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

Interior of À l’Infintinste, pre-dinner

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

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

Hamming it up with faux cigar and cognac apéro

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

Pork quenelle with piccalilly foam

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

Shrimp salad and fried shrimp appetizer

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

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

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

Venison and winter root vegetables

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

Poire William

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

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.

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.

Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

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

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

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

Approaching Kaunas on the E85 from Vilnius

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

Ninth Fort

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

Exploring the exterior of the Ninth Fort

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

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

Interior of Avilys gastropub in Old Town Kaunas

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

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

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

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Gedimino prospekt, the Champs Elysées of Vilnius

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

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

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

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

Vilnius Cathedral

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

The archeological portion of the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

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

Throne room in the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

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

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

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

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

KGB prisoner processing room

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

Cell designed to be filled with freezing water

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

KGB execution chamber

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

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

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

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

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

Alaus Biblioteka, the Beer Library

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

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

A Michelin-starred chef’s “french fry restaurant”

Belgians love their french fries (and are the probable originators despite the name), although here they’re called “frites” in the French-speaking part of the country and “friet” in the Dutch-speaking regions. In Antwerp, our not-infrequent home-base, fries are sold at little shops called “frituur”, literally “frying pan.” Traditionally served with mayonnaise, they also come with a variety of toppings beloved by the Belgians.

Recently, there’s a new, upscale arrival on the frituur scene, an upstart from the Netherlands called “Frites Atelier Amsterdam” that’s teamed with Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. [Herman, formerly of Oud Sluis, is currently chef at Antwerp’s posh The Jane restaurant.] In addition to three locations in Holland (The Hague, Utrecht and Arnhem), there’s a beautiful little shop Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 in Antwerp. Yesterday, David and I couldn’t resist dropping in for a fresh-from-the-fryer box of crispy goodness. So, of course, I had to share our experience.

First off, the location itself is a gem. On a popular pedestrian street next to the wonderful old Dutch step-roofed building that houses chocolatier Mary and across from renowned bakery Goossens, Frites Atelier Amsterdam occupies a charmingly decorated space. Uniformed “waiters” and “waitresses” greet guests, explain the set-up and take your order.

Then, you wait to hear your name called by the fry chefs behind a back counter. You can choose your own seat at one of several small tables inside or out or take-away your treat.

The “menu” is strictly fries and toppings. A simple box of fries like we opted for costs €3.50 and you’re offered your choice of two out of five homemade sauces available in ceramic self-serve vats: andalouse, classic, basil, bernaise and truffle. In addition to basic fries, there’s a chef’s Seasonal Special (currently an Asian creation with kimchi, crunchy wonton, sriracha, Greek yoghurt, furikake and curry mayonnaise) for €6.50, a Flemish Beef Stew (a take on traditional “stooflees”, beef stewed with brown beer and served at the Atelier with cress and mustard) for €8.75 with mayo, Indo Peanut (peanut crunch of fried onions, peanuts, rempejek and lime zest) for €6.50 with mayo, all three, of course, served over fries. Beer, wine, bottled water and homemade teas are also on offer.

Vats of housemade sauce at Frites Atelier Amsterdam

Our fries came out piping hot and they were very good although I’m not so sure I got anything extra from the vaunted Zeeland potatoes and samphire salt. In truth, what’s not to like about fresh, hot, perfectly fried, skin-on French fries, whatever the variety of potato or salt?

We chose the andalouse and bearnaise sauces and found both to be good, if not particularly remarkable. The andalouse sauce is made with tomatoes and peppers and is mildly spicy. The bearnaise is rich and tasty. In the end, though, we both would have liked plain mayo or ketchup. All in all, it was a fun stop. Service was quick and friendly and the prices fair. Still, we won’t be forsaking our other favorite frituurs for an exclusive future with Frites Atelier Amsterdam.

Temples of Old Chiang Mai (& a prison lunch)

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Wat Phra Singh on our first evening in Chiang Mai. A royal temple established in 1345.

Since our hotel, Rendezvous Classic House, is in the old city of Chiang Mai, we decided to spend our first full day here exploring some of the many Buddhist temples (wats) the city is famous for. A moat surrounds the brick walls of Old Chiang Mai, enclosing a maze of streets and narrow alleys. First impressions of this part of Chiang Mai were mixed as we discovered a serious shortage of sidewalks or safe places to walk, even on the main roads. Walking requires weaving around stalls, parked cars and scooters meaning you’re frequently walking among the swarming traffic. It’s hot, too. Still, we made our way to the first wat on our list, Wat Chedi Luang, without any real difficulty.

Wat Chedi Luang is renowned for two things in particular: the Vihara, a building that houses the “City Pillar” or Inthakhin Pillar, and the semi-ruins of a huge ancient chedi. The main temple is also impressive with its elaborate golden facade and soaring interior.

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Inthakhin Pillar Vihara at Wat Chedi Luang temple complex
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No women allowed. This kind of sexism gets a little old. Funny to read the semi-apologetic “rationales” on some of these sorts of signs, though.
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Facade of the main temple at Wat Chedi Luang
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Buddha in main shrine at Wat Chedi Luang

Behind the main temple stands the crumbling ancient chedi or stupa, the largest in Chiang Mai and the largest Lanna structure at the time it was built.  An earthquake in 1545 destroyed the top 30m. The Emerald Buddha, which was housed there at the time, was afterward moved to Luang Prabang, Laos, before eventually finding its way to Bangkok.

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Ancient chedi–the largest in Chiang Mai–at Wat Chedi Luang.
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Monks at Wat Chedi Luang

The all-wood Wat Phan Tao lies just next door to Wat Chedi Luang. It is much smaller than Wat Chedi Luang, but is a beautiful example of classic Lanna architecture.

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Wat Phan Tao
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Wat Phan Tao

After leaving Wat Phan Tao, we continued our walk north. The day was gorgeous, but hot and we couldn’t resist ducking into an air-conditioned little cafe for delicious iced coffees. Coffee arabica is grown in northern Thailand and we’ve found the coffee here to be really good.  Refreshed and recharged, we continued our walk on to Wat Chiang Man, a beautiful temple famous for the elephant statues surrounding its gold-topped stupa.

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At Wat Chiang Man with the elephant stupa in the rear right
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Elephant stupa at Wat Chaing Man

Our stomachs were indicating lunch was in order. On impulse, we ducked into a truly unusual lunch venue: the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Restaurant. This nice little café, shop and Thai massage parlor is run by women from the local prison as an effort to train and rehabilitate them for employment after incarceration. We enjoyed our traditional Thai lunch and the friendly service. My khao soi was the best of the trip. Khao soi is a northern Thai specialty made with a mix of deep-fried noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry coconut milk sauce served with yellow crisp-fried curry noodles. Uniformed guards checked up on us along with waitresses in simple beige pant-and-tunic outfits.

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Khao soi
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Servers at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Restaurant

Last on our list of must-see temples for the day was Wat Pra Singh. We’d actually seen a bit of this temple the evening before on our first stroll through Old Chiang Mai. (See lead photo above.) A large group of military-looking people in white uniforms with black arm bands were gathered there for some event. We’d peeked in, but decided not to risk intruding on what may have been yet another in the many mourning events going on around the country for the recently deceased and much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced “poom ee poon ah doon yah day”).

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David in front of Wat Pra Singh, draped in black and white mourning for the king
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Golden stupas of Wat Pra Singh
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At Wat Pra Singh

After Wat Pra Singh, we called an end to temples for the day. We’d really enjoyed the temples of Old Chiang Mai, but we were hot and ready for a dip in the hotel pool. It is a vacation after all!

Colorful Chiang Rai: A black house, an emerald Buddha & a white temple

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The White Temple of Chiang Mai

On our first full day in Chiang Rai, we opted to hit some of the city’s “biggies.” (By some accounts, we hit all of them; Chiang Rai is not a huge city and much of its tourist allure lies in the area around it.) The White Temple is the iconic Chiang Rai site, so that was definitely on our list, even though it’s really more a work of art that an active wat. I also wanted to see Wat Pra Kaew, the “Emerald Buddha Temple,” since it is a true wat and one of the most revered places in Northern Thailand. Despite warnings of temple fatigue on a trip as long as ours, it seems I don’t really tire of visiting temples. I am fascinated by the variations of religion from country to country, even within a faith, as older local customs become adapted to and incorporated within new ideas and belief systems. At the suggestion of a hotel staff member, we added the Black House to our list, a quirky art site I’d read about but wasn’t so sure was my type of thing. Still, some describe the artist who created the Black House as the national artist of Thailand, so how could I not take a peek?

The sites we’d chosen were in opposite directions from our hotel with the White Temple being a good 20 minutes away. Our hotel arranged a tuk tuk for us for 700 baht ($20) for the day. Our driver, a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, arrived promptly in a vehicle similar to Sawat’s small, puttering tuk tuk in Siem Reap. That’s where the similarity ended. We roared away from the hotel in a cloud of noise so loud David said it reminded him of high school when guys would drill holes in the mufflers of their cars for maximum machismo. This guy was a lot faster than Sawat, too. And impatient. We snaked through traffic, squeezed our way to the front of lines, drove on shoulders and thundered ahead of the “competition” at least until we got onto more open roads and the pick-up trucks could “take us.” Even then, though, our driver floored it, doing his ear-splitting best to keep up with the big boys. And, there we were in the open-air rear of the tuk tuk, no seat belts, no helmets, laughing and shaking our heads. I couldn’t help but imagine making this ride with my boys when they were younger on one of our many travels. I’d have been worried I was going to get them killed!

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Getting a moment to catch our breath

We bumped our way to a stop in the parking lot of the Black House (officially the Baandaam Museum), chosen as our first destination by the driver for logistical reasons. As billed, this is a really strange place. The “main” building is in the form of a wooden lanna (the traditional local ethnic group) temple, but done all in black. Animal skulls and horns, furs and crocodile hides mingle with statues and art, that drift from “normal” to bizarre.

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The Black House

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Behind the main “temple” a number of other buildings are scattered around the surprisingly large grounds. Several dark wooden are on stilts, the space beneath them crammed full of various creations, often nearly identical pieces: horn chairs and the like, repeated over and over. There are glass-sided buildings with “furnishings” inside, often fur-covered horn beds with horn chairs or couches surrounding them. Some odd white half-domed buildings stand in a row, allowing similar glimpses through glass doors or windows.

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Peering into one of the buildings on the grounds of the Black House

At a far end of the grounds, I came across a modernistic black building, vaguely reminiscent of a squid or maybe Verne’s “Nautilus.” Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. In thirty minutes, David and I had seen enough and headed back to the tuk tuk. [The Black House is free of charge although there is a gift shop selling all sorts of weird momentos.]

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After the strange artsy-ness of the Black House, I was ready for a real temple. Thankfully, our next stop was Wat Pra Kaew, the Emerald Buddha Temple. The wat gets its nickname from its famous history: In 1434, lightning struck its stupa, cracking it to reveal an emerald Buddha inside. This Buddha has been revered ever since and has made its way from Thailand to Laos and back. The original is now in Bangkok, but a replica was carved from jade and is ensconced in Wat Pra Kaew.

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A lovely little temple sits at the front of the wat complex and David and I couldn’t resist slipping off our shoes to look inside. Afterwards, as I was slipping my sandals back on, an older monk thanked me (for showing respect–I was also appropriately dressed to hide my scandalous knees) and asked me where I was from. He told me to be sure not to miss the Lanna Museum just around the corner within the complex. He made a point of telling me the replica Buddha was carved of Canadian jade, so he may not have understood when I told him I was American. Still, I was impressed with his friendliness and English, and David and I headed off in that direction. The two-story museum turned out to house an impressive collection in a beautiful wooden lanna-style building. Along with the Emerald Buddha replica, there are white-jade Buddhas from Myanmar, reliquaries, altars, offering containers, and other statues of sacred figures.

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The Lanna Museum at Wat Pra Kaew

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We strolled along a flower-lined path, past shrines and the white stupa that replaces the one struck by lightning, but not venturing into the monk school that lies in the rear of the grounds. The main temple stands before the school at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Lit green tiles line the walls surrounding the Emerald Buddha, framing murals depicting scenes of the Emerald Buddha’s history.

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The new Emerald Buddha, dressed in golden “clothes”

Back in the tuk tuk, we made our high-volume way southwest towards our final destination. The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is really more an art project than a temple. It replaces a temple that once sat there and we still had to take off our shoes before entering (and I wasn’t supposed to take the photo inside that I did), but still, it’s art. There’s a definite Gaudí-esque feel to the place, although the lines are sharper. It’s a fantasy brought to life in stucco and mirrored tiles, a truth reinforced by the pop-culture characters portrayed at its periphery. A bronze version of the alien from “Predator” sprouts from the ground near masks of the “Terminator,” Spiderman, etc. hanging from a tree…which sits just in front of a beautiful covered walkway from the ceiling of which thousands of thin metal prayer offerings hang. Finally, a golden “temple” constitutes possibly the fanciest most improbable public restroom building ever.

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Inside the White Temple. I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to take a photo, but since I did, here it is.
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The pubic toilets at the White Temple

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The White Temple recently started charging foreigners an entry fee, but at a mere 50 baht ($1.43), it’s hardly exorbitant and well worth it.

We stopped at one of several open-air restaurants on the way to the tuk tuk for a quick, tasty and very late lunch. I’d provide the name of the place but there was only Thai on the outside, so a photo will have to do. At 40 baht a plate ($1.14), we doubled the price of our lunch by ordering a couple of beers bringing the total to a whopping $4.57. I could get used to these prices!

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