Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Bruges

Our first morning in Bruges was a leisurely one. Exhausted as we were from the past few days of traveling, we all slept in. Doug, however, went to the Markt (market square) early and snagged us some delicious pastries. One of the best things in the world is to be greeted in the morning by warm pastries and fresh coffee. I'm not usually a breakfast eater, but how could I resist (Also it seems like in Europe, breakfast is a big deal)? After breakfast we decided to explore the city! We started out by going to the farmer's market in the Markt. The farmer's market had a variety of things from clothes to meat, pastries and cheese. While we were enthralled by the gorgeous and fresh edibles, we were not impressed by the vendors selling cheap knock-offs of designer accessories (Although scarves are always a temptation for me no matter how cheaply made they are, not gonna lie).

After browsing the bazaar, we made our way to the rest of the city. My favorite thing about Bruges is how it attracts so many tourists, yet locals live and go about their daily business there. I had a premonition that Belgians would be standoffish and unaccommodating, but every local we met was quite nice and personable, especially to tourists. The streets of Bruges are a people-watcher's dream and it was very easy to lose ourselves (and the morning) in wandering around the city.

At the edge of Markt, just a few blocks away from our vacation home

Fresh Belgian waffles

 We spent a good amount of time browsing lace and chocolate shops (as Belgium is famous for both) and made a few purchases each. Near the city hall we stopped at a waffle stand for lunch. I've had "Belgian waffles" in the States, and to be honest I wasn't too jazzed about them. But, like everyone had told me, Belgian waffles are amazing. The waffles were thick and fluffy, with sugar crystals baked into the dough. They were served a la mode or plain, and were delicious both ways. My mouth is watering just writing about them.

A few pieces of famous Bruges lace and a loom on display

A chocolate shop named "Stef's" so naturally we had to get a picture with it!

A gorgeous marble statue inside the cathedral 

After our indulgent lunch, we put an end to the aimless wandering and set off on two specific activities. First, we visited a cathedral (sensing a pattern of this trip?) nestled in a quiet block surrounded by classic cobblestone roads and quintessential Belgian architecture. I love the feeling of being in the presence of a cathedral. The awe of such a grand church creates a stillness and calm. Thoughts come easily to me as I sit in the dimly lit building and breathe in the wisdom of holy men and women who came before. Outside of the cathedral, we met an American man (who was walking his dogs) who came to Bruges several years back, and has lived contentedly there ever since. See what I mean? The residents of Bruges just seem content to be there, and content with everyone around them.

Our second activity that we had to do was a canal tour. Like Venice, Bruges rests upon a series of waterways. I have never been to a city with canals before, and I was awestruck.
 On our way to the canal tour, we noticed a group of people gathered on a bridge very excitedly. As they stood there, a few of them began to unfurl a banner and hang it off of the bridge. Eventually, the words on the banner became legible- "Just Married" about a minute later, a canal made its way through the water and under the bridge with a bride and groom (in full wedding attire) in the back of it. Everyone (including us!) began clapping and cheering as the bride and groom kissed. It was such a special moment to witness and I'm glad we were in the right place at the right time.

Gorgeous shot of a canal
Finally we made our way to the booth where the tickets for the canal tour were sold. We each bought a ticket and made out way down a set of stairs into a small pathway at the water's edge. After waiting a few minutes, our canal arrived and we all piled in. Our tour guide was a good-humored college-aged guy. As he took us around the city, he rattled off various facts about Bruges in 4 different languages! I was very impressed by how naturally the facts came to him. Obviously he does this all the time. I loved being in the canal and snapping photos as we slowly sailed through the water. It was a nice break from the walking we had been doing all morning. 

The tour guide was helpful enough to mention that his is the "City's lowest bridge." Mind your head!

We ended the day by stopping at a flea market we had spied while on the canal tour. There were tables and tables full of trinkets and while I did not buy anything, I always enjoy a good flea market thus it was fun to look at everything from old coins, metal decorations, ornate keys and antique cutlery.

Let me wrap this up with a few of my favorite pictures I took around the city:

I hope you enjoyed this post! I started it two months ago and am glad to finally get it published. My goal is to do one post a week, regardless of how busy I am. Keep me accountable, people! I hope you all have a great week.

Stay tuned for my next post: Brussels

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Belgium Bound

Euro coins
As we walked around Trier, the clouds became heavy and, sure enough, it started pouring. As much as we wanted to stick around and snap more photos, none of us were wearing waterproof clothing (Fashion trumps practicality when you're in Europe! At least for me). We bolted for the car, wanting to make a quick getaway before driving became a nightmare on slippery, unfamiliar roads; thus our journey to Belgium began!

On our way, we stopped at a gas station/rest area. The front of the building was like any other convenience store or gift shop, but the pay-only toilets were downstairs (something slightly frustrating about Europe... the fact that you have to pay to use the bathroom). My dad and I decided to explore the building more, and we discovered what looked like a five-star restaurant, a banquet hall and a small market/food court tucked away in the back. So quaint!
Creative Coke bottles

Saxophone statue in Dinnant
As we continued on, we were all becoming hungry and sleepy. We unanimously decided to stop somewhere to stretch our legs and fill our stomachs. We happened upon this awesome little city called Dinnant, Belgium (home of the inventor of the saxophone!). This little city lies on the banks of the River Meuse, and is green and flourishing because of it. A beautiful cathedral overlooks the city and river on one side. On the other side towers a massive and well-preserved 11th century citadel. To get to the citadel, one must climb countless stairs or take a gondola up the hill. We opted for the gondola. While the trip was a bit pricey, it was the first touristy thing we had done that cost money. And we could not pass up the chance to get a bird's eye view of the city!

Notre Dame Dinnant

Bird's eye view of Dinnant

After exploring the hilltop citadel, we decided it would be a good idea to grab some hamburgers et des frites (burgers and fries). BIG MISTAKE. We went to this little restaurant which may or may not have been called "Bicky Burger" (because there were wall decals all over the place that said that, but the restaurant was called something uninformative like "Hamburgers" or something. I can't remember.) Initially I was excited because I got to order food in French, a great feat for not remembering a single thing from French class! But when the actual food came, I was pretty disappointed. The patty on my hamburger had weird things mixed in it like meatloaf, as well as horseradish and really spicy mustard on it. I definitely could not eat the whole thing and I think I finished my can of Coke in record time. I am officially not a fan of Bicky Burgers.

Getting to Bruges was a bit challenging. Upon entering the city, we discovered we didn't actually have the address of the vacation home we were staying in. We had the reservation from the website printed out... but the actual address was not written down! Yikes!
After driving around for a few minutes, we decided to split up and search on foot. Two of us went to scour one part of the city, and two of us scoured the other.
My mom and I wanted to ask a local if they knew of the house, but since it was after 5:00pm most businesses were closed. Eventually we found one store that was open, a little shop for children's clothes. Thankfully the store owner spoke English and was a very kind woman. She allowed us to use her laptop to look up the website for the vacation home. Somehow, by an act of God probably, we found the address. It turns out the name of the home is Flemish, and we were asking for a different place (the English translation, naturally).

Once we got into the house, all of the stress and anxiety of not being able to find it evaporated instantly. The house was as welcoming and fabulous in person as in the pictures. The owner of the vacation home, a delightful lady named Charlotte, had tucked some food in the fridge for us and we made dinner out of eggs and salami. We went to bed that night with fed appetites, and slept perfectly soundly in what would be our home for the next 4 days.

Keep posted for my next post about Bruges!

Monday, July 23, 2012

When in Germany...

After a quick lunch in Reims, France, the family loaded back up in the car and headed to our first real destination: Trier, Germany.
The drive out of France took a while, and I admit that I dozed off a few times. But the times I was awake, my eyes were wide open and I couldn't help but to notice that heading out of France and toward Germany, everything began to look different. There were fewer rolling hills and more rivers, and the landscape was much greener and more lush. On our way to Germany we passed through Luxemburg (truly an itty bitty country). As we drove, the roads narrowed and we passed charming river towns. Vibrant houses perched on every surface of the far-off hills. I wish we could have paused in Luxemburg, because it seemed delightful. That will be for another time!

We began to drive a little further, and by this time late afternoon was falling. We had been awake for hours and hours and everyone was a little road-worn. We finally arrived at our hotel, which was not in Trier, but a little township of Trier. This being said, there was not a tourist in sight. Everything was so German.
Now, I have never been particularly interested in Germany.  It seemed like a cool place with rich history, but the culture never particularly appealed to me. When we arrived in the little Trier township, this opinion changed drastically. Germany is charming, the food is amazing and the people are very kind. Luckily our host at the hotel spoke a little bit of English, so we were able to get our hotel room and order food.

After we got settled in our hotel rooms, we walked around the town for a bit. We planned on finding a restaurant to eat dinner at, but the town was pretty much dead around 5pm (we weren't yet aware of the fact that dinner time in Europe is practically our bed time in the States). We were also exhausted and none of us were too keen on roaming for blocks. We snapped a few photos and headed back to our hotel, which was conveniently attached to a bar/restaurant.

The view of the railroad from my hotel window

My delicious meal "mit fritten" (with fries)
At the restaurant, the menu was completely in German. Since I was not enthusiastic about the idea of German food at all, I was none too pleased. I just planned on ordering a brat or something. Luckily, the English speaking host from the hotel (who was also our waitress, go figure) was able to translate a few of the items on the menu for us. We hesitantly ordered our food. My mom, dad and sister chickened out and ordered chicken (see what I did there?) while Doug and I stepped out of our comfort zones and ordered unfamiliar dishes. The food arrived and to our surprise, it was delicious. I ordered deep-fried pork with mushrooms and a vinegary gravy, which came with amazing beer-battered french fries. When I got back from Europe, several people asked me what the best thing I ate was. This meal was definitely it!

That night after dinner, I was so exhausted that after not being able to keep my eyes open any longer, I went to bed at 7:30. I can't remember the last time that happened! Anyway, the next day we finally got to visit Trier. Trier, also called Treves, is the oldest city in Germany. Two of Trier's most noteworthy landmarks are the Cathedral of Trier and the Porta Nigra. The Porta Nigra is a relic from ancient Roman history. The giant structure stood, at one time, as a gate of the city. Unfortunately, my camera battery died just after snapping some shots of The Cathedral of Trier, which was equally breathtaking.
Side of the Cathedral of Trier

Dad posing with a giant ice cream cone

Staci reviewing some great shots

I loved all the classic German architecture

The Porta Nigra
Next I will be posting about our journey to Belgium and all the sights we saw along the way! I hope you all had a fantastic weekend!

As we were walking around Trier, it began to rain which seemed to add to the authenticity of the German city. Not to mention I love rain! Aside from the enormous landmarks, the city was fun to explore and the German architecture was fun to look at. Being with my favorite people definitely added to the charm. I loved the time we spent in Germany and I definitely hope to go back.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Entrance into Europe

The embarkment on our journey to Europe was a lengthy one, to say the least. When my parents and I left for the San Diego airport at 4:00 am Wednesday, I had no idea how exhausted I was going to be 48 hours later.

I know this sounds naive, but when I think of airplanes I tend think of them from the perspective of my 7 year old self. I have been on plenty airplanes as an adult, but for some reason I still think of airplane seats having plenty of room to spread out or curl up and sleep for hours. Not so! Why do I always think airplanes are going to be cozy, if not comfortable? Needless to say, when I did not sleep well the night before we left I did not think it was going to be a problem because, of course, "I can just sleep on the plane." Ugh.

So Wednesday morning, my parents and I left San Diego for the JFK airport in New York City. After about a 5 hour flight, we rushed to our JFK terminal and were greeted by Staci and Doug, who I hadn't seen since Christmas time. This was also the first time our family has been all together since 2010! For a tight-knit clan like ours, this is obscenely long. I was stoked! Summer 2012, baby! After hugs and bathroom breaks, we herded and boarded the plane to Paris. 

The meal, palatable at best.

This was my first international flight, so things were kind of weird to me like the layout of the chairs and the fact that we were served a meal for free. I probably drank ten cups of coffee because I couldn't sleep, and was bored, and it was free. Since we were on an international flight, there were lots of Parisian and English people on board and one of our flight attendants had a phony French accent. 

When the flight attendants began serving dinner, an British woman nearby asked "Is the chicken palatable?" The flight attendant gave a noncommittal 'yes' to which the woman then replied, "Better than a poke in the eye, I suppose." Gotta love those Brits.

After a gruelingly long flight (9 hours, I think), we finally arrived in Paris! I was so excited I was shaking! I stared out the window, expecting a picturesque view of a lightly clouded Eiffel Tower, and tall slender women walking around in berets and striped shirts. This was not what welcomed me. In fact if I didn't know any better, I would have thought I was in LA.

Warning to anyone who has not flown into Paris: the airport is not actually in Paris. In fact it is about 20 minutes away.

Immediately after arriving in "Paris," we snagged a rental car and headed straight to our first destination: Germany.

This was not our rental car, but I liked the fact that its paint was metallic pink.
I tried to stay awake for the drive, because I was in a gorgeous foreign country and all. I was smitten with the quaint French countryside and the beautiful blue sky. Having taken French a year ago, I vaguely knew what the scenery would look like... but I have to admit it was a lot more beautiful in person.
The countryside was speckled with quaint towns. Each had their respective cathedral, of course.
 On our way to Germany, we stopped at a little French city named Reims, known for its fabulous cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims. Staci, Doug, and I were in agreement that if we had to live in France, this city would be the one to live in. The city has an up-and-coming metropolitan vibe along with the quaint charm of a small town.  The cathedral, true to its reputation, was breathtaking. It was also the first cathedral I had seen in real life, and I was in awe.
I am in LOVE with these row houses and colorful doors.
Such character!
This awesome fountain was in what appeared to be the town square.
Notre-Dame de Reims
The thing that first struck me about the cathedral was its size, followed by its killer architecture. Upon entering, I was awed by the spectacular stained glass windows and ornate carvings
Joan of Arc statue outside the cathedral.

That's all I have for now! Stay tuned for more pictures and stories from my journey. Next stop, Germany!