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.
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.
In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.
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.)
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.
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.
I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.
Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.
We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)
We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.
There’s a bit of a a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.
I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.
The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.
Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.
Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.
Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.
With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).
Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.
Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.
Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.
We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.
The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!
As part of our 3-month around-the-world journey, we spent one month on the Celebrity ship Constellation. This was actually two 2-week, back-to-back (“B2B”) cruises. The first two weeks were more a traditional cruise with many stops: Phuket, Thailand; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cochin, Goa and Mubai, India; Muscat, Oman; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. The second two weeks were more along the lines of a repositioning cruise, i.e., fewer stops and a bargain price as the ship moved from one region to another for a season. This cruise took us from Abu Dhabi back to Muscat, Oman, through the Suez Canal, to Piraeus (Athens) and Katakolon (ancient Olympia), Greece, and dropped us off at Civitavecchia, Italy (the port nearest Rome, although we did not go back to Rome on this trip, but rather picked up a rent car to spend a couple weeks in Umbria and Tuscany before flying from Florence to Belgium).
Upcoming posts covering the cruise period will have more information on ports, directed to cruisers, in addition to regular travelogues. [I’m not that into cruise ship activities and such, but tend to view ships as moving hotels and chose cruises based on itinerary, i.e., ports-of-call and transportation from one point to another. Click here for an earlier post on my philosophy on cruising as well as tips for finding the best deals.] I had some misgivings that a month might be too long on a ship, but we had an amazing time and my only regret is that I can’t do it all for the first time again!
With regards to Constellation, one of Celebrity’s Millennium class ships: I once again booked one of the “Sweet Sixteen” cabins about which I blogged when we sailed trans-Pacific on Constellation‘s sister ship Millennium. [Click here for that post.] These cabins offer a suite-type, double-sized balcony for the price of a regular balcony cabin. For some reason, the extra-large balconies do not appear on the ships’ diagrams and the cabins are categorized as regular balcony staterooms. I prefer the rear-most of these cabins because they offer extra privacy from the cabin just sternward and a more open view. (Both times I booked one of these staterooms, the booking agent had no idea that these cabins existed.)
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love paying for flights with points and miles and David and I try to maximize the points we earn on nearly every purchase we make. But, as anyone who’s tried to book awards flights knows, those “free” flights are often hard to find. Airlines tend to raise the amounts required for convenient times and schedules, offer less award seats on a flight than you need, or simply don’t offer award flights at all on certain flights. Taxes and fees on some airlines and at certain airports (I’m talking about you, Heathrow!) can turn a “free” flight into an expensive proposition. For flights to Asia from DFW, we think Korean Air is the ticket. (Our opinion holds even with all the saber-rattling currently going on between our government and North Korea, although we’ll definitely keep an eye on developments.)
It’s hard to beat Korean Air for both award availability and affordability …and we love their product, too. Last year, we flew Korean Air First Class from Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul for 95,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles plus $204.77 each, flights that would have cost us over $13,000. We only flew one-way because we used repositioning cruises to get to Asia. (Repositioning cruises are one of my favorite, most comfortable and cost-effective ways to cross an ocean without jet lag.) Being pampered with super-soft designer pajamas, a down mattress, duvet and big pillow, plus delicious food, high-end champagne and wine, and attentive service turned a miserably long flight into a pleasure.
We enjoyed our Korean Air experience so much, I searched their flights again when I started planning next spring’s around-the-world odyssey. This time, I was able to book First Class again (DFW-Seoul-Singapore) for the same 95,000 miles each, but taxes and fees were a shockingly low $34.30 apiece. If we’d paid cash, our two tickets would have totaled $18,681.60! We could have booked business class for 75,000 each or economy of 42,500 each. Award availability was wide open in all categories. (Korean Air is partnered with American, but it would take 120,000 AAdvantage miles to fly business class just from DFW to Seoul on the same day and there was no First Class availability.) Korean Air flies to more American cities than any other Asian airline and flies to Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Seoul itself is a fun, dynamic city and Korean Air offers free stopovers at ICN on award flights. (If you have enough time in Seoul ICN and are flying first class, stop by the first class lounge for custom engraved metal luggage tags, a free perk.) See my earlier post for details about combining Korean Air Skypass points with a spouse and family on Korean Air.
We’ve found Korean Air Skypass Miles easy to accumulate using Chase credit cards that generate Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and SPG Starwood points we get from Starwood Amex. Starwood points give a 25% bonus when transferred to their airline partners, but the card and points may soon be phased out with Marriott’s purchase of SPG. UR points are transferable 1:1 to Korean Air Skypass (and many other partners) and are especially easy to accumulate. Last year, Chase offered a whopping 100,000 sign up bonus for the Sapphire Reserve card and my husband and I both jumped on it. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is expensive at $450/year, but that is quickly offset for us by a very unrestricted $300 travel reimbursement that applies to a wide range of travel expenses: airlines, hotels, AirBnB, taxis, trains, rent cars, cruises, toll tags and more plus other valuable travel perks that more than make up for the remaining $150/year. The bonus for Sapphire Reserve is currently down to 50,000, which is still good, but I’d keep my eye open for another super bonus if you’re a frequent traveler, or get the same 50k bonus with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for $95/year without some of the other perks. We use Chase Ink to get 5X miles on office purchases (with includes gift cards from Office Depot for Shell gas, Whole Foods, Amazon and more) and Chase Freedom Unlimited to 1.5X points on everything else purchased in the U.S. (Note: The Freedom Unlimited card charges a foreign transaction fee, so Americans should leave it at home when traveling overseas.) Those points are then combinable with our main UR Reserve accounts. It adds up!
When your computer finds itself in a new country, Google will “helpfully” switch to the local version. Even when you type in “google.com,” Google will automatically switch to “google.xx” (e.g., in Belgium, it’s “google.be”). This can be really annoying when you don’t speak the local language and downright mystifying when the page is in an indecipherable alphabet. Often, you’ll see a link option for English or can click through to the U.S. “Google.com” at the bottom of the search page, but I’ve found those options are not always available (or findable). To solve the problem, just type in “google.com/ncr”. This will get you back to good ole google.com. If, like me, you’ve got your browser set to automatically open Google when you open a new tab, just make that default page “google.com/ncr” and you’ll automatically get the standard Google no matter where you are.
Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.
Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.
Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.
The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.
Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.
We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.
Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.
Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.
Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.
Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!
At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row. (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.
Flying Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, means arriving at the airport two hours before your flight. They’re firm about that no matter how short the flight. We arrived two-and-a-half hours early at the Minsk International Airport and found all Belavia desks closed, but sure enough, promptly two hours before our flight, a Belavia agent arrived and opened a counter. A line quickly formed. Since we were first in line, we were checked in and sans checked luggage in no time. With time to spare, we passed through security and headed upstairs to the Minsk Airport Business Lounge to which we have access via our Priority Pass Select cards (perks of both Chase Sapphire Reserve and AmEx Platinum).
We found an intriguing lounge, empty save for a single agent early on a Friday afternoon. Two massage chairs sat on an expanse of artificial turf spread just beyond two large, canopied daybeds of the kind you might expect to find in the beach area of a resort. Lounge chairs lined the faux lawn. Metal walls in this area and sleek lines on furniture and counters throughout give the lounge a futuristic look. I planted myself in one of the massage chairs for a goodly portion of our stay, but David thought they were too rough and opted for a lounge chair.
A buffet was set out in another wing of the L-shaped lounge just beyond the check in counter. Food tended toward local dishes, of cafeteria quality: sausage, fried meat and vegetables, soup, breakfast cereals and sweets. OK, but not great. Complementary coffee, soft drinks and water were also provided.
Free alcohol was limited to two kinds of Bobrov (a mass-produced Heineken beer) and local wine. Upgraded beer and wine were kept in a separate refrigerator near the check-in counter and cost extra. There were magazines and newspapers, but none in English.
We couldn’t access the free wi-fi with the directions provided on various signs because we had no way to receive the text message used to send a PIN code. The nice lady at the front counter solved the problem with access codes provided on scratch-off cards kept behind the front counter.
The Business Lounge was spotless, stylish and a good place to wait on a flight, if not exactly lavish. Just outside the Business Lounge, small 24-hour sleeping cubicles are available for rent. The Business Lounge is open 24-hours/day.
When we decided to add a few weeks in the Baltics at the end of our Antwerp stay, I started pondering Internet service. The Baltic countries are small, and we had plans to drive back and forth across borders and to cross borders in some fairly rural places. That kind of trip doesn’t lend itself to making a quick stop in a phone store to buy a local SIM card, something I often do when traveling. I also didn’t want to have to buy–and change every time we crossed a border–3 SIM cards, one each for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. (I’d already decided we could do without for the relatively short time we’d be in Belarus.)
When I’m home in the U.S., my cell provider is AT&T, a necessary evil because of its superior coverage where I spend most of my time. But, AT&T is horrible for international travel and I would never consider using its exorbitant international data “plans.” There are more and more international plans these days, but most didn’t suit my needs. However, my research finally led me to Travsim, a German-based company offering multi-country SIM cards at interesting prices and with a decent active period. After exploring their options, I settled on their DATA SIM card for Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania). They offered data SIM cards from 3-12G, lasting 30-60 days, and a 12G, 30 day data-and-international-calls card. I chose a card offering “3 GB – fast mobile internet with a speed of up to 7,2 Mbit/s for 60 days for +$21.44.” I wasn’t interested in getting phone service since we seldom need to make calls locally and can always use Internet calling if we do. We use WhatsApp and Internet calling for texts and calls home, too.
Travsim offers free international shipping and expedited shipping for a fee. The estimated shipping time to the U.S. is 3-5 days (to cities), but I opted to wait and have it sent to us in Belgium. Mailed from Germany, the SIM card arrived 2 days after I placed my order.
The “Baltic” data SIM card I ordered turned out to include data service in many countries. In addition to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the card covered: Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iceland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Channel Islands, Croatia, Litchenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, Hungary, United States, United Kingdom, Cyprus (EU Member state). Wow! The card also came with a UK phone number at which I could apparently receive calls although I never had occasion to try that out.
All I had to do to activate the card was install it in my phone and reboot. Since Belgium was included, I was able to try out the card a couple of days before we left Antwerp and found it working fine. When we landed in Vilnius, it instantly connected as well. I was able to email our AirBnB hostess from the airport to schedule our key hand-off. [Unfortunately, this is the only point at which I had any troubles with this SIM card and I have some doubts that the problem had anything at all to do with the SIM card: I was unable to email or receive emails from our hostess’ mother’s Lithuania email account which caused some hassles as I had to contact our hostess who was in Paris via WhatsApp and AirBnB so that she could relay info to her mother who was waiting on us with the key. All other emails went through fine. I have had a similar problem in Asia and elsewhere when using other SIM cards. My email servers seem to block certain local emails. If anyone knows what this is about, I’d love to know.] The Travsim card also worked fine during our London layover when we flew home from Brussels.
Despite the one glitch in Vilnius, the Travsim SIM card worked seamlessly as we drove across the Baltic borders. The only active step I ever had to take was to reboot when we returned from Belarus, a country not covered by Travsim.
I loved that our Travsim had a 60-day active period. So often, tourist SIM cards last only 7-15 days and I’ve had times when the time limit is just short of what I need. I’d much rather have way too much time than not enough. I still had plenty of data left at the end of my 3-weeks use. At $21.44, I was happy with the price, too. I’m sure local SIM cards are available at much cheaper prices, but given the logistics of our trip and the strong likelihood of language issues, Travsim was the way to go. Given that they offer SIM cards covering many countries on five continents, I’ll definitely keep them in mind for future travels.
Note: Unfortunately, Travsim does not allow hotspotting.
Just this year, Belarus enacted a waiver of their visa requirement for certain travelers. Now, travelers from 80 countries (including the USA, UK, EU, Canada & Australia) can stay up to five days in Belarus without having to get a visa. There are some catches, though: The visa waiver only applies to travelers arriving and departing from Minsk International Airport (MSQ) and the waiver does not apply to flights originating or ending in Russia or territories controlled by the Russian Federation.
When I read about the new waiver, I knew we had to detour to Belarus sometime during our Baltic explore. A call to British Airways confirmed we could move back our originally-scheduled departure from Brussels so we were good to go. (I actually got a refund from BA since taxes and fees were substantially lower for the identical flight on a later day. That’s only happened to me once before when changing an award booking on BA, but I like it!) The cheapest routes and most logical routes to Minsk for us entailed flights on Belavia, the Belarusian Airline. We flew from Vilnius, Lithuania, 30 minutes to Minsk and then from Minsk to Riga, Latvia, a 1-hour flight.
Belavia has an excellent on-time record. They’re a basic airline; everything costs extra, including water, but they’re efficient and friendly. Check-in is a firm 2-hours before boarding. Planes are relatively small on the flights we took, so expect to walk onto the tarmac to a bus then be shuttled to outdoor boarding. Overhead bins are small, so a small carry-on like my trusty Travelon* is in order, ideally one that will fit under the seat. Carry-on was not weighed, but checked luggage was and the limit is 20 kg, less than a standard US flight allowance.
[*I love my Travelon carry-on so much I have two variations, one even smaller than the other and perfect for when I’m taking the netbook and not the bigger (15″) laptop. A strap on the back lets me attach it to the handle of my 360-wheel checked luggage so maneuvering even a heavy load is easy. David liked my system so much he bought the same thing in black rather than my nifty eggplant purple.]
The waiver system worked very simply and smoothly. We filled out the landing card required of arriving visitors and simply indicated our departure date which was within the 5-day limit.
We still had to get the mandatory local insurance so joined the rush to queue up at the counter just inside the terminal entrance to the left. The insurance is very cheap and they accept dollars and euros (at an equal exchange rate), rubles and credit cards. The cost for a 1-2 day stay is $2 (or €2)/ person, for 3-4 days it’s $4 (or €4)/person, 5-6 days is $6 (or €6)/person. We showed our passports, paid the fee and were handed an insurance policy. Standing in line took more time than getting the policy.
With policy in hand, we then headed to passport control. The wait at passport control was longer than at the insurance desk because each passport is very thoroughly examined with a lighted viewing glass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Several people were asked to step aside and at least one was sent back to the insurance desk to talk to some officials. It seemed that everyone got through; it was just slow although not that many people were queued up.
When I did get to an official, I showed her my passport, insurance and boarding card. She asked me if we had a visa. I said “no,” then she verified that we were leaving within the 5-day limit and all was well. (The only “verification” was a simple question. I wasn’t required to show my return ticket as I was in China when using a visa waiver there.) She asked the purpose of our visit and when I said I was curious about Belarus, she smiled and asked “Tourism?” I nodded and she stamped me into the country. (David went through the same methodical process. There’s no stepping up as a couple traveling together, only individuals, one-at-a-time.)
We went through the same methodical inspection of our passports when we left Belarus, but there was absolutely no problem. The visa waiver system works smoothly. We heard several Belarusians mention that there’s hope the waiver will be extended to 10-days. They recognize the potential for increased tourism and are looking forward to it.
I’ll write more on our stay in Minsk and our daytrip to Nesvizh and Mir, but am enjoying our travels rather than blogging right now. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and saw tourist areas being expanded and renovated in addition to an apparent general construction boom in Minsk. Departure from Belarus was as hassle-free as arrival. With cheap airlines bound to start pouring in, go sooner rather than later. I worry that the Ryanair/drunken-stag-party crowd will do to Minsk what it’s done to other Eastern European cities.