Brrrr… Cold enough out there for everyone yet? It’s been so cold, that my fingers seem to be perpetually frozen, which must explain why I’m late and delinquent on my reporting of travels and races that I’ve been plugging away at for the past couple months. Regardless, I will attempt to at least give a brief update on various happenings so that I can get that off my ‘to do’ list. First up? A quick tale of the most magical holiday trip to Europe that Deanna and I took. Specifically, our travels to Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Obviously, there are LOTS of pictures, so I’ll embed a few of them linking to albums.
Why those countries you ask? Well, my sister and brother-in-law, along with my adorable niece and nephew, are currently posted in Brussels, with Andrea and Patrick both working for NATO. As such, we don’t get to see them often, and it seemed to us that perhaps spending Christmas with them, and the children as well, would be great. So, we took 2 weeks off, and planned a bit of a euro-jaunt which included Christmas in Brussels, New Year’s in Paris, and a side trip to Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands to visit a cousin I hadn’t seen in a long time. In the interest of brevity, the trip can be summarized in the following way. Weather was wet and chilly for much of it, many beers were consumed, new sights were seen, and amazing time was had by all :-). Now, for a Little more detail on each stop.
Brussels, Brugge, Antwerp, and Passchendale
The main purpose of our trip was of course to visit my sister, her husband, and the niece and nephew. They are currently living in Brussels for the next few years. As such, they were wonderful enough to let us use their home as a home base for explorations in the area. So of course that meant some fun touring in their backyard. Included in that touring were a couple runs with Patrick around the city, as well as some excellent city wandering. We managed to find numerous places that sold beer, which was another bonus.
Although Brussels is the main seat of the EU, and is in itself also the capital city of Belgium, we found ourselves a little surprised at how little there seemed to be on offer from a wandering and sightseeing perspective. Luckily, our hosts were resourceful, and always willing to help us plan adventures. On one day, we managed to head out to Atomium, a very famous sculpture / structure that you would likely recognize if you saw it. We got lucky in that we were able to see it in all its shiny glory under a blazing sun. To make it even more spectacular, I enjoyed a beer AND some frites in its presence, thanks to Patrick. We also got to tour around the Christmas markets with the kids and wade our way through crowds of other people doing the same. We were also shown the way to the Cantillon Brewery, a bewery that is exempt from EU regulations for the fact that they rely on ‘open air’ fermentation (in other words, bacteria in the air is what makes their beer special!)
On another fun day of local travel, or rather sombre day of travel, we loaded up my sister’s car and headed out to visit some memorials and cemetaries from WWII. As most of you are aware, many brave Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice in Belgium, and they have been memorialized for all time where they were struck down. As part of this trip, we visited both Allied cemetaries and a German cemetary as well. It was a very moving day, and really gave us pause and an appreciation for the fact that we have our freedom, and the freedom to make these kinds of trip around the world unencumbered. To pick up the mood a bit, we finished off with a wonderful meal at a country restaurant located not far from Passchaendale.
I’d say the highlight of the Belgium part of the trip however, has to be our day trip out to Brugge. Admittedly, I had no real notion of what was in store, which made it all the more spectacular. In a nutshell, Brugge was spared a lot of devastation that was suffered elsewhere during the wars, and is therefore a very beautiful historic city. We had perfect weather, and had a great walking tour of the city. Somehow, we managed to time things just right, and ended up at the town square during a New Year’s Levee. This 3 hour event featured… FREE BEER! Yup, it was as awesome as you might imagine. Meant for locals, we got to elbow with people in the know, and raise a free pint with them. It was a very cool experience. In addition to that stop, we managed to take in a neat brewery tour, AND found what I’ll argue is the greatest pub I’ve ever set foot in. Complete with great characters and an ambiance straight from the 13th century. No, seriously, it was in a 13th century gothic cellar! All in all, an amazing day.
Now, given that we were only a hop skip and a jump from the city of Love, we couldn’t very well visit the area without at least a night in Paris, right? Well, in fact, Deanna and I ended up booking two nights there, which included New Year’s Eve. We took a high speed train from Brussels VERY early on the 30th of December, and took a very late train back on the 1st, giving us 3 very full days in the city of lights. Using AirBnB we had booked a very typical local flat near the train station, and the owner was nice enough to basically let us check in on arrival, and not check out until literally 20 minutes before our return train. This gave us ample time to explore Paris. I must say, we were impressed. I’d been to Paris when I was very young, but 35 years later, I can say I FINALLY appreciated this city. There is so much history and culture here, we could have stayed a solid week. In addition, we found the city’s metro system and layout absolutely fantastic and well-suited to aimless wandering, which we’re very good at!
While 3 days may not seem like a lot, we squeezed in pretty much every major attraction, at least at a superficial level. That included dedicated well over a half day to exploring the Louvre (don’t even get me started on the crowds on our chosen day… NY Eve!). We also celebrated the new year properly by climbing the steps of the Eiffel tower in the first rays of sunlight on January 1, 2015, which was a magical moment for us. In addition, we of course saw Notre Dame, Montmartre, Champs Elysee, Arc de Triomphe, the famous book vendors, and many other sites that I’m blanking on right now, but are captured in the above pictures.
Of all our visits on this trip, I’d safely say that we are definitely hoping to go back to Paris and see more of this great city. We also loved just grabbing baguettes, cheese and pastries and just finding a quiet park to enjoy them in. Although the weather was on the cool / damp side, our spirits were warmed there! And staying in a 6th floor typical Parisien studio apartment was the icing on the cake.
Amsterdam and Wageningen
Another little side trip that I really wanted to make sure we squeezed in on this vacation was a journey up into the Netherlands. Specifically, to a little town called Wageningen, which is where one of my cousins now lives, but also to Amsterdam, one of those places that holds a place in the lore of so many other people, that we just HAD to experience for ourselves. Once again, the train was the best option here, and we booked last minute for a jaunt from Brussels up to Amsterdam, then off to my cousin’s place, and back. We opted for a single night in Amsterdam, and due to the last minute nature of our booking, snagged an AirBnB that probably wasn’t worth what we paid for, but on the plus side, was very centrally located just off the Red Light District area.
On arrival, we had a bit of a letdown in terms of the weather. It was raining and very cold. As a result, we have very few pictures from Amsterdam, as it was just too rainy to bring the camera out of the bag. However, it didn’t stop us from heading out on a good walking tour of the city. On our walk, we picked up frites from the ‘best fries in Amsterdam’ place as recommended by several guides, and also popped into a museum (the Sex museum, if you *must* know). We were surprised how relatively compact the real core of touristy Amsterdam is, and yes, at the sheer number of bicycles that are found everywhere, although they weren’t out in as large numbers this day!
To keep things low key, we managed to scare up a half decent Shawarma for supper, before finally settling in at a nice brew put for pints and stories with locals. Sitting at the bar is ALWAYS the way to go when travelling, FYI. This was the approach we took at a number of our stops on this european trip, and we always met interesting people, and at a bare minimum, had the bartenders to speak to. There is something to be said about the humble bartender and their role as city welcomer!
The next day was less wet, but still cold. Luckily, the sun was shining. We squeezed in another quick walk to the tallest wooden windmill in the Netherlands (conveniently co-located with a brewery, which was sadly not open yet). After that, it was on to catch a train and visit with family, which was another great way to learn a bit more about the Netherlands from locals. We had a great night of beer, wine, and food, surrounded by folks who took us in and treated us like special guests in their home.
All in all, the two weeks we spent in Europe flew by. But not without a lot of memories being made and adventure being had. Our vacation time is always something we hold precious, so it was great to spend time with family while still getting the opportunity to visit a number of places we hadn’t been before. We’re already looking forward to whatever trips we can scare up next. Himalayas anyone? Stay tuned….