Europe, 2018

Wedding #3 was in the books (yay, Ian and Jessica!), so we hit the road — this time to France, Belgium, and The Netherlands. We walked, ate, walked, visited museums, walked, toured historical sites, walked, saw lots of beautiful old churches, and then walked some more.

Notes about the flight (JFK to Munich, then on to Paris):

  • Lufthansa (and lots of non-American carriers) still includes substantial food and beverages of all types, even to us lowly Economy fliers.
  • The infants on the flight had access to play/sleep beds that attached to the bulkhead, and allowed their adults a break and offered them a view of the whole cabin. Cool.
  • The bathrooms were downstairs. That helped traffic flow — a lot.

PARIS

THURSDAY, JUNE 21

Here is our cozy apartment in Paris. It was located just on the edge of the Latin Quartier, not far from the La Sorbonne. Upon our arrival, we collapsed on the couch and napped for an hour or two, snoring loudly and happily. We discovered that we (Diane) had screwed up the dates for our stays in Paris and in Gent! We were able to extend our place in Paris by one night. No such  luck in Gent, so we booked a small hotel by the train station for the additional night. Oy.

The lovely, old neighbor lady who let us in (and didn’t speak any more English than we spoke French) was a wonder to us, as we had just dragged our bags up six flights of stairs — the first floor of this 5th floor walk-up being “0.” How she ever gets from her apartment to the street and back remains a mystery.

On waking up, we headed nearby to The Pantheon, where we bought our Paris Museum Pass, and on recommendation of the woman working there, decided to start its three-day period of validity the next day, visiting The Pantheon first, as it was already mid-afternoon. We popped into the Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont instead, also on Montagne Sainte-Genevieve.

And so we proceeded downhill toward the Seine, where we found the boat tour suggested by Rick Steves. It provided a great overview of the layout of the city, and took about all the energy we had left in us for the day.

Dinner was an iffy affair back in the 5th arrondissement. Happy to get back “home,” even if that meant climbing 140 some stairs to do so.

FRIDAY, JUNE 22

We slept soundly until 9:15, despite the fact that there was a band and a party in the park about a block and a half away. As we passed the park in the morning, we were surprised and delighted to see it had transformed into a lovely market for the day. We grabbed the first of our near daily morning pastries from a local patisserie, and headed back to The Pantheon to begin using our Paris Museum Pass. Hmm. The Pantheon employee who suggested we start off our day and our pass there either did not recall they would be closed (from today through June 30th!) or has a wicked sense of humor. Never mind that! Who needs The Pantheon when The Cluny, Paris’ wonderful museum of the Middle Ages is nearby……..and also closed for work until mid-July. Sigh.

We hopped on the Metro and headed to the Arc de Triomphe, after a brief time in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Our pass allowed us to skip the ticket line at the Arc, and send us directly to a shorter security line. We climbed a couple hundred steps to the top, where there was a moderately interesting exhibit about the history of the monument. Then descended and viewed the monument from several sides.

Then we began our long stroll down the Champs-Elysees. This runs between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, which is what we planned to visit in the evening, due to extended hours on Fridays and potentially smaller crowds. The first half (or so) was absolutely nothing like the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, which had been modeled on this famous avenue. It more resembled Fifth Avenue in New York — highly commercial and for the most part, fairly expensive. We did have a chance to take a closer look at some places we had seen from the boat, like the Luxor Obelisk, originally from Egypt, which now stands in the Place de la Concorde, on the large public square where so many executions took place during the French Revolution, including that of Louis XVI.

This sense of the Champ-Elysees changed eventually and became more parkway-like, especially as we approached the Jardin des Tuileries outside of the Musee de L’Orangerie (the museum that features Monet’s “Waterlilies”). After a brief sit in the gardens, watching a huge group of 11-13 year olds (?) being wrangled by their very patient chaperones, we went in to see Monet’s work, as well as some pieces by Renoir, Matisse, etc. Even by Jackson Pollock.

We were glad to see the Louvre, and also glad to make it to the end of our walk! Again, we had only a brief wait for the security line, though true to the advice we had read, lines of any sort at the Louvre were brief at that time on a Friday. With only some grumbling from Scott, who thought it might be great to be there and manage not to see it, we did eventually see the Mona Lisa. There was no hope of really getting a close look, as that was the one fairly crowded gallery in the place that night. In addition, they keep you twelve or so feet away from it. An interesting phenomenon to observe.

Even just seeing these first museums today, we realize how spoiled we have been, with relatively easy and frequent access to The Met (and others) in NYC, the Philadelphia Art Museum, The National Gallery, The University of Pennsylvania Museum. The list goes on and on.

And now a brief word about food for the day, which seems to grow in importance when traveling. It is also a source of stress from time to time. Meals ended up being high points of the day today. After some stressful back and forth this afternoon as we searched roughly in the area of the Arc de Triomphe, we found a little gem:

 It was clearly pretty popular with the locals, and we felt lucky to get a table. Glad we left the main drag and found it!

For dinner, we walked to the Ile Saint-Louis, where we had another one of the prix fixe meals that seem so common here, though this time it was yummy. We sat next to a couple from St. Louis, Missouri who was here visiting their daughter and Parisian son-in-law, and waiting for the birth of their first grandchild. Diane’s dessert was a dark chocolate sponge cake, filled with molten dark chocolate, and served warm with creme fraise. We got on board with everyone else tonight, and didn’t finish dinner until 22:45! And then we walked back to the apartment, passing Notre-Dame on the way. And collapsed.

SATURDAY, JUNE 23

After a late night, getting up to a 6:45 alarm felt cruel, but necessary if we wanted to have the full day to visit Versailles. We had a nice early morning walk to Gare d’Austerlitz, which turned out to be only 15 minutes away, but in a direction we had never yet gone. We passed very few people on the street at 7:30. It appears as if people are up late, but not early. We had some concerns, knowing there were fewer trains on our route due to the work slow down, but had no trouble. The walk to the palace was only 5 minutes, and you could see it ahead of you much of that time. While the crowd in the cobblestone courtyard waiting to get in was pretty big, the wait turned out to be only 30-40 minutes. It was a beautiful day — as was every single day of the trip — so not too onerous a wait. While we have noticed a number of Asian tourists in Paris, particularly Chinese, we were struck by the high proportion of Chinese and Korean tourists on line at Versailles.

We had foolishly neglected to eat breakfast before heading out, and Diane (at least) was a little “hangry” by noon. We did not enjoy the palace itself all that much. It was crowded and hard to get to signs to read information, though the audio tour helped a bit. All in all, just not that interesting. We checked out a restaurant inside the palace (as food was getting to feel urgent), but it was quite over-priced. We discovered that getting into the gardens was going to cost us an additional 19 euros — above our Paris Museum Pass, which let us in free — due to the fountain shows happening that day.

We did go into the gardens, where mercifully we found a reasonable cafe, and stopped for some comfort food. Diane had a salad and Scott tried a burger. We sat near a group of college kids here from the US. One poor kid was trying to joke around with the waiter in very American English. That went about as well as one would expect…

We did see the Grand Trianon, which was occupied even by Charles de Gaulle for a time, and the Petit Trianon nearby. The photos below are all of the Grand Trianon:

We have to agree with Allie, who said that the best part for her was Marie Antoinette’s little hamlet. There was an interesting history of the place tucked away near the toilets there, which we imagine nearly no one finds. It included interesting information about the fragility of the buildings and about the devastating storm of 1999, in particular.

We were so, so tired of walking after Versailles, and so we came back to the apartment and napped for a couple of hours — again snoring loudly and happily on the couch. Then we headed out again (via the Metro, please and thank you) to the Trocadero, where we looked forward to seeing the Eiffel Tower lit at night. The Trocadero is just across river from the tower,  and there was a good size, happy crowd gathering on the steps of the park. We ate a late dinner in  spot on Place du Trocadero, then crossed the street back to the park. There was a bunch of young people there singing and playing music — Diane thought from Romania, maybe? — though mostly we just wanted to go the heck home to sleep.

SUNDAY, JUNE 24

Poor Scott! Having been told that there was no need for an alarm or an early rise, he was awoken about 9:20 and told, “Notre-Dame has a mass in Gregorian chant at 10:00! You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but if you do, hurry!” We missed the first reading, but otherwise, attended mass at Notre-Dame and then walked around the cathedral a bit afterward. We paid 5 euros each to see the “treasury” there, which was just okay.

After seeing Notre-Dame, we had brunch (Diane – crepes with banana and Nutella; Scott – chicken curry pizza). Then we were off to the Musee d’Orsay. We liked it a bit more than the Louvre, in truth. It was more laid back and easier to navigate. One exception was a guard who for some reason thought Diane had touched a statue — as if!!

After the museum, we took the Metro to Montmartre (visible in the distance in the pictures above). We took the funicular uphill there and saw the Sacre Couer, a minor basilica, but pretty popular spot. It is even more a tourist area than the Latin Quartier. And tackier, in our opinions. Nice views from the top, however. The neighborhood where our apartment is sees more daily life, it seems, and is still pretty close to the action.

We gave ourselves longer rest periods today, and did so intermittently, which left us feeling less beat up. We were also back to the apartment by 21:00, which was a relief. We did manage ice cream on Ile Saint-Louis, which we were told was the best around. We were getting used to hills and stairs by now. God knows we’ve climbed a lot of them.

MONDAY, JUNE 25

Today was a transition day, as we were moving on to Belgium, but first just a bit more of Paris..

Took us a while to get our things packed up, which we wanted to do before leaving the apartment in the morning. Happily, we eventually remembered that there was a nearby square we had happened upon which we wanted to return to see. So we backtracked a bit and had breakfast there — and finally at a teeny little round cafe table with both chairs facing the street! Can’t really say why, but that was on Diane’s bucket list. The table was little, but the breakfast was big: croissants, baguettes, orange juice (nobody here does anything but fresh squeezed), and hot tea.

Then we walked to Sainte-Chapelle.  No wonder it was hard to find! The building was absorbed into a Ministry of Justice complex. The stained glass work was stunning. It no longer functions as a church; though more so than any other similar site we visited, the staff seemed hell-bent (!) to remind you to keep silent since it is a holy place. The audioguide, at 3 euros each, was a retelling of the biblical stories and it dragged on. However, it did encourage us to look more closely at the scenes in the windows, so we stuck with it for a decent amount of time, perhaps a third of the entirety.

We returned to the apartment, rested for a few minutes, got our stuff, and returned the key to our sweet neighbor, Madame Parquet. We had passed a neat toy store just a block away one day on a route we usually did not take, and Scott nicely suggested we go back to see it. Then he waited outside with our luggage while Diane checked it out. We only bought a postcard for Charlie — he’ll get it eventually — then we headed off to the train. We had tickets for a Thalys train from Gare Du Nord through to Brussels. While waiting we grabbed a couple of sandwiches and curled up on the floor to eat them. Then off we went. Au revoir, Paris!

BELGIUM

And so off we went. This was nearly the only train, tram, bus, etc. that we waited more than 10 minutes for over the course of the whole trip, as we had tickets for a particular departure. The ride was comfortable and only lasted about an hour and a half. And then we were in Brussels, Belgium!

Our only job in Brussels was to find a train to Gent, so we never left the station. The Travel Information offices are invaluable, especially as they accept our deficient United States credit cards (no PIN required), which the machines in the train stations will not do. (Machines nearly everywhere else — stores, museums, restaurants — have a way to work around our cards, so it was only periodically inconvenient.) There was a last minute hustle when the track changed for our train to Gent and then we had to hoist our suitcases upstairs to a somewhat crowded train car, but we managed.

Our arrival in Gent was somewhat less auspicious. The train station in Gent (Sint-Pieters) is not in or near the center of town, which is quite atypical, and we were not aware would be the case. We knew that we’d be taking a tram to the apartment we had rented, but how to board a tram (how/who/where to pay and how to determine route) was all unknown to us. Through a conversation with a kind local, we discovered we could pay the driver, so we did that. We then proceeded to board and ride a tram going in the opposite direction from what we needed. At the driver’s instructions, we took another train,  and (thanks to Google Maps) as we traveled realized it was getting farther and farther from our destination. Google Maps told us we were a 14 minute walk from the apartment, so we got off and hit the pavement. It was only later that we realized the tram we left would have worked its way toward where we wanted to be — eventually.

Where the apartment in Paris was located well and was cozy, this one was located fabulously and was light and airy! The bed was in a loft with a somewhat treacherous ladder/stairs to climb, but the ceilings were high, the walls a bright white, and the windows were plentiful and opened easily, allowing a great breeze through the apartment. We were on the top floor of the building — just three sets of stairs this time — and could hear the pleasant murmur from the restaurant customers from the first floor. Now we were in sight of the historic section of Gent. Both of us felt that living here a while would be no hardship whatsoever.

We walked around town briefly our first evening, and had dinner at Ellis Burger. Burgers did seem to be big here at the moment, and fries (Belgian fries, if you please) have been popular here quite a while. Gent has much more of a medieval feel to it, and is a very old city, though we discovered later that the atmosphere has been created and maintained intentionally and relatively recently. Diane though it looked like French and German aesthetics blended together.

This is not a picture we took. (We did not think to take any our first night.) It captures the feel of nearby Korenmarkt pretty well, though.

TUESDAY, JUNE 26

We started our day with a walking tour of Gent, thinking it would help us to feel more familiar. We spent two hours with Nick from Gent Free Walks, which operated out of the local hostel. He is a native and was a great source of information, helped by his personal history as well as his relevant graduate and undergraduate studies. The tour gave us a clearer view for the rest of our stay.

After the tour we had lunch. We also bought some chocolate from Leonidas — eh; don’t really care for filled chocolates, but the chocolate itself was yummy — then visited St. Baaf’s (Sint-Baakskathedraal). It’s known in English as St. Bavo’s. Much of the city is paved, built, and finished in brick, which makes sense given the soil. This included the cathedral ceiling, which surprised me.  The last part of our visit there was a viewing of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a world famous piece by Jan van Eyck. The audio guide was interesting. Finally, we visited Gravensteen, also known as “Castle of the Count.” I’m glad we heard about it on the walking tour. The tour we received at the castle was far less informative.

It’s easier to return to this apartment for a rest, thanks to fewer stairs and location, so that’s just what we did. While Diane slept on the couch for what seemed like just a few minutes but apparently was not, Scott did a few pieces of laundry. We then headed out to find a light dinner, visiting first the grocery store in Korenmarkt (Albert Heijn), but found that their pre-made selections were limited/non-existent and neither of us was up for more involved cooking. Eventually we ended up at the Asian Fusion restaurant on the bottom floor of the house in which we were staying, and since Diane was not too hungry yet after her big lunch of chicken in a puff pastry, she had just a nibble. A nibble of coconut creme creme brulee and a cup of tea. But still!  We walked upstairs after dinner for a lovely game of Canasta (thank you, Scott!), then headed back out at 23:00 to see the town of Gent lit up at night.

In case it’s not yet apparent, we were quite smitten with Gent.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27

Before heading to the train station for our day’s excursion, we walked a couple blocks to a shoe store, where yesterday we had spotted the Mephisto shoes that Kelly had her eye on, but they were available here for much less! Having checked in with her last night, we had permission to text her at 4:00 AM her time to show her pictures and let her choose the pair she wanted.

 

Spent the afternoon in Brugge, (Bruges). Brugge was lovely — quite compact, beautiful canals, great sites to see — and crawling with tourists. Between our arrival just after noon, and about 16:30, we saw:

  • the Begijnhof (Beguinage)
  • Sint-Janshospitaal (including the apothecary)
  • Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (The Church of Our Lady)
  • the Groeningemuseum

The whole idea of the Begijnhof is interesting, as is there presence in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even in England.  It encapsulates so much history and culture — religious, war-related, social. The hospital, too, told some of the history of medicine, and especially its connection to other political and social change. Finding the entrance to it was a challenge. A significant section of the Groeningemuseum was closed for renovation, so admission there was reduced.  Diane found a couple of pieces there inspiring, but we were not especially blown away with what we were able to see, and disappointed to miss the rest.

The highlight of our sightseeing in Brugge was the visit to the church, where in addition to incredible Flemish Primitive art, we saw Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child.” It was purchased and brought to the church in Brugge in 1515, and is the only Carrera marble work of Michelangelo’s to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was sitting quietly in a chapel, noticed only now and then by a passing observer or tourist. It felt so lucky to be able to see it in such conditions.

Some other sights from this beautiful church:

We returned to Gent by 19:00, in plenty time to get Scott some fries topped with meat sauce and mayonnaise, and to get Diane a waffle with strawberries. Belgian fries eaten that way — utterly authentic. Belgian waffles eaten any way — not.

THURSDAY, JUNE 28

Spent the day in Ypres, and it was a highlight of the whole trip, at least for Diane. We had prearranged a Flanders Fields Battlefield Tour, specifically an extended tour of the south salient. We also wanted to visit the “In Flanders Fields” museum in town. So we took a train and got into Ypres by 10:00 or so, and had time to see the museum and grab a bite to eat all before our tour left at 13:00.

It was initially hard to figure out how the museum exhibits were organized, at least for Diane. (It was also a reminder of how relatively little of the essential framework for that war was clear to her.) It was interesting to see a war described by the people who were truly on the losing end, whose lives and places were utterly devastated by it. Not a perspective we often get — or allow to be heard. Also very striking to remember how late in the game the United States joined the war.

On leaving the main exhibit, a line of banners extending down perhaps six feet from the ceiling was striking. The banners listed the starting and ending years (where applicable) for every war since the “war to end all wars.” The exhibit also caused me (Diane) to think about the connections between the Industrial Revolution and industrialization generally and The Great War. Near the banners about wars since WWI was a display about the peace prize awarded every three years by the city of Ypres. Most recently (2017) the White Helmets (in Syria) were awarded the prize.

The tour was led by “Jack” — he assured us that the Flemish pronunciation was way too complicated. Our group was small, just us, a couple from Australia, a man from outside of London, and Jack. Jack could not have been more enthused or informed. A few things that stuck with me (Diane):

  • the international mix of “belligerents” in the area during the war
  • the 550,000 killed in this area during the war
  • the 90,000 +/- soldiers never recovered or identified
  • the craters left by the 19 explosions set off on June 7, 1917
  • the pock-marked ground on “hill 60” due to shells
  • the destruction of Ypres and so many surrounding hamlets, and the decision of many of them to rise from the ashes
  • the Irish Memorial. When will we truly learn the lessons of war?
  • the tunnelists and how little known they are by the general public

Lots to read and watch on the subject after this trip. It was so worthwhile that we were all that much more mortified not to have realized that we needed to pay in cash at the end of the tour. Scott hustled off to a nearby ATM, and Diane did her best to make small talk. Ugh.

After a rather disappointing dinner in Ypres, we strolled around as we waited for the Last Post ceremony at The Menin Gate at 20:00. We were in the crowd, ready to go by 19:30, where we met two kids who live in South Africa and were in Belgium for several weeks staying at their Oma and Opa’s in Gent. We had a lovely conversation, initiated by the hilarious, charming, and very interesting (almost!) 14 year old boy.

Took the 21:16 train back to Gent. Looking at the fields again as we headed out and thinking about how flat the area is — so hard to defend. Trench warfare developed understandably.

We stayed at a small hotel (Hotel Carlton) near the train station — we had dropped our bags there on the way out of town in the morning — and it was a good choice. A train strike started Friday morning, so we were concerned to get back to Gent before midnight.  And before the hotel’s front desk closed at 11:00.  Hotel room was nice and quite comfy. For the first (and last) time on the trip, we had room-darkening curtains. Breakfast included at the hotel included scrambled and over medium eggs made on request, cinnamon-raisin pastry, orange juice, and tea. We had a chat with one of the two owners over breakfast. His English sometimes sounded American and we wondered to him about that. His father was from Atlanta apparently. In visiting his father in the United States, he went to northern Alabama. He was relieved to find not all of the United States — or its citizens — had that same Alabama perspective…

Then off we went to the train station, headed for Amsterdam via Antwerpen. . Saluu, Belgium. We enjoyed getting to know you, if just for several days.