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Ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium…

Here it is, my usual list of ten things I learned on my latest trip. I like to do these to remind myself that travel is a way to expand one’s mind, pick up new knowledge, meet new people, and broaden perspectives. I also find that the ten things I learned posts are more likely to be read than my blow by blow accounts of our travels, especially since we tend to do a lot of eating and drinking instead of visiting exhibits. So, here goes… ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium.

10. Antwerp is a major port city.

Antwerp is located on the Scheldt River, and it’s partially located in the City of Antwerp and the Province of East Flanders. It is Europe’s second largest seaport, after Rotterdam.

Het Steen, a building that has been used many ways… including as a cruise terminal.

9. You can’t come to Antwerp and not learn about A Dog of Flanders.

I’m sorry to admit that I had not heard of A Dog of Flanders before we visited Antwerp. The novella was written by the English author, Marie Louise de la Ramée (also known as Ouida), and it was partly based on Antwerp. The story is about a poor boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasch, who were very loyal to each other. Ouida’s book was very popular in Asia and Russia, was made into a film, and translated into different languages. Because of the book’s popularity, there are two monuments in Belgium dedicated to Nello and Patrasch. One of the monuments is located in Antwerp, and you can’t miss it if you go to the cathedral.

A boy and his beloved dog.

8. Antwerp is famous for diamonds.

One of the reasons we visited Antwerp is because Bill thought maybe we’d shop for a diamond, since it was my 50th birthday. But we ended up skipping the diamond shopping, having been warned by Trip Advisor reviews. 🙂 Nevertheless, I had no idea diamonds were notable in Antwerp before I visited there. Maybe we’ll still shop for a rock, since this year we will also celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.

7. Antwerp is very LGBTQ friendly.

Which isn’t to say that Europe, as a whole, isn’t friendly to the LGBTQ community. But I saw signs that Antwerp is especially open to people of all orientations. I liked that about Antwerp.

6. It’s also very artist friendly!

Perhaps because it’s such an “open-minded” place, Antwerp is also home to a lot of artists and fashionistas. We saw all sorts of awesome fashion interpretations during our visit, and I saw more than a couple of art galleries I wouldn’t have minded exploring.

5. And there’s lots of food to suit every taste!

We found exotic cuisines ranging from Israeli to Peruvian-Japanese! And, of course, there was also the usual stuff, like Italian food, Greek food, Thai food, and Belgian food. There’s something for everyone.

Israeli food.

4. COVID rules are pretty relaxed.

Actually, I would say they’re non-existent. Masks are recommended, but aren’t required, on trains or buses, nor did I see anyone wearing them voluntarily. If COVID is a worry for you, you might want to keep this in mind. We were not asked about our vaccines, except in a casual conversation with the hotel staff who was comparing rules in Germany to rules elsewhere.

3. Not all stores take Visa (or American credit cards).

We should have known better, given that we live in Germany, and we don’t have European credit cards. A lot of European destinations have gone cashless, so we have gone that way ourselves. But if you carry an American card, you might want to bring euros with you, just in case.

2. Bill rode his first ferris wheel in Antwerp.

Bill is afraid of heights, so before my birthday trip, he never voluntarily took a ride in a ferris wheel. I did not know, as we were looking at Antwerp from the top of the wheel, that this was his very first time on such a ride. He had a good time. I’m sure it comforted him that the car was enclosed, though.

Bill lost his ferris wheel virginity here.

1. You have to pay to see the Cathedral of Our Lady if you aren’t from Antwerp…

However, it’s worth the price of admission if you like art. The cathedral is loaded with paintings, sculptures, and relics, as well as beautiful stained glass windows and a fascinating crypt. And, when you’re finished gawking at all of the beautiful art, you can visit the bistro, enjoy a beer or a coffee in the courtyard, and use the toilet. That’s a pretty big deal.

One of many paintings you can see at the cathedral!

So… there you have it. We had a great time in Antwerp and I hope we can visit again. It was a great place for me to turn 50. I found many friendly locals who were willing to celebrate with me! As long as you aren’t driving– or you have a very good GPS that can get you where you need to go– it’s a total pleasure. Driving in Antwerp can be hellish if you don’t have accurate GPS. But once you park, good times are to be had! I can still say that I’ve never had a bad time in Belgium.

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… part eight

On the morning of June 21, we got up and packed everything, and Bill took it to the car, which was buried deep under the hotel in their tiny parking garage. We went down to breakfast and enjoyed the other half of the delicious strawberry tart. It was even better the second day! I was sorry to leave De Witte Lelie, as it was such a welcoming and homey hotel. The staff is so friendly and helpful, and the accommodations are stylish and comfortable. Alas, we had to leave Antwerp and go home to our dogs. So, after we settled the bill and said goodbye, we got in the Volvo and took about half an hour trying to maneuver out of the garage, which has a steep incline to the door. Kudos to Bill and the many fancy sensors on the Volvo for getting us out of there unscathed!

We also had much less trouble leaving Antwerp than entering it, as Bill didn’t make any wrong turns. I was sorry to leave without a new diamond, but I think I’d rather get one at a place where I’m not a tourist. There were a couple of Trip Advisor horror stories that advised me against shopping for a new rock in Belgium.

First on our agenda was to stop at a Belgian supermarket to pick up some beers for home. We stopped at a little co-op market and loaded up a cart with suds, as well as a few other items. Bill went to pay, and it turned out they didn’t take Visa. They also didn’t have an ATM. So the cashier was kind enough to watch our cart while we searched for a cash machine. That took about an hour, even with a GPS… but eventually, we got our euros, gassed up the car, I unloaded the breakfast beverages, and we went back to the store to make our purchase. The cashier had kept the cart safe for us. Next time, we’ll bring cash.

Then, we headed eastward, stopping at a typical German Rastplatz for lunch at McDonald’s. I had to laugh when Bill ordered two Royales and one of them came with the bun that is usually reserved for plain cheeseburgers (no sesame seeds). I guess McDonald’s in Europe are also suffering from supply chain shortages.

Our drive home was completely uneventful, and we arrived in the mid afternoon. I got started on my blogging, and Bill went to get the dogs, who were very happy to come home after four nights away. I always worry about Arran on our trips now, as he’s an old guy and would rather hang out with us. Noyzi was also very glad to be back home in his bed.

I was feeling okay… maybe there was a little scratchiness in my throat. I didn’t know that Wednesday, I’d be legitimately sick for the first time in several years and wondering if I finally got COVID-19. I have so far tested twice, and got negative results both times. I also feel a lot better today than I did yesterday. So… I’m thinking this was a cold. But, I will confess that this trip was maskless and restriction free. I might have gotten COVID-19, but so far, the tests say no… However, I don’t interact with people anyway, so I’m just riding it out at home. Today, I feel like I am about 85% normal. Yesterday, I was probably 60% normal. Wednesday night and Thursday were the worst, but even they weren’t as bad as the last time I had the flu. I haven’t had a fever, body aches, or exhaustion. I have had a runny nose, coughing, vomiting (from coughing), headache, sinus pressure, and mild fatigue. In other words, this sickness feels like a cold.

So ends my 50th birthday celebration. I must say, it was a lot of fun turning 50 in Antwerp. Belgium is a great destination for me, mainly because it has beer, frites, chocolate, and friendly, unpretentious people who are funny! I hope we can visit Antwerp again, and I would encourage you to visit, if you have the time and the means!

Stay tuned for my usual ten things I learned post… if you’re interested, that is. 😉

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… part seven

At last it was Monday, June 20th… the big day. It was still cloudy and chilly in Antwerp, although it wasn’t like that in Germany. We went down to breakfast, where I was presented with a beautiful strawberry mascarpone tart and champagne. Bill also gave me a birthday card, which for once, wasn’t mushy. Bill and I managed to finish half of the tart; the rest was kept in the fridge for us. The hotel manager was very friendly, telling us about an upcoming trip she had planned to Africa. It sounded very exciting and exotic. I’m still not ready to brave airports, thanks to COVID-19, but I love to hear about other people’s trips to distant lands. Maybe we’ll get back into that at some point, if the fates allow.

After breakfast, we took another walk to the old town, this time to do some shopping. Whenever we travel, Bill likes to pick up little gifts for his grandchildren and his younger daughter. So we visited a tiny chocolatier near the church and bought a bunch of stuff. Bill picked up a pallet, incorrectly assuming it was a basket for putting stuff in. The shopkeeper laughed and explained the pallets were for the chocolates, and he was the first person who thought they were shopping baskets! We also bought some magnets, one of which I dropped and broke as I pulled it off the display. Bill paid for it anyway, and the cashier thanked him for being honest. I love being married to such a mensch.

We took the chocolate back to the hotel, since it’s June and the weather can get hot and sticky. The proprietor was kind enough to pack our goodies in an insulated bag. The gifts we got for my husband’s daughter are not meltable, but we did pick up some chocolates for home because, well, chocolate makes life worth living.

We walked around some more before stopping by a coffee store, where we found several pounds of coffees from different African countries. I still miss my Peet’s coffee, but it’s fun to try new beans from different producers. I also saw a magazine shop advertising “tasty and delicious” American candy, which seemed kind of crazy to me, given that we were in Belgium, where the very best chocolate in the world is made. We eventually went in there looking to see if they had an English version of A Dog of Flanders story. I had seen a cute children’s book in Flemish and thought it would be a great gift for Bill’s grandkids. Unfortunately, we were unlucky in our search, even on Amazon.

When it was time for lunch, we walked around a lot looking for the “right” place. One guy at a touristy looking Italian place tried to get us to come in, promising extra mushrooms. I turned to Bill and said, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” Bill answered affirmatively… and I said, “That’s the best way to get me NOT to come into a restaurant!”

We finally noticed a mysterious looking door next to another big restaurant that appeared to cater to tourists. The people going into the door were obviously more local than we were, and I saw a tour group being told about this strange alleyway we encountered… where we also found a fabulous “secret” restaurant called ‘t Hofke. Somehow, we had stumbled upon the oldest alley in Antwerp, which is very well hidden and easy to miss if your eyes aren’t open. I love to explore alleys and alcoves, so that’s probably why we found ourselves there on my birthday, enjoying excellent shrimp croquettes for me and Thai inspired chicken pasta for Bill. I noticed everyone in the place was local, which is usually a good sign. And, once again, it appeared to be a family/couple run place, with food that was made with love and care, rather than a mind for profits. Bill’s only complaint was that we asked for water that we never received, and the charge showed up on the bill.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to drop off our second round of shopping and have a short rest. Then, as the afternoon continued, we found ourselves at Wijn Bar Bette, a little outdoor cafe run by an obviously gay friendly proprietor who had many local friends. Since it was my birthday, we decided to split a bottle of prosecco and people watch for awhile, which is always a treat. You never know what you’ll see… and that particular location was nice, because it was shady and unhurried. I really liked the relaxed ambiance and the obvious friendship the proprietor had with some of the locals. However, based on Trip Advisor reviews, we got lucky… apparently, a lot of people have gotten bad service at this place.

Finally, it was time for dinner, so we walked around to find the right place and eventually ended up at De Peerdestal. This place was obviously meant for meat lovers, as they had several different types of steaks and meat dishes available. They also served horsemeat and lobster. I like lobster, but we ended up sitting near the lobster tank. Seeing the doomed lobsters in there with rubber bands on their claws made me think of Leon the Lobster on YouTube (a guy rescued a lobster from the grocery store and turned him into a pet). I realize that it’s not much better to eat cow, but at least I didn’t have to see it before it died.

The waiter was curious about where we were from and what we were doing in Antwerp. I casually mentioned that we are Americans who live in Germany and we came to Belgium to celebrate my birthday. I should not have been surprised when dessert was brought out with a mini flamethrower. 😉 They also played a birthday song over the soundsystem, so everyone clapped. It turned out the husband of an American couple sitting near us was also having a birthday. I’m not sure if he told the waiter. Someone celebrating an anniversary got the same flaming dessert and a recorded rendition of “Love and Marriage” by Frank Sinatra. All in all, it was a pleasant celebration! The restaurant was cute and comfortable, though very heavy on meat choices and a bit touristy. However, service was friendly and kind, and the food was good.

In the next part, we head home.

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… part six

We woke to cloudy skies and cool temperatures on Sunday morning. My German friend told me that “back home” in Wiesbaden, the temperatures were pretty high. But in Belgium, I had to put on a pair of pants. I’m glad I thought to bring them. Bill was wishing he’d brought a long sleeved shirt or a light jacket.

Because of the inclement weather, we ate breakfast inside the hotel’s breakfast room, instead of outside in the courtyard. We deliberately ate less, even though we were paying 30 euros per person to have breakfast. I was hoping to enjoy lunch somewhere interesting.

After breakfast, I did some writing, and then Bill and I walked to the Scheldt River, where we explored Het Steen, a castle like structure that now houses the tourist office, but was once used as a gatehouse and a prison. Het Steen is Antwerp’s oldest building, and it’s been used as a saw mill, residence, and museum. Until 2008, it was the site of the National Maritime Museum. According to a sign outside of Het Steen, a “striking detail above the Steen Gate is the Semini statue, an ancient fertility statue. The Jesuits maimed the statue in the sixteenth century, hacking off the penis.” I have to admit, I didn’t notice that!

More loud guys singing, pedaling, and drinking.

After we walked around Het Steen, we walked along a boardwalk next to the Scheldt River, then made our way back into the Grote Markt. On the way there, we encountered a processional of religious folks, led by a brass band! I managed to get a video!

Religious parade!

By the time the parade passed us, it was about time for lunch, at which point we soon found ourselves sitting outside at a restaurant called Elfde Gebod (The Holy Place), which is billed as Antwerp’s oldest and most reviewed restaurant. This is one place where I would have liked to dine inside, as it was very cozy and cute, with tons of religious relics and angels. Alas, we sat outside, where I was downwind of a smoker. About five minutes, later, we were joined by a group of twelve young men who were pretty rowdy. Some of them were smoking, and most were drinking Australian Rose wine. I got the sense it was a “fraternity” thing.

Elfde Gebod had a pretty good selection of beers, as well as comfort food. I love comfort food, so it was my kind of menu, and I had some trouble deciding what to have for lunch. I ended up having Apostle Fish Stew, which was a very nice concoction made of cod, mussels, and shrimp, and it came with a side of mashed potatoes, which went very well with the stew. It was more of a chowder than a stew, to me… and it reminded me of what I found in Dublin a few years ago. I loved it. Must be all that Celtic heritage I have.

Bill had rabbit stew, which came with excellent frites and mayo. I didn’t try his stew, because even though I’ve had rabbit before and it “tastes like chicken”, I’m not trying to develop a taste for other kinds of meat. It’s bad enough that Bill introduced me to duck, which I love. I ventured inside the restaurant to use the facilities and was surprised by how interesting it was inside. If we ever get back to Antwerp, I would definitely try to dine inside Elfde Gebod. The decor is something special.

As we were eating lunch, the weather took a turn for the worse. It started to rain. The restaurant staff turned on heaters, which was very welcome! By the time we finished lunch, it was time to find somewhere else indoors. I said I was in the mood to find a bar, listen to good music, and drink some exotic suds.

Bill suggested a cozy bar called Billie’s Bier Kafétaria, which got great reviews on Google. That turned out to be a very successful stop. The bartender was a pretty young woman who knew her beers, and they were playing good music. In fact, I even downloaded an album as we were sitting there. I can see why Billie’s is a popular place. I would happily visit again, especially since the bar carries a lot of beers one will likely never find in Germany. I was particularly happy with the excellent Kriek (cherry beer) I had.

We didn’t feel like looking for dinner, so we stuck around Billie’s for a long time, and eventually ordered some snacks to tide us over through my very last night of being in my 40s. Then we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV… and it was TLC! We watched Dr. Pimple Popper, again in English with Dutch subtitles. Somehow, I didn’t throw up. I had forgotten how gross that show is!

Silliness at Billie’s! If you click the link, you can see the video.

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… part five

As I mentioned in part four, we were about to go back to the hotel and hit the sack when I noticed a bright blue neon sign lit up. It was nine o’clock, and that meant the Antwerp Piano Bar was opening. Although Bill and I were decidedly casual in our dress, and we probably should have changed, we decided to stop in for a drink or three and listen to live music. I have to admit, at first I got the sense that maybe the proprietor wasn’t too pleased about our less than dressy appearance, but the bartender gamely invited us to sit at one of the plush booths. Then the proprietor, a distinguished looking gentleman with a beard, started playing piano– very well, I might add. He reminded me a little of the late Albert Hague (aka Mr. Shorofsky on the 80s TV show, Fame).

I love piano bars, so I was pretty excited that we found this place, not that it was hard. This bar, which I think used to be open more nights per week, is located very close to the Grote Markt. The bar stays open until at least 4:00am on the nights that it’s open. A sign on the door indicated that they are not open on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays. Maybe this is a new feature, due to the pandemic.

We started with a round of cocktails, but switched to beer when it became apparent that the seasoned gentleman tending the bar didn’t understand our English too well. I’m not sure if it’s because of us or him. But anyway, I had a margarita and Bill had a martini. After a short while, another piano player showed up, along with a woman singer. They were both very good, and we had a lot of fun listening to them play, in spite of my shabby appearance.

At one point, a man got up to sing– he appeared to be a friend of the proprietor. I noticed there were a lot of people coming in who appeared to be regulars, rather than tourists like us. There was also a rather rowdy group of young guys who sat in the cigar bar and smoked stogies. I felt better when I noticed that they were dressed like me.

Below are a few photos and videos from our Saturday night stop. I should add that we almost never go out on Saturday nights anymore, so this was a treat. We got back to the hotel at about 11:30, which was definitely past our bedtimes.

I really took more videos than anything else… and as you can see, it was kind of dark in there…

If we ever go back, I’ll be sure to look prettier…

As we were leaving, I stopped to get another short video of the wild party still going on in the market! It was quite a lively scene!

When we got back to the hotel, we asked the receptionist what was going on in the square. He had no idea!

The featured photo is a picture of the fancy art book in the hall at the hotel. Someone turned the page to Lady Gaga, who was being photographed at Tony Bennett’s house.

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… Part four

One thing I noticed and really liked about Antwerp is that there’s a huge variety of different types of food available there. Yes, you can find the usual Belgian inspired cuisine, with croquettes, frites, and waffles, but there are also more exotic choices. There’s plenty of Italian food, Spanish food, Greek food, Asian food, and even some fun fusion, like Peruvian-Japanese! For lunch on Saturday, we found our way to an Israeli place called Shuk. Bill and I actually ended up eating on the backside of the restaurant. The front side was facing the street we’d need to cross to get back to our hotel. It was super close!

The weather was very hot and sunny on Saturday, so the first thing we did when we sat down was order lemonade. I had a mint lemonade, and Bill had pomegranate lemonade, plus we had a large bottle of sparkling water. For lunch, I had Za’atar chicken hummus, which came with pita bread, red onions, pickles, and tomatoes. Bill had a chicken schnitzel sandwich. Of all the places we ate during our visit to Antwerp, I think I might have enjoyed the food at Shuk the best. It was very fresh, wholesome, and interesting. Service was also good; our waitresses all spoke perfect English (as did many of the people we encountered) and they were prompt about delivering the food. I’m actually remembering that lunch at Shuk and wishing I could repeat it today. We had beer for dessert, too, although they had some tempting choices for real desserts.

Shuk’s menu offered a lot of healthy options, and would have been a good stop for vegetarians or vegans. I actually felt really good about eating there. If we ever get back to Antwerp, I’d make a point of stopping there again. I think we spent about 60 euros.

After lunch, the temperature seemed to get more extreme, so we headed back to the hotel for a rest. Bill took a nap, while I did some writing, then ended up having to chat with USAA because they erroneously put a fraud alert on my credit card. I was trying to update a subscription to Internet security, of all things, and it tripped their security system. It was irritating to have to contact USAA, but I was actually glad to have the option. I would rather wait to chat than sit on the phone, listening to their God awful hold music from Hell.

As the weather got cooler, we decided to go back into the city to see what was going on. As I mentioned in part 3, there was some sort of festival going on in the Grote Markt with radio DJs playing music, lots of dancing, drinking, and merry making. We did ask two people at the hotel if they knew what the festival was about. Neither seemed to know, although it was totally free of charge to walk through and listen to the music.

There was much merriment in the market square!
I felt like dancing.

We mostly just walked around and people watched for awhile, until it got closer to dinner time, which we enjoyed at a Greek restaurant called Griekse Taverne. Again, we entered the back way, and sat inside, instead of in the huge outdoor area. Neither of us were really hungry, but Saturdays can be crazy, especially when a fest is going on. So we decided to go ahead and have dinner, just to be sure we got it before the hour got too late. The downtown area was really slammed with people!

We enjoyed the food at the Greek place, although the servers were pretty “weeded” and we kind of got forgotten sitting inside. The outdoor terrace was really hopping. Our waiter looked like a Greek God, though…

We did more people watching after dinner, watching many Belgian youths play basketball as we sipped Omer beers. As the sun went down, we headed back to the Grote Markt, where things were really wild. We thought about sticking around for some of the party, then heading back to the hotel for bed, but then I spotted the piano bar. More on that in part five.

More music!
It’s good that we didn’t have a hotel room there!

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… Part three

I got sort of a rude awakening at about 4am, on Saturday morning, as I tried to roll over. My left calf suddenly seized up in a hellacious cramp. I was still sort of asleep when it happened, so I just started whimpering pitifully. I wasn’t quite conscious enough to let out the scream that I really felt brewing. That cramp hurt like a mofo! But I was still kind of out of it, thanks to still being half asleep.

Bill woke up and asked me what was wrong. I somehow told him the back of my calf was cramping. He very calmly and gently reached over and put his hand on my spasming limb, which was healing enough. Then, he slowly forced me to stop pointing my toes. The cramp gradually went away and I was left amazed, and with a sore lump where the muscle bunched up. Yes, I know it would have gone away anyway, but there’s something about Bill’s touch that is very comforting to me. He’s very good at making my pain and discomfort vanish.

I managed to doze for a bit longer, until it was time to get up and face the day. We had told the night receptionist that we’d have breakfast at 8:00am. Breakfast at De Witte Lelie does not come with the room, and costs 30 euros a person. I suppose it’s not mandatory to have breakfast there, since the hotel is so close to the old town, but we found it convenient. The first morning, we ate outside, since it was sunny and warm outside. The manager, an Australian lady, brought out a basket of bread, fresh pressed coffee, and a bottle of fresh squeezed orange juice. I was delighted by the orange juice. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in Belgium and the Netherlands; they have great orange juice. Even if you get it at the gas station, it’s likely to be fresh!

Aside from the bread and juice, there’s also a small buffet with everything from Belgian cheeses to vegan charcuterie. I helped myself to some smoked salmon and avocado, and Bill had a ginger shot. We also had eggs and bacon, although we only did that on the first day, since it was a lot of food that neither of us needed.

As usual, we didn’t have any big plans. We almost never plan specific activities on our trips. Our style is more about going places and letting stuff happen. There are exceptions, of course. When we were in Florence a couple of months ago, we did plan to visit the Uffizi ahead of time. That was necessary, because of COVID and the number of people who want to go to the art gallery. But we didn’t have big plans for Antwerp. It didn’t find it to be the kind of place that requires a lot of planning.

We started out by heading toward the Grote Markt, which is the main attraction in Antwerp. We saw the couple who run the Brewers’ Kitchen, who were recovering from Friday night! The chef told us that he was born and raised in Antwerp and offered some tips on how to see the city. I was especially glad we stopped in to his restaurant on Friday.

Before we had a chance to explore the Grote Markt, we stopped at the Handschoenmarkt, which is where an adorable statue of a boy and his dog are located. I didn’t know anything about the 19th century novel, A Dog of Flanders, which is the heartwarming and tragic story about a little boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasche. The story, which was written by English author, Marie Louise de la Ramée, is well-known, especially in Japan, so the powers that be commissioned a statue to please tourists. The statue was created by Batiste Vermeulen (‘Tist’) and is absolutely adorable.