Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Amsterdam -> Antwerp V

Bike path, Belgian style


On the way to Putte... After a fruitless attempt to locate the fiets network from the center of Kalmthout, I just got on the N111 west and put on my headphones. There is a bike path along the highway, the signature thin red strip of northern Belgium. After a while I found a knooppunt marker, and now I'm going through the woods toward Puttte, which is to say, back to the Netherlands.
(original date of this entry: Sept 19, 2014)

Putte -- the Belgian one
There are two Puttes: a Belgian one and a spiffier Dutch one with an Albert Heijn. I rode straight up Antwerpseweg, passed the first joodse cemetery, then found the turnoff for Begraafplaats Machsike Hadaass. I rode 400 m down a country road, past the second cemetery and there it was ... locked. How would I get in? I phoned the office and they gave me the entry code to key in. Open sesame. There I was with a layout diagram posted. I needed to find "Park H," which is where the children are buried. Just then, an SUV arrived and five Hassids got out. They proceeded with determination to the fountain by the entrance, dispensed some water into plastic cups and washed their hands, then walked up the lane toward their destination, a small temple. I washed my hands, too, for form's sake though I had no kippa. Then I went looking for the grave. I walked up the same lane the men had and turned left at the corner, going past the temple where the men were davening.

Machsike Hadass cemetery plan
The cemetery was not as large as I'd expected. Just a couple of sections down from the temple was Park H, marked as such on a bordering stone. The rows were marked as well and I had no trouble locating Row 89. The thing was, at this point in the section, there were few actual tombstones. Most of the graves in Row 89 were marked only by small oblong posts without any identifying inscriptions. I noticed that the row markers were on the right rather than the left side of the rows, which made sense since Hebrew readers would move right to left, and I assumed the numbers of the plots proceeded in the same direction. Just then, three of the Hassidic men left the temple and walked back in the direction of the entrance. As they turned the corner I waved to them and asked them for assistance. Two of the men were clad in the standard long black coat and large circular hat, one fat and rosy-cheeked, the other slight and fragile. A third man wore ordinary duds, with only a kippa and tzitzits to indicate his faith. I explained to them what I'd come for and they followed me over to Park H to have a look.

The one in plain clothes counted off the stones from right to left. No 35 was one of the few proper tombstones, but ... it was lying face down on the grave. At some point over the previous eight decades it must have toppled over. Lying face down as it was, the inscription was concealed underneath and I could not confirm the identity of its occupant. The casually dressed Jew made a perfunctory attempt to lift the headstone but it was useless. The slight dude waxed philosophical: "If someone else is under the stone, you can pray for her too." They mentioned that Rosh Hashana was coming up. Oh yeah, that time of year, and I admitted my ignorance of Jewish ritual. "God doesn't try to reach you through the head but through the heart," the slight one philosophized benignly. Then the fat rosy-cheeked one told me they were on their way to Amsterdam. "Any idea where we can park?"
Grave of Esther Plutzer--face down
After the trio left, I recounted the stones to make sure he had it right. Indeed he did. It was No 35 and the stone lay face down. I should've guessed it would not be so straightforward. I mused over what to do. I tried lifting the stone--impossible. While I was standing there, another vehicle arrived and discharged more Hassids who headed straight for the temple. I approached one of them, a mild-mannered young man, asked him what he thought I should do. In fact, he knew the caretaker of the cemetery, a certain Friedman, and gave me his phone number.

In the Ravenhof, an 18th-century estate landscaped after Versailles, just across the border from the Dutch Putte. Specifically in the Moestuin, an old orchard, though it appears they're replanting the fruit trees. Good spot for lunch with real picnic tables. After this I'll head for Antwerp. It's hot when the sun breaks through the clouds.  I accomplished my objective of finding the tomb of Esther/Erna Plutzer ... or did I?


The journey to Antwerp foiled by bad signage and lack of decent maps. Past the Ravenhof, I kept zigzagging past the railroad tracks trying to head south. There was one nice stretch along the Spielerlaan that skirted the train tracks so I got to see big trains powering north. At one point (on the way to kp 76) I just gave up following the knooppunten and used my iPod map to steer toward Kapellen. Then a knooppunt sign appeared to confirm that I was headed for kp 76. But on the way to kp 77 (which led I know not where) I saw a sign for kp 13, which had me heading back west, across the tracks, to my original western trajectory. Now finally on the way to kp 54, I'm going through a nice expanse of woods and I believe I'm on the right track. But the journey took at least twice as long as it should have. Lesson 1: Belgium's fiets signage stinks. In many spots, there is no sign where there ought to be one and you have to go hunting for signs. It's 6:50 pm and I'm approaching Antwerp.

It took forever to reach kp 54 but on the way I crossed the grand Schelde and it looked fabulous. I was extremely excited to be arriving in this big city. In all my travels, I can't recall entering a city in such a seamless fashion, the sight of apartment towers signalling my arrival, then cranes along the dockyards. I stopped to look at the river, the big barges turning at a bend and felt great elation.

I continued toward kp 56. I realized I had no knooppunt map for the city. Yet somehow I'd listed the points on a strip of paper. (Must've got 'em off one of those map boards.) Then I left the network, headed down Italiëlei/Frankrijklei, a broad boulevard, the fietspad a narrow brick strip alongside. Some cyclists use the path, including some on bike share deals, but it's nowhere near as busy as Amsterdam. I turned east at the latitude of the triangular Stadspark, found Rubenslei along the bottom of the triangle and followe Plantin en Marituslei till Moutenstraat, took a left and found No 43.

Marleen Leys opened the door. A slight woman of indeterminate age. She could be 49, she could be 60, her hair is white and she has a bittersweet smile. Marleen wore a simple summer dress. She suggested I put the bike in the hall. She then showed me to my room on the top floor. The building is old, designed and furnished with the utmost simplicity. all unvarnished or painted wood surfaces. I told Marleen i'd ridden from Amsterdam. She seemed shocked--in a day?! No, five days, I explained.

10 pm on a perfect late summer eve, at a called Primo, on the Dageraadplaats, tony terrace bistros on two sides of the plaza, a gothic church on another, a canopy of lights like stars. I like the funky chipped-paint terrace tables here. The kitchen had actually closed but the nice young waiter got them to do another pasta. I am celebrating--me, myself and I--my triumphant arrival in Antwerp. Continued ...

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