Trying out De Waterbus in Antwerp, Belgium: Daytrip on the Schelde River to Kruibeke Polder and Castle Wissekerke

De Waterbus at Steenplein in Antwerp

We got our first chance to try De Waterbus yesterday, the river bus that leaves from Antwerp’s Steenplein and makes a 30-minute run to nearby Hemiksem via Kruibeke. De Waterbus is new as of July 2017 so not yet in service when we were here last spring and not so appealing during the cold days when we were in Antwerp last October-November. Yesterday, however, was perfect: warm and sunny; just right for an explore.

The Waterbus leaves every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour from Steenplein (the pier where the free cross-river ferry to Linkeroever docks, near Het Steen castle). The cost is 3 for a one-way trip or 5, round-trip. De Waterbus has plenty of room and racks for bikes and a nice, air-conditioned interior and public toilets.

It’s fun to watch the bustling water traffic on the Schelde while the banks are mostly high water reeds and grasses or industrial structures. Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe after all.

The Waterbus made a quick stop on the right bank at Kruibeke, but we stayed on to Hemiksem on the opposite bank where walked a short distance to De Veertoren Taverne a pub I’d spotted online for lunch. There’s nothing else near the dock save tidy new homes.

Terrace at De Veertoren
Wednesday lunch special at De Veertoren: a hearty and tasty steak/frites

After a nice lunch of steak, frites, salad and ice cold Gouden Carolus Tripels, we hopped the free cross-river ferry to the Kruibeke side of the river. (This ferry runs every half hour on the 14 and 45.) I’d seen Castle Wissekerke in the village of Bezel online and wanted to visit, but had been discouraged in the past by the apparent need for a car. I was excited to realize we could actually walk from a Waterbus stop. Checking Google Maps, I saw it’s actually a much shorter walk to the castle from the bank opposite Hemiksem (2 km) than it is from the Kruibeke Waterbus stop (2.5 miles) even though Bezel is in the Kruibeke municipality. The ferry dropped us off at a small parking lot that gave way immediately to the bike trails of the Kruibeke Polder. “Polders” are manmade emergency flood plains that also serve as extensive biking trails connecting towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands as well as being nature preserves and walking paths. We were the only pedestrians getting off the ferry and we would have loved to have bikes, but it’s still a nice walk and we enjoyed our stroll through wild wetlands and marshy forest. The bikes are routed away from the cobblestone walking path which is an added benefit for those on foot.

Kruibeke Polder just off the cross-river ferry from Hemiksem
Walking path in Kruibeke Polder
Marshy alder tree forest in Kruibeke polder
Sluice in Kruibeke Polder

In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.

Castle Wissekerke

Entrance is 5/adult and happily included an English-language booklet with two paths through the castle, one for the nobility and one for servants. We were turned loose to explore the castle which we had almost entirely to ourselves. It was fun and refreshing to be allowed to look through documents, open secret doors, climb a bell turret, descend to the medieval cellar and kitchen, and generally wander and indulge our curiosity with minimal restraint. (There’s a children’s academy of some sort using a portion of the building and that was one of the few areas we weren’t encouraged to visit.)

“Vestibule” of Castle Wissekerke
Gothic-style living apartment, a change from the majority Napoleonic/Empire decor
Servant’s stairway to bell tower

The castle was the home of the family of Count Philippe Vilain XIII and is mostly decorated in restored Napoleonic glory. There are many original items as well as period pieces. Although the castle dates back to the middle ages, it’s current iteration is more a mansion than a fortification. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Wissekerke and are happy the Waterbus and ferry made it doable on foot from Antwerp.

Neglected belfry
Dining room with original china, crystal and silver on display
Chapel of Castle Wissekerke

We wandered through the terrace of a charming café called Bistro Den Duiventoren next door to the castle and peeked in a little “free museum” and bar across the street which is only open on the weekends before retracing our steps to the cross-river ferry and then catching De Waterbus back to Antwerp.

Cross-river ferry dock at Kruibeke Polder with ferry visible on opposite bank at Hemiksem

Posted June 7, 2018

Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka: Daytrip to Colonial Galle and the Galle Fort

Galle Lighthouse

In doing my pre-trip research about Colombo, Sri Lanka, I found little specifics on the port itself and not too much about the city of Colombo that inclined me to want to spend much time there. The one universal bit of info I came across was that traffic in and around Colombo (and much of Sri Lanka) was usually awful. Once again, cruise excursions did nothing to tempt me, but as always, I scanned them to see what the cruise line thought was worth a visit. I decided on the town of Galle as our destination and concluded that a local driver/guide was the way to go. Reviews lead me to choose Sanki Leisure and I found them easy and prompt to deal with by email. I paid 50% down via PayPal (a compromise I proposed when they first suggested an online payment company I wasn’t familiar with and read mixed reviews of).

We were to meet our guide at Gate 02 of the Port of Colombo. I knew it was a big industrial port with no walk-out allowed or doable, but I had no idea what would be offered in the way of transport upon our arrival. It turns out that the Port provided free motor coach shuttles to Gate 01, but the driver was happy to let us off a gate earlier at Gate 02 after instructing us to be sure to go to Gate 01 for our return shuttle back to the ship.

View from the Port of Colombo shuttle; not a walkable port

Sure enough, our Sanki guide was waiting as promised with an air-conditioned car. He did not, however, speak more than a few words of English. So much for a driver/guide; we had a driver. Oh well, it would have to do.

We did a quick stop off at Independence Memorial Hall on our way out of Colombo, then quickly found ourselves caught in a traffic and pedestrian snarl among shops thronged with people celebrating the Hindu New Year.

Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo
Colombo taxis
Colombo taxi driver and passengers

While the scene was fascinating to watch, that famous Colombo traffic was now all that much worse. The plan was to make Galle our primary destination–I really hoped to see those iconic fishermen perched on stilts above the water and the Galle Fort and colonial Old Galle looked intriguing. If we got back to Colombo with enough time, we’d take in the sights there, but if not, Galle was our priority.

Colombo traffic

Once we finally got out of Colombo, we opted for the wide inland highway rather than the probably more-scenic coastal road since that would shave an hour off our travel time. The highway was in great shape and offered a smooth journey through lush hills dotted with rubber trees and tea plantations. We made pretty good time once David convinced our driver to at least drive the speed limit of 100km/h rather than the 80km/h he seemed inclined to do.

Boats on a Galle beach. Hard to believe that it would be pouring rain in a few hours!
Fishmonger and his wares

When we arrived in Galle, our driver informed me that the stilt fishermen would not be out at this time of day and it was for tourists anyway. To alleviate my disappointment, I guess, we made a couple of stops along the roadside beach to watch groups of fishermen hauling in big nets from far out in the harbor and then to explore the adjacent fish markets.

Fishermen pulling in big nets
Fish market

From the largest of the fish markets, it was a short drive to the entrance to the ruins of Galle Fort where our driver dropped us off. Surprised to find no entry fee, we wandered into the fort then along the seaside fortifications mingling with tourists and locals strolling and picnicking in the sweltering heat. Hearing English, we joined a group that had spotted a sea turtle in the surf below then checked out a large iguana-like lizard that appeared over the wall nearby.

Clock tower and entry to Galle Fort

Inside Galle Fort

Lizard on a fort wall

Rather than a separate structure, it turns out that Galle Fort actually encompasses Old Town Galle that lies within the protective walls. The original Portuguese fort was apparently more of a separate structure. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640, though, and later they expanded its walls to encompass the town and the entire peninsula creating a major stronghold. The fort and Old Town Galle are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Old Town Galle viewed from a fort seawall

Rejoining our driver, he drove us a block or two within Old Town to Elita Restaurant, a café clearly geared to tourists, but offering really delicious seafood (at tourist prices). The chef is a local guy who trained in Belgium. We’d hoped for Sri Lankan food, but couldn’t find it in ourselves to be the least disappointed in fresh tuna steak and shrimp … and cold Lion beer!

We sat on a pretty front porch, painted bright yellow, where a wall-mounted oscillating fan offered fleeting, heavenly respite from the heat. While sipping our beers and waiting on lunch, we chatted with a pair of young Belgian women who’d been traveling in Sri Lanka for three weeks. Their glowing reports combined with similar we’d heard from a German man we met in Munduk (who’d spent a month in Sri Lanka and raved about the wildlife) were definite enticements to return for a real stay.

David at our table under cover of the porch with the Belgians braving the darkening skies. (They soon moved up to share the shelter from the rain… and the ceiling fan.)

Post lunch, we were driven another few blocks to the Galle lighthouse. The sunny day had given way to drizzle while we ate and a major storm was gathering in the distance, so we grabbed our umbrellas before walking along a jetty-like wall to the lighthouse then set out to explore the shops and old buildings of Old Galle.

To the Galle Lighthouse
Storm clouds gathering at a beach by the Galle Lighthouse, prelude to a downpour

Spices, tea and jewelry are major commodities in Sri Lanka and on offer in nearly every Galle shop. Needing nothing but a little nutmeg for rum punches aboard the ship, we bought only a pack of 5 fresh nutmeg pods.

Old Galle

Back on the street, we kept exploring the narrow roadways of Old Galle until increasing rain led us to take shelter in a little free museum called the Historical Mansion. The cluttered museum is a lure for jewelry shops, but it’s interesting nonetheless set in an old Portuguese building and displaying artifacts from colonial days, an old kitchen, and a central courtyard complete with well. A jewelry maker demonstrated metal work beside the courtyard where a deluge of rain now created waterfalls from the roof. We briefly browsed the jewelry–some of it of impressive quality–then set out into the downpour and booming thunder to find our driver since it was time to head back to Colombo.

Historical Mansion in Old Galle
Cluttered museum area of the Historic Mansion
A jewelry maker works beside the Historic Mansion courtyard as heavy rain falls.

Heading back to the carHeavy rain continued all the way back into Colombo and we declined the chance to visit a Hindu temple in the deluge, opting to head back to the ship nearly an hour early. Oh well, we got to see Galle in sunny weather and do most of what we wanted, so overall, we counted the day a success. We saw just enough of Sri Lanka to leave us pondering a return visit when we’re back in this part of the world next spring. The Port shuttle was waiting as promised when we arrived at Gate 01 .

___________

Practical info: We paid Sanki Leisure a total of $195 US for our private driver/”guide” for the day. I paid $98 deposit via PayPal and the balance in cash (US dollars) to the driver upon arrival. For comparison’s sake, Celebrity wanted $179.75 per person for a daytrip to Galle which included lunch at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel and a folk museum.

Port of Phuket, Thailand: tenders to the beach, an aggressive Thai massage and local food

Patong Beach with cruise ships anchored in the distance.

After a day at sea from Singapore, the first stop of our one-month cruise to Europe was Phuket, Thailand. During prime season, ships anchor just off the town of Patong and tenders drop passengers off at floating docks right on a beautiful beach. This is one of those rare cruise ports where tenders are not bad; ten minutes on the tender lands you at a spot you can actually spend the day. (The short distance and smooth water meant that there wasn’t much of a wait for the tenders either as they were able to shuttle back-and-forth pretty quickly.) That said, Patong is a touristy, party town full of restaurants, bars and shops, and isn’t exactly pristine Thailand.

Cruise ship tenders drop off at this floating pier, right on Patong Beach. Nice!

This post is not going to offer anything for cruisers interested in excursions or tours around Phuket. (However, there is some practical info for cruisers at the bottom of this article.) Since we’d spent a few weeks in Thailand less than a year and half earlier and had dove the Phi Phi Islands on the other side of the Phuket peninsula then, we had no desire to make a long, expensive day trip only to compete with hordes of cruise passengers snorkeling and taking boat trips around the Phi Phis or touring the plantations and elephant “sanctuary.” (The Queen Mary 2 was in port the same day we were, so her passengers were adding to the influx.)

Our ambitions for the day were modest: one of those dirt-cheap, vigorous Thai massage sessions, some good Thai food and a little beach time, maybe just strolling in the surf. I did some research pre-trip and settled on Sweet Lemongrass Phuket 2 for the massage. I read good reviews about them in a local publication and was able to make a booking by messaging them on their Facebook page where they post photos of their price list. I booked us two 1.5-hour Traditional Thai Massages for 350 baht each ($10.90 per person). I don’t know that a reservation was essential, but with limited time in port, it seemed like the best idea.

I really wanted David to experience a Thai massage, too. We’d done a side-by-side massage in Chiang Mai, but he’d opted for a more traditional, Swedish-type massage then. I’d gotten the full Thai bordering-on-assault treatment and words just really don’t do it justice. (Even though side-by-side, it’s pretty impossible to see the other person since you’re either face-down or with eyes closed or covered.) David needed to experience it for himself, and I wanted something to compare my first experience to.

An easy 10-minute walk from the floating tender pier found us opening the door to the air-conditioned refuge of Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2. We were greeted with icy water and cold washcloths in the nice front room before being led upstairs to our curtained massage room.

Reception area of Sweet Lemongrass Phuket 2

The last curtain on the right led to our massage “room.”

Our masseuses left us alone to change into the loose-fitting short set favored for these massages. The shorts are huge, but a tie wraps around the waist as much as needed to cinch it in.

Big shorts!

When the ladies returned, the “fun” began. Thai massage is like none other I’ve tried. I’ve been pretty aggressively massaged — and exfoliated to the edge of blood-letting — by hammam ladies in Paris, but Thai massage is a whole different game. There’s the usual kneading and pressing of knots, but it focuses much attention on stretching, and that can push right up against alarming. There’s also a certain amount of light hitting. (Sounds great so far, right?) My diminutive Thai masseuse soon climbed up on the table with me, bending me in half from the waist, as she knelt behind me, one knee tucked under my arm against my side while she put my neck and shoulders in a lock to twist with all her might. Lying on my stomach, she placed a foot behind one knee, then pushed on the raised foot in a move my brother and I deemed “unfair” when wrestling as children. It still hurts!

Back up on the massage table, my masseuse begins a hair-styling finale to my massage.

For an hour and a half, I passed from blissful massage to occasionally painful body locks, stretches, aggressive pressure point moves and jabs. Once or twice I yelped an “ouch!” that caused the masseuse to apologize and ease off. Beside me, I could hear the occasional grunt or “oof!” from David and wondered what he was thinking about this whole business. To top off my massage, my masseuse pulled the clip out of my hair and began a scalp massage that devolved to little snatching motions with her fingers followed by jerking on handfuls of hair. Hard! Ow! I struggled not to laugh at the thought I was paying her (albeit a pittance) to beat me up. Oh well, I was going to see it through to the end and gauge the therapeutic effects of the full package. David hadn’t called “uncle” yet either, so I assumed he was in the same mode. (He later informed me his experience had been similar to mine, but he’d been spared the hair-yanking I was treated to. He was glad he’d tried it, but isn’t going to be seeking out Thai massage back home.)

To wrap things up, my masseuse climbed back up on the table with me and began braiding portions of my hair. At first, I thought she was just pulling it out of my face since the scalp massage and hair-pulling had made a rat’s nest, but she kept going until I had a full French braid as, I don’t know … a peace offering , maybe?

I like my new hair-do!

For all that Thai massage can be excessively “vigorous,” the whole process left us feeling relaxed and “worked out.” I was a little sore later that evening, but by the next day aching neck and shoulder muscles that had been nagging at me for some time were improving.

We went straight from the massage to little Thai restaurant I’d read about as being popular with locals as well as the ubiquitous tourists of Patong. (A short walk of maybe 5 minutes) It was nothing fancy, but it was pleasant, and we had a solid Thai lunch for reasonable prices at S&G Family restaurant, a place that’s been in business since 1985. Like most little restaurants and shops in the area, it’s open to the outside with only ceiling fans for cooling. Service was friendly and prompt.

Our main goals were to get our curry fix. My only minor complaint was that my green curry chicken was lacking those tiny, round and bitter eggplants that are so unique to Thailand and that I’ve been unable to find in the States.

Curries at S&G Family Restaurant

After lunch, it was time for the beach. Feeling lazy and full, we opted to just walk along the lapping surf, people watching and enjoying the scenery. There were plenty of places offering lounge chairs, umbrellas and refreshments if we’d been so inclined. There were also small boats and jet skis pulling multi-person floats on offer. Patong Beach is bustling and lively, but even with two ships in port, it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded.

Patong Beach with two ships in port. Not bad!

_____________

Practical info: 

The floating pier for our tenders dropped us off just in front of the Avantika Boutique Hotel which you can find on Google Maps. (There was another floating pier a block or so NE up the beach where tenders to and from the Queen Mary 2 used.) Tenders ran back and forth to the ships regularly throughout the day, so going back to the ship and returning again would have been an option.

Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2 is at 7.884975, 98.293699 on GPS; ถนน ราษฏร์อุทิศ, 200 Pee Rd, Pa Tong, Kathu District, Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 349 847

S&G Family Restaurant is at  104/2 Soi Post Office Thaweewong Rd, Tambon Patong, Amphoe Kathu, Chang Wat Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 340 151

 

Ubud Restaurant Faves

Traditional Indonesian lunch at Cafe Lotus, overlooking a lotus garden and Hindu temple

Just a quick post with a few of our favorite restaurant finds in Ubud. First off, we didn’t find any air conditioned restaurants, so prepare yourself for that and focus on the food, a breeze and great atmosphere and/or view. We also wanted Indonesian/Balinese food while in Bali so no pizza recommendations here.

I’ve already mentioned Café Lotus, but in my last post, but it bears repeating. Choose from regular or traditional low tables where you sit on cushions on a raised floor. The traditional tables have the best view of the spectacular lotus water garden in front of a beautiful Hindu temple, Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati. The food was fresh and good and reasonably priced, if a touch more expensive than other, less-spectacular restaurants.

Front of Cafe Lotus facing Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street of Ubud)

The restaurant at our hotel, Sri Ratih Cottages, got great reviews and we agreed…so much so that we ate every dinner there. The food is excellent, the service friendly and the upstairs location lovely with ceiling fans, couches, and a nice cross breeze. They offer western dishes as well, which we heard were good, but never tried. There’s a spa on site and special health drinks of various herbs and spices are a specialty. We breakfasted downstairs in front of a picturesque koi pond and waterfall. Gorgeous!

Indonesian dinner at Sri Ratih
Delicious breakfast by the koi pond at Sri Ratih

Just down the road from Sri Ratih Cottages, on the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Raya Penestanan we discovered a spectacular new vegan restaurant called Zest. We’re not vegetarian, much less vegan, but the food and the view were so good and so unique that we went back for a second go. I read that the chef used to be at a local spa, and the food definitely has that feel: healthy, creative, fresh and tasty. Zest is so new that it’s in pre-soft-open stage, i.e., no prices, only “donations.” So, for the time being pay what you want, but be fair. Zest should be fully open sometime in April. We used the menu prices as a guide and paid approximately that, not bothering with small change.

Chic Zest interior

Zest sits atop a hill with great views from large, open windows down on the temple at the head of the Camphuan Ridge Trail, Pura Gunung Lebah, in one direction. Tables on the other side face a temple in front of the Wiswarani homestay and at the far end, you can look out on a rice paddy. The decor of Zest is chic and modern while maintaining a definite Bali vibe. There are universal plugs for those sitting around a central bar, a nice plus. Note: Alcohol is not on offer; a shame since this would be a fantastic place for a glass of wine at sunset.

Bangkok Bang flaming wok salad and a papaya- passionfruit-coconut soothie
We tried all 3 of these flaming wok “salads.” Delicious!
Bali Breeze flaming wok salad and a pineapple-cashew-ginger smoothie
The smoothies are to die for! I especially loved the papaya- passionfruit-coconut. David liked the pineapple-cashew-ginger. The jackfruit-avocado-chocolate chip was too weird not to try and turned out to be too weird for me. 🙂 Thick, frozen glasses kept the smoothies frozen to the end. No small feat in steamy Ubud!
Zest, facing the grounds of the Wiswarani homestay

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

Interior of À l’Infintinste, pre-dinner

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

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

Hamming it up with faux cigar and cognac apéro

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

Pork quenelle with piccalilly foam

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

Shrimp salad and fried shrimp appetizer

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

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

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

Venison and winter root vegetables

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

Poire William

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

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

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

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

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

The Jane: a world-class dining experience in Antwerp, Belgium

 

Friends from the U.S. coming to visit us in Antwerp finally motivated us to try The Jane, one of Antwerp’s two 2-Michelin starred restaurants and Diner’s Club pick for one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Occupying the converted chapel of a former military hospital, The Jane is a mere 10-minute walk from our Antwerp home-away-from-home. We’d walked by many times, even eyed their menu online, but the astronomical price and difficulty in getting reservations dissuaded us on previous stays. We had a 4-day window when our friends would be here and, sure enough, there were no reservations available at The Jane during this period. We put our name on the dinner wait list and were able to get a reservation after about 2 weeks. 8pm was the only dining time available, a little late for us given the length of the expected meal and our friends’ early departure the next day, but we jumped on the opportunity nevertheless.

We were greeted warmly at the hostess desk which faces the front door backed by a wall that closes off the main dining room from view. This provides diners with a theatrical first glimpse of the vaulted dining room dominated by a massive modern “chandelier,” a many branched glass-and-steel structure that spans most of the large space. Opposite the entrance, a wall of glass frames the bustling kitchen high above which a whimsical neon sign reads “CAN I STAY A LITTLE LONGER, I’M SO HAPPY HERE.”

The massive light fixture and avant garde decor really work with the backdrop of peeling, unpainted ceiling of the old church and quirky stained glass windows. [See lead photo above.] In keeping with The Jane’s reverential attitude towards fine cuisine, the kitchen occupies the former altar space.

A printed copy of the 14-course menu was on the table when we sat. Our first waiter arrived to ask for our aperitif choices, giving us 4 options (champagne and 3 signature cocktails), to go with the first amuse bouche courses.  (We lost count of how many people waited on us over the course of the meal; I think it was a cast of 8 to 10 people.)

There was no printed description or price list for the drinks. Our preference for wine (a 2010 San Leonardo from Italy; cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, merlot; 95 points on Robert Parker) over aperitifs slowed things down a little, but the first 4 amuse bouches arrived relatively promptly.

COURSE #1. Amuse bouche: Jane-grown tomato with watermelon and burrata
COURSE #2. Amuse bouche: Eggplant in miso draped in French Noir de Bigorre ham served on a warm stone with a side beverage of 6 apple juices and sake.
COURSE #3. Amuse bouche: Ceviche with small white radishes, a dollop of avocado, savory leaves in a citrus-y marinade.

Oddly, it was not until after a few of the amuse bouche courses that we were handed a menu with prices and options for the 13-course menu and wine pairings. This left us feeling a little off-balance and unsure of what to expect throughout the first portion of the meal, but was not a huge issue. We opted for the full 14 courses since choosing the 13-course menu (€20 cheaper) would have deprived us of the langoustine and cep course which really was a highlight. Good choice on our part. We declined the wine pairing options and one of our friends chose several bottles of wine.

The menu gives only a bare description of what to expect. There were many more ingredients and even extra little plates and bowls (and one drink) that appeared with each course. Each course was a treat for the eyes as well as the palate with a mind- and palate-boggling array of little flourishes and dollops and leaves and flowers and frozen pellets and gilded bits. Flavors were generally exquisite with my only quibble being that several were a touch too salty for me, which is unusual since I like salty foods. All in all, it was fun to explore our way through each dish although I readily admit to being unable to identify some of the tastes and ingredients on display. I’m not a professional food critic, so you get what you get with this post.

COURSE #4. Amuse bouche: Glazed local eel from the Schelde River Bai hao Yin Zhen dashi topped with crispy kale, in broth

The prix fixe menus are in effect for 11 weeks with minor changes due to availability of ingredients. (The current menu only recently went into effect.) After an 11-week run, the staff takes a 2-week break and returns to a new seasonal menu that is in place for the next 11 weeks.

COURSE #5. 1st main course: Mackerel with Jane-grown beet and black garlic. Also beet-infused tapioca, 4 tasty dollops of uncertain but delicious origin, foams, vinaigrette and a delicate crisp.
COURSE #6. 2nd main course: Scallop, cucumber & seaweed with freeze-dried citrus balls (giving off a light “fog”) with tasty “leathers” and a dollop or more tasty, but unidentifiable ingredients
COURSE #7. 3rd main course: Langoustine, ceps and zuchini garnished with nasturtium. Absolutely spectacular!

The current menu is very heavily weighted toward seafood proteins, which we loved, but which might be to everyone’s taste: ceviche, eel, mackerel, scallops, langoustine, shrimp, John Dory.

COURSE #8. 4th main course: Grey North Sea shrimp, potato & beurre noisette. For those unfamiliar, the shrimp are small–like bay shrimp, but very tasty.
COURSE #9. 5th main course: John Dory with artichoke hearts and a side bowl of shellfish (mussels) and a tiny bit of pasta

Only the poulet de Bresse (chicken) course, served with sweetbreads and a liver spread on chicken skin crisps, bucked this trend. Items are chef’s choice, although there are options offered to allow for allergies and dietary restrictions.

COURSE #10. 6th main course: Poulet de Bresse, vol-au-vent, carrot with sides of sweetbreads and chicken liver paté on a chicken skin crisp
COURSE #11. “Semi-dessert”: BBQ apple with a mezcalnegroni ice cream and cinnamon

The only flaws: While service started out well and was always friendly and not at all stuffy, something went off-track later in the meal and we started experiencing long waits between courses. A couple of times, wine glasses were left empty for stretches as well. By 11pm, 3 hours into our meal, we still had many courses to go. We were in no hurry and fully expected and looked forward to an extended dining experience, but the lapses became too much. Eventually, we asked a waiter if we could get our three dessert courses at once since our friends had an early train to Amsterdam to catch a plane the next morning.

COURSE #12. Dessert: A chocolate/mocha creation with Tanariva milk chocolate, nocciola (hazelnut) & espresso. This one was so complicated (and delicous!), including a small mousse, ice cream, crisps of varying types, dabs and dollops and gold. I loved it!

To The Jane staff’s credit, they did speed things up after we asked, even bringing the chocolate course ahead of the last dessert. The chocolate was a house-made La Esmeralda 74% dark chocolate bar with dried fruit and salt that came on a marble block with a special weighted tool for breaking the bar, tongs and a bag for taking home any extra pieces.

COURSE #13. House-made La Esmeralda 74% dark chocolate bar with bullseye wrapper to help diners strike the right blow with the special weighted tool provided. Also, tongs and a bag for a take-home treat.
Unbroken La Esmeralda chocolate bar from The Jane at home

We finished dinner sometime after midnight and got the check around 12:30am. The slowed service at the end of the meal wasn’t enough to ruin our meal, but it was a surprising lapse in service by a restaurant of this caliber. It was a particular disappointment since, prior to things going awry, one of our foodie friends had just pronounced every course to that point flawless and the meal as one of the top ten of his life.

COURSE #14. Final dessert: “Kaiserschmarrn”, described as made with “shredded pancakes,” it was like a fluffy bread pudding dotted with raisins and served with a side of rum ice cream. Excellent!

Another minor point: After 4+ hours of dining, the repetitive beat of the looping low-key techno-pop music starts to grate.

Practical info: Our total bill for four persons was €904: €600 for four 14-course fixed price menus, €34 for still and sparkling water throughout the meal, and €270 for 3 bottles of wine. Not something we’d do on a regular basis, but a night at The Jane is an experience as much as a meal.

Dress was smart casual with women wearing pants, skirts or dresses and men in slacks and sports coats, with or without ties, occasionally minus a jacket.

Find more info and book reservations or join wait lists on The Jane’s website. The Jane books full far in advance, but an initial back-up wait list lunch reservation came through for us in a matter of days (via an email which requires you to accept or deny a firm reservation). We waited about two weeks for to get a dinner reservation off the wait list. In that case, David called to see where we were on the list and was told they’d just had a cancellation and we were in for the 8pm time slot. (All that was available.) NOTE: The Jane requires a credit card to hold a reservation and there is a €50 per person charge for cancellations within 48 hours.

Allergies or diet restrictions can be accommodated, but there is a €15 charge if no advance notice is given.

There is a cheaper Upper Room Bar at The Jane where a maximum of four persons can make reservations for drinks, etc. two weeks in advance. Again, find more info on that on The Jane’s website. (Click the top center graphic to get the drop down menu.)

Pärnu, Estonia: spas, beach…and snow!

Located on a sheltered bay with broad, beautiful beaches, Pärnu, Estonia, has been a popular spa town since the 1800’s with Estonians as well as visitors from nearby countries. Wanting to get into the spirit of things, I booked us into the seafront Rannahotell, a white nautically-inspired spa hotel dating to 1935-37. A “landmark of Estonian Functionalism,” the Rannahotell is listed as a cultural heritage site.

Rannahotell

Completely remodeled since its early days as a “sanatorium” or place to restore health, our room was decorated with sleek modern furniture, light woods and neutral colors. Big windows looked onto an expansive stretch of beach.

The hotel offers attentive service along with an airy piano bar and truly extensive breakfast buffet in a window-lined room overlooking the beach. David and I both booked spa treatments at the hotel which nowadays offers traditional massage treatments rather than the local mud. We both thoroughly enjoyed our massages, but we were shocked to find that it had begun to snow while we were in the spa. Soon, the beach was blanketed in white!

Snow on the beach in Pärnu

The unseasonably cold spring was a topic of conversation everywhere we went in Parnu. Several people suggested we should come back for the bustle of summer and all the beach-y activities at that time of year, but we kind of liked the laid-back, uncrowded vibe of this chilly spring.

Beautiful Apostolic Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration In Pärnu

Driving the short distance into town, we enjoyed strolling in old Pärnu. As elsewhere, things were slow at this off-season time. Since we weren’t really interested in shopping or specific sight-seeing, we merely wandered.

Tucked into a courtyard just inside the arch at 21 Rüütli Street, we came across this intriguing relic from the past, a granary from the 1600’s
Stylish Rüütli Street
Whimsical statue on Rüütli Street

Of course, David had to try local beer (not that I resisted) and we found a nice venue at Wirre Craft Beer Bar.  Tucked in to a cozy cellar space, Wirre was empty when we got there early on a Tuesday evening and stayed nearly so until we left. This gave us time to visit with the knowledgeable young owner who tended bar. Wirre offers lots of Estonian beers along with many foreign beers. We particularly enjoyed the Óllenaut SimkoEil APA.

Ducking inside Wirre for a little local craft beer
Inside Wirre Craft Beer Bar
On tap at Wirre

Our post-beer dinner was pizza at Ephesus, located at one end of Rüütli. It was OK for a simple meal, but nothing to write about.

Another night, on the other hand, we opted for receptionist-recommended Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik for seafood and enjoyed an excellent dinner. Although unimpressive from the outside, the restaurant is pleasantly stylish inside.

 

In the dining room: another table joined us and our fellow diner before we finished our meal
The bar and café side of Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik

Apparently, Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is also a seafood market and one of several Kalamajakas restaurants in Estonia, named among the best restaurants in Estonia in 2016. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner for €59, which included an appetizer, two entrees, crusty bread, 2 glasses of wine and a dessert .

Scallop and bacon starter
Fresh seafood pasta and a generous salad
David’s entree: local fish and polenta
Kalamajaka Kohvik is proud of their desserts

   

Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is located at Suur-Sepa 18 in Pärnu.

Tallinn, Estonia: more than a ferry/cruise port

More retro blogging from our May 2017 Baltics travels. I’m trying to catch up before we’re off on our next trip:

The Great Coastal Gate and Fat Margaret Tower once protected Tallinn from seaborne threats

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has long been popular with tourists taking the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. More recently, cruise ships also discovered the picturesque Baltic port city. The result of all the boat traffic is a constant swell and ebb of humanity in the city and a very touristy, if lovely, Old Town. (In the summer, cruise ships can bring over 4600 tourists to Tallinn in a day!)

Tallinn Old Town main square
Tallinn flower market

Hoping to dig just a little deeper and see the city during some of those less-crowded ebb times, I booked us a 4-night AirBnB apartment in the heart of Old Tallinn. I had trouble finding an apartment with secure, dedicated parking, but finally settled on a chic, all-white (but small) studio in a terrific location with covered, gated parking. I’m usually not a fan of studios, but this time our options were really limited and we did have a semi-private seating area we shared with two other apartments. Prices are higher in Tallinn than elsewhere in the Baltics, too, albeit still lower than you’ll find in most of Western Europe and much cheaper than Scandinavia. Anyway, our apartment and landlords turned out great and our only complaint was too much sun in the mornings.

Fortified walls of Old Tallinn

We enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and found simply enjoying the atmosphere to be our favorite part of Old Tallinn. The shops in Old Town are nearly all of the tourist souvenir variety and not of much interest to us, but fun if that’s what your looking for. At this stage of life and travels, we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs and are more excited to see shops and markets selling local products we might not be familiar with to locals. In this modern, small world, those sorts of shops are rarities, though.

Just down the road from our apartment on Uus. It seemed a miracle the old wooden building was still standing.

Old Tallinn consists of both a lower and an upper town. This was most easily visible from the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, a few blocks from our apartment in Lower Town.

View of Old Tallinn, both Lower and Upper, from St. Olaf’s Church tower.
It’s a steep climb and 232 steps to the observation level of St. Olaf’s Church tower

St. Olaf’s Church itself is simply adorned with some interesting archaeological pieces on display along the side aisles of the nave. Completed in the 1600’s, the original church dated back to the 1200’s. It’s the tallest medieval structure in Tallinn. Admission to the church is free, but there’s a €2/adult -€1/child fee to climb the tower.

Interior of St. Olaf’s Church
In the lower portion of Old Town Tallinn
Historical walk at Estonian History Museum in Lower Town

Hiking up to Upper Town, we visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church with characteristic architecture including three cross-topped onion domes. Former and current mansions of Estonian aristocracy abound in this area interspersed with terraces overlooking Lower Town, where we common folk could share the view.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in upper Old Town

The oldest church in Tallinn, the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its baroque tower also sits in Upper Old Town. Coats of arms of Estonian nobility cover its interior walls. There’s a €5/adult -€3/child fee to enter the church, although you can admire many of the coats of arms from before the ticket booth.

St. Mary’s Cathedral (also known as “Dome Church,” the oldest church in Tallinn
Family crests and coats-of-arms adorn the interior of Dome Church

Having time to spend in Tallinn let us extend our wanderings beyond Old Town. The modern city offers much in the way of shopping, dining, bars and coffee shops. We loved the futuristic additions to old warehouses in the Roterman City area. This chic neighborhood, in easy walking distance of Old Town, bustles with a hip young clientele.

Roterman area buildings

One day, a long walk to us to Kadriorg Art Museum in a baroque palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718. The palace itself is as worthy of a visit as the park. The palace is surrounded by Kadrioru Park, a place popular with locals.

Kadrioru Park leading to Kadriorg Art Museum and palace
Inside Kadriorg
Schoolchildren visiting Kadriorg

We enjoyed a delightful  late lunch for €20 (total) at Katharienthal, just inside the park grounds. It occupies an elegant building and offers French-style patisseries downstairs and a pretty dining room upstairs.

Katharienthal cafe exterior
Downstairs at Katharienthal
Upstairs dining room at Katharienthal

Walking further beyond Kadriorg palace, we came to the residence of the president of Estonia, an interesting woman who had to be drafted into the job. We were surprised to find we could just walk into the front parking area to snap a photo. Guards at the front door had no problem with us.

Residence of the Estonian President

Just beyond the president’s residence is the fantastic Kumu museum of modern art. Again, the building is as much an attraction as the art.

Kumu – Art Museum of Estonia
Interior of the Kumu

At last treat in Tallinn was a visit to the Estonian National Opera to see a performance of Tosca. The opera house is nowhere as ornate or large as the opera house in Riga and the staging was minimalist, but the performance was excellent and, for €31 apiece, we had front row center seats on the first balcony.

Interior of the Estonian National Opera House in Tallinn
Tosca

_____________

Tallinn has a great beer scene and we definitely explored that. More on beer in a soon-to-follow separate post.

Viljandi, Estonia

Viljandi church (“Jaani Kirik”) just across a ravine from the castle ruins and park

The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.

Traditional Estonian farm homes

The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.

Footbridge from town to the ruins of Viljandi Castle
Ruins of Viljandi Castle
Lake Viljandi viewed from the castle ruins

There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.

The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult,  €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.

Old Town Viljandi

We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!

Delicious but pricey bread at Kohvik Fellin in Viljandi
____________

The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at viljandi@visitestonia.com or phone (+372) 433 0442.

Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

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

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

__________________

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.