Castle Hill, topped with the old Texas Military Institute (TMI) “castle” has been around since 1870. “Grafitti Park” below it, though, is a 2011 South By Southwest (SXSW) art exhibit that has obviously been wildly popular. Visitors are invited to bring their own spray paint and paint away. Even though David and I both went to law school in Austin, we were surprised and intrigued to stumble across the graffiti-covered park while looking for a parking spot the past Friday near favorite restaurant Wink. With the sun sinking low, lots of people clambered over the brightly painted walls.
Always curious, I had to look up this strange and popular park–otherwise I’d have had no idea about its SXSW origins. The park is officially known as HOPE Outdoor Gallery. For those few unfamiliar with the ever-growing event, SXSW is a huge annual festival that started back in the 80’s as a music/conference event and has expanded over the decades to include interactive media and film. In looking into Graffiti Park, I also learned that it’s been slated for destruction, a victim to Austin’s rampant (and city-ruining, IMHO) growth.
If Austin’s in your plans and grafitti in a funky Austin setting is your thing, head to 1008 Baylor St. in Austin before the end of June when it will be bulldozed. The good news is the park will be reopened in East Austin. Six acres of Carson Ranch have already been bought for a new Graffiti Park near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Plans are for 48,470 square feet of graffiti-able wall space. The new space looks to be sleek, new and still fun, but unavoidably lacking in castle and that charming old Austin weirdness.
I just had to share a quick post on this bit of Texas quirkiness. It’s got its issues, but I love my home state! David and I have been enjoying some downtime before our upcoming 3-month around-the-world extravaganza (leaving next week!). I haven’t been posting on Wanderwiles lately, but plan to get back to it on this trip. Our plans include 21+ hours of first class Korean Air flights, Singapore, Indonesia (Bali and Java for a few weeks), a month on a ship from Singapore to Italy (including Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Oman, UAE, Jordan, a Suez Canal passage & Greece). After a Perugia farm, small-town Tuscany and Florence, we’ll wind up with a few-weeks return to our beloved Antwerp, Belgium. As always, comments, suggestions and questions are more than welcome! – Tamara
I visited my first hammam years ago in the Marais during my second stint living in Paris. I’d been super intrigued and curious about the hammam experience, but with my then-fairly-limited French, cultural uncertainties, and doubts about dress and modesty and expectations and such, I hesitated to go. When a friend who’d been living in Paris many more years than I had and who swore by semiannual “gommage” (exfoliation) treatments at a favorite hammam invited me to go with her, I jumped on the chance. It was a fun–and kind of crazy–experience, lounging around with lots of other naked and semi-naked women in clouds of steam, then being roughly scrubbed by a burly Tunisian woman (who nearly smothered me with her ample bosom as she leaned over me to work) before sending me off to recover with hot mint tea. I felt like a prize heifer ready for the show. The hammam was a far cry from the gentle, pampering spas favored back home in the States, but boy, was I scrubbed pink and seriously exfoliated!
On our current stay in Paris, I’d put another round of gommage high on my to-do list. Older and more confident, less modest, with my one hammam experience under my belt, and with much-improved (if still sadly lacking) French, I was ready to give it another go. The old hammam in the Marais is now closed, but I’d always wanted to try the hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris so figured now was the perfect time.
A quick check online showed that reservations aren’t required and that the hammam at the Grand Mosque is open every day but Tuesday. I settled on Wednesday, reasonably early (around 11am), hoping for a less-busy time, and that’s what I found. So, for those intrigued by a visit to the Grand Mosque’s hammam but maybe feeling a little intimidated, here’s a step-by-step walk-through of my experience and what to expect:
Start by entering at the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton (across from the southernmost corner of the Jardin des Plantes). The door is literally set into the corner. [The entrance to the mosque itself is a block away, on the far side of the building from the Jardins des Plantes on rue Georges Desplas, although the mosque gives its official address as 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 75005 Paris, which is a small square off rue Georges Desplas.]
You walk through a pretty little courtyard and enter as if you were going to the mosque’s café.
There’s a counter with pastries on display; the cafe is to the right, the double doors to the hammam are tucked inconspicuously in the corner, just to the left of the pastry counter as you face it. No need to talk to anyone at this point, just push the door and go on in.
You’ll find yourself in a colorfully painted waiting room/seating area with another set of double doors on the far wall. Go through those doors to find the welcome counter/front desk of the hammam where you choose and pay for the services and any items you’d like to purchase or rent for the day (exfoliating glove, soap, towel, bathing suit, etc.)
Options ranged from a simple entry to visit the hammam and enjoy its sauna and bathing facilities (18 €) to various “forfaits” or package deals, the most expensive of which includes lunch. I chose the “Forfait 53 €” which included:
1 Entrée Simple (unlimited time to use the hammam’s facilities for the day)
1 Massage 20 (a 20 minute massage with orange blossom-scented oil)
1 Gommage (exfoliation)
1 Savon Noir (a packet of special black soap of a soft-wax consistency)
1 Thé à la menthe (a hot, sweetened mint tea to finish off my visit)
I also paid €6 for an exfoliating glove (“gant”). The hammam accepts cash or credit cards.
The lady at the counter gave me three plastic disks on stretchy wristbands to act as tickets. These were engraved with “GOMMAGE,” “MASSAGE 20M,” AND “THÉ.”
The lady indicated two boxes of plastic shower slippers behind me opposite the desk and told me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of slippers. I wore these for the rest of the day until ready to leave.
Adorned with my “bracelet” tickets and carrying my glove and packet of soap as well as the bag containing the towel, a hair clip, dry underwear and a few toiletries I’d brought, I headed across the massage area and through a door to the right that leads to the long, narrow locker and changing area. Only one other woman, a Frenchwoman of about my age, was in the changing area when I arrived. We exchanged a few words as we disrobed and tried to figure out the system; it was both of our first visit.
Unlike the previous hammam I’d visited, signs state that the hammam of the Grand Mosque requires a “bathing suit” in the interests of hygene; total nudity is not allowed. The term “bathing suit” is very loosely interpreted, though. Panties/underwear or bikini bottoms are fine. Tops are optional and quite a few women, myself included, opted for topless.
Be sure to bring a 1€ coin to operate the lockers. You can’t lock or remove the key (also on a stretchy wristband) without the coin. It will be returned to you when you return the key.
Leaving the dressing area, the showers and toilet areas are through a door to your right (directly across the vaulted massage area from the front desk). Toilets and sinks are to the right through that door. Showers and hard plastic gommage tables are to the left. Showers are mandatory before using the hammam, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work, so I originally brought my towel with me to the showers. Mistake. Leave your towel in the locker until the end of the day, or at least until just before your massage. There’s nowhere to set down a towel that isn’t wet and you’ll be soaking wet (and plenty warm) from the steam anyway.
[Photos aren’t allowed in the hammam and I was able to take these after I’d re-dressed only because it was a slow day and no women were in the rooms at the time. From here on out, I can’t offer any more photos from inside the hammam.]
Communal, two-headed showers are on either side of the gommage space with a stone ledge along one wall between the showers. When I arrived, a gommage was in progress and two ladies were lounging on the ledge. One, an older, solid-built woman was topless and had her underwear pulled aside while she did a bit of exfoliating on her own with one of the rough green gloves sold at the hammam and a bucket of water. So much for American modesty! The other, smaller woman appeared to be in a bra and panties. Above them on a high ledge, stacks of plastic buckets were available for visitors. On a central table, a hammam employee scrubbed away at a guest on one of the hard plastic gommage tables. (There is a small private room with tables just outside the shower and toilet area that I gather can be booked for those uncomfortable with the communal atmosphere of the hammam.)
The showers were so hot as to be nearly scalding. Attempting to moderate the heat simply turned off the flow. Hmm. I made quick work of the shower, using a bit of the oily black soap from the packet I’d bought with my package.
Finding the shower/gommage area to be small and not particularly attractive, I moved on to the next room which was mildly heated with a ledge and garden hose with sprayer on the far wall. A couple of women were sitting there, but I moved on to the next room, the main steam room, a lovely and large, multi-vaulted space.
Two long marble ledges run down the long sides of the room, divided into six separate seating/lounging areas (three on each side), each with an alcove on the back wall with hot and cold water faucets and a little basin. These long ledges flank a large round central platform (10′ or so across), also of marble and sporting a large 8-sided star motif in red, yellow and black. A central dome rose above, collecting a cloud of steam. A couple of women sat on one of the side ledges, splashing water from a plastic bucket onto themselves as they leisurely washed and visited. I chose the central space on the opposite side and stretched out on the warm, wet marble. I closed my eyes or gazed up at the mottled blue of the painted vault above me, occasional drops raining down. This room has the look of a classic old hammam: off-white marble covers the floor and ledges; red granite lower walls give way to blue mosaic tiles on columns which in turn support the mottled blue upper columns and vaults. Small colored windows high on the walls let in a soft light and a little occasional sound from the street, but offer complete privacy.
When I felt ready for a little more heat, I moved into the farthest room of the hammam. This smaller space offers a low marble ledge to the left, a faucet straight ahead with delightfully cool water, and a raised, red granite hot-tub-sized dipping pool to the right, all under a high vaulted ceiling. Today, the pool was unfortunately empty–but pristine–for some sort of maintenance. The heat is such in the room that there is a huge difference depending on where you sit. On the lower ledge to the left, it wasn’t so bad. If I moved to sit by the little pool, up higher, the moist heat was so intense it burned my lips. I could only take short stays in this room, but enjoyed moving back and forth between this space and the large vaulted steam room. I soon claimed a plastic bucket and would fill it up with the relatively cooler water to splash on myself from time to time as I lounged in the large vaulted room and daydreamed. It was a pattern the other women followed as well.
I exchanged a few words with the other visitors, but mostly people kept to themselves or visited with the friends they’d come with. The older lady from the gommage/shower area asked me to hand her down a stool from a high ledge. People commented on the heat or shared info about the hammam, but mostly we just lounged about. At most, there were maybe only a dozen women, of various ages and body types. I felt like I’d entered a scene from some long-ago-far-away place, relaxed and dreamy in the clouds of steam, unselfconscious in the all-female atmosphere.
Periodically, one of the gommage or massage ladies would walk through the steam rooms, eye the tickets on our wrists and beckon to one of the guests. Eventually, it was my turn to follow one of these women back to the gommage area. I laid down on the hard white plastic table and handed her the gommage glove I had purchased. She put it on and went to work. Wow. At one point, I wondered if she might scrape me down to raw meat. (I think I should have re-slicked myself with the weird black soap beforehand, although when I asked her about that, she told me it wasn’t necessary. She may have been more worried about her schedule than my skin, though.) She scrubbed me pink, lifting my arms, pulling aside my bikini bottoms to get at my haunches, the dead skin sloughing off onto the table. (Sorry! But, that’s how gommage works.) When she was done, she hosed off the table and floor while I hit the showers again before heading back to the steam rooms.
I visited with two English-speaking ladies in traditional bathing suits in the smaller, least-heated room until I was called for my 20-minute massage in the beautiful main massage area by the front desk (see top photo above). I went to my locker to deposit my glove and soap packet and dry off beforehand.
The massage began face-up on a padded, towel-covered table. The masseuse used copious amounts of orange blossom-scented oil, covering me from head to toe, even oiling my chin and the sides of my nose, massaging my temples and scalp. If your complexion can’t handle oil, just let them know not to do your face. It was delightfully relaxing, though, albeit leaving my hair a total oil slick. Oh well, I’d known a shampooing was in my future after the hammam anyway.
Once again, modesty is at a different level than in the States or many anglophone countries: Another masseuse worked on another guest at a table maybe six feet away. Oh well, I closed my eyes and totally forgot about them. “My” masseuse rubbed chest and belly as well as back, neck legs and arms. The hammam massage is more a firm rubbing and kneading than some sports massages I’ve had where elbows and knuckles are used to break the grip of painful knots. It’s relaxing and luxurious and a delightful way to end the day (and recover from the more business-like work of the gommage).
With the massage done, I tried rinsing some of the thick oil off in the shower, but found it pointless. So, I just wiped off as much as I could with my towel and got dressed save for my shoes and coat. (The plastic grocery bag I’d brought for wet things was put to good use.) My hair was so oily that I just slicked it back and re-clipped it for the ride home on the Métro. Not exactly glamorous. Again, oh well.
I exchanged my one remaining plastic ticket at the front desk for a small tray with paper napkin and a steaming glass of sweetened mint tea. I carried these to one of the padded ledges around the massage area where I kicked off my slippers and stretched out my legs to enjoy my drink. I’m generally not a fan of sweetened tea, but this was delicious! As I sipped, the older full-figured lady I’d first seen topless in the shower/gommage area added her last layer of black, traditional Muslim clothing before heading out. I bid her “au revoir” and a “bonne journée” which she returned. It’s good to be reminded how we’re all just people under our clothes.
Practical info: I spent about 2 hours total at the hammam, feeling that I’d done things at a comfortable, leisurely pace. With company, it wouldn’t have been hard to stay longer. The hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris is open every day but Tuesday from 10am to 7pm. Details about the hammam are online here. Note: the hammam is cleaned with chlorine for anyone having a sensitivity.
The nearest Métro stops are Jussieu (lines 7 and 10), Place Monge (line 7) and Censier-Daubenton (line 7).
Things to bring: a towel, a euro coin for the lockers, a credit card or money, a clip or tie to get hair off your neck, dry undergarments, basic toiletries (shampoo, if you want it; cosmetics, etc.), a brush or comb, a plastic bag for your wet towel and bathing suit.
Don’t wear much or any make-up to the hammam, especially mascara; it will be steamed off you or smeared down your face in no time. Don’t expect to get out of the hammam with presentable hair.
David and I visited the adjacent mosque before I sent him away to enjoy my time at the hammam. Entrance to the mosque and its gardens is €3 per person. Head coverings are not required for women, although I did wear a scarf out of respect. Prayer rooms are off-limits to tourists. Open 7 days/week, find more about the Mosque here.
Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month (December), which means Free First Sunday of the Month at the Louvre and many other Paris museums. (The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. See the bottom of this article for more info.) I’ve heard and read the horror stories about Free First Sunday hordes, so wanted to check it out myself so I could report what I found on Wanderwiles. I’ve been to the Louvre more times than I can remember and am a past member of Amis du Louvre, so I’ve always avoided these Sundays. Since we’re just in Paris for a month this time, David and I decided we’d give the Louvre a miss on this visit unless First Sunday surprised us…and it did!
First off, we decided NOT to be waiting when the museum first opens at 9am. Although I’ve seen recommendations to do that, I’ve also heard that there are huge lines waiting at the opening which thin over time. Also, we wanted to go to the first Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral at 11am. So, we went to church, walked the pedestrian-only Champs-Elysées (another first Sunday of the month thing), then rode line 1 of the Métro to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre stop so we could enter the museum by the underground Carousel du Louvre entrance (thereby hopefully avoiding any line at the above-ground pyramid…and the cold drizzle of the day).
Walking past the shops (put l’Occitane on your left) towards the upside down pyramid suspended from an atrium, our first glimpse of a huge line of people was disheartening.
We slipped around them to the upside down pyramid where we could see that things were backed up and crowded in the hall beyond (which leads to the main atrium of the Louvre below the courtyard glass pyramid). It seemed the horror stories were confirmed.
But, I wanted to give it a little time to be sure the crowd we were seeing wasn’t just a backlog of groups. (That seemed to be a possibility.) So, we browsed the shops for maybe 15-20 minutes. Stepping back into the hall, we saw that the line had completely disappeared. We walked back to the upside down pyramid atrium and crossed right into the hall beyond which leads to the main atrium/ ticketing and information center of the Louvre.
Once in the main Louvre atrium, you are presented with three escalators going up to the three main wings: Richelieu, Sully and Denon. I figured most people would be going to Denon to see the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance paintings, Winged Vicory, etc. Although the Denon hall of paintings (“La Grande Galerie”) is one of my favorite places on earth and I like the museum “stars” as well, we’ve seen those many, many times, so I opted for Richelieu. I love the French sculpture rooms of the Richelieu wing and thought they might be less crowded, too. Sure enough, they were delightfully uncrowded.
We found much of the Egyptian exhibit and earlier Mesopotamian exhibits to be equally horde-free. As were the Louis XIV rooms and objets d’art exhibits in the Sully wing. Sure, there were other people, but there really wasn’t a problem or anything remarkable about the numbers. This was great!
We ended up spending four great hours wandering our favorite museum. We saved the Denon wing for last (5-5:30pm) and were able to visit a popular, but easy-to-view Winged Victory.
I got to say hello to my favorite Botticelli “frescoes” just beyond Winged Victory (look for the lady with the giant scorpion), and the Grand Galerie, that wonderful long hall of Renaissance masterpieces. There were a lot of people, but not much if any more than I’ve seen on other busy days at the Louvre. I had no trouble viewing my favorite Raphael works in peace.
We even stepped into the Mona Lisa room, mostly to marvel at the throng straining to get close and taking selfies with the famous painting. It was crazy, but then again, not really out of the ordinary.
Free First Sunday hours are 9am-6pm. Entrance is via the main glass pyramid or the Carousel du Louvre. Sadly, my favorite little-known entrance from the past, the Porte des Lions, is now open only for booked groups. On Free First Sunday, the Porte des Lions was completely closed and we could not even exit there, so had to retrace our steps down the hall.
Exiting via the same Métro entrance we came in at below the Carousel du Louvre proved to be problematic: A huge crowd filled the area in front of the stiles. So, we exited onto the street instead and walked the short distance to the above-ground entrance to the Métro. There we could access the stile immediately and found no crowds on the quai. Just be sure you descend into the Métro so that you’re going in your preferred direction (toward La Défense or Chateau de Vinennes).
Bear in mind that French school holidays and those in other countries may well effect the crowds on Free First Sundays. Yesterday wasn’t a school holiday in France. The next Free First Sunday in January may well be more crowded as it will be a school holiday in France and elsewhere.
The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. Find many other Paris museums that are free on the first Sunday of the month on the official Paris tourism web site page entitled Free Museums and Monuments in Paris.
While I drop in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris any time I walk by and there’s not a line, it’s always extra special to visit during a service. One particularly special ceremony to look out for is the Vénération de la Couronne d’épines (Veneration of the Crown of Thorns).
Everything about the veneration contributes to the beauty and religious aura of the famous cathedral: The clouds of incense, the music, the cloaked men and women, the ritual kissing of the gold and glass reliquary which houses a woven crown of reeds, now minus its thorns. The thorns were dispersed over the centuries, some 70 of which have been affirmed as original by the Catholic Church.
The Veneration of the Crown of Thorns takes place on the first Friday of every month and every Friday of Lent at 3pm. On Good Friday, the veneration lasts from 10am to 5pm. Dressed in white cloaks, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (“les chevaliers du Saint-Sépulcre de Jérusalem”) assist the church canons with the service and help maintain order and a prayerful attitude. (They keep a watchful eye for the over-zealous. Apparently, one or two fervent worshippers have “rushed” the crown in the past.)
Like most things at Notre Dame, the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns is free and open to the public. You can participate in the service (including kissing the relic) or simply view the proceedings while standing on the sides, just beyond the roped off area (from where I took these photos). Just remember to be quiet and respect the dignity of the ceremony and the sanctity of the moment for participants.
Visiting the Fondation Louis Vuitton (“FLV”) was high on our list of things to do during our current month in Paris. Under construction for twelve years and costing nearly $135 million dollars, the privately-owned contemporary art “museum”/exhibition hall is a one-of-a-kind work of art itself. The building was still under construction on our last visit to the surrounding park, so we were really looking forward to seeing the finished structure. All I can say is “Wow!” Talk about exceeding expectations. An immense assymetrical collection of gleaming white structures clad in glass “sails” on steel and wood supports, FLV joins the panoply of great Parisian landmarks. It’s an architectural and engineering feat not to be missed.
Through March 7, 2018, FLV is hosting Being Modern: MoMA in Paris. It’s an impressive exhibit of some iconic works of modern art from the famous New York museum and we thoroughly enjoyed it: Picasso, Litchenstein, Rothko, Pollack, Warhol, Kahlo and many, many more. There’s sculpture and film, a wonderful 40-speaker audio of the Salisbury choir, whimsical found objects, industrial “art”, architectural maquettes and actual pieces of dissembled buildings.
It’s all big fun and I highly recommend “Being Modern: MoMA in Paris” for modern art fans, but the real show for us was the FLV building itself. We spent over four hours wandering the wild, sweeping expanses of the FLV, enjoying the art as well as the rooftop terraces, sky-lit rooms and exposed stairways.
The rooftop terraces offer intriguing insights into the building as well as sweeping views over the adjacent Jardin d’Acclimitation (a charming old children’s amusement park, petting zoo and equestrian center) and La Defense, Paris’ skyscraper dotted western business district.
We bought amazing rich, dark hot chocolate by renowned Belgian chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini, from a cart on one terrace. On another terrace, Alto Café provided refreshments.
FLV has no standing art exhibit; it’s really just an enormous exhibition hall(s) and auditorium. The only standing display is a multi-story offering on the design and construction of the building contained in small spaces on each floor. One staircase was deliberately left “unfinished” as well so visitors can view the exposed structural elements.
For an added bonus, we exited through the back of FLV for a better view of the waterfall we’d see on our approach and free access to the Jardin d’Acclimatation. Trees in blazing fall finery made the pretty park even more spectacular than usual.
Practical info: Buy tickets for specific times online (every half hour from around 9am-7pm, with some variation). Tickets for the MoMA exhibit are €16 for adults, €10 for 18-26, €5 for under-18’s. There are reductions for teachers, artists, unemployed-seeking-work, etc. Check the web site to see if any of that applies.
FLV is about a 10-minute walk from Les Sablons Métro stop on Line 1, west of the Arc de Triomphe/Étoile. There’s also a FLV shuttle that runs from near the Arc de Tiomphe directly to FLV for €2 per person.
Find lots of useful info here, including a handy calendar that shows peak and lull times so you can try to avoid crowds. The building is so large, though, that we never really felt crowded.
There is a gift shop with items related to FLV and the current exhibition. There’s also a pricey restaurant, Le Frank:
How could I pass up the chance to see the inside of a private mansion (“hôtel particulier”) on swanky Avenue Foch and a reputedly extensive oriental art collection for free? Obviously, I couldn’t!
The Musée d’Ennery is the former home of Clémence d’Ennery, a well-known actress of her day and an avid collector of oriental objets d’art. She deeded her collection to the Musée Guimet with the proviso that the collection be kept intact in her home. After some legal wrangling with her older playwright husband, who unexpectedly outlived her, her wish has been fulfilled (save for one lacquered trunk on display at the Guimet as an enticement to visit the Musée d’Ennery).
The Musee d’Ennery is only available by pre-booked 1-hour guided tour, in French only. (Details are at the bottom of this post.) That said, it’s easy to book online by email and, even if you don’t speak French, it’s a real treat for the eyes. (My husband’s French was not fluent enough for him to keep up with the rapid-fire French of our knowledgeable guide, but he was not at all bored and glad we took the tour.)
Our guide did not neglect the basics of her subject. For example, she explained the difference between the little netsuke figurines and the smaller ojime “beads” used to fasten clothing cords in place of/in addition to knots. She also explained the lack of pockets in Japanese clothing that led to the use of these objects. When an item held particular interest, was unusual or unusually valuable, she paused to elaborate.
While I enjoy oriental art, I am no connoisseur and was primarily interested in getting inside a new-to-me Parisian mansion. I wasn’t disappointed. The mansion is gorgeous, the architectural details fabulous. Our guide offered insights into the collection and the former owner. Apparently, Clémence d’Ennery didn’t actually know a lot about oriental art; she simply bought what she liked. She did develop relationships with knowledgeable dealers, though, and her taste matured. The result is that there are cheap pieces among her collection along with priceless items. I thought her simple desire for beauty, as she saw it, it added to the charm.
I love the Parisian museums located in former homes, giving a glimpse into another lifestyle. (The Nissim de Comondo is one of my favorites of the type, preserving living quarters, kitchen, bathrooms as well as living and entertaining rooms. More often, personal rooms have been converted into typical museum-type spaces or closed to the public; a little disappointing, but still worthwhile.) Visitors to the Musée d’Ennery are only allowed into the common areas/salon and entertaining rooms, which are all overflowing with the sheer volume of Clémence d’Ennery’s amazing collection. Bedrooms, the kitchen, etc. are not open to the public.
The lighting is unfortunately poor in the many display cabinets, but the guides had no problem with people using their phones to occasionally shine lights on the curios. They also did not stop anyone from taking non-flash photographs (which people were openly doing) although the confirmation email said they were forbidden. There were 12 people in our group, so maybe it is more a matter of photo-taking causing logistical problems with larger groups.
The Musée d’Ennery is only open to individuals on Saturdays (except holidays) at 11:30am by pre-booked guided tour in French only. To book the tour, email the Guimet at email@example.com. I emailed on a mid-November Friday and asked to be included either the next day or the following Saturday and received a prompt reply saying we were in the following Saturday’s tour and asking us to arrive 10 minutes early. Names were checked off when we arrived. There are free, keyed lockers on the ground floor to leave coats, bags, etc. before beginning the tour.
See details and possibilities for pre-booked group tours online here. (Scroll to the bottom for specifics on the Musée d’Ennery. If you do not read French and are using the Chrome browser, just right click anywhere on the page and ask Google to translate to English.)
Find more on the history of the Musée d’Ennery here.
We just made our now semi-annual pilgrimage to Westvleteren to pick up more of the “best beer in the world.” We admit it; we’re hooked…and are possibly beer hoarders as well. But, this post isn’t about beer, it’s about our latest exploration of West Flanders which took us this time through picturesque countryside and villages to the restored WWI Dodengang or “Trench of Death” and the Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) housed in the 22-story tall iron cross tower that’s both a memorial to Flemish soldiers who died in WWI and a sometimes-controversial rallying point for Flemish Belgians.
Leaving the Sint-Sixtus Abbey (where Westvleteren beer is brewed), we drove rural back roads past fields of brussel sprouts and farm animals. It always pains me to think of the absolute destruction wrought by WWI on this peaceful countryside. And, of course, WWII was no kinder to Belgium.
We stopped in the pretty little village of Lo-Reninge, lured by the medieval West Gate beside which stands a tree to which, legend claims, Julius Caesar tied his horse. We admired the UNESCO-designated town hall and belfort, and a lovely old Sint-Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) before continuing on to The Royal Museum of the Army’s venue at the Trench of Death outside of the town of Diksmuide.
Diksmuide is strategically important in WWI history as the site of a line held by defenders after the Belgians flooded large portions of their country to stop the German advance.
The Trench of Death museum was refurbished in August 2014 as part of the WWI centenary and includes videos, photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Army Museum’s collection.
Modest-sized, but effective, exhibits on the second floor (1st floor, european) attempt to tell the story of the Trench of Death from both Belgian and German perspectives. A rooftop viewing deck lets visitors get an overview of the trenches and the adjacent Izjer River before descending to walk the extensive rebuilt trenches.
The museum’s website tells the story of the Trench of Death in 100 words as follows: “In 1915 the Belgian army tries to dislodge the Germans from the petrol tanks north of the city of Dixmude (Diksmuide). After two failed attempts the Belgians decide to dig a trench towards the drums. The Germans however manage to capture part of it. In order to suppress the German threat, Belgian military engineering creates, by the end of 1915, a breach in the Yser dike. The two camps are now only separated by a mere ditch. The trench is then transformed into an impregnable position, called Trench of Death because of the victims buried there after the German attack.”
The museum is well-done and the trenches, like those at the Passchendaele Museum, give a sobering glimpse of trench warfare.
Germans attacked the Belgians on three sides. German trenches lay less than 50m from the Belgians. Belgian soldiers lived under the constant threat of both conventional and gas attack, and kept gas masks with them at all times.
A mere 1.5 km away and visible from the Trench of Death Museum stands the 22-story tall Museum aan den IJzer tower and museum (also “Yser” in English), a giant iron cross in the shape of Flemish headstones used to mark the graves of Flemish soldiers.
A large stone “peace arch” with the inscription “PAX” stands at the entrance to the museum grounds. It incorporates the rubble of the original Ijzer tower which was dynamited following WWII in protest of Flemish Nazi collaborators. (Apparently, the Nazis often exploited separatist sentiments to try to drive wedges between social groups in the countries they sought to invade and conquer.) The remains of the original memorial tower are surrounded by its crypt and a circle of Flemish headstones.
Later, as we toured the museum, we learned that after the war, the Belgian government decided to install uniform headstones for Belgian soldiers killed during WWI; the headstones were inscribed “Mort pour la patrie” (died for the homeland), in French, with no Dutch (the Flemish language). Existing Flemish headstones were removed and, in at least once case, broken up and used to make a road. Flemish outrage led to the construction of the first memorial Ijzer Tower, constructed as is the present tower in the form of Flemish gravestones with the letters AVV-VVK, representing “Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus” or “All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ.” Given how much time we’ve spent in Belgium in recent years, we’re always trying to understand the complicated history of Belgian society and the rifts between French and Flemish Belgians. Here was a new and fascinating learning opportunity.
Proceeding past the crypt to the tower, we immediately took an elevator to the 22nd floor, the topmost enclosed floor of the tower. There we found 360 windows surmounted by a painted panorama showing the surrounding countryside as it looked during WWI. Labels with directional lines indicated the names of villages, cemeteries and other sites.
Climbing a few more flights of stairs, we came to the open-air rooftop offering an even more dramatic view. The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the tower well beyond the crypt and peace arch below and into the town.
After taking in the views, we began the floor-by-floor descent through the museum. With so many levels to work with, some of the floors were almost throw-aways, one offering only wall-sized black-and-white drawings and another displaying shelf-upon-shelf of ordinance. But, there were fascinating floors as well. One had us wandering a wooden maze of recreated trenches while speakers played the labored breathing of gas attack victims. Around some corners, a large photograph of victims would suddenly light up. A particularly poignant floor offered a display of clothing along with photographs of Belgians fleeing the war. It posited the question, “What would you take if you had only moments to choose before fleeing your home?” It reminds people that their grandparents were the ones fleeing war with the clothes on their back just as today other peoples are fleeing wars in distant lands. The museum is dedicated to peace. “No more war” is printed in Dutch, French, English and German on the four sides of its base.
Leaving the museum, we walked back past the crypt with a new understanding of what we were seeing. Looking back at the enormous tower with its “AVV-VVK” we now knew that it, and its predecessor, had become a rallying point for Flemish Belgians and has been the site of annual gatherings. After WWI, the Flemish Movement organized pilgrimages to the graves of fallen Flemish soldiers and the first Yser Tower was built in 1930. After the first tower was destroyed in 1946 and the new tower was built, “Flemish minded people” continued to hold large gatherings at the site that attracted a radical, separatist element as well that was sometimes invited, sometimes not. In the 90’s, the organizing committee distanced itself from this radical element. The current museum focuses on promoting peace and tolerance. While the red poppy is the symbol of WWI remembrance for soldiers, the Museum aan den IJzer chose a white poppy with the word “peace” at its center to commemorate all victims of war, both civilian and military. The Museum asks the question, “What remains of life?” addressing the ongoing loss after war, including the mental suffering and difficulties adjusting to civilian life of returning veterans.
Practical info: The Royal Army Museum’s center at the Trench of Death is located at: IJzerdijk 62, 8600 Diksmuide 051 50 53 44 Open daily from 10am-6pm, April 1- Nov. 15, Tues. & Thurs. only the rest of the year. (Check online for details and holiday changes.); admission €4 for adults, children under 8 are free.
The Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) is located at: DE IJZERTOREN – IJzerdijk 49 – 8600 Diksmuide – T 051.50.02.86 – firstname.lastname@example.org Open daily, check online for seasonal variation in times. Entrance is €8/adult, €2.5 for children 7-17, and free for children under 7.
Pretty Lier, Belgium, is only a 10-minute train ride from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station and it was top on my day trip wish list for our current cat- and house-sitting stay in Antwerp. (The trip is another 5 minutes or so if you leave from Antwerpen-Centraal, the architectural gem that is the only other train station in Antwerp.) With our sights on weekend-only boat tours of Lier, we took advantage of our first gorgeous October Saturday to make the short trip. Our Belgian Rail weekend fare tickets cost €4.40 apiece, round trip. (Choose the “weekend ticket internet” option when given a choice for the half-price weekend fare. Print your ticket and show it to the agent on board the train when asked.)
It’s about a 10-minute walk from the train station to Lier’s lovely Grote Markt (main square) dominated by the stadhuis (city hall) and it’s attached UNESCO-designated belfry dating to 1369. On this sunny Saturday, the square was filled with market stalls selling everything from clothing to cheese, produce, meats and more.
As always, high on our list of to-dos in a new Belgium town is to try the local beer. Lier, which rhymes with “beer,” is known for beer and has 6 such brews. We ordered two with our light lunch at ‘t Goemerke, a market-side café on the main square with a simple menu. I opted for the unique Caves (pronounced more or less like “cah fess”) and found it to be an enjoyable if somewhat sweet sour along the lines of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. David chose the Sint Gummarus Tripel, a crisp version of the Belgian classic. We’ll do a separate write-up on Lier beers in an upcoming post, so I won’t go into more detail here.
We finished up the art museum with just enough time to walk to the riverside starting point for the boat tours put on by Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers (Royal Brave Boat Fishermen). We spent 45 minutes gliding through Lier in a converted eel-fishing boat (with a non-stop Dutch commentary that our companions–all Dutch-speaking–found very amusing). While we would have liked to have learned more/anything from our guide, we really enjoyed the boat ride and the perspective of Lier from the River Nete. Boat tours are offered Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 1 – October 31, 2-6 p.m. Prices are €3.50 for adults, €2 for children.
After our boat ride, we wandered charming cobbled streets of the adjacent begijnhof (“beguinage” in French). There are begijnhofs in many Belgian towns and I think all of them are UNESCO-listed. I like to describe beguines as “almost-nuns.” They were religious ladies who lived in these communities and took vows, but these vows did not include forsaking marriage or vows of poverty. The Lier begijnhof is particularly picturesque and the begijnhof church is really spectacular (and a far cry from the tiny chapel in the Antwerp begijnhof). We had the church to ourselves save for an older man playing magical music on the organ. Lovely!
We exited the beginjof onto the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city. We shared the path with other walkers, families and couples, bicycles and baby carriages. This area was part of a walk through town laid out by the nice man in the tourist office in the stadhuis. The downstairs of the stadhuis is open to the public and is worth a look just for the elegant architecture and painted walls and ceilings:
Back in town, we headed to Sint-Gummaruskerk, Lier’s main church. As we approached, the bells began ringing madly, an at-first-charming call to vespers that continued for 30 minutes, including our quick exploration of the church and our escape to the nearby Sint-Pieterskapel, an unremarkable old chapel save for its painted ceiling. Back outside the chapel, the clanging of the bells of Sint-Gummarus continued to echo off the surrounding buildings and the otherwise-quiet and immaculate residential neighborhoods, a racket that must get old if you live nearby. Enough already!
After wandering a further stretch of the riverside park circling the town, we strolled back to the Grote Markt, now empty of the market and glowing in the afternoon sun. Clearly, this was prime time for a couple more local beers at café het Moment. I opted for the Pallieter tripel (a true Lier beer) while David had the Kempisch Vuur (an abbey tripel from Brewery Pirlot in nearby Zandhoven). Again, we found both to be really good, and better than their Rate Beer reviews, especially mine. More details on the beers in a later post.
Somewhat full from the beer and accompanying snacks, we opted for a light dinner on Zimmersplein, a narrow plaza lined with restaurants and bracketed on one end by the town’s iconic astronomical clock tower, the Zimmertoren, and on the other by the “Prisoner’s Gate” an old jail and part of the long-gone medieval city wall.
We snagged another prime outdoor seat, this time just in front of the complicated clock tower in a restaurant aptly-named Café Refuge. We ordered a couple of beers and quiche and salad, not expecting anything remarkable from the food. Happily, both the quiches (one pumpkin and chevre, and one broccoli and nuts) and salads (made with mixed greens, herbs, raisins, grapes, apple, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes) were atypical and excellent. A just-right end to a delightful, low-key day!
Find out more about Lier (in English, Dutch, French and German) at the Visit Lier website.
David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.
Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.
If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!
Mt. Rushmore should be on every American’s bucket list, and judging by the crowds and prices every summer, it probably is. If you can wait till fall, though, you’ll find the crowds gone and hotel prices much more reasonable. My husband and I did just that, waiting until the third week in October. Yes, the Flintstone Village was closed as was the faux Independence Hall and some mining-themed amusement parks, but we didn’t miss them at all. The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was open, as was the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park (including Needles Highway), and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. We stayed at K Bar S Lodge an terrific, rustic-but-lovely hotel just outside of Keystone, South Dakota, 30 minutes from the Rapid City Airport, where we could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance and hike a nearby abandoned mine. Yes, it was chilly at night and, yes, we risked things like Needles Highway being closed for the winter. But, the flight from DFW to Rapid City, SD, is an easy two hour and fifteen minute non-stop flight on American so we could monitor the weather forecast. [Although pricey in dollars, the flight was a cheap award using our British Airways Avios. We use BA Avios for those short hauls since BA is distance-based and charges us less miles for those flights that AA does.]
Mt. Rushmore exceeded my expectations. Not only are the famous statues impressive, but so is the park itself. The buildings and approach are sleek and stylish, the walkways around the base of the mountain pretty and well-maintained. We really enjoyed a free return visit at night to see the carvings illuminated. The main walkway is not lit until you reach the flags, though, so bring a flashlight.
Custer State Park lies a thirty minute drive south of Keystone. Although we missed the September bison roundup at the park we got to see lots of bison up close in their winter habitat. Pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk and whitetail deer also call the park home. Entry is $20/vehicle for a 1-7 day pass.
Needles Highway (Hwy 87) runs through the Cathedral Spires Area of Custer State Park. Sitting around a campfire at our lodge one night, I mentioned my huge disappointment in being told on check-in that Needles was closed for the season. The mother-daughter pair who’d offered to share their s’mores with us did even more to make my night when they informed me that they’d driven the Highway that day and that it was open and easily drivable despite a sign at the pay booth saying otherwise. Sure enough, the next day proved them right and we enjoyed a spectacular drive.
Another day, we drove an hour and twenty minutes west to Badlands National Park. Entering through a vast prairie dog town, we found an otherworldly landscape of painted canyons. We pulled over to hike out to high observation points providing sweeping pastel vistas and explored walkways through the desert where big horn sheep fed nearby. Like Custer, entry is $20/car for a 1-7 day pass. The passes are not combinable as one is a state and one is a national park.
We crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming for our final destination, Devil’s Tower National Monument, a little over two hours’ drive from Keystone. Made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wildly popular with motorcyclists and other tourists, we arrived to find only a few cars in one of its two large parking lots.
A ranger assured me that, in summer, the lots were full and the web site warns of difficult parking. She particularly noted the craziness at Devil’s tower when the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally is in swing. A half million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, SD, for the famous summer rally. That group makes an excursion to Devil’s Tower. The Sturgis rally lasts ten days and is set for August 4-13 this year. Check the calendar to avoid this horde unless you’re going to the rally. On this gorgeous October day, however, we saw more birds, squirrels and rabbits than people as we hiked the perimeter of the tower. Entry to Devil’s Tower is $15/car, $10/motorcycle, $5/person arriving on foot or bicycle.
For a fun, economical, but limited-choice dinner, try the antique-filled Alpine Inn in Hill City, a short drive through wooded hills from Keystone. Dinner entree choices are large steak, small steak or vegetarian. [Dinner menu: 6oz. filet mignon = $11.95, 9oz. filet mignon =$13.95 (both steaks served with baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast); German dumplings and cheese with vegetables = $11.95] Lunch offers more variety. The Alpine Inn is renowned for its steaks and its house-made desserts. It’s closed Sundays and doesn’t accept credit cards, but it does have an on-site ATM machine. It’s popular, so make reservations.
Finally, if you like to gamble, South Dakota is for you. In addition to casinos, nearly every business establishment from doughnut shops to nail salons has a slot machine or two. Kitschy Deadwood is at or near the top of gaming towns in South Dakota. We’re not gamblers and didn’t get much out of casino-filled Deadwood’s recreated western town brimming with casinos, but we met people who loved it and went every year. So, if that’s your thing, Deadwood awaits. The people are friendly and the hotels offer some pretty great deals to lure in the gamblers. Enjoy!