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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 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.

We went into Cathedral of our Lady, which is a huge, beautiful church in the middle of the city that dates from 1352 (with earlier churches dating from even earlier), but was consecrated in 1521. If one isn’t a child under 18 or a resident of Antwerp, there is a 12 euro charge to visit this church. We didn’t mind paying, though, since the Cathedral of our Lady is full of beautiful art, and is very much akin to a museum. We spent some time walking around, taking in the tremendous beauty of the vast cathedral itself, and the wonderful paintings and sculptures within it. We also visited the crypt, where we could see examples of the tombs buried under the church. Burials were allowed within the church until the 18th century, so as you walk through the cavernous interior, you are passing graves of people who died many years ago.

After we walked through the cathedral, we decided to visit the bistro. Yes, this church has an actual bistro, where you can get coffee, cake, and beer. We initially went in there to use the restroom (very handy), but later came back to try the excellent beer out in the courtyard.

On Saturday, we also made our way to the Scheldt River, which flows through northern France, western Belgium, and the southwestern part of the Netherlands. I wouldn’t say the Scheldt River is a particularly beautiful body of water, but it is what makes Antwerp an important port city in Europe. Next to the river is a huge ferris wheel called The Big View. I didn’t know this at the time, but our ride on the ferris wheel was Bill’s very first, ever! He’s going to be 58 years old next month, and he just now took a ride on a ferris wheel. We got three turns, which allowed us to mug for photos and get pictures of the Steenplein (Stone Square).

Bill says he had never been on a ferris wheel before Saturday, because he’s afraid of heights. He probably felt okay on the wheel in Antwerp, though, because it was completely enclosed. I wished we had an open car so I could get better photos, but this is probably a year round attraction. I’m sure enclosing it makes it usable in bad/cold weather. After we got off, Bill said he’d do it again. It always amazes me the things Bill is doing for the first time with me.

It turned out on Saturday, there was some kind of festival going on in the Grote Markt. It was quite the blowout. When we were passing at one point, an opera singer with an absolutely beautiful voice serenaded everyone. She was dressed in shorts and a short sleeved blouse, enchanting everyone with her dulcet vocals. After her first song, she was inexplicably joined by a beatboxer, who was also pretty good… although personally, I preferred her solo performance. I got some video of her singing, which I added to my first post about Antwerp. It made me cry. We also saw a guy balancing three beers on his head while riding a bike!

By the time the ferris wheel ride was finished, it was time to look for lunch. More on that in the next part, since this post is loaded with photos!

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Italy, restaurant reviews, road trips, wine

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part ten

We want some wine!!!

Friday morning, after breakfast, we made our way back to the center of Florence with no specific plans for the day. We were scheduled to meet Tom, our guide, at 6:30pm at Santa Croce plaza. From there, we would go to a restaurant owned by friends of his and taste our first of many wines. Then, we’d have that Bistecca alla Fiorentina we’d been seeing for the past couple of days. But what to do for the rest of the day? Well, we did what we always seem to do when we travel, especially during a pandemic. We wandered around, people watched, and ate. Below are some more photos from Friday.

Near the Ponte Vecchio, we were in a narrow alleyway, where we were greeted by a “friendly” Italian man who saw us looking at menus and told us his place was opening in twenty minutes. I was more open to taking him up on his welcome than Bill was. Bill was put off by the guy for some reason. I guess he doesn’t like being approached. Neither do I, but I’m somewhat less reluctant than he is.

Unfortunately, after that encounter with the local, it took us awhile to settle on a lunch venue. We wandered around several places and considered dining at one place, only to change our minds when we saw a woman send back an obviously underdone pizza (horrors!). There was an Irish pub that looked inviting, with its many fried options… Sadly, I am a big fan of fried food.

We did eventually find a really great local restaurant for lunch, Osteria Cipolla Rossa (red onion). And we found it just as I was about to give in to the pull of the tourist traps! We got to Osteria Cipolla Rossa at just the right time. There weren’t many people in the place when we arrived. But, by the time we ordered our food, the restaurant filled up with many locals. Bill had a wonderful vegetarian dish of homemade fettuccine with crushed pistachio nuts, mint, and Mediterranean vegetables. It was unique and interesting. And I had chargrilled chicken breast with roasted potatoes. The chicken was tender, juicy, and very flavorful. When Bill tasted it, he had a look on his face that he usually only has when he’s mid orgasm. Sadly, I haven’t seen that face as often as I used to. I know… I know… TMI.

More buskers. Bill gave them some euros.

By the time evening rolled around, we had walked several miles. My feet were killing me. But we had to walk back to Santa Croce to meet up with our wine group. I was curious about who would be attending the tour with us and how large the group would be. We saw Tom De Vries of Sommeliers Choices waving at us from across the square, so we made our way over there to meet Shawna and John, a married couple, and Heather, a married mom of two who came by herself. All three were Americans who live and work in the Stuttgart military community, as Bill and I used to. I think Tom does more business with the Stuttgart community, though he’s also in my Facebook group, which started out being Stuttgart based, and is now more Wiesbaden centric because I live in Wiesbaden.

To be honest, I’ve often regretted starting that wine group. As I wrote at the beginning of this series, I was actually reluctant to do this tour, because I am not good at being in groups. I’m probably even worse at leading them! But… I can’t deny that it has led to some fun travel and food experiences, like this tour we did over the weekend. We did have some lovely experiences on the very brief, but intense, tour with Tom. I got lots of beautiful photos, drank some beautiful wines from small, family owned wineries, met new people and dogs, and found some places Bill and I might try to visit on our own at some point.

Below are some photos from Friday night’s dinner and tasting at Francesco Vini in Florence. The restaurant was really interesting, especially with the cool “bunker” basement, where we did our tasting. Tom says he does a lot of tastings in the cellar.