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

Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum for peace)

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

Brussel sprouts in a western Flanders field

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

Flemish work horses
Happy Flemish cows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning the walk from the museum to the Trench of Death

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

Km 16 marker, the Trench of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

22nd floor of the Museum aan den IJzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Het Anker: Touring one of the oldest breweries in Belgium

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

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

The tour begins

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

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

Copper tuns
A timeline of changing owners, beers and bottles

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

A beer “radiator”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting time

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

Sadly, this burger looks much better than it was.

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

Picturesque Lier, Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon beers on the Grote Markt

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

Zimmersplein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pärnu, Estonia: spas, beach…and snow!

Located on a sheltered bay with broad, beautiful beaches, Pärnu, Estonia, has been a popular spa town since the 1800’s with Estonians as well as visitors from nearby countries. Wanting to get into the spirit of things, I booked us into the seafront Rannahotell, a white nautically-inspired spa hotel dating to 1935-37. A “landmark of Estonian Functionalism,” the Rannahotell is listed as a cultural heritage site.

Rannahotell

Completely remodeled since its early days as a “sanatorium” or place to restore health, our room was decorated with sleek modern furniture, light woods and neutral colors. Big windows looked onto an expansive stretch of beach.

The hotel offers attentive service along with an airy piano bar and truly extensive breakfast buffet in a window-lined room overlooking the beach. David and I both booked spa treatments at the hotel which nowadays offers traditional massage treatments rather than the local mud. We both thoroughly enjoyed our massages, but we were shocked to find that it had begun to snow while we were in the spa. Soon, the beach was blanketed in white!

Snow on the beach in Pärnu

The unseasonably cold spring was a topic of conversation everywhere we went in Parnu. Several people suggested we should come back for the bustle of summer and all the beach-y activities at that time of year, but we kind of liked the laid-back, uncrowded vibe of this chilly spring.

Beautiful Apostolic Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration In Pärnu

Driving the short distance into town, we enjoyed strolling in old Pärnu. As elsewhere, things were slow at this off-season time. Since we weren’t really interested in shopping or specific sight-seeing, we merely wandered.

Tucked into a courtyard just inside the arch at 21 Rüütli Street, we came across this intriguing relic from the past, a granary from the 1600’s
Stylish Rüütli Street
Whimsical statue on Rüütli Street

Of course, David had to try local beer (not that I resisted) and we found a nice venue at Wirre Craft Beer Bar.  Tucked in to a cozy cellar space, Wirre was empty when we got there early on a Tuesday evening and stayed nearly so until we left. This gave us time to visit with the knowledgeable young owner who tended bar. Wirre offers lots of Estonian beers along with many foreign beers. We particularly enjoyed the Óllenaut SimkoEil APA.

Ducking inside Wirre for a little local craft beer
Inside Wirre Craft Beer Bar
On tap at Wirre

Our post-beer dinner was pizza at Ephesus, located at one end of Rüütli. It was OK for a simple meal, but nothing to write about.

Another night, on the other hand, we opted for receptionist-recommended Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik for seafood and enjoyed an excellent dinner. Although unimpressive from the outside, the restaurant is pleasantly stylish inside.

 

In the dining room: another table joined us and our fellow diner before we finished our meal
The bar and café side of Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik

Apparently, Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is also a seafood market and one of several Kalamajakas restaurants in Estonia, named among the best restaurants in Estonia in 2016. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner for €59, which included an appetizer, two entrees, crusty bread, 2 glasses of wine and a dessert .

Scallop and bacon starter
Fresh seafood pasta and a generous salad
David’s entree: local fish and polenta
Kalamajaka Kohvik is proud of their desserts

   

Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is located at Suur-Sepa 18 in Pärnu.

Haapsalu, Estonia: beach resort of Imperial Russia

View from the Pavilion on the Promenade in Haapsalu

Despite the unseasonably cold spring, I really wanted to see the seaside resort town of Haapsalu while we were in the area, en route from Tallinn to Parnu. Renowned for centuries for curative mud and a popular spa resort with the Romanov family, Haapsalu is actively seeking to reassert itself as an international resort destination. [We were in Haapsalu May 2017. I’ve been enjoying a low-key summer and have been slow about finalizing my last two Estonia posts–this and one more on Parnu. We were supposed to be in Miami and Havana this coming week, but those plans are canceled due to Hurricane Irma, so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up blogging our Baltics travels before we head back to Belgium in October.]

We turned out to be the only guests at Lahe Guesthouse, the bed and breakfast I’d chosen for our stay. Our hostess was waiting for us when we arrived, showed us the rooms available, then left us on our own in her big, beautiful guest house with a key and the run of the place. It was fun!

Lahe Guesthouse. The two windows on the second floor, left, were our bedroom and offered views of the bay and marshes.
Dining area of Lahe Guesthouse with no one else around on our off-season stay. (Our hostess did return to fix breakfast in the morning.)
One side of our spacious guest room
Marshes and bay behind Lahe Guesthouse

After settling in, we walked away from the marshes and into town.

We saw few people on our way into Haapsalu town

Haapsalu is small, so in a few short blocks, we arrived at the remains of the 13th century Haapsalu Episcopal Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Saare-Lääne. The semi-restored castle grounds and walls are open to the public without charge. We had fun just strolling and people-watching. Perched atop a portion of the wall, we laughed at the antics of a little boy zooming endlessly around the inner grounds on his foot-powered “motorcycle” while an older sibling ran after. There’s also a museum, encompassing the castle’s cathedral, that we did not visit, but it’s closed now until 2019 for renovations.

Entrance to Haapsalu Castle
Entering Haapsalu Castle
Haapsalu Castle ruins
Haapsalu Episcopal Castle cathedral

Leaving of the castle, we walked through the old town towards the waterfront Promenade.

Old Haapsalu

The pretty Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene sits between old town and the Promenade, overlooking the water.

Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene

The Promenade is the pride of Haapsalu. Lovingly decorated by Estonian Roman Haavamägi in the 1920’s, Haapsalu suffered during WWII and many of Haavamägi’s wooden sculptures that decorated the seafront Promenade were burnt. Recent restoration was completed and the Promenade reopened in 2010.

Haapsalu Sundial on the Promenade
Haapsalu Promenade with the Assembly Hall and iconic wooden polar bear statue (a replica) in the water

We enjoyed walking the Promenade, but it is definitely a sleepy place in the non-summer months. After dinner downtown followed by a shot of the local, vodka-like birch water alcohol, we called it a night. The next day, we strolled the paved walkways through the wild marshland behind our guest house before setting out again to explore the back roads of Estonia. Haapsalu made for a fun short visit and I’m glad we went, but there’s not much to keep a visitor there for long off-season.

Looking back towards the neighborhood of Lahe Guesthouse from the marsh paths

Beer Post: Koht Beer Bar and Põhjala Brewery’s Speakeasy in Tallinn, Estonia

Archway leading to the entrance to Koht

We were in Tallinn for the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, but tickets had been sold out for months, so all we could do is borrow a list of breweries and beers that would be represented from the owner of Old Town beer bar Koht and wistfully pour over what we’d be missing. Fortunately, Koht, (which just means “place”) had a lot of great craft beers on offer, so it was easy to drown our disappointment. Koht is a tiny place located through an arch off Lai Street in Lower Old Town. Despite its size, it was the place most recommended to us for regional craft and specialty beers.

Through the arch: The front door of Koht (and our friendly bartender)
Koht bar with doorway leading to the attached beer shop

We visited Koht on a slow weekday afternoon and enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable owner and bartender and sampling some of their recommendations of draft and bottled beers from Estonia and around the world. A poster for “Large Barn Oven” rye stout from Lehe Brewery caught my eye and we had to try it. A product of a small Estonian brewery, the beer is dark and semi-sweet, tasting of malt and black bread (9% alc., €3.50 for 25cl). Draft selections at Koht were interesting and good, but limited. The bottle collection, on the other hand, is extensive.

Find Koht at 10133, Lai 8, 10133 Tallinn, Estonia; Phone: +372 644 3302. Their hours are flexible. We were told they usually open around 5pm, but we found them open at 3 or 3:30pm.

Things were slow on a weekday afternoon, but we heard Koht gets packed on weekend evening. The interior space is cozy any time but would be great on a cold evening with the fireplace lit.

Because of the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, popular Estonian brewery Põhjala opened its Speakeasy bar on the “wrong” side of the tracks near the train station. The friendly young woman tending bar told us the bar opens in the summer and from time to time throughout the year, so it would be worth checking with the brewery or the Speakeasy Facebook page for opening days if, like us, you’re in Tallinn in off-season. The bar is spartan but had a good range of Põhjala beers in bottle and on tap and the neighborhood is not scenic, but it does offer some dirt-cheap Asian restaurants. A restaurant adjacent to the Põhjala bar, Burger Box, would take orders through a small window between their spaces and hand through dinner to be eaten at the bar. Põhjala’s Speakeasy is located at Kopli 4, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia.

Põhjala temporary bar

We tried several Põhjala beers including their Pime ÖÖ Imperial Stout (13.6% alc.) and an interesting cassis-flavored porter, ÖÖ Cassis (10.5% alc.). The stout is rich, black and sweet, tasting of espresso and dark chocolate. The porter was interesting; also very rich and dark and coffee-bitter but with a touch of sweet-and-sour from the currants.

Interior of the Põhjala bar
Outdoor patio at Põhjala bar in Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia: more than a ferry/cruise port

More retro blogging from our May 2017 Baltics travels. I’m trying to catch up before we’re off on our next trip:

The Great Coastal Gate and Fat Margaret Tower once protected Tallinn from seaborne threats

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has long been popular with tourists taking the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. More recently, cruise ships also discovered the picturesque Baltic port city. The result of all the boat traffic is a constant swell and ebb of humanity in the city and a very touristy, if lovely, Old Town. (In the summer, cruise ships can bring over 4600 tourists to Tallinn in a day!)

Tallinn Old Town main square
Tallinn flower market

Hoping to dig just a little deeper and see the city during some of those less-crowded ebb times, I booked us a 4-night AirBnB apartment in the heart of Old Tallinn. I had trouble finding an apartment with secure, dedicated parking, but finally settled on a chic, all-white (but small) studio in a terrific location with covered, gated parking. I’m usually not a fan of studios, but this time our options were really limited and we did have a semi-private seating area we shared with two other apartments. Prices are higher in Tallinn than elsewhere in the Baltics, too, albeit still lower than you’ll find in most of Western Europe and much cheaper than Scandinavia. Anyway, our apartment and landlords turned out great and our only complaint was too much sun in the mornings.

Fortified walls of Old Tallinn

We enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and found simply enjoying the atmosphere to be our favorite part of Old Tallinn. The shops in Old Town are nearly all of the tourist souvenir variety and not of much interest to us, but fun if that’s what your looking for. At this stage of life and travels, we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs and are more excited to see shops and markets selling local products we might not be familiar with to locals. In this modern, small world, those sorts of shops are rarities, though.

Just down the road from our apartment on Uus. It seemed a miracle the old wooden building was still standing.

Old Tallinn consists of both a lower and an upper town. This was most easily visible from the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, a few blocks from our apartment in Lower Town.

View of Old Tallinn, both Lower and Upper, from St. Olaf’s Church tower.
It’s a steep climb and 232 steps to the observation level of St. Olaf’s Church tower

St. Olaf’s Church itself is simply adorned with some interesting archaeological pieces on display along the side aisles of the nave. Completed in the 1600’s, the original church dated back to the 1200’s. It’s the tallest medieval structure in Tallinn. Admission to the church is free, but there’s a €2/adult -€1/child fee to climb the tower.

Interior of St. Olaf’s Church
In the lower portion of Old Town Tallinn
Historical walk at Estonian History Museum in Lower Town

Hiking up to Upper Town, we visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church with characteristic architecture including three cross-topped onion domes. Former and current mansions of Estonian aristocracy abound in this area interspersed with terraces overlooking Lower Town, where we common folk could share the view.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in upper Old Town

The oldest church in Tallinn, the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its baroque tower also sits in Upper Old Town. Coats of arms of Estonian nobility cover its interior walls. There’s a €5/adult -€3/child fee to enter the church, although you can admire many of the coats of arms from before the ticket booth.

St. Mary’s Cathedral (also known as “Dome Church,” the oldest church in Tallinn
Family crests and coats-of-arms adorn the interior of Dome Church

Having time to spend in Tallinn let us extend our wanderings beyond Old Town. The modern city offers much in the way of shopping, dining, bars and coffee shops. We loved the futuristic additions to old warehouses in the Roterman City area. This chic neighborhood, in easy walking distance of Old Town, bustles with a hip young clientele.

Roterman area buildings

One day, a long walk to us to Kadriorg Art Museum in a baroque palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718. The palace itself is as worthy of a visit as the park. The palace is surrounded by Kadrioru Park, a place popular with locals.

Kadrioru Park leading to Kadriorg Art Museum and palace
Inside Kadriorg
Schoolchildren visiting Kadriorg

We enjoyed a delightful  late lunch for €20 (total) at Katharienthal, just inside the park grounds. It occupies an elegant building and offers French-style patisseries downstairs and a pretty dining room upstairs.

Katharienthal cafe exterior
Downstairs at Katharienthal
Upstairs dining room at Katharienthal

Walking further beyond Kadriorg palace, we came to the residence of the president of Estonia, an interesting woman who had to be drafted into the job. We were surprised to find we could just walk into the front parking area to snap a photo. Guards at the front door had no problem with us.

Residence of the Estonian President

Just beyond the president’s residence is the fantastic Kumu museum of modern art. Again, the building is as much an attraction as the art.

Kumu – Art Museum of Estonia
Interior of the Kumu

At last treat in Tallinn was a visit to the Estonian National Opera to see a performance of Tosca. The opera house is nowhere as ornate or large as the opera house in Riga and the staging was minimalist, but the performance was excellent and, for €31 apiece, we had front row center seats on the first balcony.

Interior of the Estonian National Opera House in Tallinn
Tosca

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Tallinn has a great beer scene and we definitely explored that. More on beer in a soon-to-follow separate post.

Viljandi, Estonia

Viljandi church (“Jaani Kirik”) just across a ravine from the castle ruins and park

The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.

Traditional Estonian farm homes

The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.

Footbridge from town to the ruins of Viljandi Castle
Ruins of Viljandi Castle
Lake Viljandi viewed from the castle ruins

There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.

The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult,  €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.

Old Town Viljandi

We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!

Delicious but pricey bread at Kohvik Fellin in Viljandi
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The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at viljandi@visitestonia.com or phone (+372) 433 0442.