Riga, Latvia: Highlights, beer, ballet and practical things

View of Riga from St. Peter’s Church tower

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.

A bit crowded on Airport Minibus 222

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.

St. Peter’s Church; the €9 fee to climb to the top of the tower was ridiculous…but we paid it.
Old Town Riga

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.

Old Town Riga square facing the beautiful House of the Blackheads with the somber Museum of the Occupation of Latvia to the right

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.

A line for the sausage lady’s goods. She also sold cheese, dark sausage bread, and kvass a fermented rye bread-based drink popular throughout the Slavic and Baltic countries and Russia

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.

Lots on tap at the Labietis bar at the Riga Market
Enjoying a Labietis brew

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.

Beer House No. 1 in Old Town Riga
An odd butterscotch-y ale

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.

Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga

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!

The Latvian National Opera House
Inside the Latvian National Opera House
Post-performance

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.

Café in the Latvian National Opera House

 

Nesvizh and Mir, Belarus: UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nesvizh Palace

Intrigued by the castles of Nesvizh and Mir, I arranged a private driver to take us to both sites on a one-day tour from Minsk. Although we were perfectly comfortable renting a car and tooling around Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on our own, we had some reservations about doing the same in Belarus. My main concerns had to do with language issues on signs and during any potential encounters with traffic police. Parking at popular sites was also a concern as was finding a gas station and decyphering the pumps. It seemed easiest and most relaxing to just let someone else do the driving. This turned out to be more than true when the day of our tour arrived and it was pouring raining. Much of the sights we wanted to see were indoors, so we weren’t so bothered by that, but it was a real pleasure to relax into the back seat and let our driver, Alexei, deal with the rain and Minsk traffic as we headed out of town.

Our first stop was Nesvizh (also “Niasviž” and “Нясвіж”), about an hour and half drive southwest of Minsk. Alexei parked near the Nesvizh Church of Corpus Christi to allow us to visit the church before heading on to our main destination, Nesvizh Palace. Built at the end of the 16th century, the Church of Corpus Christi was the first baroque style church in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

16th century Church of Corpus Christi in Nesvizh, Belarus, just outside the castle grounds

The church was unexpectedly beautiful inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil painting on its vaulted ceiling and soaring dome. We had the church to ourselves on this rainy day save for one old woman sitting behind a small counter selling religious metals and trinkets. Alexei negotiated with her a moment before she waved us on.

Interior of the Church of Corpus Christi in Nesvizh

We paid a small fee to access the crypt beneath the church where generations of the powerful Radziwill family are interred. Simple lead coffins occupy the many vaulted rooms of the catacombs.

Many generations of the powerful Radziwill family are buried in the crypt of the Church of Corpus Christi in Nesvizh

Leaving the church, Alexei very helpfully lead us to the ticket building located just inside the castle grounds to the right beyond a few souvenir stalls. It wasn’t clearly marked (at least not to us English speakers) and it would have been very frustrating to walk the not-insubstantial distance to the actual castle only to be turned away. Once we had our tickets in hand, Alexei returned to the car to wait for us and we were on our own. [We had the option to book a guide for an additional $80, but chose to forego that option. Details are at the end of this blog post. We were really glad we’d made that choice as Alexei provided all we needed or wanted. English-language signs and our own Internet research more than adequately informed us and we prefer more time to ourselves.] 

Great Patriotic War (WWII) memorial in front of Nesvizh Castle

The walk to the palace took us across a bridge spanning a lovely lake and grounds. Thankfully, the rain had given way to a drizzle, but it still wasn’t exactly strolling weather. On a sunny day, the park surrounding the palace would be a great place to wander. Another bridge across the moat surrounding the castle gave entry to the palace courtyard. [We had to present tickets at this point. If we’d been without them, we’d either have had to go back to the ticket building or go around the palace to another entrance.]

Nesvizh Palace courtyard

Although sometimes referred to as “Nesvizh Castle,” this former Radziwill residence is very much more a palace than a castle. Construction of the palace began in 1583 and it is considered one of the most significant architectural monuments in Belarus. The architectural and cultural complex at Nesvizh was placed under control of a museum-reserve in 2001, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and restoration and reconstruction were finally completed in 2012.

Elegant rooms abound in Nesvizh Palace

Entering the palace on the far side of the courtyard, we left our coats and umbrellas at a coat check before being directed to don paper shoe covers before we entered the main portion of the palace. Although tours are available, we enjoyed simply following the designated route through the palace’s many renovated rooms. English information was provided on signs in each room.

Beautifully restored hall in Nesvizh Palace displaying family portraits
Photographs on display in this hall depicted the hunting heritage of the palace owners
The princess’ bedroom

Although we’d run past lunch by the time we finished touring Nesvizh Palace, we decided to skip a snack at a small café on the grounds and hold out for a restaurant which Alexei recommended at our final destination, Mir Castle. Mir Castle is an easy 35 minute drive from Nesvizh Palace.

The approach to Mir Castle

Although hardly primitive, Mir Castle is much more in the style of a true fortified castle. Like the palace at Nesvizh (and nearly all historical sites in the region), Mir Castle has been heavily restored. The castle houses museum-style displays of artifacts along with re-created residential and ceremonial rooms. Before getting to all that, though, our stomachs demanded lunch. Alexei parked in front of the castle, then again walked with us to help with purchasing tickets then led us to the restaurant located in the vaulted cellar of the castle before leaving us to our own devices.

The Mir Castle restaurant (“Knyazhsky Yard”) provided a lovely haven from the cold drizzle outside. An extensive leather-bound menu offered traditional food with main courses ranging from 14-28 rubles ($7.50-$15). Lidskoe dark “Velvet” beer set us back 4 rubles ($2.14) a pint. David’s grilled chicken and vegetables and my draniki (potato pancakes with chicken) were hearty and good. Service, as nearly always in Belarus, was slow but friendly. We finished things off with a traditional shot of vodka because, well, why not? We had a driver…and it turns out that wandering a castle while mildly fortified ourselves is fun!

Lidskoe dark “Velvet” beer in the Mir Castle restaurant; a malty, caramel-y brew marketed in Belarus by Finnish brewer Olvi

Like Nesvizh Palace, Mir Castle offered some museum-like displays of clothing, weapons and such, but the main attraction for us was the structure itself. Construction on the castle began near the end of the 16th century and although it was in use for a century, it was abandoned for nearly the same length of time and damaged in battle before being  sold out of the Radziwill family and restored in the early 1900’s. The castle currently contains both restored living and formal areas from more recent times as well as remnants of its past as a medieval fortification. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Dining Hall of Mir Castle with its spectacular ceiling
Interior of Mir Castle

After exploring the castle, we crossed the cobblestone courtyard to climb one of the five towers surrounding the castle for views of the town of Mir and the surrounding countryside.

Two of the five towers of Mir Castle viewed across the courtyard
Old steps in one of the five towers reveal the medieval origins of Mir Castle
The town of Mir viewed from a castle tower

Alexei was waiting in front of the castle when we left. After a full day, it was a happy luxury to settle into the back seat and leave the driving to him. We were tired and a little sleepy–no doubt aided by our vodka dessert–and dozed a good portion of the way back to Minsk. What a great end to the day!

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Practical Stuff:

I booked our driver through Minsk Tours a/k/a Guide in Minsk a site run by Andrei Burdenkov. He got great reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere and showed up a lot during my research of Minsk and Belarus. Andrei was quick to respond to my questions by email and WhatsApp and had no problem when I declined his guide services and opted for a driver only. Andrei arranged for Alexei to be our driver. Alexei turned out to speak excellent English and offer all that we wanted for the day. Andrei’s site offers several other tours and services for tourists in Minsk.

We spent $100 on our driver for the day. A guide in addition to the driver would have been another $80. [As requested, we paid in U.S. dollars in cash at the end of our tour day.] I’d wondered if it might be a little awkward with the driver if he was not supposed to talk to us about things we saw, etc., but Alexei was happy to answer our questions, and as I described above, very helpful with getting us started at our destinations. We were very pleased with the arrangement and, for us, it was much better than having a guide with us all the time. In the end, we spent 7 hours with Alexei. Although $100 is a lot in Belarus, I think it turned out to be a good deal. For a little over $14/hour, we got friendly doorstep service, no hassles, an immaculate and comfortable car (which included fuel). We had no worries about getting lost, navigating Cyrillic signs, traffic police or parking. We paid our own entry fees, which we would have done with a guide as well.

While there are buses to Nesvizh and Mir, everything I’ve found makes that sound like a less-than-easy option and a nearly impossible way to see both sites in one day. The bus also apparently takes 3 hours to get to Nesvizh, about twice what it took us.

Find practical information on the Nesvizh Palace website. Entry fee for the palace is 13 rubles ($7) for adults and 6.50 rubles ($3.50) for students. Learn more about Nesvizh Palace (and other Belarusian historical sites) at the official website of the Republic of Belarus.

Find practical information on the Mir Castle website. Entry fees for the castle are 12 rubles ($6.40) for adults and 6 rubles ($3.20) for students, with an extra ruble added to each during July weekends. The Belarus government’s tourism site also offers more information on Mir Castle.

Highlights of Minsk, Belarus

The National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, one of the few buildings in Minsk to survive WWII (known locally as the Great Patriotic War)

Minsk exceeded my expectations and I’m so happy the new 5-day visa waiver lured us into adding it to our Baltic itinerary. I expected the typical sterile and imposing grandeur of a Soviet-styled city and some language issues, and we got those, but we also found friendly people with a welcoming attitude and a large, intriguing city with plenty to keep us interested. Restaurants were also better and more varied than anticipated, although service was almost always very slow. A renovated old quarter, multi-lingual maps of local attractions scattered around tourist areas of the city, and multiple building projects indicate economic growth and an impressive push to increase tourism and resurrect local history. We also found wonderfully cheap prices not yet inflated by an anticipated influx of budget flights from the West now that the visa waiver is in effect.

Reconstructed Old Town Hall of Minsk and market stalls selling food and souvenirs
Multi-lingual signs in Minsk offer information on tourist sights, shopping and restaurants

Reconstruction is a given for most historic sites in Minsk due to the overwhelming devastation of the city by war. As with the Baltic countries we visited, there’s something very touching about the desire to recreate a heritage by rebuilding historic sites destroyed by war and invasion.

Historic photo of devastated Minsk with the opera house visible still standing in the background. As much as 85% of the buildings in Minsk were destroyed.

Russian is the predominant language and although there is a lot of Belarusian as well, two separate young men lamented to us that Belarusian is a “dying language.” There weren’t a lot of English-speakers, but there were some to be found, especially among younger Belarusians at tourist-likely spots: museums, restaurants, etc. People seemed genuinely enthused and intrigued that we’d come all the way from America. I saw none of the stern-old-ladies-scolding-about-everything that is a prominent memory of traveling in Russia. (Of course, I wasn’t traveling with children this time and they were prime targets for preemptive haranguing even when only standing quietly.) Churches were lovingly tended by women in kerchiefs who carefully brushed wax drippings from the base of prayer candles and polished every reachable surface. Covered heads for women and modest dress for all are expected when visiting churches.

Holy Spirit Cathedral
With these street signs, the tourist billboards are welcome!
Interior of Holy Spirit Cathedral. It was very busy on Ancestors’ Day, but I managed to snap this photo without intruding on anyone’s privacy.

I was excited about our AirBnB apartment in Minsk and it turned out to be a great choice. Our host, Alexey, was terrific (even buying our opera tickets for me when I couldn’t get my American credit cards to work online). The apartment is located right on Victory Square (also known in English as “Victory Circus” or “Victory Circle”), a large traffic oval surrounding the Victory Monument, a tribute to Soviet and Belarusian soldiers who died liberating Belarus from Nazis in the “Great Patriotic War” as that front of World War II is known locally. Of course, there’s some dispute as to how much “liberating” the Soviets did since Belarus was subsumed into the U.S.S.R., but that’s the narrative of the monument.

View of Victory Square from the front door of our apartment building
The Victory Monument at night
Young people in uniform (ROTC equivalent, perhaps) practicing changing-of-the-guard ceremonies on a rainy day by the eternal flame in Victory Square

Our apartment was in a rather grand Soviet-era building two doors down from where the KGB housed Lee Harvey Oswald when he lived there. The apartment itself was a fun, spacious remodel that mixed stylish new with preserved Soviet-era features. At $45/night including all taxes and fees, it was a great deal. [If you’re not yet a member of AirBnB, please use my referral link to join; you’ll get a $40 off your first booking and I’ll get $20.]

Our AirBnB apartment building door was two to the left of the “Coffee and Kaba” sign with a grocery story just on the corner through the arch. (Note the subway sign in the foreground.) What a great location!
Minsk apartment interior
Minsk apartment living room viewed from kitchen

Independence Avenue extends in two directions from Victory Square. At 15 km long, it’s one of the longest city thoroughfares in Europe. It’s a grand, wide avenue lined by large, imposing buildings.

On Independence Avenue (the columned building houses the Belarus “Miniland” Museum)
Belarusian State Circus on Independence Avenue (“praspiekt Niezaliežnasci”)

Although we had a subway mere yards from our front door, we never ended up using it. We found it easy enough to walk where we wanted to go, although distances may be a bit much for some. The subway system in Minsk is limited, too, to two intersecting lines with stops rather far apart. Given the shortage of English, and our shortage of Russian or Belarusian, buses seemed a bit intimidating. Minsk is a large city, but the sites of interest to most visitors are not so far-flung. (Although, given more time and better weather, I’d have liked to have visited the outdoor heritage museum which would have required a ride to the end of a subway line followed by a bus ride.) For us on this trip, it was just easier to walk.

Arriving in the morning on our 30-minute Belavia flight from Vilnius, we made the most of our first day in Minsk. After lunch at a chic restaurant on Victory Square, Berezka (“Бярозка”), we headed to the pretty nearby parks to walk along the lake to the national opera house. (See top photo.) I’d purchased tickets for a performance a couple of nights later and wanted to scope it out.

Entrance to Gorky Park, just off Victory Square
Lake at Park Janki Kupali

From there, it is a short walk to the small restored 19th century Trinity Suburb filled with shops, cafés and bars. Just beyond is the Island of Tears, a man-made island that’s home to memorials to Soviet soldiers who died in their Afghanistan war.

Crying angel statue on the Island of Tears located just beside Trinity Suburb

Wanting to try traditional Belarusian cuisine, we opted one night for Kuchmeister ((Ресторан белорусской и литвинской кухни “Кухмiстр”), a kitchy grandma’s living room kind of place with a somewhat disconcerting view through lace curtains of a tank across the street. The service was very slow (as nearly everywhere in Belarus), but friendly, and the food was cheap and good. We followed it up with traditional cranberry vodka shots.

A first course of “draniki” potato pancakes much like latkes. Before WWII, a third of the population of Minsk was Jewish.
View of a tank through lace curtains
The tank across the street from Kuchmeister

We really enjoyed the hours we spent at the Great Patriotic War Museum. It was interesting to see the local perspective on World War II. Seeing history from other viewpoints is one of the things I most enjoy about travel; it’s often eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The Great Patriotic War Museum is an enormous, futuristic building. It’s 11 gigantic metal “rays” represent the 1100 days that Minsk was under occupation. The building and its location are rich in symbolism set out in detail on the Belarusian government’s webpage about the museum. [More practical details are available on the official museum site, but you’ll want to use Google Translate unless you read Russian. Entrance is 8 Belarusian rubles ($4.30)/adult and 4 rubles ($2.15)/student. Children 7 and under are free.] An estimated 1/3 of the population of Belarus was killed during the war, a staggering 3 million lives.

Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk
Statue near the entrance to the Great Patriotic War Museum

WWII is portrayed at the Great Patriotic War Museum as a war of independence fought by Soviet soldiers and Belarusian resistance fighters as partners. There’s a large collection of military hardware: tanks, planes, guns, etc.

Inside the Great Patriotic War Museum

Despite some high-tech displays, I was surprised to find life-size dioramas of scenes from the war to be particularly effective. Very realistic mannequins are blended into painted backdrops interspersed with 3-dimensional elements and actual artifacts.

Diorama in the Great Patriotic War Museum depicting the final stage of the Wehrmacht defeat in the Minsk “pocket”; the July 3, 1944 liberation of Minsk
Recreation of a resistance outpost in the woods

The top floor of the museum is the Hall of Victory representing a glass dome of the Reichstag Building where Soviet soldiers placed a Victory Banner in 1945.

Hall of Victory in the Great Patriotic War Museum

I can’t wrap this up blog installment without mentioning our opera experience at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. With our AirBnB host’s help, I’d bought two ridiculously cheap tickets (around $9 apiece for front-row seats) for an opera I’d never heard of, “Viva la Mamma!” Research showed me a couple of photos that looked to be of rehearsals and an explanation that this Italian comedy was popular in Eastern Europe, translated into Russian. I was careful to verify the opera was actually at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre as I wanted to be in the grand old opera house, not some minor theater. (I always look for opera and ballet opportunities when planning travel in Eastern Europe as tickets are usually much cheaper than in the West–sometimes not much more than the cost of a tour of the building–and the opera houses are often jewel-like works of art themselves. While it’s sometimes possible to buy walk-up tickets, it’s far better to book in advance to get the best seats and avoid sell-outs.) On the night of the opera, we arrived with the other patrons and bought drinks in the opera café while we waited for the doors to the seating to open. We were a little surprised that ushers weren’t seating anyone yet, but were assured they’d open the door at the appropriate time. It seemed odd that there was only one door on our floor, but we didn’t think too much about it.

When the lights finally flashed and the door opened to what we assumed to be the hallway leading to further floor- and box-seating area doors, we were stunned to walk into a room the size of a large classroom. Chairs were lined up in rows, and a mid-sized orchestra was set up in a front corner. We took our seats, disappointed, but curious and waited to see what would happen.

Not the opulent opera hall we expected!

In short order, we found ourselves the delighted audience to what seemed like a private opera, performed just for us. The main action took place directly in front of us. I’ve never had opera sung three feet from my chair, where I could literally feel the breath of a singer and experience the power of their voice. We couldn’t stop smiling throughout the performance. The opera was funny and charming, the singers truly talented. It was fantastic! At the first break, we sneaked into a box seat overlooking the beautiful main hall so got to see it after all. We enjoyed watching stage hands ready the grand stage for some future performance until a nice lady gently shooed us out. We were the only foreigners at the cosy performance and despite language issues, we were welcomed warmly.

Our sneak peak at the main opera hall

The rest of the opera flew by. The zany plot involved an opera within an opera. The title character is a domineering stage mother (the written-for-baritone part played by a man in drag) who wanted her daughter, the understudy, to be given a solo aria. When the production loses its financing, Mamma comes through with the cash…and gets her wish. Much of the action took place just in front of us. I had to toe papers back into the performers’ reach when one character threw them down as part of the show and several drifted under my seat.

A curtain call of sorts after “Viva la Mamma!”. I would have loved to have taken photos and video during the performance, but that’s a big no-no…and they would have definitely noticed!

We had a wonderful time, but as David laughingly said, we must have looked like some bemused Candid Camera dupes when we first walked into that room. I have no idea where ticket buyers were informed that the opera was in a small performance room (the online seating chart looked like the main hall), but no one else seemed surprised. The website had some English, but it was far from perfect. Oh well, Viva la Mamma!

Next up, a great day trip from Minsk to Nesvizh and Mir.

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Practical stuff: Learn more about Minsk tourism at the official website of the Republic of Belarus.

It’s a fairly long ride in from the airport (35+ minutes, depending on traffic) and despite reading about a taxi kiosk at the airport offering 30 ruble ($16.30) transfers, I opted to pay more (€30) for a well-reviewed, English-speaking private driver, Sergey, who would meet us at Arrivals. I was concerned that directions to our AirBnB apartment (as opposed to a well-known hotel) might be a linguistic challenge with a regular taxi driver and we also needed to call our AirBnB host and Sergey was happy to do that since we didn’t have a working SIM card during our time in Belarus. Sergey was very nice; his English was functional, but limited, and his car was spotless. At the airport, I did see the taxi kiosk and found that they spoke good English there. They probably would have been able to give directions to the apartment to a taxi driver for us. Oh well, less than $20 extra for peace of mind and a hassle-free experience wasn’t a big deal.

Taxi kiosk near an exit at the Minsk Airport. A sign in the window in Russian says 30 rubles for transfers to anywhere in Minsk.

When Alexey heard what we’d paid, he arranged for a return taxi for 38 rubles ($20.43, a touch more than a taxi from the airport for requested pick-up service, similar to what I’d expect at home) and his housekeeper saw us off, making sure we were clear with the driver on price and destination.

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.

 

Lithuania’s island castle of Trakai

One of Lithuania’s most famous and picturesque sites, Trakai Castle, lies an easy 40-minute drive from Vilnius. Like most historic sites in Lithuania, the castle has been rebuilt. The restoration was well-executed and visitors are free to wander throughout most of the castle where museum displays tell the story of the castle and preserve artifacts relating to its history.

Inside Trakai Castle ward
This type of coin/medallion decoration was very popular
The museum is spread out over many rooms on various floors of the castle keep and in the outer ward of the reconstructed castle

Trakai was once a major power hub, but the city dwindled to a small town and island castle fell into ruins. Old paintings in the museum show the castle ruins looking like a romanticists fantasy. Wars and economics halted the reconstruction many times, but it’s now complete and worth the visit.

Old paintings depict Trakai Castle in ruins

The town around the castle is charming with pastel-painted wooden houses. Stalls and shops line the lake front around the foot bridge that leads to the castle island. In warm weather, row boats and paddle boats are available to rent and there’s a larger tour boat that goes out to the island.

We had lunch in a pretty Italian restaurant with big picture windows facing the lake and castle. In warmer weather, we’d have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Entry to the castle and museum is €3 per adult. Pay for parking on the street around the castle using the meters. Insert coins and put the timed ticket on your dashboard where it is visible through the windshield. Parking is vigorously enforced and the fine is €80 so be warned. In off season, we had no problem finding convenient parking, but I’ve read it can be trickier in the summer high season.

Houses, shops and parking along the street leading to Trakai Castle: Be sure to feed the parking meter and display your timed ticket or risk a hefty fine!

Highways around Vilnius are in good condition and well-marked and GPS worked perfectly for us.

Good highways between Vilnius and Trakai make for an easy drive

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.

Keukenhof: Holland’s magical tulip park

Magical Keukenhof

Keukenhof in the Netherlands is world-famous for its spectacular display of spring flowers, the undisputed queen of which is Holland’s iconic tulip. The park is only open eight weeks from mid-March through mid-May for the spring flowering season. It is the showcase for the Dutch floricultural sector with an emphasis on bulbs. Each year, 7 million flower bulbs are hand-planted in Keukenhof. The season kicks off with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinth. The tulips are usually not in full bloom until mid-April.

David and I felt extra-lucky to be in Antwerp, Belgium, this year from March 12-April 21. This put us in the neighborhood at peak flowering time. (Keukenhof is only 1h45m drive from Antwerp, a very short distance by our Texan standards.) This gave us the luxury of monitoring the bloom reports and weather and timing our trip to avoid holiday and weekend crowds. Easter is this weekend and it’s one of the busiest times at Keukenhof. We read nightmare stories about the traffic jams around Keukenhof and especially at Easter so wanted to avoid that at all costs. On the other hand, we leave Antwerp for Lithuania next Friday, so we were running out of time. Giving the tulips maximum bloom time while avoiding the Easter holiday and taking advantage of the best weather forecast for our remaining time narrowed things down to yesterday for us.

Even though we planned our visit for a Thursday, we decided we’d be best served by getting to the park right as it opened at 8am. (We were missing the Easter weekend bank holiday, but were still during the 2-week spring school holiday here so we worried about the potential for crowds.) That meant we pulled away from our Antwerp house just after 6am and ate breakfast on the road. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy and well worth a little lost sleep. Other than some traffic around Rotterdam, we made good time and were one of the first to arrive at Keukenhof, being directed to park only a few cars from the main entrance with a vast field of open parking spaces left behind us. By the time we left just after noon, cars stretched to the limits of that field and a solid line of cars and buses was streaming in.

No crowds when you’re one of the first to the park

We’d pre-purchased tickets, a printed guide and our parking ticket online via the Keukenhof website. The tickets would have let us skip any lines, but there were none at such an early hour and we were able to wander the park with only a few other people for over an hour, the only sounds being birds singing and the occasional airplane overhead en route to or from Schiphol Airport. [A video is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

The only downside to arriving so early was that the sun was still relatively low in the sky and it was a chilly 49F. It was partly cloudy, too; a far cry from last Sunday’s bluebird skies and high in the low 70’s. Oh well, such are the vagaries of spring and it was still a beautiful day.

Keukenhof park occupies a stunning 79 acres of impeccably designed and maintained flower beds and other flowering displays, art and greenhouses. We entered via the main entrance on the south side of the park and wandered north and a little west before visiting the huge greenhouse and the center and continuing on to a working windmill on the eastern edge of the park. Arriving there around 9:15am, we booked an open boat cruise for 10:30 on the canals that cut through the flower fields adjoining the park. The cost was €6 each for a 45 minute boat ride, including an audio guide available in four languages. It turned out to be a good move to book the boat early as people were continuously streaming into the park and I’m not sure we’d have been able to get a seat if we waited much longer.

View of hyacinth fields from Keukenhof’s windmill

With time to spare, we explored more of the park, taking time for hot tea and a snack in one of the several cafes scattered around the park. There are several buffet-style cafes and restaurants in the park offering tasty dishes at not unreasonable prices. There are also ample immaculate and very modern toilets. The park claims to have free wi-fi throughout, but we were never able to reach any website, receive email, etc. despite our phones showing as connected.

Lovely spot for a tea break

In addition to the spectacular outdoor flower beds, Keukenhof greenhouses showcased vast beds of tulips in one, orchids and art made from orchids in another, and yet another displaying artistic creations made from roses and other flowers. Five hundred flower growers present creations of cut and potted flowers in over twenty flower shows.

By the time we got back to the windmill for our canal boat ride, the crowds were noticeably larger. The canal boats are low, open vessels with a single row along each side and 4 seats in the middle. Each seat has 4 audio jacks, each marked with a flag so you can choose your language. Two boats leave at a time and we arrived in time to be at the front of one line so had unobstructed views from the bow. Of course, that also meant an unobstructed and chilly breeze, but we were happy to pay that price…especially since the breeze smelled richly of flowers, particularly hyacinth.

Ultra-quiet electric engines power the boats so we glided silently through the colorful fields watching farmers gathering bushels of flowers or operating heavy spraying machinery. Beautiful and fascinating and so exotic compared to the farm fields back home!

When we stepped off the boat, we were stunned at the size of the crowd that now swarmed around the windmill. A long line waited to enter the windmill…where we’d wandered in easily earlier in the morning. Mobs of people crowded around flower beds and food vendors where there’d been no one. Photos of the flower beds free of fellow visitors would be almost impossible now. We were so glad we’d gotten that early start!

Where did all these people come from?!

Wanting to retain the benefits of being ahead of the crowd, we decided to eat an early lunch; besides, an early start meant we were already hungry. It turned out to be another good move as we were able to breeze through choosing our lunch and get a table by a window. By the time we’d finished eating, people were scrambling to stake out a table.

A lot more people around as we headed to our last pavilion

We visited the last of the pavilions we’d yet to explore in the far southwest corner of the park. As everywhere else, the flower beds were spectacular, but the pavilion itself held no more than a gift shop, café and toilets so we didn’t linger long. Feeling we’d covered the entire park pretty thoroughly, we made our exit around 12:30pm, a little under 4.5 hours since we’d arrived.

Compare this pic to the earlier one in the same spot: the crowds have arrived!
So much for parking a few spots back for later arrivals…and there’s another lot to the west of this just as full with more on the way

With plenty of time before we had to get our rent car back to Antwerp Centraal at 6pm, we took a back road to admire more tulip fields then stopped off to stroll the charming town of Delft, famous for its blue and white pottery.

Delft, Netherlands
Delft canal

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Find more details on the Keukenhof website. Tickets to Keukenhof are available here and can be purchased separately or as combi-tickets that include bus transportation from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Leiden, or Haarlem. I’ve read that buses can be full on weekends and holidays, and traffic jams are routine so allow for travel delays however you decide to travel. I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of getting an early start if you want to enjoy the beauty of the park minus the crowds. Online tickets are good for a single day only, but you don’t have to specify the date when you purchase them. Tickets are also available at the park. The basic entry fee is €16 for adults ; €8 for children 4-11. Credit cards are accepted throughout the park. The park offers luggage storage.

Of course, actual bloom times for the various flowers depends upon the weather. Tulipsinholland.com claims to do a weekly flower update starting in March (and apparently has in the past), but they are way behind this year and haven’t posted anything since March 7. They did, however, send me an update via email this past Tuesday so were current in that format. You can register for their email updates on their website.

Mechelen, Belgium: Why is this place not on tourist radar?? (And how awesome that it’s not!)

Grote Markt (Grand Plaza) in Mechelen

Located a mere 15-minute train ride from Antwerp’s Centraal Station and 15-25 minutes from Brussels, Mechelen, Belgium, is an overlooked gem. I’ve seen several lists of “Most Beautiful Towns in Belgium” (Beauty definitely abounds in Belgium.), but none mentioning Mechelen. Old Town Mechelen is delightfully reminiscent of Bruges and Ghent and lesser “most beautifuls,” but without the mobs of tourists. Mechelen is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the medieval St. Rumbold’s Tower that soars above the magnificent St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the Large Beguinage, a complex that once housed a religious sisterhood similar to nuns, but adhering to less strict vows. (Other beguinages can be found in other Belgian cities, including Antwerp.) With the weather forecast calling for bluebird skies and a high in the low 70F’s, David and I hopped the train yesterday (a mere 13 minutes from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station) to spend a gorgeous Sunday wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets and plazas of Mechelen.

St. Rumbold’s Tower soars above Mechelen

Mechelen offers a wealth of cafes and restaurants, chocolatiers, and shops and boutiques of every variety. Tour boats ply the Dyle that runs through the city, there’s a toy museum just across from Mechelen’s Nekkerspoel train station, and eight historical churches to explore. Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery, located a short way from the Old Town center near the beguinage, offers 2-hour tours as well as tour-free visits to their tasting room and brasserie. The brasserie serves all kinds of traditional beer-based and beer-friendly dishes paired with suggested beers. Het Anker brews some world-class beers and is a destination in and of itself, popular with tour groups from Brussels.

Bustling cafés on Vismarkt (Fish Market) Square in Mechelen
Walkway along the Dyle in Old Mechelen

There are not a ton of museums and the like in Mechelen and it’s a shame that some of it’s many preserved historical buildings aren’t open more regularly. Although, from March 11–May 21, 2017, the “Contour Biennale 8, “Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium” art project offers the opportunity to visit six such sites. One of the buildings open during the Contour Biennale is the “Hof van Savoye” from which Margaret of Austria ruled the Netherlands and where both her nephew Emperor Charles V and Anne Boleyn spent some of their formative years. We were able to duck inside the lovely courtyard with some of the people taking part in the Contour Biennale.

Courtyard of Hof Van Savoye
Exploring Mechelen on a gorgeous spring day

St. Rumbold’s Tower is open regularly and worth the climb to the top, both for the view and to visit the workings of the tower, including a crane operated by a huge hamster-wheel-like contraption for humans and a carillon, a mechanized device for playing the tower’s enormous bells.

Crane wheel inside St. Rumbold’s Tower
Carillon rotating drum

The hole through which objects were hauled up the tower by the crane provides a unique view down onto the pipes and keyboard of the cathedral’s massive organ.

Looking down on the cathedral organ

The cathedral itself boasts a magnificent altar, an Antoon Van Dyck painting of Christ on the Cross, and a spectacular carved wooden pulpit. A small museum in the ambulatory holds a limited but impressive collection of relics and medieval sculpture and paintings.

St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen

We had lunch outside a café on the main plaza in front of the confection-like old Staadhuis (Town Hall). Basking in the sun, sipping our Het Anker beers and admiring the fairy-tale view, we told our young waitress how much we loved her town.

View from our café: St. Rumbold’s Tower rising above buildings bordering the Grote Markt
Mechelen’s old Staadhuis with its confection-like roof

She credited the mayor, saying “ten years ago none of us liked our town.” Hmm. Since many of the most picturesque buildings go back 300-600 years judging by the “anno” signs visible on facades, I’m not sure what changes have been wrought in the last ten years, but most of the old buildings have been maintained and/or restored well. There are stylish new residences and commercial buildings amongst the old as well, and the Old Town is clean and prosperous-looking and apparently drawing more visitors. Kudos to the mayor of Mechelen!

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There are two train stations in Mechelen near to the Old Town: Mechelen and Mechelen-Nekkerspoel. We chose Mechelen-Nekkerspoel as the most convenient to Old Town and offering the most scenic stroll into the historic center. It’s also the closest (by a minute or two) to Antwerp. Mechelen Station is also within walking distance of Old Town, just a bit farther. As always, Google Map is your friend for these kind of decisions. Train tickets are available via Belgian Rail and are half-price on weekends. For more information on what the town has to offer, check out Visit Mechelen.

Carnaval de La Louvière in southern Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

Gilles at the Carnaval de La Louvière

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westvleteren 12: Scoring Two Cases of the Elusive “Best Beer in the World”

Fruits of a successful beer pilgrimage: David and our first crates of Westvleteren 12…and a 6-pack and glasses. It was hard not to get greedy!

Year after year, Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quadrupel beer brewed by Trappist monks in a rural Flanders abbey has been named the “Best Beer in the World” by the major beer rating sites. While I’m the first to say that claiming any food or drink to be the “best” of its kind is always going to be a subjective exercise, “Westy 12″ is undoubtedly an outstanding beer. It’s also really hard to come by. I’ve read that only five monks brew the beer and another five help when it comes time to bottle. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I am sure that the Westvleteren Abbey is a small beer-making operation with no signs that it cares to be anything larger. The monks’ primary focus is on being monks, not brewers. The reputation and mystique around Westvleteren 12 has led to a mad and highly competitive scramble to buy this elusive beer.

A Little Background on Trappist Beers
Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monasteries. As of today, only 11 monasteries produce beer officially recognized by the International Trappist Association: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy, the United States (New Jersey). Many of these are very old breweries with recipes going back to medieval times, but one in the Netherlands and those in Austria, Italy and the U.S. are recent entries, only being recognized in the years since 2012. Some are tiny, like Westvleteren (producing only 4050 US bbl/year), while others are substantial producers, the largest by volume being La Trappe in the Netherlands which produces 124,000 US bbl/year. To be able to designate their beer as Authorized Trappist Product and display a special logo, these beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewing should be secondary to and in keeping with the monastic way of life, and the brewery should not be a profit-making enterprise, but rather to support the monastery and the monastic lifestyle.

Westvleteren 12 and Our Beer Journey
I first heard of Westvleteren 12 in reading about Belgian beers prior to the first housesit David and I did in Antwerp. When we discovered our favorite local beerpub, Gollem, and attached ourselves to our favorite bartender/beer sensei there, Sam, I asked about this then-unpronounceable beer. Sam informed us they had it–at a very steep price since, except at the abbey, it’s a gray-market product. We balked then, but soon went for it at our second favorite Antwerp beerpub, the legendary Kulminator. We were total beer newbies at the time with no real way to evaluate except to say, “Hey, this beer is really good!” Sigh. We’ve come a long way.

Since then, David and I have done an awful lot of beer tasting, reading and even brewed our first batch of homebrew. David became so obsessed with The Beer Bible, a Christmas gift from my elder son, that he read it every night for over a year and lugged the tome with us around the world. (Thankfully, we’ve got it on Kindle version now, so can read up on iPad or cellphone…even sitting in a pub.) You can get your own addictive copy of The Beer Bible on Amazon.

Buying Our First 6-Packs of Westies at the Abbey Café
So, of course, as part of our beer odyssey, we wanted to try Westvleteren again at the abbey. When my younger son, Dillon, arrived to spend a week with us in Antwerp in August 2015, we used the opportunity to drive the hour and 40 minutes into rural Flanders where the St. Sixtus Abbey sits amid fields of crops and sheep.

Flanders fields on the road to the St. Sixtus Abbey

A modern and spacious abbey-owned café called “In De Vrede” (“In Peace”) lies across the road from the main abbey building.

In De Vrede, the St. Sixtus Abbey café in Westvleteren, Belgium

The three Trappist beers brewed at the abbey are always available to drink on-site at the café. These are Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren 8 (a tripel) and the Westvleteren Blonde. At random times 6-packs of whatever beer the abbey happens to provide are sold at the café shop. On that first trip, we were thrilled to learn that 8’s and blondes would be available in the café shop after 2pm, but disappointed that none of the top-of-the-top 12’s were available for take-away. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with breakfast Westy 12’s before showing Dillon some of our favorite World War I museums and sites until it was time to return for the afternoon beer sale. Back at In De Vrede, we happily joined a long line and bought the maximum two 6-packs/person of the unlabeled brown bottles. [The sum total of packaging information on a Westy bottle comes on the cap and in the simple molded glass collar on the bottle that reads “TRAPPISTENBIER.”]

Lining up in In De Vrede for 6-packs to go

Buying Cases of Westvleteren: The “Beer Hotline”
The only way to get more than those random 6-packs at the abbey is to make an appointment to pick up cases of beer. To do this, you have to consult the abbey’s website and click through until you get to their beer page. There you’ll find a page displaying a 2-week schedule: On the left is the current week with times blocked off when the “beer hotline” will be open for the abbey to receive calls from those wanting to place an order for beer. (Only calls from identifiable numbers, land or mobile, will be accepted.) On the right is a schedule for the following week showing the dates and times when the maximum 2 cases/car is available to pick up and which beer (12, 8 or blonde) will be available. David and I have done this twice now.  The first time, it took us over 400 calls, using three phones to get through to a monk. Usually, you are required to give a license plate number, but the monk very kindly agreed to take our name instead since we planned to rent a car to pick up the beer.

A screenshot of the Abbey web page described above with the 2-week schedule for reservation calls (on the left) and beer pick-up times the following week (on the right). For the coming week, the beer hotline will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday at the times shown. You can request 12’s on either day at the given times and Blonde on Wednesday from 10-12. Pick up days for the 12’s are the following M-Th. The only pick-up day for the Blondes is Saturday April 9.

The second time (this past week) it took us over 1100 calls to get through, again using three phones. Since the hotline opened at 8am that day, we started dialing in bed, getting busy signal after busy signal. Three times, we thought we’d gotten through only to have a Dutch-language recording of a female voice (apparently from the phone company) give way to yet another busy signal. Hungry and discouraged, we went downstairs to make breakfast, but kept doggedly dialing in the process. Finally, the recording gave way to an actual dialing and finally, a monk. This time we had a license plate to give (thanks to the friends for whom we housesit), chose one of the available dates the following week, and were done. Victory!

Part of the reason the monks ask for a license plate or identification is that the same vehicle or person cannot buy cases of beer from them again for 60 days. You must also agree not to resell their beer. This is a widely ignored prohibition and an active gray market exists in Belgium and elsewhere for the beer. We, on the other hand, buy for our own consumption, to cellar and to give away. Besides, there’s just something about lying to nice monks that just wouldn’t sit right!

Both times we’ve bought cases of Westvleteren beer, we’ve had a 1pm pick-up time. We drive over from Antwerp, arriving in time for lunch at In De Vrede (which I’ll review later) before picking up our cases. The iconic wooden crates are available at a small drive-through loop adjacent to the abbey.

The drive-through loop for beer pick-up at the St. Sixtus Abbey at Westvleteren

A lone monk mans the stacks of cases and will help load if need be, although he’s fine with you loading yourself.

Loading up crates of Westvleteren Trappist 12 beer

Once we have our beer, we pull forward to pay by credit card. (The monks don’t accept cash.) Although a single bottle of Westy 12 can run €13-20 on the gray market, at the abbey a case of Westvleteren 12 costs €42, a case of 8 is €37, and a case of Blonde costs €32. In addition, there’s a €12/case deposit that you can get back if you return the case and empty bottles to the abbey.

So What Does it Taste Like?
Now that we’re a little past “Hey, this is really good beer!”, how would we describe the taste of Westvleteren 12? Well, first, for the appearance: It’s a medium dark beer with a warm red-brown color and a dense tan head. It pours clear, but there’s often lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The nose is rich, molasses-y, fig-sweet with that wonderful Belgian “barny” yeast smell that conjures for me images of horses and the green pastures of Flanders. The taste is fig, prune, toffee/molasses, yeasty “barniness” and warm spices. (So, now we had to go open a bottle to double check our perceptions and report them in real-time. It’s a tough job, but we’re willing to go that extra mile!) Westvleteren 12 is well-carbonated, effervescent with tiny bubbles that foam in the mouth. At 10.2% alcohol, it’s a substantial beer, but the alcohol is not too forward. It’s wonderfully easy to drink.

A Westvleteren 12 and a Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede

I also really like the Westvleteren 8 and love the Blonde, which is harder to come by and needs to be drunk fairly quickly, not being amenable to cellaring like the 12 and 8.

And finally, how to get it home?
We’ve discovered that a wooden case of Westvleteren beer fits perfectly into the reinforced “medium-extra strong” cardboard moving box sold by Shurgard in Belgium (a branch of which in Antwerp is particularly handy to us) for €3.50. We wrap each bottle in bubble wrap to wedge it securely into the case. Then, we line the bottom of the box with foam pads and/or styrofoam peanuts, set the whole case inside, pour in more peanuts and tape like crazy, being sure to reinforce the corners. Packed like this, each case becomes our 2nd piece of luggage on our international flight home. It’s within airline size and weight limits, so there’s no charge. On our last flight home, our beer arrived perfectly, with no breakage or leaking. This time, we brought a light-weight duffel bag full of the recycled peanuts and bubble wrap to repeat the process. We’ll just fold up the duffel and stash it in a suitcase for the return.

A crate of Westvleteren 12 safely back in Texas

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Follow up to our latest transport of Westy 12’s back to the States, 5/2017: Our latest two cases (plus a few extras) made it home on British Airways in perfect condition; no leaks, no breakage. The handles on the cardboard boxes had started to tear despite our reinforcement, though, and we’re considering having the boxes plastic wrapped at the airport next time. (It would be best if the handle holes weren’t used at all.) There was also a small hole in the bottom of one of the boxes, but it was a non-issue given the protection afforded by the wooden crate and the layer of styrofoam on the bottom. We saved the styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the duffel and stored it away for repeat duty on our next trip to Belgium in the fall.

Mid-packing in Antwerp, before adding the final layer of styrofoam and sealing.
Both cases safely in Dallas with the worst damage to the boxes being at the handle holes.

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The St. Sixtus Abbey website is: http://sintsixtus.be/ It’s in Dutch for the most part, but hover over “Gasten en bezoekers” at the top then click on “Bierverkoop” to get to the information about buying beer. There you’ll have an option to choose “English” (or French or German) which will pull up a screen with the beer hotline number as well as the method and rules for buying their beer. Once read, close that window then click on the big green button that says “Bierverkoop, Ventes de Bières, Beer Sales, Bierabsatz”. This will take you to the screen with the 2-week schedule for calls and pick-up times described above.