Mussels in Brussels…Doug from Belgium & Such

Dear Journal,

I’m afraid this entry may not have the usual pizaz to it. My travels as of late have not had the dramatic story lines that I was becoming accustomed to. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been having a good time!

From Paris I caught a train to Belgium. It seemed like a pretty cool country from what I’ve read about it. I decided Belgium stop #1 would be Bruges. The touristy part of town looks like a perfectly preserved medieval city. It’s so cute! The unfortunate truth though is that for a city to look old like this there had to be a period of severe economic downturn in it’s past. This era of suffering means the town is too poor to modernize and therefore remains stuck in the past. Not so good for the ancestors, but great for the people of the present! Tourism booms in a place like Bruges. The center of town is the Market Square. This was normal for a town in the middle ages. It is always a big open square (where the market is held…who would have guessed…) with the town hall and clock tower on one side. Here’s me at the Bruges Belfry, or Bell Tower in English.
I think one of the things Belgians might be most famous for is their chocolate. Everyone knows Belgian chocolate is hard to top. I knew that while I was in this country I had to try some, and Bruges is definately the place to do it! There are chocolate shops on every block here! I love it…although my waistline is not such a big fan. I stopped in the most adorable shop to browse the selection and noticed the ladies whipping up a fresh batch. My habit of asking an annoying amount of questions paid off again as the offered to let me join them. It was an interesting experience, learning to make chocolates, and I think I will bring my newly acquired knowledge home with me. Anyone want me to make them a treat?

I was loving the Belgian culture so I decided to stop in on Brussels. This Belgiums larest and capital city. It isn’t the quaint little tourist village stuck in the past, but a urban mix of old & new with a cool “real working city” feel to it. I made sure to stop in and see the major sights, like the Atomion. This big metal structure was built for a World’s Fair in 1958. It is a model of a atomic structure magnified by 165 billion times! Now the structure is rather vast (big enough that you can actually travel through the tubes and visit multiple floor exhibits in each ball) but the atom must be really really tiny for it to be magnified that many times!
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I also saw the Manneken Pis. This is a statue of little boy peeing and has been adopted by not only Brussels, but all of Belgium, as a unofficial mascot/symbol. It is a little odd, but I like quirky, so I’m cool with it. You could hear a lot of tourists commenting on how small he is, but I didn’t see it. Sure he wasn’t life-sized for a regular boy, but he was still bigger than me!

Being Brussels has taught me there is more to Belgian cuisine than just chocolates. Have you ever heard of a Belgian waffle? They started right here. Although the people here find us North Americans rather odd for eating waffles for breakfast. They eat them as an afternoon snack with tea or coffee and they usually just eat them with sugar, no syrup, and no crazy toppings…but I couldn’t resist:
Now I know you’ve all heard of the French Fry, but what I just learned is that the only thing French about them is the way they are cut. To French something means to make it into thin slices, like a fry. So technically you could have French carrots or radishes, even if they don’t sound as yummy. So, you ask, if the French is how the fries are cut, where were they invented? The answer: Belgium of course! Why else would I be talking about them now?! The other note I’d like to make about fries is that here they eat them with mayo…odd for a ketchup-lover but quite delicious.
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They was one more edible delight I had to try: Mussels in Brussels! Not only delicious, but also fun to say! They make mussels every way you could possibly want them…but I went with au natural so that I could experience the real strong flavor of the mussels 🙂

When I disembarked from my next train I found myself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city built around an area of man-made canals that for a concentric U-shape around and through the oldest part of the city. They are extremely scenic and offer opportunities for superb photos. They also appeared to be a great place for both locals and tourists to spend a lazy day when the heat gets too much.
Amsterdam has another side to it though. In an attempt to combat hard drug use the cities police force has decriminalized majiuana use in the city. This means that although it is not technically legal, no one has been arrested for use or possession in over 30 years. What is legal is prostitution. And there is a whole area of town called the Red Light District that is the center of this industry. I was naive enough to believe this would be far enough from the city center that I would not stumble across it while riding my bike through town (everyone rides bikes here!). Silly Doug, you couldn’t have been more wrong! The Red Light Dostrict is actually only a couple of blocks from both the central rail station and main tourist/shopping strip. When I accidentally rode into the area I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so shocked I rode my bike straight into the canal! The police laughed as they helped me out but comforted me by stating that they pull about 20,000 bikes out of the canal each year. I felt a bit better, but I assume most of those were stolen and tossed in and didn’t still have a rider on them! But at least I wasn’t one of the fools who drove their car into the water…that happens at least once a week here!

After the craziness of Amsterdam I needed a break, and where would I get a better one than in fairy-tale Luxembourg. This place looks like it’s straight from a storybook, with it’s old style houses, quaint roads of shops and beautiful valley views.
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Here I made a few new friends. I was taking a look at the Royal Palace when it happened. A car pulled up and two young men got out. They were well dressed & good looking and I immediately knew they were someone important. You might be thinking, “Doug you’re in front of the ROYAL Palace, how are you not putting this together?” but my guide book had said the place was rarely inhabited by the royal family so i didn’t jump to conclusions. I could have though because they were in fact the 2 eldest sons of th Grand Duke. The Grand Duke is like the King of Luxembourg, it just has a different name here (because Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy instead of a Kingdom). We got to chatting about the house and then the country in general. They were really great guys and I hope ot see them again. Maybe at the Queen’s garden party? And maybe by them I’ll be able to find a couple of nice girls to fix them up with…

Until next time…
Keep Smiling,

He’s just killing time, but she’s definitely avoiding something…

Luxembourg City…what to say about our day exploring you…

Well we first must admit we didn’t really know anything to do here. We had looked at Luxembourg before we started our trip, but had mainly noted that it was small, pretty & storybook-like and decided to visit. We know there are some nice castles and ruins scattered about the small country. We knew this was a great city to visit. But that was about it. So we started our day at the Tourist Information Center. We found a time-table for the bus we use to get to the train station tonight & were provided with a handy-dandy self-guided walking tour of the city. Perfect!

Our walk started in the square right in front of the TI center, called William Square. It featured the Hotêl de Ville (aka Town Hall) and an Equestrian Statue of William II himself. William II was King of the Netherlands & Grand Duke of Luxembourg from 1840-1849 and granted this tiny nation it’s first parliamentary constitution.
Now you may be wondering, what is a Grand Duke? Well, like many European nations, Luxembourg is a constitutional monarchy…meaning they have both a Prime Minister and a ruling royal family. But uniquely, they are not a Kingdom ruled by a King & Queen, but a Grand Dutchy ruled by the Grand Duke & Grand Dutchess. Really in the end it’s pretty much the same thing, different name. The current Grand Duke & Dutchess are extremely well loved by the Luxembourgers. You see there face smiling down at you from everywhere…but not just their faces. You also see the faces of the entire royal family staring you down. The Grand Duke has one daughter & four sons. This would not be a fact worth mentioning, except that three of those sons are in their twenties. The 23 year old is married with two kids, but the 25 and 27 year olds are completely single. We are talking hot available princes here! So maybe our walking tour was just a walking tour…or maybe it was really just a cover for trying to stalk them down…we will never tell…

The tour first took us all through the historic city center. We saw many things, but will just give you the highlights/the stuff we have the best pictures of. One of such places was the Palace of the Grand Dukes (all of the curtains were closed, so there was no peeking in the windows). The oldest section of the building dates back to 1572, although the other additions came in the 1700 & 1800’s.
City Palace is the administrative building for the city. It also houses several festival halls. We mainly just liked the arches and lanterns in the front entryway. The City Palace sits on the edge of the Place d’Armes, which is know as the “Parlor of the City.” Basically it’s a nice square with benches & a gazebo and lots of restaurants around it…such as the delicious, yet affordable Mexican place we went to last night!
St. Micheal’s Church is the oldest shrine in the city, having been built in 987. That is a super old building…at least that’s where it falls on our classification scale: 100 years old = old, 500 years old = really old, 1000 years old = super old & 2000 year sold = really feakin’ old! It sits right on the edge of the old fish market. There is no longer a market there, but there are some seafood joints, so it still smells fishy.
We stopped for a break in Constitution Square, which boasts a superb view over the Pétrusse Valley and the Adolphe Bridge…or at least that’s what the tour map told us… But I think these photos prove it wasn’t lying…look at that wonderful leafy area!

The only attraction we knew we wanted to do in Luxembourg City was the Bock Casemates. Casemate comes from the Greek word chasma(ta), meaning chasm. In this case, that means a series of rooms and tunnels dug/chiseled into the rocks & walls surrounding the city. These are thought to be bomb-proof and can often be as far into the rock as 40 m. The first Casemates were built here underneath an existing 10th century fortress in 1644 when the Spanish controlled the area. Over the years, as Luxembourg has changed hands, Italian, Spanish, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and Prussian engineers have put work into creating an expansive network of over 23 km of underground areas. In it’s heyday the Casemates housed soldiers quarters, canons & other artillery, weapons workshops, and even kitchens/bakeries/slaughterhouses. During the two World Wars, the Luxembourg Casemates served as a shelter with the capacity to protect 35,000 people in the event of an alert or bombardment.
These were a very interesting place to visit…well once we actually got down into them. First we passed through a room where they were showing this very odd “This is why Luxembourg is awesome” video that had the weirdest soundtrack and cheesy graphics that made it look like a junior high homework project. The main stretch featured lots of alcoves, “balconies” and old canon stations. These were neat to see, and had the added bonus of picturesque views of the city.
Once you got further along the tunnels got smaller and less clumped together. There were lights imbedded in floor, but it didn’t do much good to cut the spooky atmosphere. In the end section there were so many passages with crazy uneven, slippery, spiral staircases and random dark alcoves that you started to feel like you were miles away from the outside world. When we finally reached a random dead-end, the water dripping down the walls & funny shadows reminded us of Gollum’s cave in The Hobbit or the passageway with the spider in Lord of the Rings. We then proceeded to walk around muttering “Smmmmmmeagol…” and “mine…my own…my preciousssss…”. It was good, nerdy fun 😉

Our map now lead us out of the urban area to the Pétrusse Valley. And by that we mean we somehow managed to figure out where we were going as maps of this place are incredibly confusing, being as the city sits on about 7 majorly different elevations. You may remember that name as the leafy area pictured earlier. It was even more pleasant to walk through than it had looked from above. There were a couple of different paths, trees, grass and a little stream with stone bridges over it. Also, seeing as it is a valley right in the middle of a city with several generations of stone walls around it, there were many photo-worthy expanses of rock stretching upwards and covered with climby vines. We stopped here for a well earned break. It was a gorgeously hot & sunny day and we had done a lot of walking so far!
The journey out of the valley was an expedition. You climb all of these stairs out of the park, only to come face-to-face with a gigantic, ancient stone wall. You don’t realize how well protected these medieval cities are until you’re faced with trying to find a way up the old fortifications. After a zillion more stairs we were on top of the city again…and for our effort we got ourselves an ice cream treat 🙂

The rest of the afternoon passed without much excitement. We walked through some of the city outside of the historic center. It felt much like any other city, but a nice one…no dirty sketchiness here! We did really enjoy how many trees there are here. We didn’t know if it was a theme that was carried through the entire city, but it seems it is. We came across a huge park with a playground that looked like a pirate ship…but the trees weren’t just there. They lie pretty much every street, and aren’t the stupid dinky ones you see in Edmonton. These are big, old, majestic trees just hanging out between office buildings & parked cars. Wonderful! We also sat in a square on some steps. This has become one of our new favorite pastimes. We recommend trying it!

For supper we returned to our Mexican place…it was a great price, good food and we weren’t feeling up to reading every menu again tonight. Also in our defense, Luxembourg doesn’t even seem to serve “traditional dishes” anywhere. We both munched on taco salad with margaritas (cause we hit Happy Hour again).

We are posting this from last nighs hostel while we are picking up our luggage. This morning we went through the complicated process of packing our bags so they would be ideally set for night trains & getting ready in rail station bathrooms. Then we shoved them into hostel lockers and set off to sightsee. Now we’re picking them up and going to catch a train to Germany…well first we go an hour into Metz Ville (in France), then 7.5 hours overnight to Munich. We are excited to see what a night train is like and are not too worried about being able to sleep…Kristin had a throwback to her insomniac days last night & is feeling the effects of only 2-3 hours of sleep and Justine can really sleep anywhere, anytime!

Wish us luck with our nightime travels & with the drunk Germans tomorrow!
Love, Luck & Leafy Park,

That’s what I love about you Canadians: You’re adorably quirky!

Bonjour! Guten Tag! Moien! Hello!
We are coming to you live from the one and only Luxembourg. Where?! you ask…well Luxembourg is a 2586.4 square kilometer country squeezed in between France, Germany & Belgium. In case you are not experts at estimating size, 2586.4 km^2 is less than half the size of PEI! The population of the entire country is 502,202…that’s about the same as London, Ontario (not even one of the biggest Canadian cities). So basically, it’s not very big.

This morning we hopped on the tram to the train station, then a train to Luxembourg. The journey we split into 2 parts: an approximately 3 hour ride from Amsterdam to Brussels, then an approximately 3 hour ride from Brussels to Luxembourg City. In between we picked up some lunch…pasta to go!
Justine cant believe how awake she was on the train today…she actually stayed awake for the whole first trip. (Kristin can’t believe how sleepy she normally is on trains…or in regular life…) Once in Luxembourg, we hopped on a bus and ended up just up the hill from our hostel.

The hostel is really big & nice. It has a restaurant & a cafeteria. There are ping-pong tables & a big patio. We are also in a six person room…which should be a nice change from the ten person room we were just in. We are only here for one night though, as we will be night training it to Munich tomorrow. Which reminds us…the next few days may be a little erratic in terms of posting. We are doing night trains two nights in a row, then a hostel night, then another night train…wifi will not always be the easiest to find. But we will try to get the info to you whenever possible…we don’t want you to miss out on the Oktoberfest fun we have coming up!

Once we had settled into our hostel & changed into something better suited for the weather (it’s beautiful today so we decided to ditch the lulus and go for skirts) we headed into town. First we had to go up the big hill our hostel is down…whew it was hard work…but the view from the road was gorgeous!
The road for the next stretch runs along the historic walls of the old city (it’s a UNESCO World Heritsge Site!) and looks onto the most beautiful sights. This is really a place out of fairy tales…even the name sounds slightly Disney-made-up-ish, doesn’t it? Luxembourg. The buildings are all made of nice stone and there are trees everywhere. It’s hard to describe the storybook quality, so how about we just show you some photos?
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We had supper in the middle of old town at a yummy Mexican restaurant. We miss Mexican food & Justine pointed out the most delicious looking quesadilla that we just had to try…so we did! We also had some delicious margaritas! Kristin was intending on getting a Luxembourgian beer, but then happy hour meant large margaritas for the price of small ones, so she decided the beer can wait till tomorrow.

We then slowly meandered home…home being our hostel…enjoying the storybook quality of the yellow light form the street lamps. How about another photo:
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What we Learned Today: (from Justine’s habit of reading a countries Wikipedia page before we go there…it’s a handy-dandy app she found!)
– People from Luxembourg are called Luxembourgers…what kind of toppings do you think come on a Luxem-burger?

Love, Luck & Luxembourg…that was an easy one!