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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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beaches

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

Now comes the scenic part of our trip… moving from Emilia-Romagna to Florence by way of the west coast…

As we were preparing to leave La Locanda del Borgo at Torrechiara Castle, Bill asked me if I wanted to go to Florence by way of Bologna, or by way of the Italian coast. Bill knew that I had visited Viareggio in 1997, back when I was just 25 years old and had a second class one month Eurail pass. At that time, I was broke, and traveling with friends who are now married to each other, live in Northern Ireland, and have six kids! We stopped there by chance, mainly because it had a beach, and we wanted to swim.

I had been wanting to visit Viareggio again, mainly because I have such fond memories of the pension where we stayed. It was a one star place– very cheap! But you could get half board there, and the food was excellent. Plus, I remembered that they asked us what kind of wine we preferred. My friends preferred white wine, so that’s what we got. They brought out a big jug of it every time we ate, over our couple of nights there.

We didn’t have time to stay in Viareggio for more than just lunch, but I was excited to see it again. Going by way of the coast also meant that we could finally visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is only about a half an hour from Viareggio. I’ve been to Italy a bunch of times, but never managed to see that very well touristed monument before last week.

Another bonus to going by way of the coast was that it took us through some absolutely GORGEOUS terrain… much prettier than what we would have seen, and did see on the way back, going by way of Bologna. Below are some photos I managed to get on our way to the coast as we made our way to Florence. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to get a good shot of Torrechiara Castle from the drive out. The view of the castle was much better on that route, but there was never a convenient opportunity to catch a shot of it from the car, nor were there any good pull off points. Pity. But at least I got some very beautiful photos of the countryside.

As soon as we stopped in Viareggio, I noticed a small “healthy fish restaurant” called e.Dai near where we parked the car. I knew that was where we’d have lunch, after we went to the sea, so I could touch the water. It was confirmed when I saw the toilet near the door (not every place obviously had one, and we both needed one). It was still too chilly for swimming, but lots of people were walking on the beach, and there were guys there hawking their wares. One tried to sell us a beach blanket, but we were only there to look at the water for a minute. I would like to go an Italian beach and stay for a few days. But it was nice to smell the air and look at the water… I even enjoyed seeing the seagulls. I grew up near the ocean, and I have missed beaches in the time we’ve been in Germany. Below are some scenes from Viareggio. It has kind of a carnival vibe.

After our quick visit to the water, we headed to e.Dai, where we were promised “healthy fish” dishes. I don’t know about that, but it was a nice change of pace to have fish instead of Parma ham or meat from other hooved animals. I miss seafood, too. The fish place did offer something new, but it wasn’t a cheap place at all. We both had sandwiches and wine, and the bill was about the euro equivalent of $50.

After lunch, we made our way south to Pisa, where we found a very convenient pay parking lot with a sparkling clean public toilet. A kind looking lady was collecting one euro from those who needed to use the toilet. I heard one American guy grumble about the price and say he wouldn’t pay it. I was happy to pay, because I had a feeling it cost the same at Pisa; the facilities wouldn’t be nearly as clean; and there would be a line. Sure enough, I was right. So, if you ever find yourself at that parking lot in Pisa and you need the facilities, I’m telling you it’s a good deal. Go ahead and pay the euro for a glorious piss. At least it’s clean, and you don’t have to wait. The lady who collects the euros keeps it immaculately clean!

We chose not to buy a ticket to see the Tower of Pisa, the cathedral, and the baptistery up close, mainly because we were pressed for time. These photos are just of the exterior, which one can visit free of charge. We also knew that climbing the tower meant lots of heavy breathing in confined spaces while wearing masks. I would like to visit again and do a proper visit. I’d also like to see the city itself, which I know is very vibrant and interesting in its own right. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity. April is a nice time to visit. It’s not too hot!