A Memorable Time in Belgium
I have returned home after almost a month away. I have spent the last couple of days calming down and settling into my home life. I came home to lovely warm weather (actually too hot) and the quiet of being alone where I can hear the birds chattering outside. To sit on the porch swing with Heidi in the early morning enjoying a quiet coffee, with no where to go and nothing to see, is a real treat. My life's tempo has returned.
Yes, Heidi was here for me . She had a nice stay at a dog sitters who spoke of her as "a really big
dog and so needy!" Just like her master! The sitter felt she was always seeking affection. Well I had to explain that is the way we are together: she always wants to be close by me and I am always willing to take the time to pat her and stoke her face and neck. I do think she had changed and was a little hesitent to demand much of me, when I showed up. Could it be that she is punishing me? Two days on, all seems well between us.
While I am enjoying being home, it, in no way, indicates that I had anything less than a wonderful time away. Up to six months ago, I would never have expected to have, visited an interesting part of Europe and get to be present at some important war memorials of both World War I and World War II. I got to share this experience with a lovely friend, Lynne, whose company I enjoy the more time we spend together. We have already spoken of a couple of more trip adventures together.
I have been wondering how to blog about this trip to Belgium. There is so much to share although I suspect to write a blog posting on each thing we did, or place we visited ,would take the rest of the summer. I have decided to make three blog postings. This is the first one in which I will describe the rough outline of our final itinerary ( almost all the things I outlined in the previous post) and my general observations of Belgium. The second posting I will write about our visit to war memorial sites and the third posting will be about particular cultural sites we visited; towns and museums. Hopefully this way I can share my adventure with those interested and not bore everyone by going on and on.
I began our trip by travelling to Mississauga, Ontario where I spend a couple of days with Lynne, doing some final preparations. On May 11, we took a flight out of Toronto to Frankfurt, where we changed planes and flew on to Brussels.
Lynne is an experienced traveller and ,through her company, is a member of The Maple Leaf Club. This is the VIP Lounge in Toronto where a privileged class of patrons can wait and relax for a flight where the food and drink is free and the chairs are comfortable. Businessmen can use their computers and not suffer unproductive time. It was very nice but somewhat against my radical equalitarian views. If this can be done for the few why not the many? I suffered it!!!!
Actually it was very nice.
Going through security was new since I last flew. It was not as much of a problem as I thought it would be. I managed to not set off any alarms although it was strange not to have my multi use pen knife handy in my pocket. No man or boy should considered themselves fully dressed without one!
The airplane was much as a remembered air travel when I last flew, cramped and not enough leg room. I think Lynne was hoping for a upgrade to first class. I think she would have liked me to experience that. I was OK with steerage. The individual movie screen was new since I last flew. I ended up watching three movies instead of reading the book I brought to make the time pass. And of course, the food is not memorable in quantity or quality.
Frankfurt proved to hold a little excitement for us. When Lynne presented her passport the police official looked at me as if to say, "Well where is yours.?" I said, " She has both passports."
Lynne had taken it upon herself to hold on to both passport being the experienced traveller and giving in to her mothering instincts. Suddenly, I had no passport and started to have visions be ending up in a German jail. We began to retrace out steps back through the airport thinking it must have fallen out of her purse on the airplane. Finally, Lynne searched my book bag and it was in there. She had let me hold it going through security and I had dropped it in the bag ( my man purse,) with my book and journal and the blanket I "stole" from the plane. What a relief to be able to present the passport and have it stamped so we could proceed.
Frankfurt problems were not over. When we got to Brussels I stood at the carousel to the bitter end. I had no luggage. We reported it. Apparently my suitcase was not put on the flight from Frankfurt. Later the airline had it delivered to Lynne' brother's place so I could once again use my own toothbrush.
Lynne's brother, Leigh, who lives in Antwerp with his lady friend ,Greet. met us in Brussels. They were to be out hosts, giving very generously of their time, driving us around and sharing with us many of the places we visited. Greet is Flemish. It turns out she is a Flemish nationalist so all things Flemish are good all else is somewhat less worthy. She was very knowledgeable of Belgium and it history. Leigh has had a career where he has worked and lived many places in the World. Recently, he did some work in China and the day we left he flew to Poland to consult on a project there. He is also very interested in the history of Belgium and the wartime history in the area where the Canadian military played a big role. He is also very interested in art, in particular, the Flemish Masters. We were in good hands to get the most out of our experience.
We settled into our bed and breakfast accomadations in Antwerp. It was quite nice although it was up about five flights of stairs which was a challenge for me with gimpy knees. By the end our stay it was not as much of a challenge. This was to be our base where we sleep, rested before dinner and eat breakfast each day. We had a small kitchen which we should have used more. Instead, we ate in more restaurants than I can remember. We had drinks in even more restaurants and cafes, indoors and outside .
Here is the group of us , on our first day, having the first of many glasses of wine. On the left is Lynne and myself, looking a little tense and out of my element, and on the right, Lynne's brother, Leigh and his lady fair, Greet. We had just finished a walk though the old city of Antwerp to get a general lay of the land and take in the sights and sounds to make us believe we are actually here.
This is the view out our bed and breakfast flat. The handsome building across the street fills a whole block and is undergoing extensive repairs. on the outside. It is a justice department building.
Lynne liked to watch the people moving along this street. She was particularly struck by the number of bicycles and the many ways they were used. In Antwerp, and I imagine in all of Belgium, bicycles have the right of way ahead of cars and people. Only once did I see a bicycle give way to another vehicle. It was a horse drawn carriage in Bruges. Main roads have bicycle paths along the edge of the pavement. Where this is not possible bicycles go up on the sidewalk or out onto the road with other vehicles.
I was suprised to see very few helmets. Some small children had them and bicycle racers used them. I guess when you have the right of way their is less risk to cyclists.
You would see family groups cycling together. We saw couple on a date dressed up travelling together. One evening we saw a modified bicycle with a cart in front with four small children in it accompanied by a single bike with the woman with a baby in a seat on the handle bars. In the evening scooters delivering food went up and down our street. You knew bicycles were inportant when yoyu saw bicycle and scooter shops taking up prime rental space on main streets.
The cars are much smaller than most North American cars. I never saw a full sized pick up truck, that is so popular here, all the the time I was in Belgium. Tradesmen often use very small panel trucks. The largest vehicle you would see would be a large farm tractor pulling a large wagon or piece of farm equipment through a small town. In the cities they seemed to use tractors and wagons instead of our dump trucks. I can't remember seeing a dump truck.
There is a lot of underground parking. The cities do not have parking garages above ground. There are no parking meters along the street. One can park after paying for a ticket at a metered ticket tower along the street. Everywhere there are places to ties bicycles. ( When I got back to Canada I noticed in Port Credit, the village I grew up near, they have installed the same system for metered parking, including more places to tie up bicycles.
Here is another street scene in the old part of Antwerp. The building is the city hall on the main square. I was interested in the double decker horse drawn carriage. We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe having another drink. By this time, I had given up the wine and beer offerings. I could not keep up with the others. This was near the end of our stay and I was happy to just have a coke. During my stay I did have some white wine, mostly with a meal and I drank a couple of Belgium beers, of which they brew some 800 varieties. Belgiums do a lot of eating and drinking out of doors. Sometimes a small restaurant may have only a couple of tables on the sidewalk and other places would have many on the broad sidewalks or in a courtyard at the back of the restaurant. At the first sign of a little sunshine or warmer weather the outdoor tables fill up with people enjoying a drink and snack, or even a meal. Often no one is in the restaurant, only waiter moving back and forth.
We spent a few days in Antwerp and made a side trip by train, to Brussels for a day. We passed thought the elegant Antwerp train station in which the flash dance to "Do Ray Me" was performed in the video I included in my previous posting. In Brussels ,we visited the new Magritte Museum and took a bus tour while Leigh and the driver pointed out points of interest, such as the Royal Family sites, the European Union Parliament Buildings and the Atomium. At this point I had hoped for a second visit to Brussels but unfortunately we ran out of time.
We signed out of our bed and breakfast for a few days and went on a car trip to see the war memorials. We stayed in Arras France, after visiting Vimy Ridge and went on the Ipers (Ypers) to see the Flander's Field Museum and the Menin Gate. The next night we went to Poperinge where we stayed in a luxury hotel and had a wonderful meal sampling almost everything on the menu. The next day we went to see Talbot House, the hostel that was created during the WWI as a place for R & R for soldiers, from the fighting at the front not far away. More about all this in my next posting.
We travelled to the coast at Blankenberge where we stayed over. Greet who is a sun worshiper got to spend a little time in the sun while Leigh, Lynne and myself took the street railroad along the coast to Knokke where we walked about a bit, had a drink at a sidewalk cafe; and, returned.This rail line runs from the French boarder to the Netherlands border.
The next day, we travelled to Bruges, a Medieval town, which once was the prosperous capital of the region . It is a lovely place with canals and lovely architecture. It has been called the Venice of the West. From here we returned to Antwerp. There were some specific museums we wanted to see before we left.
Travelling the countryside in West Flanders I was very interested in the farms. They were very small by North American standards but very well tended with all available land used. You could see plots of land to small to be worth working here that had been planted in a crop. Numbers of livestock on a farm were small. You could see cattle pastures on medians in roadways or around interchanged. Obviously, their agriculture is heavily subsidzed. I found the growing of hops interesting. Poperinge seems to be a center for growing this crop. In fact, there is a hops museum there.
On another day we took a trip to Berchem, an interesting suburb of Antwerp, where the architecture is very interesting. This is the Zurenborg Quarter of Art Nouveau architecture. Many of these homes have very interesting and fascinating details on them.We, also went to the lovely Middleheim outdoor sculpure park .
On a day trip outside Antwerp along the Scheldt Estuary we visited a private museum to honour the Canadian and Polish soldiers who liberated that part of Belgium. The owner promised his father, on his death bed, he would build such a museum. It is quite remarkable. And like all the memorial sites quite moving when you thought of the circumstances of the wars and how Canada is still appreciated for its military effort in this region as the major liberating force.
Somewhere in the midst of all this we took a day to attend the babtism on Greet's grandson. It was held in a school's chapel. It was very nice and quite informal. The priest was very relaxed and seemed to enjoy the occasion along with the extended family. Later we went to a fort that was one of several that were part the protection of this area. A room was rented and a family meal was served. It was all a lovely occasion and it was a privilege to be included.
The final place we visited was the small town on Lier. We went there to see the rmarkable clock in a tower which was once part of the ancient fortification. It is the Zimmer clock. It is absolutely remarkable.
We had a couple of memorable meals at Leigh and Greet's apartment. For one, in particular she made us a traditional Flemish stew, which among other things included chocolate. One evening while there we walked down the street to a midway show which comes every year for six weeks. I think the idea was to persuade me to ride of one of the rides. Not on your life!!! We strolled around taking in the sights and sound. It was not unlike the midway of the Canadian National Exhibition. Before leaving we had a Belgium waffle with chocolate, whipped cream and strawberries on it. One of the many local delicacies are the waffles. Besides waffles I managed to enjoy other Belgium favourite foods, beer, frites ( very good French Fries)among others. I passed on the moules (clams) after repeatedly being told this is not the best season.
Finally, and too soon, our adventure was coming to an end. We flew to Frankfurt from Brussels and then home to Toronto; no passport problems and my luggage arrived when we did.
I took a few days in Mississauga to relax, and overcome jet lag. I fixed a couple of things around Lynne's house, (I try to help with something whenever I visit.) I stayed long enought to celebrate with her family her daugher's 37th birhday.
Last Sunday, I took a train from Toronto to North Bay where Parker met me and took me home after a short stay at his place to tell about my trip, give my grandchildren the gifts I brought back for them and reunite with Heidi.
Home to River Valley at last.
For me this was a trip of a lifetime. I never expected to travel like this. I am an armchair traveller interested in history and geography. My older sister is the world traveller. She has just left for Peru to climb to Machu Picchu.
Speaking of travelling. My brother and his wife Carol are trekking onward and northward still along the Appalachian Trail. They have passed the 700 mile mark and are in Virginia. They updated their journal three times while I was away. If you are following their trek here is the last item posted. http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=312195 From here you can back up to where you last read their journal and then read the postings to the end.