Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Kristiina and Bergen op Zoom

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

I WAS the one agitating for a vacation. I needed to get out of Dodge! Concerts by the two Big Bands Paul plays in and promotes were set to resume in early October — which meant that rehearsals and marketing would begin the month prior. I knew if we didn't get away by the middle of September, we wouldn't go.

Since I was the one lobbying for this trip, by default I was the chief planner and organizer. I chose the destination, the airline, our B and B in Brussels, our hotel in Ghent (high marks for the first; low marks for the second), and our day trip to Sint Martens-Latem and Bruges.

The plan had also always included getting ourselves to Boom, a suburb of Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish), to meet up with Kristiina Kariluoma. She was a foreign exchange student at Ankeny High School when we were seniors, and we'd reconnected through Facebook. Kristiina was from Finland when I knew her all those years ago, but then she married and moved to Belgium

How could we go to Belgium — it is after all only the size of Maryland, and Brussles is only 26 miles from Boom — and not see her? 

Kristiina and I toast one another.

That was as far as my brain could go, however, and there was still one more day and night to plan after Boom. I thought it would be fun to run into Germany or the Netherlands if we could, and since we'd spent all of our nights in two relatively large cities — Brussels has a population of about 1,175,175 and Ghent has around 258,000 — I was hoping for a smaller place, and there were too many options. I'd considered dozens and finally turned the problem over to Paul, probably with the words "you figure this one out" or something similar.

And he did! What a completely awesome choice he made for us: Bergen op Zoom. Considered a 
cultural treasure of the province Noord Brabant, Bergen op Zoom has a population of about 66,000, so certainly not a village or even a small town, but nevertheless, we loved this place so much! And the Grand Hotel de Draak was absolutely the pièce de résistance. Located on the Grote Markt (city square), it's more than 600 years old — the oldest company and hotel in the Netherlands!

We would go back to Bergen op Zoom and the Grand Hotel de Draak in a heartbeat.

Grand Hotel de Draak takes up all three buildings to the left of the stone archway.

Our hotel at night.

We adored our room with its massive beams.

I discovered this stairway to the basement.

Here's what I found . . . almost a grotto.

Closer into the grotto.
Our hotel was right on the Grote Markt, or city square. Paul took this panoramic of the square from one direction.

This photo and all those below are buildings surrounding Grote Markt where our hotel was located.

This panoramic is looking the other direction in the square.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Sint-Martens-Latem and Bruges

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” – John A. Shedd, the second president and chairman of the board of Marshall Field & Company, whose donation built Chicago's Shedd Aquarium

IMPOSSIBLE AS it may seem, all four of the previous posts about Ghent came from one day of exploring that magical place on foot and by boat! I know!! 

And then we were off to the town of Sint-Martens-Latem and from there to Bruges.

You may be wondering how we've been getting around. We rented a car, and I can't say enough about what a total stud Paul was throughout the trip — negotiating narrow, congested streets jammed with bumper to bumper cars, a phalanx of bicyclists, innumerable scooters weaving in and out, and of course pedestrians; driving a manual transmission which he hasn't driven since we were in Ireland at least 10 years ago, while attempting to read signs in another language. He was wise to insist on a car with a built-in GPS, but even with that, what a challenge, and he was masterful. 

Due to narrow streets, congested traffic and extremely scarce parking, bicycles are a major form of transportation — that and walking, and small cars are the rule. We didn't see one oversized pickup truck or SUV the whole time we were there. (If only they didn't dominate the driving landscape in this country!) I had to laugh: when we picked up our rental car, the agent said, "Oh, you got a nice one!" It was a Volkswagen Gulf which I learned is considered a BIG car in Belgium.

Our first stop was Sint-Martens-Latem, a town of about 8200 residents. Pieter, our proprietor at Living in Brussels Urban B and B, was originally from there. Coincidentally, it's the wealthiest municipality in Belgium. But neither of those things was what enticed me to want to see it. Before we left home, I'd read that it's one of Belgium's most charmingly bucolic, small towns. 

Unfortunately, it was raining the morning we were there, so we only drove around a bit and took a couple of photos.

Then we were on to Bruges. It seems as though everyone has heard of Bruges . . . and raves about it. Everyone but us. We didn't like it much. Yes, it has picturesque canals and waterways — it's known as the Venice of Northern Europe — but it is also chockablock with tourists and souvenir shops. Paul said it was like being in Disneyland

Actually more like Epcot Center with it's faux, international 'experiences' called "World Showcases" — manufactured, idealized streetscapes supposedly depicting various countries — China, Mexico, Canada, France and even the USA (I kid you not), with "audio-animatronics" liberally employed. When we walked into one of Bruges' centuries-old buildings turned into a museum and were greeted with an audio-animatronic medieval 'person' welcoming us, Paul was done.

After we were back home, someone suggested that if we visited Bruges during a less-favorable-weather month, there would be fewer 
tourists, and we might like it better. Less pods of tourists would be nice, but there would still be eleventy-seven souvenir shops. Conducting a bit of research since we've been back, I've found several travel blogs that advise: "Skip Bruges; go to Ghent." I might not suggest missing Bruges altogether, but I definitely recommend following our example; we spent three nights in Ghent, absolutely loved it there, and only day-tripped to Bruges

There was another reason we simply had to go. Below is a photo of a painting that hangs on the wall at the foot of our bed. We're both smitten with this painting; we gaze at it morning and night. Paul was convinced that it was painted in Bruges, and he really, really wanted to see if we could find the exact spot.

Well we didn't, but we came close. 

We took a boat tour.

And we walked around.

A panoramic shot

That's Paul on the right, consulting a map.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Touring Ghent by boat

“I thought how lovely and how strange a river is. A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still.” — Aidan Chambers, British children's author

GHENT is located at the junction of two major rivers, the Leie and the Schelde. Most historians believe that Ganda, an older name for Ghent, comes from the Celtic word "ganda" which means confluence. Besides these two rivers that meet in Ghent, there is a system of canals and waterways running through and around the city.

Several companies offer boat tours every day, all day long, and of course we were keen to take one. Ours lasted about 45 minutes and included cruising up and down the two quays, the Graslie (Grass Quay) and the Korenlei (Corn Quay), located on opposite banks of the Leie River, one of the most scenic parts of Ghent.

Here are pictures from our tour.