up spending four great hours wandering our favorite museum.  We saved the Denon wing for last (5-5:30pm) and were able to visit a popular, but easy-to-view Winged Victory.

Free First Sunday crowds around Winged Victory didn’t interfere with the view.

I got to say hello to my favorite Botticelli “frescoes” just beyond Winged Victory (look for the lady with the giant scorpion), and the Grand Galerie, that wonderful long hall of Renaissance masterpieces. There were a lot of people, but not much if any more than I’ve seen on other busy days at the Louvre. I had no trouble viewing my favorite Raphael works in peace.

Botticelli’s “A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts”
La Grande Galerie, around 5pm on Free First Sunday in December (The Mona Lisa room is ahead on the right.)

We even stepped into the Mona Lisa room, mostly to marvel at the throng straining to get close and taking selfies with the famous painting. It was crazy, but then again, not really out of the ordinary.

Not much more than the usual frenzy at the Mona Lisa

Practical info:

Free First Sunday hours are 9am-6pm. Entrance is via the main glass pyramid or the Carousel du Louvre. Sadly, my favorite little-known entrance from the past, the Porte des Lions, is now open only for booked groups. On Free First Sunday, the Porte des Lions was completely closed and we could not even exit there, so had to retrace our steps down the hall.

Exiting via the same Métro entrance we came in at below the Carousel du Louvre proved to be problematic: A huge crowd filled the area in front of the stiles. So, we exited onto the street instead and walked the short distance to the above-ground entrance to the Métro. There we could access the stile immediately and found no crowds on the quai. Just be sure you descend into the Métro so that you’re going in your preferred direction (toward La Défense or Chateau de Vinennes).

Bear in mind that French school holidays and those in other countries may well effect the crowds on Free First Sundays. Yesterday wasn’t a school holiday in France. The next Free First Sunday in January may well be more crowded as it will be a school holiday in France and elsewhere.

The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. Find many other Paris museums that are free on the first Sunday of the month on the official Paris tourism web site page entitled Free Museums and Monuments in Paris.

Paris: Veneration of the Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame Cathedral

Veneration of the Crown of Thorns

While I drop in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris any time I walk by and there’s not a line, it’s always extra special to visit during a service. One particularly special ceremony to look out for is the Vénération de la Couronne d’épines (Veneration of the Crown of Thorns).

Everything about the veneration contributes to the beauty and religious aura of the famous cathedral: The clouds of incense, the music, the cloaked men and women, the ritual kissing of the gold and glass reliquary which houses a woven crown of reeds, now minus its thorns. The thorns were dispersed over the centuries, some 70 of which have been affirmed as original by the Catholic Church.

http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/en/spiritualite/spiritualite-et-liturgie/veneration-de-la-sainte-couronne-depines/

The Veneration of the Crown of Thorns takes place on the first Friday of every month and every Friday of Lent at 3pm. On Good Friday, the veneration lasts from 10am to 5pm. Dressed in white cloaks, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (“les chevaliers du Saint-Sépulcre de Jérusalem”) assist the church canons with the service and help maintain order and a prayerful attitude. (They keep a watchful eye for the over-zealous. Apparently, one or two fervent worshippers have “rushed” the crown in the past.)

Like most things at Notre Dame, the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns is free and open to the public. You can participate in the service (including kissing the relic) or simply view the proceedings while standing on the sides, just beyond the roped off area (from where I took these photos). Just remember to be quiet and respect the dignity of the ceremony and the sanctity of the moment for participants.

Fondation Louis Vuitton: Wow!

Visiting the Fondation Louis Vuitton (“FLV”) was high on our list of things to do during our current month in Paris. Under construction for twelve years and costing nearly $135 million dollars, the privately-owned contemporary art “museum”/exhibition hall is a one-of-a-kind work of art itself. The building was still under construction on our last visit to the surrounding park, so we were really looking forward to seeing the finished structure. All I can say is “Wow!” Talk about exceeding expectations. An immense assymetrical collection of gleaming white structures clad in glass “sails” on steel and wood supports, FLV joins the panoply of great Parisian landmarks. It’s an architectural and engineering feat not to be missed.

Visitor entrance to FLV

Through March 7, 2018, FLV is hosting Being Modern: MoMA in Paris. It’s an impressive exhibit of some iconic works of modern art from the famous New York museum and we thoroughly enjoyed it: Picasso, Litchenstein, Rothko, Pollack, Warhol, Kahlo and many, many more. There’s sculpture and film, a wonderful 40-speaker audio of the Salisbury choir, whimsical found objects, industrial “art”, architectural maquettes and actual pieces of dissembled buildings.

High ceilings and good lighting make the FLV a pleasant art venue

It’s all big fun and I highly recommend “Being Modern: MoMA in Paris” for modern art fans, but the real show for us was the FLV building itself.  We spent over four hours wandering the wild, sweeping expanses of the FLV, enjoying the art as well as the rooftop terraces, sky-lit rooms and exposed stairways.

Looking down on the lobby from the 2nd floor of the MoMA exhibition

The rooftop terraces offer intriguing insights into the building as well as sweeping views over the adjacent Jardin d’Acclimitation (a charming old children’s amusement park, petting zoo and equestrian center) and La Defense, Paris’ skyscraper dotted western business district.

Stairway between rooftop terraces

We bought amazing rich, dark hot chocolate by renowned Belgian chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini, from a cart on one terrace. On another terrace, Alto Café provided refreshments.

FLV has no standing art exhibit; it’s really just an enormous exhibition hall(s) and auditorium. The only standing display is a multi-story offering on the design and construction of the building contained in small spaces on each floor. One staircase was deliberately left “unfinished” as well so visitors can view the exposed structural elements.

Stairs with exposed structural elements
Auditorium with waterfall in background

For an added bonus, we exited through the back of FLV for a better view of the waterfall we’d see on our approach and free access to the Jardin d’Acclimatation. Trees in blazing fall finery made the pretty park even more spectacular than usual.

The Jardin d’Acclimatation in fall splendor
Looking back at FLV from the Jardin d’Acclimatation

Practical info: Buy tickets for specific times online (every half hour from around 9am-7pm, with some variation). Tickets for the MoMA exhibit are €16 for adults, €10 for 18-26, €5 for under-18’s. There are reductions for teachers, artists, unemployed-seeking-work, etc. Check the web site to see if any of that applies.

FLV is about a 10-minute walk from Les Sablons Métro stop on Line 1, west of the Arc de Triomphe/Étoile. There’s also a FLV shuttle that runs from near the Arc de Tiomphe directly to FLV for €2 per person.

Find lots of useful info here, including a handy calendar that shows peak and lull times so you can try to avoid crowds. The building is so large, though, that we never really felt crowded.

There is a gift shop with items related to FLV and the current exhibition. There’s also a pricey restaurant, Le Frank:

Fish lights by FLV architect Frank Gehry “swim” over restaurant Le Frank

Musée d’Ennery: Oriental art in a Paris mansion

How could I pass up the chance to see the inside of a private mansion (“hôtel particulier”) on swanky Avenue Foch and a reputedly extensive oriental art collection for free? Obviously, I couldn’t!

Front exterior of the Musée d’Ennery

The Musée d’Ennery is the former home of Clémence d’Ennery, a well-known actress of her day and an avid collector of oriental objets d’art. She deeded her collection to the Musée Guimet with the proviso that the collection be kept intact in her home. After some legal wrangling with her older playwright husband, who unexpectedly outlived her, her wish has been fulfilled (save for one lacquered trunk on display at the Guimet as an enticement to visit the Musée d’Ennery).

After stowing things in a locker, we waited here for the tour to begin.
Details of the main foyer

The Musee d’Ennery is only available by pre-booked 1-hour guided tour, in French only. (Details are at the bottom of this post.) That said, it’s easy to book online by email and, even if you don’t speak French, it’s a real treat for the eyes. (My husband’s French was not fluent enough for him to keep up with the rapid-fire French of our knowledgeable guide, but he was not at all bored and glad we took the tour.)

First room with display cases

Our guide did not neglect the basics of her subject. For example, she explained the difference between the little netsuke figurines and the smaller ojime “beads” used to fasten clothing cords in place of/in addition to knots. She also explained the lack of pockets in Japanese clothing that led to the use of these objects. When an item held particular interest, was unusual or unusually valuable, she paused to elaborate.

First room clock, display case and architectural details
Transition room/antechamber between first room and main salon with more display cases of netsuke (figurines) and other oriental objets d’art

While I enjoy oriental art, I am no connoisseur and was primarily interested in getting inside a new-to-me Parisian mansion. I wasn’t disappointed. The mansion is gorgeous, the architectural details fabulous. Our guide offered insights into the collection and the former owner. Apparently, Clémence d’Ennery didn’t actually know a lot about oriental art; she simply bought what she liked. She did develop relationships with knowledgeable dealers, though, and her taste matured. The result is that there are cheap pieces among her collection along with priceless items. I thought her simple desire for beauty, as she saw it, it added to the charm.

Main salon
Display case with netsuke in the main salon
Main salon
Architectural details of the main salon
Ceramic deer and netsuke (figurines) in main salon

I love the Parisian museums located in former homes, giving a glimpse into another lifestyle. (The Nissim de Comondo is one of my favorites of the type, preserving living quarters, kitchen, bathrooms as well as living and entertaining rooms. More often, personal rooms have been converted into typical museum-type spaces or closed to the public; a little disappointing, but still worthwhile.)  Visitors to the Musée d’Ennery  are only allowed into the common areas/salon and entertaining rooms, which are all overflowing with the sheer volume of Clémence d’Ennery’s amazing collection. Bedrooms, the kitchen, etc. are not open to the public.

Salon with oriental masks
View of interior courtyard from salon with masks
Lacquered trunks (rounded tops made for European export) in salon with masks

The lighting is unfortunately poor in the many display cabinets, but the guides had no problem with people using their phones to occasionally shine lights on the curios. They also did not stop anyone from taking non-flash photographs (which people were openly doing) although the confirmation email said they were forbidden. There were 12 people in our group, so maybe it is more a matter of photo-taking causing logistical problems with larger groups.

Ornate salon with giant mirror, alcove (opposite mirror to left out of photo) and display cases
Detail of decorative column bordering alcove in ornate salon
Ornate salon looking back towards salon with masks (alcove behind display cases in back right corner)

Practical Info:

The Musée d’Ennery is only open to individuals on Saturdays (except holidays) at 11:30am by pre-booked guided tour in French only. To book the tour, email the Guimet at resa@guimet.fr. I emailed on a  mid-November Friday and asked to be included either the next day or the following Saturday and received a prompt reply saying we were in the following Saturday’s tour and asking us to arrive 10 minutes early. Names were checked off when we arrived. There are free, keyed lockers on the ground floor to leave coats, bags, etc. before beginning the tour.

See details and possibilities for pre-booked group tours online here. (Scroll to the bottom for specifics on the Musée d’Ennery. If you do not read French and are using the Chrome browser, just right click anywhere on the page and ask Google to translate to English.)

Find more on the history of the Musée d’Ennery here.

We joined a group waiting on the sidewalk at 11:20am until the gate was opened promptly at 11:30am.

À l’Infintiste: creative fine dining in Antwerp with a self-serve twist

Interior of À l’Infintinste, pre-dinner

I had to do a quick restaurant review on a little place in Antwerp we finally had a chance to try called À l’Infintiste. It can take months to get a reservation for this tiny restaurant that has only one 16-person sitting for dinner. The set-up is unique: for €46 you get a creative 5-course dinner served by the chef (who also buses tables and cleans dishes); for everything else you serve yourself. Want bread? Fetch it yourself. There’s a basket, butter, olive oil for the taking, too. Same goes for an aperitif; there are two types of gin on offer. Bottles of red and white wine are in two separate refrigerators, along with still and sparkling water, champagne and other beverages. The price list is taped to the side of one fridge. Corkscrews are in a drawer by the bread. If you prefer wine by the glass, that’s available, too. There’s a fill-in-the-blank receipt on the table, along with a pen and a calculator. When you finish dinner, just fill in what you’ve consumed, total it up and leave cash. (No credit cards accepted.) While it’s not cheap, the low-service business model lets the chef keep prices reasonable for what turned out to be a really special meal.

Our first “apéro” was hands-down the most whimsical (and fun!) and a signature starter at À l’Infintiste: A wooden cigar box, modified so that the label read “Foiehiba,” a play on the famous Cuban cigar brand “Cohiba.” Inside were two “cigars,” “hand rolled” crispy outsides filled with luscious foie gras. The foie gras cigars were served with a cognac snifter of bouillon de veau and an ashtray filled with faux ashes made from roasted pepper and powdered milk. The effect was charming and the foie gras some of the best I’ve had. I’d have loved a box full of those fake cigars!

Hamming it up with faux cigar and cognac apéro

The second amuse bouche was a pork quenelle topped with a piccalilly foam with a crunchy topping. Although good, this was probably my least favorite course, mostly because the flavor combination reminded me of deviled ham with Miracle Whip. For David and me, the taste was a blast from our American childhoods and seemed to call out for Wonder Bread and a glass of milk.

Pork quenelle with piccalilly foam

The appetizer course put the big smiles back on our faces: A gorgeous confection of a shrimp cocktail made with melon, radishes, leeks, avocado, black sesame seeds and a crispy lotus root disc, served with a side dish of piping hot fried shrimp with a wasabi dip.

Shrimp salad and fried shrimp appetizer

The chef, a charming, friendly host, gave us the option of fish or meat for our main course. (He speaks functional English and made us feel very welcome despite our language deficiencies.) David and I both opted for the venison. (At the chef’s suggestion, we’d chosen a 2016 The Chocolate Block red wine from South Africa. Big and bold, this wine is a blend of 79% Syrah, 11% Grenache, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cinsault and 1% Viognier. It turned out to be a great match for the venison.)

The busy and very well-organized chef, mid-meal

The venison arrived on a bed of roasted parsnips and chestnut purée and topped with crispy root vegetable chips and beet leaves. We both marveled at how perfectly tender and moist the venison steak was, although David thought it was a touch too well-done. The meat had a color that suggested sous vide pre-prep.

Venison and winter root vegetables

Dessert was Poire William, this take on the classic dessert made with a dark chocolate tarte topped with housemade ice cream, a pear half poached in pear eau de vie, pear purée and the surprise hit: a pear foam of startling intensity.

Poire William

Full and tired, we skipped coffee, tallied our bill, and laid down our cash. (It was a pleasant change to do things at our own pace and not have to flag down a waiter for the bill and go through the usual payment routine.) The chef bid us a friendly farewell and advised us to book three months in advance of our return to Antwerp next May. I can’t wait to see what À l’Ifintiste has on offer in the spring!

Self-service bill; a quick and easy end to the meal

Our total bill was €158 for two 5-course dinners (€46 each), a bottle of wine (€52; the cheapest wine on offer was around €35), 2 .5l bottles of sparkling water (€5 each).

Note: There are two different phone numbers on the À l’Infintiste web site to make reservations, depending on the night you want to reserve:
For Mon., Th., Fri. and Sat., call: 03.237.43.37
For Sun., Tues. and Wed., call: 0476.390.297
Two different men answered these numbers and clearly there are different chefs cooking these nights. Since we were flexible with our timing, I just inquired as to any available night, and was able to get a reservation for two about 2-3 weeks out. We went on a Sunday and did not have the original founder, Marc van Uffelen. We did, however, have a wonderful chef; I’m just sorry I didn’t get his name.

Dinner starts at 7pm. We were asked to be prompt, but not early. Dress was smart casual. Two men wore jackets, but the rest did not. Collared shirts and pullover sweaters were popular with most men on a chilly November night. Women wore slacks, skirts or dresses.

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. & Thurs. 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.