Carnaval de La Louvière in southern Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

Gilles at the Carnaval de La Louvière

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off the ship and back on our own tomorrow

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Naha, Okinawa: Naminoue Beach with Naminoue Shrine in the background to the right

We’re off the RCL Mariner of the Seas tomorrow and back on our own. I haven’t written travelogues about the cruise portion of our 2.5 month odyssey just because I don’t know that I’ve got much new or useful to offer. It’s been fun and we loved the itinerary–both for the ports and for its transportation value as part of our overall trip, but the ship’s service has been a let-down, not nearly as good as we experienced on our trans-Pacific crossing on the Celebrity Millennium. It was my first time on RCL, and I’d heard good things, so maybe this is just a function of changes as the ship has been fairly-recently based out of China. Definitely, cultural and language aspects were a challenge, but food, service, efficiency of on- and off-boarding left a lot to be desired. Oh well, hardly a hardship, just a little disappointing. Still, it’s been nice to have this 10-night break with someone else in charge of our itinerary before we begin our last month of travel through southeast Asia.

In the spirit of completeness, I hit on a few highlights below from our ports-of-call with Mariner that might be of interest to someone doing this cruise or making these stops:

First up was Naha, Okinawa. It was good to be back in Japan, but while we avoided the forecast rain, the sunny day brought some pretty serious heat and humidity. The highlight was definitely the hatagashira parade on Kokusai street, part of an annual festival and prelude to world’s largest tug-of-war set to take place the following day. There’s a photo below and I posted a video on Facebook of the amazing balancing act groups of costumed young men did with decorated 10m poles called hatagashira. [FB keeps informing me that I have to post on Wanderwiles’ FB page or the page will go inactive, so I’ve posted pics, videos and other tidbits there as well.] I couldn’t find much information about the Naha cruise port itself, so am happy to report that we docked at the Wakasa Berth, much closer in than I’d feared. (Apparently, it is possible for a ship to dock in the “spare cruise ship berth” on the far side of the container port that lies behind Wakasa Berth.) The small cruise terminal offers ATM machines, free wi-fi, helpful information staff, and plenty of taxis. There’s a nice little beach (see photo above) not 10 minutes’ walk from the the dock (walk to the right out of the port, cross the street, and take the path on the side of, not over, the bridge), or you can skip the beach and shrine and walk directly to the monorail (to Shuri Castle) and main shopping street, Kokusai Street, in about 20 minutes. Stopping at lovely Fukushuen Garden along the way will slow you down, but is worth the delay. Just beyond the beach, and accessible from the beach by a flight of stairs, is a pretty Buddhist Shrine. The surprise gem of our visit came when we cut through a park just to our left as we descended the main shrine stairs. We were just planning to cut back to the street leading from the port to Kokusai Dori Street. The park turned out to be a memorial park adjacent to the Tsushima-Maru Memorial Museum to the mostly-children who lost their lives when the ship on which they were being evacuated was torpedoed by an American ship. Like the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, this little museum is dedicated to providing rest to the souls of those who died, to memorializing their lives, and to displaying the consequences of war. It’s a sad, but welcoming little tribute with children’s belonging and a recreated classroom. Everything save a video with English subtitles and the transcript of messages from the American warship (targeting the destroyers and military personnel accompanying the evacuation, and apparently unaware of the children) is in Japanese…so the nice lady at the desk refused to accept our payment for tickets and allowed us in free. The video alone was worth the stop. (And the air conditioning is welcome, too.)

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Naha, Okinawa, Japan: Hatagashira parade on Kokusai Dori Street

Our next port-of-call was Hong Kong. I’d long wanted to visit, and had been disappointed when a schedule change left us with only 10 hours in port, rather than the two days initially planned. Still, we made the most of our time. The new cruise port is at the old airport and, while the terminal is huge and modern, it’s an inconvenient location and the massive size just makes for a lot of walking through empty spaces. (I measured .4 miles on my Fitbit from the shuttle bus to the ship on our return, 90% of that simply walking back and forth through the maze-like terminal.) Despite my misgivings about the location, free shuttles provided by local malls turned out to be a really convenient launch to our day. We chose a shuttle that dropped off at Hollywood Plaza mall, and after snaking through a Marks & Spencer (weird), we ended up in a mall by multiple ATM’s, grabbed some cash, then descended an escalator to the Diamond Hill subway station. We bought tickets at machines (that require bills of 50HKD or less) and give change. For less than a couple of US dollars apiece, we rode all the way to Central station on Hong Kong Island (starting on the green line, then changing at Mong Kok so that we just had to step across the platform and onto the red line). From Central station, we took Exit J and followed signs to the Peak Tram, rode ding ding double-decker trams along Bank Street, then caught the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. We checked out the famous high tea at The Peninsula, but opted for a drink at the Intercontinental with its spectacular view of Victoria Harbor as evening fell and the lights came on.

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Hong Kong: Beautiful Victoria Harbor

After Hong Kong, we had our first stop in Vietnam. The port at Chan May is a very industrial port, a long way from anything of interest to most travelers. The nearest tourist destinations: Danang, Hoi An and the former imperial city of Hue are all worth seeing, though. In fact, the hard part is choosing which to see since Hoi An and Hue are in opposite directions. There’s no cruise terminal. Knowing we needed to make plans (and not a fan of large cruise ship excursions), I’d signed us up for a private tour via Tommytours with people I’d met on Cruise Critic. [If you don’t know Cruise Critic and you cruise or plan to cruise, you need to get familiar with it. Join your ship’s “roll call,” sign up for the Meet & Greet on-board, read tips from your fellow cruisers, pool resources for tours. You’ll meet a lot of people who want to do nothing but cruise which may not be your thing, but they know the ropes of their chosen line and they’re good friends to have: We boarded with Diamond-Plus level friends, so were 5th and 6th on the ship, avoiding lines and getting to settle in early.] The Chan May port charged $25pp for a tour company to drive in to pick up, so we walked out of the port to meet our guide. I’d been leaning towards Hue, but David was taken with photos of Hoi An, a small group tour was available to Hoi An, so that’s what we did. Hoi An has the advantage of being a lovely city that was saved from destruction during the war. Heavily reliant on tourism, it’s still a beautiful glimpse at an older way of life and we really enjoyed our visit. Hue, site of the Tet Offensive, was destroyed and the former “forbidden city” is a reconstruction of the original. Our guide picked us up in a brand new, 16-seat van with great air conditioning and 2 fast wi-fi hotspots. Cold water and cold towels made the van a delightful refuge from the humidity and passing showers. On the way to Hoi An, we stopped at Danang Beach where some of our group bought live crabs to be cooked later for lunch. Our next stop en route was at the Marble Mountain area which actually consists of 5 holy mountains representing the 5 elements of local religion: metal, wood, fire, water and earth. We rode a free-standing elevator up to Water Mountain. A sudden downpour left only David and me with the guide to explore the pagoda, temple and cave shrines on the mountain. (We had rain gear while our companions did not. Although the guide handed out ponchos, the others were already wet and wearing shoes that couldn’t handle the sudden rushing water that cascaded down the steps and paths of the mountain. David and I wore made-for-fly-fishing Teva sandals–our faves for such travel–and just waded on until the cloudburst ended.) Hoi An turned out to be the kind of place where you just want to ramble. Our guide took us through a Buddhist Temple and classic long, narrow, two-story house with balcony overlooking the bustling street. We walked past river boats and through an ancient Japanese covered bridge before David and I ducked out for a little time on our own. Back with the group, we enjoyed at 7-course feast of Vietnamese food on an open-air veranda by the river. Back at the ship, our guide was able to drive into the port, bypass tour buses and drop us off right at the ship. This was a good thing, since a storm had rolled in. It was pouring raining and howling wind. David and I were fine in our rain gear, but a lot of people were drenched in the unsheltered line trying to get back on the boat.–The poor organization of Mariner striking again. [We used Tommy Tours for our Hoi An tour. You can find Tommy at: http://tommydaotours.com/. Ty (prounounced “Tee”) was our guide. They were very professional. The only slight negatives I’d point out are that lunch was very late in the day, 2pm, so we were hungry after our early start, and Ty’s accent sometimes left us guessing, but we’ve found that to be a very common problem in Asia. We paid $75 apiece and did tip.]

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next port, Phuy My, Vietnam, was as industrial and remote as Chan May, also offering no cruise terminal, but at least a few vendors under tents. The place to see here is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the former Saigon. Knowing it was a nearly 2-hour drive, I debated whether we wanted to make the trip at all, but decided it made no sense not to. One again, we pooled with some Cruise Critic friends, walking out of the port to board another private van (booked through Tours By Locals). Another 16-seater, this van had great a/c, but only room temperature water and a non-functional wi-fi hotspot. Not as nice as the Hoi An set up, but our guide, Tam, turned out to be very interesting. The son and relative of many refugees (aunts and uncles escaping to Australia and his father imprisoned for 5 years after a failed attempt with the 6-year old Tam), his family suffered punishments in the past and job discrimination that continued. Still, he was upbeat and informative. Braced for the bustle of the big city, we were still blown away by the massive, chaotic crowds of scooters that swarmed the streets darting between trucks, buses and cars. Tam assured us traffic was actually light since it was a Saturday. Oh, good Lord, I could only imagine “rush hour!” We peered out the windows of the van, fascinated as we moved past the Saigon River from large roads to narrow, byzantine streets filled with shops offering nothing but scissors, others offered dragon costumes, medicinal herbs, and so much more. Stepping out of the van for the first time, I was hit by the smell of incense, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Tam let us down a narrow passage between buildings to arrive at the courtyard of a 300 year old Buddhist temple. The smell of incense definitely emanated from the building, growing to a cloud as we moved past a raging fire in a big free-standing “furnace” in the middle of a second courtyard. The temple bustled with activity, worshippers lighting 1 or 3 (never 2) sticks of incense and waving them before them before planting them before altars to bow and pray. Overhead, a myriad of spiral, cone-shaped incense burned, adding to the thick atmosphere. Ceramic statues crowded the roof of the temple, ornate and beautiful in a way completely unlike the temples we’d seen in Japan and Korea. After the temple, we visited the biggest, dirtiest market I’ve ever had the fascinating but dubious pleasure to visit. This place offered wholesale goods only and burst with hats, clothes, food, herbs, sugar and more, overflowing from an enormous covered area to sprawl into trash-strewn streets alive with pedestrians, porters with every imaginable bundle, and–of course–scooters. It was a relief to return to the sanctuary of the van for the drive to the War Remnants Museum. This museum, surrounded by captured American military vehicles, gives the (mostly-Northern) Vietnamese view of the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to see, particularly the many photos of those injured by Agent Orange and the horrible birth defects suffered by multiple generations of those exposed. The famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” quote is displayed with jarring impact. The culpability of the North is glossed over (much like we saw in the Military Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, and unlike the more balanced approach of the Hiroshima Peace Museum), but it’s still worth seeing and acknowledging the horrible price of war. We moved from war to lunch, pushing away for a time thoughts of man’s inhumanity to man. We’d asked Tam for a local food lunch and he delivered with a noisy Vietnamese “pancake” restaurant. Crispy shrimp and pork “pancakes” cooked outside in iron skillets were served piping hot and folded over bean sprouts. We broke off pieces, rolled them in lettuce leaves and dipped in a special sauce. Delicious! Other courses included crab spring rolls and small beef rolls served with dry rice paper for rolling with various condiments and yet another sauce. We had pho and local beer and deep red watermelon, too. Messy, but fun, and lots of new things to try. We ended our day with visits to the French colonial-era Notre Dame cathedral, post office, opera house, city hall, and the classic Rex Hotel. It was a fascinating day and fun; I’m so glad we went…and I doubt I’ll need to do it again. [Tam a/k/a “Tony” can be reached at http://www.saigonmekongtours.com and sales@saigonmekongtours.com. Split 8 ways, we paid $75 apiece for all transportation, entries, and lunch and did tip afterwards. The tour lasted approximately 8 hours. Tony did a good job despite a few language/accent struggles for us, but again, we’ve found that to be the norm in Asia.]

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

So, now I’ve caught this blog up to date. We know that when we get off the ship tomorrow, we’re probably in for more travel uncertainty than in more-developed Japan and South Korea, but we’re excited…Besides, we definitely won’t be roughing it our first couple of nights in Singapore. We’ve booked the Intercontinental, courtesy of easy points via an IHG promotion and David’s IHG credit card. (The promotion ended before I started blogging or I would have definitely shared. I got over 60,000 IHG points for sending in some postcards, enough for a night at the Intercontinental. David racked up points with postcards, too, then scooped up the rest with a credit card signing bonus.) After Singapore, we’re off to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before heading to Cambodia and beyond. Here’s hoping the adventures that lie ahead are good ones!