Paris I

Paris was one of the most enthralling and action packed visits on my itinerary. Getting there was a bit of a pain. We took a coach bus called Eurolines from Brussels to Paris. The coach was cheap, but I cannot recommend it. I was longingly watching the high speed Thalys trains zoom by me the whole journey.

louvre

Once Rob and I arrived in Paris, it took a hectic metro ride with two transfers until we found our way to our hotel in Pres Saint Germain. The hotel was called Les Deux Continents and was a shabby but well-kept three-star affair located close to the Seine. Once checked in, Rob needed to put in a full shift on the computer, so I set about exploring and planning our following day. I ambled along the Seine until I found the Louvre, which was not hard considering its size. The building is also very beautiful and elegant. I didn’t know such a massive structure could be. I went into the central glass pyramid and purchased two day Paris Museum Passes for us. I highly recommend this if you’re planning on spending any time in Paris. It gets you in at the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles and many other lesser known attractions for 39 Euro. The other benefit is that you don’t have to wait in the long ticketing lines at any attractions, which alone is almost worth the cost.

pyramid

After a fly-by the Louvre, I took the Metro to a stop near Sacre Coeur church. The church is perched on a hill overlooking Paris. Be ready to walk up a lot of steps on your way there if you don’t want to pay for the street escalators. The church was more modest than the flashy cathedrals I’d seen elsewhere, but it has a lovely mural on the ceiling and has a striking white exterior. From Sacre Coeur, I caught my first far away glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, which I got irrationally excited about. After dodging a few romantic advances I hopped back on the Metro and headed back to Deux Continents to rejoin Rob. I didn’t go straight to the hotel; instead I took the time to stock up on some water and snacks for the room. If you ever spend time travelling, my advice to you is to always buy something to eat and drink for the hotel room. It saves you the high cost of food and drinks at restaurants and it keeps you hydrated and healthy. You can’t imagine how much we walked, even with the Metro passes I bought. My feet are definitely a lot tougher than when I first arrived there. After a rather relaxing first day, I slept soundly on DC’s comfy beds.

sacre coeur

The following day we were up and out early, catching the train to Versailles before the crowds got too big. The palace is a short walk from the station. The approach on the front of the palace is very dramatic. You have to fight your way through a bunch of men trying to sell tiny Eiffel Towers at every turn. I had been warned about this, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the aggressiveness of the street men. Develop a good technique for firmly saying no, or they’ll follow you for meters and meters if you show the slightest hesitation in your refusal. We breezed past security (no line so early). I love walking through old buildings, and Versailles was especially grand. We toured through the Madams’ chambers first. I was trying to sort out if Madam was a euphemism for Mistress, but the wording was coy so I never really sorted that out. Can you imagine a whole section of a palace dedicated to official mistresses? Much of the building was gilded in gold and coated with fine fabrics and murals. The king’s and queen’s chambers were open for tours, but even with the early arrival everyone was suffocatingly packed together. Walking through the rooms, one can catch a glimpse of the extensive gardens rolling out behind the palace. Our time was short, so we were unable to enter the gardens, and I was disappointed to miss out on seeing Marie “let-them-eat-cake” Antoinette’s hamlet.Versailles

Rob told me my post was too long so I’ve broken it up into two pieces. Look for Paris 2 coming soon.

France Lux Germany

A three day weekend provided me a unique opportunity to explore a few neighboring countries by car. The journey brought me to France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands. Most European countries have a work holiday on Easter weekend, so travel by plane is tremendously expensive. As a result, I got to experience a good old-fashioned European road trip. We took my little diesel Pugeot, I assume most of my readers are not familiar with this French car brand. It’s a very tiny European style hatchback – manual transmission, ancient knob based AC, and no cruise control. The bright side is that the little manual diesel engine gets good gas mileage but the downside is that it’s not very luxurious. It barely fit our tow carry-on pieces of luggage in the back but drives mostly reliably.

 

church

We started our journey in the little car late on Friday. We took the road less traveled on our way to Reims, France. (Ask me to pronounce Reims sometime and prepare to have your mind boggled.) This path was selected because it was the shortest route (i.e. it consumed the least amount of gas) and avoided the expensive French toll roads. This sounds great, right? Unfortunately, this resulted in us winding around isolated narrow country roads of France that have no lights, and it was dark. I’m still thankful we stayed on the road and didn’t hit anything.

Our hotel room in Reims was clean and adequate. It was also along the main road in Reims. For those

Stained Glass of Reims

of you who don’t know, Reims is the major city within the Champagne region of France. The cathedral there had some of the most beautiful stained glass I have ever seen. My travelling companion mentioned that it’s always smart to have breakfast in France, and she was right. You just don’t find croissants like that in the US or even in Belgium. After breakfast, we strolled around the small city to view some of the landmarks near the hotel. We passed through a park, saw the cathedral, did some shopping and tried to take a light lunch. I say TRIED because our light salads ended up being quite heavy. I regret nothing.

After strolling through Reims, I went to Epernay. Epernay is the location of most of the caves (wine cellars) of the companies that produce champagne in the region. The town was mostly quiet (it was Easter weekend), but we managed to find one winery open for tastings. I tried all types of champagnes: rosé, pinot noir, chardonnay and blends of the two. I especially liked trying the pinot noir champagne as I am more accustomed to chardonnay based bubbly. After buying a few bottles, we moved on. There wasn’t much to see in the valley because it was far too early in spring for the sea of grapevines to bud, leaving the valley looking barren but full of potential. I would love to see it later in the year during the growing season.

Lux countryside

I made it to Ecthermach, Luxembourg by mid-evening. There really is not much in the area but scenery. Try thinking of middle northern Minnesota. My hotel was on the boarder of Germany and Luxembourg. I could clearly see German soil from my room. The hotel was rustic, homey and had a lovely five-course dinner. A carafe of local wine and a big meal full of variety kept me happy all evening.

Vianden

In the morning, I drove the meandering road that runs along the border of Luxembourg and Germany. The scenery was quite stunning and I stopped frequently to take pictures. The destination of this day trip was the castle city of Vianden. The city itself seems almost entirely focused on the restored castle that overlooks it. Turning your car into the valley that overlooks the castle is stunning. The castle was rebuilt from ruins in the 1970s with great care. The result was a structure more beautiful and polished than the medieval one in Bullion, BE. It was a wonderful tour that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a trip in the area. The restoration even included a few furnished rooms set up like they would have been a few centuries ago.

Vianden

After the castle visit, I headed out of the valleys of Luxembourg and on to Cologne, Germany. Cologne was leveled almost entirely during WWII, so it is an unusual mix of old Europe and a modern city. A few untouched structures remain in the city’s old quarter near the Rhine, so that is where most of my visit was focused. As usual, I tried some local cuisine, and I was particularly fond of the sausage and strudel. Beware in Germany; if you just ask for a beer, you might just end up with 50CL (a quart). The shopping in Cologne looked fantastic, but unfortunately just about everything was closed for Easter Sunday and Monday. I’m particularly bitter about an amber necklace I saw in a window that I was never able to try on or buy. Most of my time was spent visiting the open area near the river and the heart of the city.

Cologne Riverfront

On the way home from Cologne, I drove through the Netherlands. That counts, right? Also on our way

Old Colognehome, I stopped at an outlet mall to visit a Desigual store.  The designer takes a mix of modern and classic Spanish themes and colors and smashes them together to create their signature riot of color and texture. I couldn’t find a dress that suited me, but I found a few other things I really liked.

After such a long weekend, I returned home exhausted, but I was thrilled to see so much of Europe in just a few days.

Orval and Bullion

In order to understand the attraction of visiting Orval Abby, one must first understand a little about

Outside OrvalBelgium’s beer brewing history. Everyone knows (or should know by now) that Belgium has a colorful and delicious brewing culture. Part of this culture was honed by the famous Trappiste brewing monks of Belgium. Historically, many monastic orders turned their hand to one or many trades in order to keep themselves busy with manual labor and to produce goods that could be sold to support the monastery. Brewing beer became a common tradeskill of the Trappiste order and a particular style called Tripel was born. Although the beer was made famous by the Trappiste monks, you can see this style has moved beyond the church and is produced by many Belgian commercial brewers outside of monastery walls and even has become a popular style with craft brewers in the United States. Though many of these Trappiste monks have given up brewing, seven remain active in Europe, five of them operating in Belgium. I partook in a pilgrimage of sorts to visit one of the more famous and exclusive Trappiste abbeys called Orval.

Orval AbbyThe site itself is located in a quiet valley in the south of Belgium close to Luxembourg and France. Upon visiting, I soon learned the Abbey contained masters of many trades other than brewing in it’s history. Orval controlled extensive farmland and employed numerous masons, scribes, blacksmiths and masons. The result is an enormous abbey grounds in a beautiful red stone. The main part of the building is closed off from tourists, but we were able to enter the medieval ruins that mark the older part of the grounds. It was a gorgeous walk and I took lots of pictures. After the tour of the grounds, I left Orval with a case of beer (which is easy to find at bars, but always sold out at the grocers). I also acquired a kilo of delicious beer cheese, which I split with my companion. I’m still working my way through that block of fromage.
 Orval
From the highest point

The tour through Orval did not take more than a couple of hours, so we ended up with more afternoon to kill. I decided a good use of that time was to visit Bullion Castle on the boarder of Luxembourg and France. This wasn’t a beautiful castle, but one of war and practicality. It was situated on a large craggy bluff surrounded by a river which snaked around its base forming a natural moat. Though the positioning was borne of necessity, the effect of entering the valley with the medieval castle overlooking a small valley village was stunning. The castle itself was made of old gray stone, modified over the years so much that each section of the castle reflects very different styles. I picked up an audio tour device and the castle had a well planned and numbered walking path through the winding corridors. At the heart of the castle  each room was hewed from the slate of the bluff itself, housing the torture chambers and prisons. On the outside was a lovely courtyard that typically hosts daily falconry shows, which were not happening during our visit due to some off site bird adoption event. I must say, missing out on the bird of prey show broke my heart, and it still saddens me to think on it. I warn any reader who visits a castle in the future to bring practical shoes with excellent grip. Castles are dark, slippery and dangerous.

Torture

 

After visiting the castle, we crossed into the village to find a place to have a drink with a view of the

IMG_0975

castle. The Panorama hotel and restaurant seemed perfect. With a name like Panorama, what could go
wrong? It turned out that the hotel was closed until late spring so we were SOL. Being the intrepid travelers we were, we simply cracked open Orval’s we purchased from the brewery that had been chilling in the car during the castle visit and filled up our newly purchased Orval glasses and found a bench on the patio of the shuttered hotel. It was frigid, in the 30s (F) with a crisp breeze, but the beer and view was worth it. We toasted to a trip well traveled and returned home in time for dinner.
Barbar Blond – Found it on tap at a local dive. A rich almost buttery blond. Would order again.
Ramee Blond – Claims to be a tripel, but it’s rather flat and has no body
Rochfordt 8 – A light Trappiste dubel, mild and easy to drink
Orval –  So far, my favorite of the Trappiste beers. Rich and bitter. Drink slowly unless you want to hurt yourself.

Barcelona, Spain

Finally! My first adventure outside of Belgium since I arrived. My arrival was almost comical. Most of my American readers have never flown with the airline Ryanair before. Let me start by saying that it is hilariously cheap. The seats are close together, they don’t lean back or have pockets for placing persona items or reading material. Beverages aren’t free, in fact nothing is free. The only reason Ryanair doesn’t charge a fee for using the toilet is because it was deemed illegal.There are advertisements on the back of the headrests so Ryanair can hawk coffee and chips to a captive audience. The only moment of peace you have during your flight is take off and landing because even the employees must be seated. The rest of the time they spend trying to sell you things. Sure, I understand being sold drinks or food on a cheap airline, but they are also pushing lottery tickets, private car services and e-cigarettes. Every new item to be sold gets it’s own loudspeaker announcement in English French and Spanish. The lights are turned up to the brightness one would expect in a surgery room. It is truly obnoxious and almost not worth the cheaper airline price. If you ever fly Ryanair, I recommend bringing a night mask and earplugs as the salesmen don’t seem to bother you if you completely ignore them. The airline is okay for a flight that lasts an hour or two, but I really can’t recommend it for anything longer.

Chris ColumbusUpon arrival, we were greeted by a stereotypically nutty cab driver. He spoke no English which is fine since I had the address written down, but even still he seemed unsure of where he was taking us. Every time we got stopped at a traffic light he would start making a deranged humming sound and start tapping the dashboard. He flipped radio stations constantly and often randomly started speaking in strings of unbroken Spanish to himself, which neither me nor my companion could understand. To add tension to the scene, the cabby could not find our hotel. We ended up driving down some narrow pedestrian alleys that I was fairly confident shouldn’t have cars in them at all. I think I was proven right when we ended up trying to take a turn so narrow the car didn’t fit and we had to back out hundreds of feet. At this point, my companion and I were becoming uncomfortable and we asked to leave the cab, which I think the driver was happy about. Fortunately, I had my data plan working on my cell phone an we could walk to our hotel from where the cab got lost. Smart phones are SO valuable for navigating the winding and nonsensical streets of old Europe, I can’t recommend them enough if you are thinking of making your own journey, reader.
The hotel was a solidly one star affair. A snarky younger Spanish man who spoke good English greeted us upon our arrival. It was rather entertaining. The room itself  was tiny and ugly yet clean and functional. We never did get the heat working, but we had extra blankets and twin beds. The biggest downside were the hard beds and the high night noise level of the area. The hotel was in an alley next to the ocean nightlife area and drunk people chatted loudly int he alley all night. I didn’t mind so much since I had brought earplugs, but my companion did not so I think she had a more difficult time sleeping. I don’t mind a lousy room because the cost was low and location was fantastic! We were in a central part of Barcelona’s old quarter near the ocean. We were an easy walk from the beautiful port area complete with old sailing ships and a palm tree lined boardwalk. Though it was cold, we ended up walking up and down the ocean admiring the lit up buildings and sailboats that lined the harbor. We turned in early in order to get an early start on the following day.
Saturday was incredible. I started the day out with a pastry stuffed with chorizo and mozzarella, whichCathedral of Barcelona was really a fantastic choice. It was a little rich, but it was worth it. We then spent the whole day walking ALL over Barcelona’s old quarter. We had a tourist map so we just followed around all the landmarks from place to place, stopping to shop and eat wherever we felt like it. Las Ramblas was our first stop, it is a long pedestrian path that leads away from the ocean. The whole stretch is lined with tourist shops, cafes and markets. A notable stop was the incredible covered market of Barcelona. The whole market was stuffed with fruit, fresh meat, fish bread and candy; each catagory of food was given it’s own area. My favorite was the fruit stands, which were clearly arranged with aesthetics in mind. The fruits were arranged in rainbows to advertise the variety and perfection of the produce. Many stands catered to tourists and sold pre-made packs of assorted cut up fruit you could purchase for 2 euro or so. Other stands were constantly juicing their fruits on the stop, and would sell little take away. The variety was flooring. Coconut milk, mango, banana, watermelon, kiwi, strawberry, passion fruit and mixtures of many of these. I bought one, but I wish I had bought more because the market ended up being closed on Sunday. I was impressed by the variety and freshness of all the food being sold. Some of it would really be exotic by US standards, pigs feet, chicken feet, brains bones. It really made me think about being more adventurous about my own cooking at home.
After leaving the market, we traveled along a lively shopping area a little off the main path. I liked this Sagarda Familiabetter because the quality of the wares was better and it was less cheap printed touristy items. At this point we started making a wandering line from landmark to landmark. I can’t possibly describe each of the Plazas we visited, but each had it’s own architecture and character. Some notable landmarks we visited were the Cathedral of Barcelona, Arc de Triomf and Sagarda Familia. For those who don’t know, Sagarda Familia is a basilica designed by famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. He’s an interesting character if you care to look him up. Suffice to say, his style of design is striking and distinctly Spainish. Sagarda Familia is a masterpiece that has been in the process of being built for the past 100 years or so. It’s taken to long to build, that the old stone of the church is dark and aged where the newer parts the stone is fresh and white. I imagine once they finish building, they’ll have to go straight to work restoring the older stone. I can’t liken the architectural style to anything but a modern approach with color and curves. The design is whimsical for a church, with colorful bundles of fruit topping spires rather than peaks, busts or crosses. The other striking thing about it that is hard to get across in pictures or words is the scale of it. It stands tall over the city of Barcelona. If you ever go to Barcelona, you must visit Sagarda Familia. We didn’t go inside the church, as it cost more than 11 euro and the line wrapped around the square. I was content to admire the structure from afar and rest on benches on either side. We ended our tour by visiting the beach. It was far too cold to go into the water or even wear a swimsuit, but we did walk out to a pier overlooking the ocean. The view of the Barcelona beach was worth the out of the way walk.
Arc de TriomfThe Arc de Triomf was another landmark I enjoyed visiting. It stood tall over a long palm tree lined stretch of promenade. The massive scale of the red brick arch was striking and I enjoyed spending time in it’s shadow. Unfortunately, it started to rain while we were there so we sought shelter in a local tapas restaurant, which in hindsight was a fantastic idea. Since we selected a random place to eat that was right next to us, we were taking a small gamble stepping into a random cafe, but we ended up getting lucky. We ordered a variety of tapas including potatoes bravas, croquettes with mushrooms, bread coated with tomato guts, cured dried ham and a salad with fried brie and tomato jam. It was a wonderful experience and I want more tapas in my life. For dinner we tried a restaurant recommended by a local. We ordered a variety of local cheeses and meats for an appetizer and my entree was a Catalan dish which was a hollowed out onion baked with pork, beef and crushed nuts inside. I’m going to have to try that one someday at home because it was heavenly. To drink, we had sangria made with the local sparkling wine called Cavas. I was wildly pleased with the whole meal.
Saturday night was spent making new friends. My companion had some acquaintances living in Barcelona that we met up with for drinks. I had a mohito, but apparently a local trendy drink is gin and tonic! What a classic. We finally made it home around 3am completely exhausted after a full day of walking and a long night of socializing.
Undignfied
Sunday was spent visiting Parc Guell, which is on the hills overlooking Barcelona. It’s a bit like going up to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The height provides a beautiful view of the city and ocean. The trouble is getting up there. Since we had checked out of our hotel already, we were stuck climbing to the top of Parc Guell with our luggage in the rain. It really wasn’t ideal, but at least there were escalators in the middle of the street to help you get to the top. Even still, there was a lot of dragging roller bags up to the tippy top of the park. In the end, the view was worth it. At the highest point in Guell, the view is astounding. The ocean and cirtyscape falls before you.

Guell

Sagarda Familia stands up like an odd termite mound looming over the city. The palette of Barcelona is a sea of reds and tans. It really reminded me of a slightly tropical and less dusty Los Angeles. Down towards the lower end of Parc Guell was an architectural oddity that could have only sprung from the mind of Gaudi. I don’t really know how to describe it, so you should probably just look at the pictures. The salamander is an incredibly famous part of the structure, and we had to wait in line to get photographed next to it. Two odd little houses lined the structure, looking a little like something out of Dr. Seuss. Our departure was much easier, we rolled downhill this time. The subsequent cab ride and flight home were blissfully uneventful.