Europe Drives Motorists to Public Transportation Better than in US

Europe beats the US all to hell in terms of transportation. I realize that part of the reason is large parts of Europe are compact, compared to the spread out United States. Still, it’s fairly easy to move from city to city on a train (preferred) or a bus, and then within a city using a subway, tram or bus in Europe.

When traveling, it helps that we plan to stay near the center of these cities to take advantage of the transportation. But even traveling to Potsdam on a day trip from Berlin during a recent vacation was easy and fairly inexpensive. We bought a seven-day Eurorail pass, which allows free transportation on the days we designate. They weren’t cheap, but it’s a relief knowing that most of our major transportation is paid for. Sometimes you have to pay extra to take high-speed trains or book a reservation on a particular train, but those costs are modest.

In Berlin and Amsterdam, we bought tourist passes that included transportation. So in addition to free or reduced admission to certain museums, the buses and trains were included. The Amsterdam passes alone were more than 200 Euro total, but we visited enough museums to more than recoup the cost, not counting the half-dozen subway and tram rides we took.

Cyclists and bikers everywhere

That’s not to mention the bike riding. Many European cities are compact, making it easy to get around by bike or motorbike. Few riders had helmets, but I never saw a crash, even among pothead tourists in Amsterdam. We even saw small children riding with their parents on bikes and tons of kids on Razor scooters.

I believe the reason they’re so popular is the proper infrastructure is in place to support it. Dedicated bike lanes are placed next to sidewalks, separating cars from bikes from people in many instances. Bike parking decks rise several stories next to the central train station. City-supported rental bikes schemes let tourists live like the locals while giving the locals a cheap way to grab a bike and go.

A friend in Antwerp said the local bike scheme is 40 Euro a year for 30 minutes’ bike use at a time. That’s enough time to check a bike out, pedal to the store, check it back in, shop, then rent another bike for the return trip.

I also think it helps that driver education is a much bigger deal in Europe than in the US. Getting one’s license is difficult and takes considerable practice. Many young drivers take the test two times or more before passing. Because those skills are taught for a longer period of time, I think they become more ingrained.

You will find the occasional asshat tearing down our street in Belfast, but for the most part, I see drivers using their turn signals, letting other cars in and observing the pedestrian crossing signs. I was amazed to see rush hour traffic on a motorway in Amsterdam evenly spaced, instead of cars sniffing up the tailpipe of the cars in front.

Getting out of our cars

Governments that truly want to serve constituents should make the necessary investments in transportation infrastructure beyond the car. Bike ridership might be low in your city, but rather than use it as an excuse to build more roads, leaders should explore why it’s low and ways to get people out of their cars.

Atlanta has MARTA, but its track configuration was designed to appease politicians rather than move people from where they live to where they work. Attempts are being made to address this, but those infrastructure improvements will take decades. In the meantime trains run barely frequently enough during rush hour and not nearly often enough otherwise.

Unfortunately, I don’t think America will suddenly lose its love of the passenger car and embrace the train, the bus or the subway anytime soon. But savvy leaders in certain areas are recognizing the importance of transportation infrastructure beyond the car to attract younger workers who increasingly are learning to drive much later—if at all.

They can look to Berlin, to Amsterdam and to Antwerp for examples of how to successfully marry roads, rails and bike lanes for the betterment of all.

Free to Pee, You and Me

I’m visiting your city, seeing your sights, eating in your restaurants and staying in your city’s accommodations (frequently paying a visitor tax). The least you can do is provide me a few free places to piss.

I’m talking to you, Venice, with a visitor tax and seemingly one pay toilet in the entire old part of the city, despite posting 500 signs for it. You can’t provide free toilets on the Venetian island of Murano, yet you can pay someone to collect toilet tolls? I’m talking to you Berlin, which had public facilities where you wanted to charge me 1 euro.

I’m talking to any bus or train station with pay toilets. I’ve paid for my ticket, which helps finance your operations, so give me someplace to go (literally). In Prague, you had to pay to pee even in places you had to pay to enter. We paid the equivalent of 20 euro to climb the Petrin Tower yet had to pay another 10 crowns (about 40 cents) for the pleasure of pissing there.

Toilet.jpgThere also are places that deserve praise for their potty policies. Lyme Regis has free public toilets about every 100 metres along the waterfront. Marilynn said there were no toilet seats in the bathroom, but, hey, it was free. Failing public facilities, many cities have McDonald’s, what I call America’s Pit Stop. But, in Prague, you had to pay 10 crowns there, too.

What is it with the French and public peeing?

It’s no wonder that cities like Paris have a problem with what they delicately call les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing. We didn’t experience this (fortunately), but there apparently are places in the City of Light that stink to high heaven, especially in summer. They’ve installed 400 free, self-contained WCs in Paris that are free, but we also saw a pay one in Prague.

The latest French advance against a tide of urine is the uritrottoir, basically a colorful box over sawdust, straw or woodchips on a public street for people to place “deposits.” When full, the device signals that it needs to be collected, and the bedding is later used as compost in city gardens.

In the 19th century, the French came up with the concept of the pissoir, which you can figure out from the name. We saw several of these between the Olympic stadium subway stop in Berlin and the stadium, basically covered places to take a leak. But since we saw just as many people pissing in the woods along the same route, I’m not sure they are working.

Up-close encounter with les pipis sauvages

I knew this would be a blog topic in the early days of the trip, and I’d written a rough draft on the train from Prague back to Berlin, from where we’d fly back to Belfast. After eating at a great new sushi restaurant and visiting the DDR Museum, which documented life in East Germany under Communist rule, we were walking back to the Alexanderplatz train station along the main avenue at about 9 p.m. Alexanderplatz has wide sidewalks, at least four driving lanes and room for a tram. This ain’t no alley.

And then we saw it—a German punter taking a leak on a small bush along the sidewalk, beer in one hand and I’m not sure what (but have a really good idea) in the other. Fortunately, he had his back to us, but his front was on view to anyone driving by or on the tram. Judging by the fire-hose strength of the stream, this guy really needed to pee.

I can’t remember ever peeing in the street, but I understand the overwhelming urge to go. We will go to great lengths to avoid pay-as-you-go policies. I’d rather stop in a restaurant, order a meal or a drink and partake of their facilities rather than outright pay to pee someplace else. I’ll cross my legs and think dry thoughts for an hour, rather than flip a train station attendant 50 cents to partake of the plumbing.

This must stop. I call for a Urination Declaration, demanding free public toilets for tourists. Because peeing (and pooping, for that matter) are fundamental human rights. We all gotta go sometime, and it oughta be free. Our motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”

The More You See, the More It Looks the Same

Eating the local food. Seeing the local sights. Buying the local bangles. Watching the “drunkie cab” pass by. Five European cities in 14 days, and I’m struck by the sameness of a lot of it.

I’m in no way comparing Museum Island in Berlin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague or downplaying any of the sites we saw. But I am comparing how tourist destinations draw the same tchotchke place after place, although often with a local twist.

In every place, there is the tourist bus and, if location permits, the tourist boat. We did both on this trip. You’ll find an overabundance of souvenir shops, which we never set foot in except to buy a museum pass in Berlin. You’ll find those designer stores that normal people don’t shop in, charging way too much for weird-looking clothes with huge, gaudy designer labels. Horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and the drunkie cab, our name for those rolling bars where (at least) half-drunk people pedal their way to further debauchery. And, I almost forgot, something to climb on to look over the city, which we also did.

Marilynn visited Prague in the fall of 1990, just after the people threw off their Communist shackles during the Velvet Revolution. She recalls a very different Prague from what we saw. Of course, most of those changes are positive.

But when did Prague become known for Thai massage parlours, where you can have fish eat the funk off your feet in a storefront window or get a massage in view of passers-by? We spotted nearly a dozen such places, including several that obviously have the same ownership. We saw three wax museums and at least two “museums” of torture.

And I’m not sure what to make of the Museum of Sex Machines, which Declan and I passed on our first morning in Prague. I didn’t want to stop and stare, but I did glimpse what appeared to be dildoes mounted on some sort of rolling contraption, similar to a water wheel.

A friend of ours, during lunch at a local, nonchain restaurant, said that hamburger bars had largely replaced pizza parlours as the tourist eatery of choice. She also told us about the trdelnik, a local “delicacy” of dough dipped in sugar and cinnamon, wound in strips on a cylinder and slow grilled rotisserie-style over a wood fire. We had seen several trdelnik stands in the extended Easter market near our hotel and a couple of storefront locations. She’s been in the Czech Republic since 1995 and had never heard of this dish until very recently.

Declan was determined to try Prague ham, which as far as I could tell, is, well, ham. His father grills pork frequently on his Big Green Egg, to the raves of nearly everyone. But hey, when in Prague…

Running on Empty … and Still Prague to Go

You get to the point in any long vacation where the sameness takes over. This vacation’s unfortunate victim of this phenomenon was Prague, an 11-hour, two train and a bus journey from Paris. But Marilynn received a Fulbright grant to give a talk at Charles University in Prague, so to Prague we went.

We stayed at the university hotel in a huge room on the second floor, with high ceilings, a wood floor and intricate painted beams that date from the Baroque period—and a view of the Thai massage parlour across the street that started early and went late. Old Town is the center of tourist way in Prague, so we had a front-row seat to the crowds, the revelry and the loud stag parties. Fortunately, the room had solid wooden shutters, and our sleeping areas were a good 40 feet from the windows.

The first morning, Declan and I checked out our immediate surroundings while Marilynn gave her talk. In addition to those massage parlours and too many souvenir shops to count, we found a small storefront shop that sold babushka dolls for nearly every professional football team imaginable. English Premier League, lesser English leagues, La Liga, national teams—there had to be hundreds. The store also has nesting dolls for popular movies (Harry Potter) and TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” It was a breath of fresh air amid the stale sameness.

Time to head home

After lunch with Marilynn and her university hosts, we walked to the Old Town Hall to watch the medieval astronomical clock chime the top of the hour. The clock, installed in 1410, is the oldest working clock in existence. At the top of the hour, Death chimes in, while the Apostles pass through two windows above the clock face and rats look on from the edges. Other dial faces show the sun, moon and astronomical details, while the third marks months. It attracts large crowds, so you have to jockey for a good look. Since we were staying close, Marilynn nipped out that night for another look when the crowds had lessened.

We also climbed the Petrin Tower, a one-fifth size replica of the Eiffel Tower that sits atop a steep hill. The tower and surrounding park are served by a funicular (think Incline Railway in Chattanooga) using timed tickets that also work on the city’s tram/bus/subway system. The tower affords impressive views of the city both at the midway point and at the top of 299-step structure. Disabled folks (and the wimpy) can take an elevator to the top, but that’s just cheating if you are able-bodied.

The Charles Bridge, dating from the 14th century and begun by King Charles IV, is another Prague highlight. It’s closed to vehicular traffic, giving people plenty of opportunity to peruse the 30 replica statues that line the sides and watch the Vltava River flow by (or take selfies). Three impressive bridge towers “protect” the structure.

This Bud is true

At a Chinese restaurant that was doing a booming business among the Asian tourist trade, Marilynn and I tried our first Budweisers, the original Budweiser beer that predates American Budweiser by nearly a century. All of the Czech beers we tried were delicious, but Budweiser stands out because it is so much better than the US version, which I use only for grill marinades.

Declan and Marilynn visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, the largest in Europe, that last accepted interments in 1786. Declan particularly liked the twisted grave markers and the realization of how old the cemetery is. They also toured three decommissioned synagogues, including the “really cool” Spanish synagogue, Declan says. They took lots of pictures for me, and Declan kept his commemorative yarmulke.

We tried to visit Prague Castle, the 9th century castle considered the largest in the world, but there simply were too many people. On the last day in the last city before starting the return trip, it was too much to attempt. Instead, we circumnavigated the castle walls, saw what we could see, and called it a day.

Pastry Aplenty in Paris, But Where’s My Tea?

Who do I have to @#$% to get a decent-sized cup of tea in this town? Hell, I’ll settle for some hot water because I have my own teabags.

I’ll admit to being a tea snob, primarily because I can’t drink coffee anymore and need my caffeine. Too many mornings drinking a half-pot of coffee followed by a Coke at work and an extra-strong cup of coffee with the wire editor after the first edition messed up my stomach at some point. Fortunately I met Marilynn just in time to discover the joys of Irish tea.

At least in Ireland and England, I know my tea needs will be met. In Berlin, we stayed in a hotel with free breakfast and two coffee machines with hot water. It was heaven. In Amsterdam, there was a kettle and decent-sized cups. In Antwerp there was a kettle and teensy cups in the room. We were too cheap to buy hotel breakfast, so off to McDonald’s we went. A smallish cup of tea was nearly two euro, and they wanted another two euro for hot water in the cup I just bought.

So I was hopeful that Paris would be better, but I was wrong. The hotel had no tea-making facilities, only a machine in the lobby that spit out four ounces of water in a flimsy, disposable cup for a euro. Patisseries, while fantastic for croissants, breads and other baked goodies, were crap for tea. The first one we visited served no hot drinks. The second served coffee, but no tea.

The second morning, we took our wee hotel cups to the second patisserie and asked for hot water. They wanted to microwave them. I didn’t know the French word best describing the molten, watery mess zapping those cups would leave in their microwave, so we gave up.

Even where tea was offered, it was outrageously expensive for what it is—hot water and a teabag. I can buy my beloved Barry’s tea direct from Ireland and have it shipped to the US for 10 cents a bag. I’m not gonna pay three euro for a cup of tea. Until I really want it, like when enjoying second pastry breakfast while waiting for Sainte-Chappell to open. And at Starbucks at the train station. That one was actually four euro, but it was tanker-sized and required two teabags to fill it.

I’m not sure what awaits in Prague, but that honkin’ big Starbucks cup made the two-train, one bus, 11-hour journey from Paris. And I’ve got plenty of teabags to go with it.

Early Bird Visitors Beat the Rush in Paris

I hate to wait. And I hate crowds. And I particularly hate waiting in crowds. Marilynn knows this, and she did a phenomenal job guiding us to the sights in Paris we wanted to see with a minimum of waiting. Sure, it took a couple of before 7 a.m. wake-up calls, but beating the rush is worth the sacrifice.

Notre-Dame cathedral opens at 7:45, and we were among the first 10 in line when one of the giant entry doors swung open. Without a doubt, it stands as the prime example of Gothic architecture.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before getting its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. It’s got everything you expect in a Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water. At 8 a.m., a prayer service began, filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

Admission is free, but the crowds that had gathered by the time we walked by the cathedral two hours later were hundreds deep. Heh, heh, heh.

After the cathedral, we nipped into a patisserie for croissants while we waited for Sainte-Chapelle to open at 9. The chapel was built in the 13th century as a reliquary (i.e. a place to store religious relics). Sainte-Chapelle stored what was thought to be the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. However, the artifact moved to Notre-Dame in 1804, where it is venerated the first Friday of every month.

Beautiful, upper-floor stained glass windows are the main attraction at Sainte-Chapelle. About 70 percent of the glass is original, covering nearly 7,000 square feet and depicting 1,113 scenes from the Bible. A rose window is “new,” installed in the 15th century.

Again, we were among the first in line, making a beeline for the upper floor after gaining entry. The early morning sun was still weak but strong enough to dazzle the senses through the windows. After gaping at the windows, the eye naturally travels to the painted walls, which still retain considerable color and character, and then to the floor and its highly decorative tiles.

So by 10 o’clock, we’d knocked out the planned activities for the day, leaving plenty of time for unplanned sightseeing.

Same drill, different destination

We were able to sleep slightly later the next day, because the Musée D’Orsay doesn’t open until 9:30. We had our tickets (bought online) already, but all lines at the Impressionist museum get deep even before opening time. Declan took our place in line just after 9, while Marilynn and I finished our croissant and bread breakfast on stone benches outside the museum.

As before, we cleared security and headed straight for the most popular destination, the Impressionist painters’ permanent exhibition. I’m a huge fan of Impressionist art, especially of landscapes, and the Musée D’Orsay didn’t disappoint. Monet is my current favorite, although I also like Pissaro and Cezanne, and Renoir to a lesser extent. There were plenty of Van Gogh’s paintings, although I’d had my fill the week before in Amsterdam. The museum also has several Degas sculptures and a few Rodins.

We were able to peruse that gallery with few other visitors. As we worked our way down the museum, the crowds got thicker and thicker until they were nearly overwhelming in the temporary exhibit, on the mystical concerns of Impressionist artists.

We emerged after three hours into a plaza full of people in snaking lines, both ticketholders and those needing tickets. One of the lines curved in upon itself, then down the plaza steps to wrap around it by half a block. Again, a great choice to buy ahead and enter early.

Not all of our efforts were successful, however. The line to climb the tower at Notre-Dame stretched more than half a cathedral block when we joined it at about 10:15, or 15 minutes after it opened. We stood in line for about 20 minutes when we decided to do something else. And we weren’t able to score tickets for the Paris catacombs, which Declan decided late that he wanted to visit.

But there’s no doubt the early bird beats the rush to popular attractions.

All the Sights to See, and Then Some

With only two days and a bit in Paris, there was no time to lose. So after checking into our hotel and enjoying a great meal at the French restaurant one door down, we set off for a nighttime boat tour of Paris.

Marilynn thought it would be a great way to get the lay of the land and see many of the famous sights, especially the Eiffel Tower at night. The temperature was brisk, yet tolerable, so we chose seats at the back of the boat with operable windows. Although other families were seated in a single row, the family in front of us was taking up three rows, with dad and daughter in one row, mom in second and son on the back.

Down in front

I thought nothing of it until we reached the Eiffel Tower, when mom proceeded to stand up in front of us to take pictures. Bear in mind, the windows were wide and open, and no one else was standing. You’d have thought she was recording an historic event, the fervor with which she was taking pictures (and blocking our view).

And then 9 o’clock struck, and the monument started pulsating like a spastic disco ball. The mom went wild, snapping photo after photo. For a moment there, I thought she was going to start talking to the monument, telling it to smile and look sexy for the camera.

At least we could check the Eiffel Tower off our list, knowing we didn’t have to get any closer to the monument or anywhere near that family again.

Early in the morning

The next morning, we visited Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle as they opened before returning to the area around our hotel. Grabbing takeaway at a patisserie and having a picnic is how the French have lunch, so we followed the crowd to the ancient Roman arena behind our hotel. A dozen children were either playing football or running around under the watchful eyes of their parents. We spent the rest of the day at the natural history museum and walking through the adjacent botanical garden, Jardin des Plantes.

Our final day also started early with a visit to the Musee D’Orsay. We had no firm plans for the rest of our day, but no one seemed enthused by the prospect of a bus tour. However, I did want to glimpse the Arc de Triomphe, so we walked down the Champs-Élysées far enough to see it. Declan was keen to visit La Chapelle, better known as the Sri Lankan part of town, so we found a Metro station and headed there.

We visited several ethnic grocery stores,  guessing what certain food items were and taking in the sumptuous smells and seeing the sights. Did you know there are Hell’s Angels in France? We didn’t either, but they have a clubhouse in that part of town. We had a snack in an Indian restaurant, where Marilynn and I split a half-bottle of wine because it was nearly as cheap as tea.

For dinner, we returned to the same restaurant we visited the first night, owned by a friendly, gracious man who also serves as waiter. The restaurant only seats two dozen, and it features a limited menu at a set price. Declan wanted to try escargot, so he ordered them as his starter, but we all tried them. Declan said they tasted like mussels, and he’s not wrong. I wondered how much of the taste was sauce and how much was snail.

Our final night in Paris also ended early, because an 11-hour train and bus journey to Prague awaits us. But I wake up confident that obtrusive photo mom will be nowhere in sight.

Finally, in the City of Light

Bonjour Madame Guthrie. Après 30 ans, je suis à Paris.

God, I hope that’s right, because I finally put my pidgin French to use, following two years of high school French with Mrs. Guthrie and a French minor at college. I’ve forgotten more French than I probably learned over the years, although idiomatic expressions (zut alors!) still stick in my mind.

As best I recollect, it was the fall of 1980 when John Hill and I became the only male students in French class. I distinctly remember one student (I recall who but will never tell) who said that day, in her best Southern accent, “Par-lay voose, fran-says.”

So while looking forward to my first foray to the City of Light, I also was trepidated by my lack of language skills. In Spain, I pushed Marilynn to the front when buying groceries or negotiating train stations because she and Declan knew some Spanish. Here, they would be relying on me, and I’d heard that French people were kinda mean to those who mangle their language.

Use it or lose it

I shouldn’t have worried. First, everyone we dealt with was extremely nice, and even with those who didn’t speak French were amenable to gestures and half phrases on both sides. And in truth, the overwhelming majority of people we ran into spoke better English than I did French.

Still, it was reassuring to request our room key (vingt-huit) and actually get the right one. And to order a huge tea at Starbucks (thé chaud). But, of course (bien sûr), the barista said, “Green tea or black,” and I responded in English without thinking. D-oh!

But it does leave me bemoaning the knowledge I have let go fallow. One of the clerks at the hotel where we stayed was Turkish, we believe, and spoke that language along with English, French, German and Italian. Our friend Béné speaks at least four languages (and as many as six) and also can read hieroglyphs.

Upon our return to the States, I hope to hook up with some conversational French language group to improve my skills. Marilynn and I are encouraging Declan to use the Spanish he’s learned since kindergarten as often as possible. I keep telling him I should either drop him outside any Home Depot in the Atlanta area or help him get a job at Plaza Fiesta, the Latin mall in Atlanta. He wants to work at one of the football jersey shops.

You certainly don’t need to be fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting (I still can’t understand most Scottish people, and they supposedly speak English). But I think Americans, in general, could do a better job at being global citizens by learning a foreign language—present company included.

Writer’s note: I did use Google Translate to get the accent marks right, but I actually do remember more French than I think I do.

Good Friends Make for Great Sightseeing

Marilynn keeps up with everyone. We had at least two of her childhood friends from Kansas at our wedding, along with one of her Harvard roommates, other friends from college and a handful from grad school.

In Madrid on a trip a few years ago, we stayed with a woman Marilynn met once, a friend of a friend. Marilynn kept up with this woman as she married, changed jobs, had kids and watched them grow up. Marilynn sends the occasional letter or email, and we’re the rare family that still sends out Christmas cards, 120 last year—fewer than in years past because we left for Belfast a week after the holiday.

All of that to say we spent a wonderful weekend in Antwerp with Marilynn’s friend Béné, who opened her home and gave freely of her time to show us the city of her birth. Marilynn and Béné lived on the same staircase for a single year while both were attending Jesus College, Oxford nearly 30 years ago.

We didn’t visit any particular museum or cathedral but walked around the city as Béné showed us the sights and talked about Antwerp’s rich history. She’s a schoolteacher, but Béné could easily be the best tour guide an Antwerp visitor could ask for.

Fun facts about Antwerp

  • Declan enjoyed looking for the Mary and Child statues that many corner houses have for good luck. Béné says that homeowners also liked them because they came with a free light.
  • The golden age of Antwerp was in the 1560s, when Antwerp and Paris were the largest cities in Europe, with more than 100,000 people each.
  • Antwerp is the second-largest port in Europe (behind Rotterdam), thanks to a deep water port that Napoleon deepened and straightened. Unfortunately, the project forced the destruction of a fabled monastery.
  • The city’s other large industry is the diamond trade. Traditionally, Hasidic Jews dominated this, although Béné says Indians have taken on greater importance in recent years.
  • The story of Nello and Patrasche resonates in Japan and Korea much more than it does in Belgium, where the story originated. “A Dog of Flanders” is an 1872 tragedy written by Marie Louise de la Ramée under the pen name “Ouida” about a peasant boy and his dog. The book is required reading in Japan, where it’s become part of the country’s collective psyche, as evidenced by the reaction of Japanese tourists who stumble across the monument in front of Antwerp Cathedral. The new statue, unveiled in December, shows Nello and Patrasche snuggling together under cobblestones that seamlessly flow over the white marble fixtures. Several films have been made from the book, and not all of them relate the original story’s not-so-fairy-tale ending.
  • A statue depicts the popular legend of how Antwerp got its name. According to folklore, a giant collected a toll from passing boatmen, severing a hand off those who refused and throwing it in the river. A hero named Silvius Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and (what else?) threw it in the river. “To throw” in Dutch is werpen so throwing a hand is Antwerpen.
  • Dutch master painter Peter Paul Rubens lived and worked in Antwerp at Rubenshuis, which is now a museum. His work also can be seen in two local churches.
  • A begijnhof houses a community of single women who live communally like nuns (but aren’t) and serve those in need. These communities are dying out, with the housing passing into private ownership. Béné showed us the courtyard of a former begijnhof that is not on public display.
  • The St. Anna Tunnel connects the parts of Antwerp divided by the river Scheldt. A set of cool wooden escalators takes visitors more than 100 feet down, or visitors can take an elevator that holds 40. The pedestrian and bike tunnel is more than one-third of a mile long.

Sacrilegious Easter brunch

While wandering around town on Easter morning, amid the cacophony of church bells announcing Christ’s empty grave, we had a delightful brunch at probably the most irreverent restaurant you’ll find.

At Het Elfde Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment), you’ll find the place chock-full of saints, sinners, cherubs and other statuary on the walls and sitting on nearly every flat surface. Kitsch aside, the food was superb. I had a plate-filling omelet, and Marilynn had The Last Supper, reminiscent of a Ploughman’s lunch with tasty bread, brie, ham and olives. By the way, the 11th commandment is “to eat well, drink a lot of tasty beer and have lots of fun,” according to the restaurant.

Our thanks again to Béné and her family for the warm welcome and the chance to visit, relax and wash clothes.