Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

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!

Beer post #1: Venice

Venice for most of us means wine, not beer. But, for my awesome husband, everywhere now means beer. Craft beer, to be specific. So, I can’t leave Venice without a quick nod to Il Santo Bevitore, the fun little beer pub we found (after much wandering and inquiring of strangers).

DSCF0444
Il Santo Bevitore

To explain David’s and my fascination with good beer, you need to understand that in the last couple of years, we have spent a couple of months a year–in 1-month stretches–in Antwerp, Belgium. We cat- and house-sit there for a couple who have become friends and to whose cats and home city we’re always happy to return. We’ve developed a real love affair with tiny Belgium and along with that a real love for fine beer. David, in particular, has become very knowledgeable about all things beer and we’ve been privileged to make some world-class “beer pilgrimages:” We’ve made multiple trips to the monastery at Westvleteren, Belgium, scoring cases of rare “Westy 12,” the Holy Grail for many beer enthusiasts; we’ve visited the Cantillon beer brewery and museum, to taste unique samples of that legendary sour beer; we’re regulars at renowned beer bar/reliquary/dive “Kulminator” in Antwerp.

My older son gave David the “Beer Bible” as a Christmas gift and I was soon joking that I’d married a man who read the “Bible” every night. David quipped back that he is a “beer evangelist,” and he has accrued scattered “acolytes” with whom he swaps pictures of beer. [The Beer Bible is available on Amazon in paper and Kindle formats.] As you can see, as people who formerly drank wine almost exclusively, we’ve gone a little beer nuts (not that we’ll ever give up wine!). Anyway, the point of all this is that, no matter where we go, David seeks out local craft beers and beer pubs and I plan to give these finds their own posts and category.

So, background aside, Beer Post #1 is Venice where we spent a happy afternoon celebrating David’s birthday. We found a large selection of craft beers on tap from several countries in the tiny little pub. The Italian beers David was most intrigued by were available only in bottles, but we had fun sampling them and buying one to take back to our apartment. Cicchetti, or small bar snacks made of toasted bread with a variety of toppings, were tasty and provided a light lunch in anticipation of the evening’s big meal…and a little buffer for the alcohol.

20160328_144208
Cicchetti and beer!

 

DSCF0442
Il Santo Bevitore’s line up of taps

As with a restaurant our first night in Venice, we had trouble finding Pub Venezia because Google Maps put the address in the wrong physical location. This is a common problem in Venice as Google Maps seems to struggle with the Byzantine maze of narrow streets and canals and addresses (like that of Il Santo Bevitore) are often just a general neighborhood and a number. If you look up Il Santo Bevitore, the address you get is “Cannaregio 2393/A – 30121 Venezia.” Not helpful. Luckily, you have us: Il Santo Bevitore is located on Fondamenta Diedo, just beside the bridge that crosses Rio di Santa Fosca from Campo Santa Fosca, a small paved plaza with the statue of Paolo Sarpi at its center. Fondamenta Diedo shows up on Google Maps as a short stretch of canal-side street, so you should have no trouble finding the pub. Below is a photo of the outside of the pub as viewed from the bridge:

20160328_160139IlSantoBevitoreCrop
Il Santo Bevitore pub viewed from the bridge, with Campo Santa Fosca behind the photographer

Venice to Ljubljana, Slovenia: GoOpti van was the way to go

Our 3-week Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruise on the Costa “Deliziosa” dropped us off in Venice, Italy, on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016. It was my 4th time in Venice and David’s 2nd, but our first time together in that magical city and we were excited. It was my first time to arrive by ship and I was surprised to find that our large ship was allowed to dock just beyond the main train station. Undoubtedly convenient, given the 2-minute ride to the train station on the super-cheap “People Mover” to which we walked from the ship, it’s still disturbing to think of allowing these sea-going behemoths so close to the fragile old city. We heard later that there are plans to ban such ships from docking so close and I can’t help but think it’s wise. If you’re going to Venice by ship, I’d keep tabs on that potential dock change.

Despite the Easter crowds, we had a fabulous time in Venice. Our AirBnB apartment was one of the best we’ve had: beautiful and well-equipped, a short distance from the Gritti Palace vaporetto stop, a few blocks from San Marco square, a charming building on a picturesque courtyard, on the gondola path, with one of my favorite mobile amenities, a mobile hotspot so David and I had wi-fi throughout the city and nearby islands, and great hosts (one of whom, Francesca, spent over an hour getting us acquainted with the neighborhood and pointing out her favorite restaurants and those to avoid). One night, we celebrated David’s birthday at Michelin-starred Il Ridotto. We enjoyed their creative holiday prix fixe meal, but after 4+ hours we were ready to surrender!

Because it seems a crime to gloss over Venice entirely, below are a few photos.

20160327_154045
Gondola jam beneath our bedroom window
20160327_214140
Buildings lit up in the colors of the Belgian flag to show solidarity after the Brussels bombings
20160328_191722
Easter menu at Il Ridotto (minus a couple off-menu courses)
20160328_201259
Roasted pilgrim scallops (“cappesante”):

 

GoOpti

After several days in Venice, it was time to begin our much-anticipated Balkan adventure. Research yielded the surprising news that no trains run between Venice and nearby Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The trip can be made, but you have to train to the border, taxi across and then catch a Slovenian train. More hassle than we wanted. We also didn’t want to drive given Venice traffic restrictions and the cost of taking a rent car across a border, even within the EU. After weighing options, we decided to book with GoOpti, a van service that offers a sliding price scale depending on when you book and whether you are willing to share a ride. https://www.goopti.com/en/ I booked almost 3 months in advance and it was far cheaper than flying and without the attendant expense, hassle, and time always required for flying. (Our total cost for GoOpti was €48; €24pp–a great deal.) Even on budget airlines and traveling light to avoid luggage surcharges, you’ve got to factor in transportation to airports which are nearly always a distance from town as well as ever-increasing security delays. For short flights, it’s often quicker to travel by land.

For GoOpti, you choose from offered departure points and departure time windows (of 1-3 hours depending on the time of day) with a maximum arrive-by time at your destination given for each departure time window. GoOpti says they will text and email you the day before departure with a precise time, so wi-fi or phone service is necessary. As promised, GoOpti emailed us the day before saying pick-up would be at 2pm, but emailed again shortly afterward to say 1:30pm. The van arrived promptly. We chose Piazzale Roma (the plaza just across the canal from the main Venice train station, by the big pedestrian bridge) for our departure point. My only uneasiness about the arrangement was the failure of GoOpti to provide any details as to where in the big, busy piazza we were to meet our van. This meant we arrived extra early to allow time to find the van and David waited with our luggage on one side of the plaza while I made a circuit, asking random strangers and vendors about GoOpti to no avail. We finally decided to postition ourselves near the only traffic entrance to the plaza. Eventually, I spotted a GoOpti van stuck in traffic and was able to get him to roll down the window. While he wasn’t our driver, he pointed us in the right direction. So, here’s the scoop: If you arrive by vaporetto, motoscafi, etc., just walk away from the canal, past all the large buses and you’ll find a few benches built into a long planter where you can sit, facing away from the canal and buses, to wait for the GoOpti van. Just walk over to the van and identify yourself when it arrives. The GoOpti vans will simply park, head-on into one of the regular parking spaces. Walk up to the driver and identify yourself. They’ll have your name and reservation or direct you to the driver who does.

20160330_132343
GoOpti van picking up customers
20160330_132425
GoOpti van parking with bench/planter seating to the right of the man in blue. The People Mover station where you arrive from the cruise port is behind him.

Although we booked a shared ride, there was only us in the 9-person van. (This was a Wednesday.) The van was immaculate; our Slovenian driver, Petra, very friendly and English-speaking. We had control of our own air conditioning in the back. She stopped for a little snack and bathroom break when asked about 1.5 hours into the trip, but would have stopped, she said, whenever we asked. You can buy sandwiches and drinks (coffee, soft drinks, water, beer, etc.) at the convenience store/filling station where she stops. There’s also free wi-fi and clean toilets. The drive from Venice to the Ljubljana Airport took 3 hours. Highways and roads are excellent; the drive smooth and uneventful.

GoOpti provides transfers to many locations in northern Italy, as well as quite a few in Slovenia and Croatia. It also has connections as far as Munich, Vienna and Budapest.

Although we planned to spend some time in Ljubljana, we chose to be dropped off at the airport so we could pick up a rent car as well as the Slovenian Visitor SIM card I’d pre-ordered and had delivered to an airport café. A terrific convenience! More about that in the next post.

March 30, 2016