- Tim Madison
EUROPE 2018- PART 1
Updated: May 30, 2022
EUROPE TRIP | March 28th-May 12th 2018
Launch From Lopez Island \ Reykjavik, Iceland \ Iceland To Germany \ Leipzig, Germany \ Bamberg, Germany \ Cologne, Germany \ Cologne, Germany To Bruges, Belgium \ Bruges, Belgium \ Bruges To London
Part 1- March 28th- April 15th
Part 2- April 16th- April 30th
LAUNCH FROM LOPEZ ISLAND
March 28, 2018
We’re running away from home again. It’s a silly thing we keep doing, not practical at all, probably wasteful of our resources. But these days, our senior citizen condition simultaneously informs us of our short-timer status and grants us automatic permission to indulge in spendthrift Tom Foolery. So, we’re off to wander the Earth for a while. We’ll be re-tracing some steps in Germany when we spend Easter holidays with friends. But after that it’s pretty much new territory for us in Belgium, Cornwall, Paris, and Bordeaux wine country. I count 46 days on the road. This is day one which consists of a last bit of house cleaning, escape from Lopez Island, meeting a driver to take us to Seatac, and boarding an Iceland Air flight to Reykjavik. We burned bushels of air points to get first class seats. I plan to self medicate.
My bag weighs in at 35 lbs. Christine’s about 5 lbs heavier. We’re carrying extra gear due to certain adventures on our dance card. As you may know, we’re fond of walking tours in the UK. Meanwhile, our bathing suits are in an outside zipper pocket for instant access because we’re going directly to Iceland’s giant spa, The Blue Lagoon, after we land. That’s just part of an initial blitz of movement that takes us 1/3 way around the world. About 40 hours from now we’ll be in Leipzig, Germany where we’ll gather ourselves together, check all systems for functionality before marching forth once more.
March 30, 2018
Our passenger jet roars through the night, dropping down out of a dark morning sky to the lava strewn landscape of Iceland. We are greeted with brilliant sunshine in Reykjavik as the rotation of the earth catches up with us. Travel seems like hustle, schlepp, wait, hustle, hours of zombie-like existence or partial stasis, followed by hustle, schlepp, and wait some more. Not complaining, mind you. Just a few generations ago a journey like the one we just made in 7 hours would have taken two weeks and made permanent divots in our personalities. So, we time-warp from Seattle to the Blue Lagoon in good order even though we feel jet lagged and only partially human. At the check-in they don’t have our reservation and a pre-paid one at that. Our carefully guarded confirmation number is officially determined to be meaningless after 45 minutes of data-base searching on their side.
So, we pay again in order to get our bath, vowing to take this issue to the travel agent. We think we’ve paid double. But, no worries, eh? Off to the salty, hot silica pond where folks are plastering their faces with white mud and swilling beer from a plastic cup standing chest deep in steamy, pale blue water. Of course, there’s a number of them clutching their cell phones and SLR cameras inches away from certain disaster. Silica laden salt water and electronics do not mix well. Soaking in the water and people watching are our main tasks for 3+ hours with a bit of time-out for the steam cave, waterfall, and a brief bout of unconsciousness in the quiet area. Soon, we’re back on the bus to our hotel in the middle of town.
We really only have a few hours here in Reykjavik before our flight to Germany requires that we hit the bricks at 4:15 am, Iceland time. So, we indulge in our proclivity to re-visit previous crime scenes. We search out the bar we discovered last year. It’s clearly an establishment favored by the locals so there’s a nice vibe of authenticity. I have a local lager and CK has a Cava split. No tipping, says Mr. Barkeep. Our evening meal is a similar move. We return to a restaurant previously infested the year before mostly because it has night light and a calm space with no thumpy 21st century sound recordings. It’s Iceland so we have fish, saying no thanks to the Puffin and Minke Whale. I extract promises from CK that we must dine elsewhere next time just to uphold the spirit of adventure a wee bit.Tonight it’s early to bed since we must be up ahead of the wharf rats.
Next report: Germany.
ICELAND TO GERMANY
March 31, 2018
“The snow never melts in the ears of trolls that have turned to stone at dawn on the moors.”
”The third most amazing thing about Iceland is that it is one of the windiest places on earth. The fact that anyone lives there are the first and second thing.” – Wall deco in Keflavik Airport
And aufvedersehn to Iceland. Hallo to Germany. Iceland was such a short stop it felt like a dream sequence. The alarm has us up at 3 am. By 4 am we’re hunting our bus ride to the Keflavik air terminal. At 7:30 our hostess on board presents us each with a shot glass of green liquid and an invitation to drink. She can’t tell us what is in it. For all money it looks poisonous. We down it anyway which should be indicative of our current mental state. It turns out to be deliciously full of ginger. With an improved level of trust in our fellow man and air crew we roll out and up over lavascape into cloud. Berlin is the next touch where we lug stuff from airport to train station, then on to Leipzig on the D-Bahn. Moving day. It’s a longish layover in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main train station) which we spend in a German upscale burger joint calling itself Hans Im Bruck. Somehow, we stretch a large salad and two ice teas into three-plus hours of time treading. Mild panic ensues when our train arrives. There are a dozen cars and our seats are on one of them. We have 10 minutes to find them. Tick Tock. We feel quite clever as we find them after twice guessing incorrectly with 3 minutes to spare. We settle comfortably into our narrow seats expecting a low stress ride for the next hour. Not. Der Meister dem Fahrkarten, ticket guy, informs us that our papers are not in order. Therefore we must pay double to ride the train. Ouch. Credit card collects a bruise. We expect this to be the last chaotic episode for a while.
We stumble with off the train in Leipzig straight into the the arms of charming little Helene, 4 years old, presenting us with a bag of groceries and a bouquet of flowers she has selected herself. Our friend Joshua and his daughter have come to welcome us at the station with hugs and a care package for our flat. Nice! Our Karma is improving! Also new and improved is the main entrance to the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. During our previous visits we were very wary since it was clearly a gathering place for skinheads, meth users, drunks, and other less fortunate members of society. Today they are gone. No, the tragedy is not resolved. They have simply moved to a different spot far away from the classical music thundering out of the newly installed speakers. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The effect is, well, effective.
On to the Leipzig flat, an Air B-n-B thing on the first floor above Bruhl street. We’ve stayed here before. Centrally located, not too costly, and has a kitchen, washing machine, and wi-fi. But chaos is still doggedly on our trail. The wi-fi is on the blink. Re-boot the router is my only tech move. It fails. Our phones won’t pick up cell data either, which gravels my posterior, as I went to some effort to get assurances from T-Mobile that our phones would function in Europe. Grrrr. Wi-fi is our only option. Luckily, wi-fi is nearly ubiquitous around here in the local bistros. After fiddling with the issue for hours, at last we hook up to check the text messages we haven’t been seeing. This reveals more unfortunate circumstances conspiring to cancel a social brunch, birthday party, and threaten an excursion with same. But there’s no shortage of bars in these parts. We vow to launch toasts to everyone’s health not forgetting our own.
Back to the flat where we find that sewage is backing up into the bathtub. I don’t know what passes for the equivalent of evil Leprechauns in Germany, but there seems to be a thumping case of them, at present. The landlord is summoned, a plumber arrives, we are reminded that tomorrow is Easter Sunday, an excuse for Leipzig to roll up the sidewalks. We’re gonna sort this out later. Research at a nearby bar reveals that a single malt dram is cheaper than the martini.
April 2, 2018
For those just tuning in, we’re in Leipzig, one of the first bits of our 46 day tour of selected parts of Europe. This is our fourth visit here, drawn by friendship with our 30-something pals. Each year we catch up on their two kids’ progress who help us get in touch with our own inner toddlers. Including our previous visits we’ve spent a total of about 25 days here. This is enough to develop a casual familiarity with the town. With one exception, we’ve come in the Spring. This adds more familiarity. This is the second season we’ve been here for Easter. At this time the main plaza in Leipzig is transformed into Easter Market. An itinerant, medieval themed village of tents and booths pops up in the square and stays for a week selling, souvenirs, trinkets, tools, ancient costumes, mulled wine, roast suckling pig, bratwurst, waffles, fried dumplings called kräppelchen, and baumstriezel among other things.
It really does look like something that The Society for Creative Anachronism drew up in its most ambitious business plan. There is a stage where music, story telling, and pantomime is performed with regularity all within a 15th century motif. Sadly, our bubble of ignorance blocks our access to the culture presented here; we just don’t speak German. That doesn’t stop us from plundering the food vendors. Our friend, Katherina, and her two kids join us for a stroll through the market on a surprisingly sunny day, the last one for this year’s Easter Market. The kid factor brings the market into proper perspective. Even though we’re not agile enough to romp like they do, we project our imaginations into their world. The 4 year old girl goes for the necklaces and the 2 year old boy is powerfully drawn to the toy tools and rubber swords. We marvel at how this is so.
Now, back to the challenges of being far away from home: Our phones still don’t work as well as we want them to. I’ll have to experiment with ‘unlocking’ one of them. Never done that but there’s no help for it, apparently. We are in Germany until next Sunday so there’s still some time to sort this out but we want it sorted by then. When we go unterwegs (on the move) we’ll be wanting data in the form of Googlemaps as well as for other things. Mobile data may be even more critical when we consider what we’re seeing in the news. French workers are launching a transport strike to protest government reforms.
We have rail reservations there next month and that is the main focus of the strike. The BBC declares that this is a rolling strike affecting 2 days per week and is expected to last for months. CK has been madly trying to understand how this might change our plans. Looks to be unavoidable. Our touristic agility may be tested…again.
But today is in front of us and we plan to wander through town a bit. We plan to lunch at a little cafe in the Karli district calling itself The Pushkin Cafe, a cheeky little pub with a motif that mocks the old GDR days which were dominated by the Soviet Union.
April 3, 2018
We notice the pleasant weather, a radical contrast to the Siberian Assault they were dealing with here about 10 days ago . Seems that Spring has arrived in Leipzig. We plunder it by riding the city tram a couple of miles over to the Karli District, a place that owes its vibrance to the young artists, students, and assorted Bohemians who inhabit it. Cafe Puschkin is our lunch stop. This cafe projects a decor that summons the old Soviet regime but in a style that the old Bolsheviks would have scarcely approved. The designer mocks it by making it deco, thereby stripping it of power. I can imagine other uses for this approach.
From there we decide to forego the tram back to the center, going by foot instead. CK passes a cake shop , stops, makes a U-turn, and begins to press her nose against the pastry case like a 5 year old staring at a basket of penny candy with a pocket full of change. She selects the cake that features a brandy component. I sip my coffee and enjoy her moment of indulgence. I’m not a cake person. Onward we stroll discovering a sort of public square that is clearly not sponsored by the city fathers.
It looks like an abandoned industrial space that has been commandeered by the local denizens. They have opened the space, adorned it with urban guerrilla street art, and made it friendly for some vendors to set up shop. They call it Feinkost which translates as Delicatessen. The message seems to be that there are city dwellers who like living here and aren’t shy about creatively improving it. There must be a better way to refer to this spot. Go go gadget research!
Nice weather persists. We congratulate ourselves for deciding to walk. Time out for a gooey, sugary gelato. I’ve discovered that there are infinite versions of gelato some of which don’t really honor the creature which donated the main ingredient. This is one of those, so I try to commit this shop to memory in hope of avoiding it next time.
April 4, 2018
Spring is really blowing up today with temps expected in the lower 70’s with clear skies. We decide on a day trip to Bamberg. This requires a train ride of about 1.5 hours both ways so it pays to start early. The ticket office is closed at 6:30 am so we have to work with the D-Bahn ticket machine. It has an English language option but that only reduces the complexity by 50%. It presents a blizzard of options which only propagates more uncertainty. Once decisions are made and payment button pressed we are informed that the credit card is not acceptable. The machine accepts cash but only the exact amount. Train travel isn’t cheap but it is far cheaper than driving. There’s really no choice. We rummage our cash reserves and happen to manage it. Shoveling considerable sheaves of cash into a ticket vending machine is a new experience and a bit unsettling. Success! Tickets in hand we quickly plunder a coffee shop before finding our train.
One hour plus later we arrive in Bamberg, a Bavarian city proclaiming, among other things, to be a mecca of German beer culture. It is home to several ancient breweries which remain quite small scale with a high degree of what I call funk value. These are the primary targets, although we must also visit the massive rock piles known as cathedrals mostly to experience the creepiness of standing beneath countless tons of stone held hundreds of feet aloft by their own weight. But first, we walk a mile from the bahnhof to the old town tourist zone. As we go we notice square brass plates imbedded in the sidewalk. A moment of inspection reveals what they are: the names of individuals and date they were abducted by the Nazis in the early 1940’s. There are way too many of these things, of course. It reminds us how lucky we are to be enjoying this summery day.
The big cathedral, the DOM, is the first stop. This is a Catholic institution. Large enough to be impressive with a couple of superbly tall bell towers that can’t be seen unless standing at a distance. A person can’t bend the neck enough to see them when standing near. Inside, it is barren of decor: blank walls with 3 or 4 memorial plaques, no color, no stained glass. There is only one sarcophagus containing the remains of some medieval nobles, nothing like the churches of England which take on the character of a Full-on Necropolis: dead people stacked everywhere. Here there are some murals but extremely subdued in style and color. In short, this place is dark and drab. We aren’t religious, so our interest here is mostly cultural curiosity. We imagine it a good thing to keep half an eye on what other humans do regarding these kinds of belief systems together with understanding some of the history of it. This cathedral has some interesting stonework, however. There is a sculpture from the 12th century mounted on a pillar depicting a fellow on a palfry. One of his supports is in the shape of Green Man, a ubiquitous image from the middle ages.
It is quite a good sculpture considering it’s about 900 years old. I find it odd that drawing and painting from that epoch hasn’t nearly the facility that sculpture and architecture does. But that was the case for Greeks and Romans too. Somehow they just never figured out the trick of drawing, or didn’t care. Later in the day we visit another monument to religion called St Martin’s, another Catholic joint built in the 13th century. It was demolished and rebuilt in the 17th with a full Baroque deco compliment of gilded angels, bright white ceiling, colorful frescoes, and cavorting cherubim. The difference between the Dom cathedral and the Baroque St. Martins is like Dorothy walking out of her black and white prairie home into Technicolor Oz. Party time!
From the churches we wind through the streets of Bamberg admiring the restored old town ambling toward the pubs. We find the oldest of the ancient breweries where we order a sampler of their beers along with a half pint what they call Rauchbier or smokey beer. This is new to us. And it is very smokey. It tastes like the bottom of a camp fire soaked in ice water. I can’t say that I like it on its own but it improved quite a bit with food. We ordered a Bavarian Sausage. What we see is a pair of white veal sausage swimming in a bowl of a kind of yellow tinted broth. We are very suspicious of it. We instantly shoot a photo of it over the mojo wire to our friends back in Leipzig. They answer immediately to NOT eat the casing. We are to slit the sausage open and scoop out the goods. We suspect it is boiled. The answer is yes. Yuck. Nevertheless it is consumed. We present this experience to you as evidence of our spirit of adventure.
The next pub is a reconstructed early 14th century cave with more Rauchbier only this time it isn’t as strong. Instead of tasting like a drowned campfire it only summons the ghost of a cigar smoker’s ashtray. On the other hand, we may have simply become numb to it. We are no longer young so this is the end of our Bamberg pub crawl. I’m not sure if we ever get to try it again. One never knows.
Meanwhile, out in the street, it is a summer-like day in April with balmy temps. People are ranging out as if propelled by severe cabin fever after a long freeze. There’s a pedestrian bridge near the center platz that seems to be a gathering spot for young adults. It is a mob scene of sun bathing teens and 20-somethings. In the MarktPlatz there are vegetable stands of considerable volume and variety flanked by upscale shops featuring the finest in fashion and accessories. As we stroll around we observe what other folks are having for lunch on their al-fresco dining tables. We regret our boiled sausage a little. Well, a lot, actually. A bit more wandering reveals some interesting street scenes which I capture on my pocket computer.
The train back to Leipzig is on time and slick as an action flick. This won’t be the case next week as we creep closer to France.
April 9, 2018
After 11 days in Leipzig we’re on the move again. This trip is by rail to Belgium with an overnight stop in Cologne. It’s German rail, so there’s small risk of a stranding due to strikes.
The past few days were spent in the company of our friends in Leipzig. Yesterday being the first perfectly warm and sunny Sunday of spring, we take a walk through a local park. It’s alive with sun-starved Leipzigers picnicking in the grass and paddling on the canals. Spring is late due to the invasion of a cruel Siberian freeze that ended only two weeks ago. The trees are still quite barren. Later in the afternoon we join our friends and their friends at their home for a barbecue party in the garden. Tons of fun with new people to meet and a pack of kids giggling in the fresh grass. We arrive late back at our flat with full bellies and a tiny bit snockered. We’ve had a very fine last day here. Already plans being made to return next year.
Next stop, Cologne for one night. Then on to Bruges, Belgium.
April 10, 2018
Cologne, or Koln, was declared an official Roman city, a colonia, due to the influence of Agrippina, the wife of Emperor Claudius. It was her home town, after all. In those days it enjoyed a peculiar independence in terms of self governing. This continued well into the middle ages even to the extent of banning powerful archbishops and other predatory church officials from entering the city. I like these folks already! Of course, the city was bombed level to the ground in WWII. 90% of the buildings were destroyed. A city of 700K was reduced to only 20K by 1945. After the war the rubble of ruined buildings was dumped in a field, covered with earth, and made into a large public park. Today the remains of the city looks like rolling hills covered by trees and grass. All of the medieval churches and historical monuments are detailed reconstructions. It boggles my tiny brain. The big cathedral was hit by 14 bombs which gutted it but its bones survived somehow allowing a leg up for recovery.
The train drags us in an hour late. All of the delay is caused by a jammed main station and the knock-on effect of one delay causing the next one. Internet tells us about a cathedral tour we can catch up with if we hustle. Cleverly, CK has booked our hotel near the main station, which is next to the big cathedral. We can dump our bags in their luggage room and hustle back to the church tour. Dodging buskers and beggars with smartphone map in hand we manage it. And there it is, the Koln Dom, an enormous rock pile of holiness. The interior ceiling is 15 stories high. The tour guide says that the church has its own weather. “Sometimes”, he says, “the baptismal font will be frozen.” I cannot resist. “Makes it easier to walk on.”, quips I.
We are informed that 6 million euros annually are required, currently, to keep the cathedral in service. That’s about $8.4 million US. Whether this is justified is a different topic that I promise to avoid. The main attraction for religious pilgrims here is the same as it was 8 centuries ago: the skulls of The Three Wise Men featured in the Christmas tales. They are boxed up very securely in a solid gold, highly ornate model of a Roman basilica behind bulletproof glass, and ringed with iron bars. This box is opened just a tiny bit once per year at Christmas, I think, just enough to see the faint shape of some darkened skulls wearing gilded crowns complete with name tags. Our official tour is 50% indoctrination, the other half being practical information. It cost about as much as a coffee to go, so it wasn’t a total loss.
After the church inspection we cross the rail bridge on our way to find the Koln Triangle, a 30 story building with a viewing platform at the top. The pedestrian part of this bridge is loaded with lover’s locks. And, of course, that part of the Rhine beneath the bridge is carpeted with keys. From the lookout we get an expansive view of the river and city. Also evident is the presence of heavy industry. Air pollution is fairly dense obscuring the horizon several miles short of the mark. On our way back to the hotel we pass a dozen food options before settling on a spot offering Italian and German dishes plus whiskey. CK goes for lasagne and I opt for bratwurst, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes, aka kartoffelnstampf which I find hilarious. It’s good stuff too. A fine meal and even better that the waiter guided us to a table away from the smokers in a quiet corner. After the meal we stroll around to get a better notion of where we are. Turns out that our hotel is in the middle of a large district absolutely stuffed with bars, cafes, clubs, and restaurants. There’s over 100 joints to choose from. It’s bewildering but not surprising. This town has 1 million + inhabitants.
In the morning we discover the plaza filling up with people and stages being sound-checked, pop music blaring out of rock-concert style amped systems. CK asks an idle policeman what’s up? He says it’s a strike of the teachers and tram workers and the plaza is the spot for the demonstration. As we check out, rolling our bags across the cobblestone, we walk head-on into the striker’s march. We must dodge them as they stand between us and the rail station. All is good in the end as we find the station in good time, enough to grab a sandwich for the train to Brussels. We’ll change trains there for Bruges.
COLOGNE, GERMANY TO BRUGES, BELGIUM
April 10, 2018
The train from Cologne to Brussels is orderly and on time. So is the connection on to Bruges. It’s a short luggage-drag from the station to our town house, about a half mile or so. But of all the suitcase-pulls we’ve competed in, this was the most picturesque. Densely picturesque. Our first impression of Bruges is to question its legitimacy. It must be a 17th century theme park, right? All we need for proof is to find the Disney logo on the edge of a curb or lamp post, right? Wrong. It’s all real. We have three full days here, so we plan to explore it thoroughly.
After we dump the bags, we race off to buy some provisions before we tramp off to explore this town’s version of the bar district. We find ourselves in the main market square, the edge of which is occupied by restaurants and cafes with no space between them. About a dozen horse drawn carriages are standing in an orderly line waiting for tourists. As we patrol the menus, which are conveniently put on display for people like us, we notice not much variety of dishes even though there is an embarrassment of places in which to order them. The least expensive choice is the Italian. All others seem to proudly advertise main entrees at 28+ Euro, about $35 US. Some we saw as high as 49 Euro or $61 US but that was for something like T-bone steak. Fat chance we’ll order that. We suspect more attractive dining choices are lurking on charming streets blocks away from the main square, the focal point for tourist action. I plan on ordering the local delicacy, eel, quite soon. I doubt CK will share my plate. I promise a full report. But for this evening we opt for the pasta dish and beer. My brew has an interesting character. It tastes faintly of cloves. Nice. Our waiter is a strapping lad built like a premier league goalie but no. His sport is boxing. He hates futbol. He is super charming and earns a nice tip. We finish just in time. A strong rain squall moves in and catches us without umbrellas. Our dash back to the house is successful with the help of our smartphone. NOTE: in case you don’t know it, raindrops that strike the phone’s screen will cause the phone to respond with head-spinning results. I have to shelter the phone from the rain to use it. I think I’ve discovered another use for neck scarves.
Back at the town house, we figure out the heat straight away hoping to dry things out. This will be much improved digs over the hotel room in Cologne. That room was stuffy, overheated with no ventilation. Opening the window did not help. Air seemed unable to come through the narrow crack and it only served to improve the street level audio experience. All night long an unfortunate madman camped on a bench across from our room, raving in ways that we thankfully could not understand. It was a rough night of sleep there. The Hotel in Cologne is called City Class Am Dom Residence. And another thing: the shower door looked like it was designed by a PhD graduate in the arts. But it was useless. Water gushed underneath it out into the room creating quite a mess. We do not recommend. Thumbs down with prejudice.
Meanwhile, the fellow at the tourist office in Bruges teaches me my go-to phrase upon request: “Sorry, we spreken nicht Nederlands.” – “Sorry, we speak no Dutch.” They speak Dutch here with a few modifications. In this case ‘nicht’, the German, is used for ‘not’. A more proper Dutch would be ‘geen’. Now, in Brussels Dutch would not serve just as French would not serve in Bruges. Belgium is small but complex.
April 11, 2018
A late-ish sleep in and we’re off to find the city tour bus for a loop around the town. We don’t often go for the bus tour. They are usually boring and sometimes designed to steer you toward certain businesses that the bus company is in cahoots with. We decide to make an exception here. It’s a quick loop around the main tourist district in less than an hour. Bruges is a remarkable place mostly because 90% or so of the town reflects architecture from the 15th-18th century. It’s flat as can be, too, being all just a few feet above sea level. The tallest objects are man-made, such as the city hall bell tower, church towers, and a construction crane.
I’m realizing that our maps would soon be only for detail referencing once we understood the spatial relationships between the towers. If the tower with the weather vane is to your left and the tower with the 4 gables is on your right, then you must be to the west of the main square. Got it. The town is, basically, rows of really old houses butting up against each other separated by narrow cobblestone streets winding off in random directions, and a few canals. So, there isn’t a vista other than houses and a meandering street. It’s a bit of a human warren. The main square is where the action is, pretty much, although there are a couple of other gathering spots. There appears to be no pedestrian-only zones, curiously, even though this town seems to be made exclusively for that. Cars and lorries share the same streets with bikes and walkers. The streets are all cobblestone, only wide enough for one car to proceed, and sidewalks are often only the width of a person’s shoulders. Yet cars move both directions up and down these streets as well as cyclists. Somehow the drivers find a way to squeeze past each other when they meet head-on. Right of way ranks in this order: pedestrians first, cyclists second, horses third, autos last. The horses are attached to carriages that hire out to tourists. There’s almost no parking along the streets. And where there is, it’s not advised. The big lorries were never made to negotiate roads like this. One of the photos illustrates the point. Our bus tour reveals a couple of interesting parts that we can go back to explore on foot. It reminds us, also, that one of the churches boasts a Michelangelo sculpture. We trundle off to visit it as soon as the tour ends.
It’s early afternoon and we decide to do the canal boat ride as well. It isn’t very informative but the view from the canal kind of stimulates the imagination. It gives us a peak into some private corners of town as well. Bruges is kind of a mini-Amsterdam, more human sized and more consistent in its historically preserved character.
The Michelangelo sculpture is the ‘Madonna and Child’ at the Church of Our Lady. 75% of this church is walled off in the interior and made into a museum of sorts that costs 4 euro each to enter, well 3 if you’re ancient like us. There isn’t much special about this museum except for the main attraction, the sculpture. It’s worth the money just to stand in the presence of an object as famous as this. Shame my photo didn’t turn out well.
We inspect another church, this time the ‘Church of the Holy Blood’. Medieval tourism was powered by these kinds of relics. Scattered about the continent are St Paul’s Chains, The Head of John the Baptist, The Shroud of Turin, The Skulls of the Three Kings, St Thomas’ Finger, Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, etc. etc. Here in Bruges they feature a vial of Jesus’ blood. Just sayin’.
Tomorrow we plan to attempt the climb up the bell tower in the main square. This tower lists a couple of meters off center, so there’s that. It also has 366 steps to negotiate. CK wants to do it and I’m on board. However, I may veto the attempt if there are no hand rails and there may not be. We’ll see. Then if we’re clever and have any energy left, we’ll saddle up a couple of bicycles and find some of the best routes. We also made a dinner reservation at a quirky bistro called Le Bottelier.
April 12, 2018
Today we had an idea to climb the bell tower at the city hall here in Bruges. But the North Sea is up to its tricks and sends us a high, clammy fog. Not anything to keep us inside all day but enough to obscure any view we might have from the tower, not to mention the fact that it would be considerably colder and clammier up there. With that, we decide to grab the landlord’s bicycles, which he kindly gave us permission to use, and go for a short spin. Cycling here is easy stuff, the terrain being that of reclaimed salt marsh. The bikes don’t pass my maintenance inspection. They’ve been sitting in the rain probably forever. The chains and spokes are rusty. One rear wheel is out of plumb with a significant wobble. CK’s tire rubs on a brake pad. My seat post is rusted in place, can’t adjust it. But the tires are full of air and the brakes work fine. What the hell, eh? We check our map for a route to a neighboring village and off we go, bouncing across the cobblestones.
Our goal is the village of Damme. No, I’m not sure how to pronounce that. It’s about 6 miles away. Our route takes us along the outside edge of Bruges, which reveals some of the nature of the city. It seems to be an island surrounded by a large canal. On one side of the canal is the well preserved 15th-19th century enclave. On the other side of the canal is the modern world of 4 lane highways, strip malls, traffic lights, and craziness. We follow this large canal until our map instructs us to cross it and move toward the craziness which concerns me. The crazy zone turns out to be narrow enough for us to get beyond as we cycle away toward the farmland. We pass a few of the ancient windmills that have been kept as museum pieces for the benefit of folks like us. Soon we’re on a long, dead straight bike path between large barren deciduous trees that we can’t name. In the summer this would be a shady lane of dappled sunlight filtered through a green canopy 60 feet above.
But today is misty, cool, and gray. Other cyclists overtake us as we doddle along. We arrive at Damme without the slightest hint of fanfare. Clearly they don’t know who we are. It’s a tiny place with a few shops set up for tourists. The city hall might have some antique charm if it were restored but sadly no. It is crumbling and in serious need of help. There is a church, of course, and CK MUST go inside.
In 30 minutes we’ve seen every corner of this village. Deciding on a tea shop we stop for a sip and a cookie. The proprietor eyes us critically, perhaps suspiciously. Perhaps she wants us to spend more money or has had trouble with old people shoplifting. She speaks French, I think. But we are pretty much done with Damme. On our way out, CK plunders a local shop for some baguette for the house.
The ride back is quicker since we know the route but there’s a snag. At the moment of crossing the main canal back to the Bruges side of the world we are met with a clanging bell, the descent of barriers, and the raising of the bridge. As it happens, this particular crossing is also a canal lock. A large barge approaches and our way is blocked for 20 minutes. I spend the time chatting up a young couple, also on bikes. They are from London. I feel as if I’m going to make new friends when into the chat jumps a fellow with a Scots accent. But his English is broken and confused as he struggles to change the subject while making unusual hand gestures to emphasize his speech. We’re all a bit puzzled. The thread of the conversation evaporates into uncertainty. The bridge begins to drop into place and we wish each other safe travels. Drat.
Back at the house we get cleaned up for our dining reservation at Le Botellier. This place caught my eye yesterday. Its decor theme is clocks, hundreds of them stuck to walls, piled in baskets, giant ones, tiny ones, some that work, most that don’t. The motto is: “Enjoy the Time”. It has about 10 tables. No walk-ins are permitted, advance reservation only. The gentleman, Hans, works the tables and his wife is the cook who has has the kitchen on a lower floor. The food comes up in a dumbwaiter. They both live on the upper story. “It’s more than a restaurant”, he explains as if he were the earth’s most sophisticated and patient butler, “it is our home.” CK has a tagine of chicken. A tagine is a kind of stew, it turns out. I have duck breast. I can’t impart to you all a taste of this food but I encourage you to trust me that this is damn good stuff. We issue a full recommendation. We’re doing an encore here tomorrow night, our last evening here.
April 13, 2018
I wake up with a virus. It has been sneaking up on me for the past few days but now it’s blooming out in full regalia. CK doesn’t have it, thankfully. So far it’s my own personal pet creature(s). I spend the day laying low in the townhouse while CK visits some museums. When she gets back she’s all for making the attempt on the bell tower. By now I’m fortified with cold symptom chemistry. I’m fairly gooey and not my sharpest but up for it. It isn’t far from our place to the square but we find that the folks who manage this tower limit the number of people roaming inside of it. Quite a good idea for safety reasons. If left to their own decision making, random tourists would quickly become a danger to themselves up in there. So, we wait about 40 minutes to pay our 10 Euro apiece. While waiting, a clever fellow makes euros by cutting people’s cameo profiles out of paper with scissors. He has picked me out as a mark. By the time he approaches me he’s 90% finished with the piece. I pay him 5. I make a photo of the results.
We elevate ourselves 366 steps up a narrow spiral staircase with a couple of floors along the way that can be used as rest stops. We see various bells and equipment on display as we climb but none of it is very picturesque. We make it to the top a lot less winded than we imagined. A lot of time is spent squeezing past other folks coming the opposite direction. A nice view at the top but we don’t stay long. There’s an icy breeze cutting through the openings. Seems that the North Sea isn’t quite finished with its winter projects.
Back at the house we decide that fine dining tonight should be cancelled due to the pet virus. We cancel Le Botellier. Drat. The evening meal is a take-out pizza. You know, I never found my smoked eel.
Tomorrow we’re on the road. Train to Brussels, then Eurostar to London if the strike hasn’t spiked it. Virus. Ugh.
BRUGES TO LONDON
April 14, 2018
Time to pack up our kit and depart Bruges. Our stay here has been long enough to get a good survey of the place and the nature of tourism it offers. If we come back here again I shall lobby for additional cycling action to extend our range. Also, I shall be on the hunt for smoked eel as well as a re-booking at Le Bottelier. I’m rather proud of myself for ignoring most of the chocolate shops and all of the pomme frite vendors with their sinfully delicious offering of greasy fried potatoes smothered in aioli goop. CK says this item reminds her of the Canadian fad of Poutine. We’ve never indulged in that either. Perhaps we should.
A quick rumble of luggage down the cobblestone lane and onto the Brussells train which whisks us away with no snags. In the Brussels station we find the Eurostar entrance. This is the train that zooms through the “chunnel’, the tunnel under the English Channel, at speeds of up to 200 mph. I’m looking forward to my first high speed rail experience until I spy the security screening zone. It appears to have the very same protocol as the airport. I begin to suspect that they won’t let me hide my pocket knife in the luggage. And this turns out to be the case. They confiscate a folding blade I’ve had for 40+ years. They say they’ll give it back to me at the end of the trip if I pay them 20 Euro. Nope. So long, old friend from China, and heads up, potential travelers, when planning to take that Eurostar train. Don’t lose your goods like I did.
And we’re off. Even though it is amazing to be streaming along at these speeds, it soon becomes routine and I nod off into semi-conscious zombieness still holding a grudge about my knife. I know that we’re under the channel when the windows show nothing but black void. Arriving at St Pancras/King’s Cross Station in London puts us just one tube stop away from our hotel. We also notice that Platform 9 3/4 to Hogwarts is nearby. We are tempted. Instead I choose to take advantage of a cash machine I spy on the way to the Underground. My pockets are full of Euros. The Brits spit on them. I need a proper cash supply. After I punch in my code and get my cash I realize that it is the machine that has taken advantage of me. I paid that thing $14 US in fees to get 100 UK pounds. Gah. Heads up, potential travelers, don’t use the cash machines in the train stations or the airports unless it is critically necessary. Drat, but never mind. We’re happy to be here in London even after having been robbed and fleeced. Our Hotel is directly across from a park and our bay window is filled with a view of a leafless tree I can’t identify. Somehow this makes the sound of traffic and sirens less annoying. We’ve been on trains and wrangling bags for 7 hours. We’re worn out. We sleep like stone for 10 hours.
April 15, 2018
Today is Sunday. We sleep almost past the hotel’s cut-off hour for breakfast. But we get it managed and we’re off again. Today has two items on the agenda. The Natural History Museum and a stage show comedy called “A Bank Robbery” down in Piccadilly Circus. I’m not a big city person and even though London is a very fascinating city, it has certain elements that remind me of my tendency to stay clear of these places. Probably the number one thing, other than air pollution, is the Underground. I use it because it is quicker than walking and the most practical transport for going to and from the airport, for instance. But it gives me the creeps. It many cases it is many meters underground, dependent on machines to pump breathable air down into them. And they are grimy, caked with the sloughed skin, dander, hair, bacteria, and viruses of literally millions. If they ever pressure wash these caverns I’ve never heard of it. Never mind. We aren’t allowed to think of such things, I reckon. I already have a virus and will now summon it to defend me against all the others.
We are in the Bloomsbury district, a neighborhood we’ve stayed in twice before. It’s like coming back to a familiar place. A lot of the posters and signs are still there from last year. Kinky Boots is still playing in the theater district. For some gawd-awful reason I don’t grok, “The Book of Mormon” is still on the boards as is “Mama Mia”. That Italian restaurant with the piano player and the crumbling signage is still there. Our bubble of ignorance has been reduced due the fact that English is the primary audible code. But there’s plenty of foreign tongues here. Standing in the queue for the Natural History Museum is a couple speaking something that sounds like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian all at once. I don’t recognize it.
The Museum is free of charge. It is full of dinosaurs, fossils, and fancy exhibits. It makes The Smithsonian in DC seem thin and watery like a three day old used teabag. There’s no way to see it all and we call it quits after two hours. This is a super place to bring a kid.
Now it’s off to Covent Garden to visit Giovanni’s, another Italian joint. We found this one last year and have to give it an encore. Fast forward to the restaurant on the UnderTube … and the restaurant is closed, mysteriously on a weekend no less. So we find another likely Italian spot called Piazza. People are chattering in Italian in there. Seems legit.
After a nice meal, and not a terribly expensive one for this side of town, we have time to kill in a pub near Piccadilly Circus before the show. After a touch more alcohol in a crowded, humid bar we’re on to the theater to see “A Bank Robbery”. This turns out to be a farce with a painfully weak script. But I’m finding plenty to enjoy in the stagecraft of it. There’s some very cleverly done scenes and scene changes. They even turn a few jokes by poking fun at their own “failed” attempts at staging certain scenes which are transparently intentional. Funny.
That’s the news from Lake Woebegone where the virus is fading and London is roaring 24/7. We have another full day here before we put wheels under us again on Tuesday.