Bellying up in Brussels

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Booking a vacation across the Pond is a sure incentive to get your money’s worth out of a trip. When we first decided to travel to Europe in August the intention was to only go to the Netherlands for a bike/boat tour with friends. But when we studied the map of the Netherlands, we saw how close other cities were that held interest for us.

“Hey, here’s Belgium! Let’s drop in on Brussels and check out how our sister-church is doing.”

“And Hamburg is just north. Let’s go visit Marion.”

“And shoot, as long as we’re at it, Berlin is just a short train ride from there.”

And so the beast is released. Untamable, uncontrollable, wander-lust. Our 10-day trip just morphed into three weeks. But hey, if you’re going to go that far, best to stay awhile or at least until the money runs out.

When our boat pulled into Amsterdam harbor at the end of the biking week, we lingered on deck a while saying our goodbyes to other guests and crew (who quickly became friends) with whom we shared some sweet memories. Afterwards, we walked the short walk to the train station from the dock and boarded a train headed for Brussels.

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Saying our goodbyes to Piet, our faithful guide

 

The main reason we wanted to spend a weekend in Brussels was to attend a service at the sister church of Red Rocks Church in Denver, and pass greetings and encouragement to our family of believers there. On Sunday morning we took a train to Waterloo about a half hour south of Brussels. Attending the worship service was soul satisfying and we savored the time spent with new friends.

Speaking of savoring, we did plenty of that in Brussels.

I don’t normally do “foodie” writing but our short stay in Brussels warrants it. Fair warning – If you’re not hungry now, you will be when you’re done reading this.

It all started out with our train ride from Amsterdam. We usually opt for 2nd class train travel in Europe because there’s not much difference on the ICE trains. (And anything beats air travel.) But this time, 2nd class was full so we upped to 1st class for slightly more money on the ICE train.   Good move. A white coated waiter brought a cart to our table with wine, beer, coffee and fresh pastries – all complimentary.

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We settled into our Airbnb apartment and then set off to explore a little of the city on a free walking tour. Travel hint: These tours are available in most large popular cities in Europe. They are free but you are expected to tip the guide who is usually a student, generously (10-20 Euros per person.) Somehow, we just couldn’t squeeze Paris into our itinerary on this trip, but Brussels was a good way to get a little French fix. The architecture was a comfortable mix of Dutch and French and French is the preferred language.

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Our room with a view

Breakfast was almost always the same. Crisp, tender, flaky croissants, fresh squeezed OJ and a deep espresso with lots of creamy white foam. I could never get tired of that kind of morning jolt.

We usually seek out a local street market whenever we travel to new parts and this time was no different.  A morning spent in an outdoor market is always a good lesson in local culture. The flea market offered everything from tacky trash to antique treasures but the farmer’s market was a feast for the eyes – and bellies.

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Fresh big black figs – my favorite!

For lunch we were on the hunt for a good plate of Brussel’s mussels. We scored at Jardin Van Gogh in St. Catherine’s square.   A giant pot of perfectly steamed mussels in white wine and herbs arrived at our table along with the customary French fries. How are we ever going to eat all of that?! But paired with a dark Dunkel beer and a side salad, the mussels were heaven on the palate and we ate Every. Single. One.

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Mussels in Brussels

Which brings me to the food of choice in Brussels. Chocolate! Belgium chocolate has a reputation for being the best chocolate in the world – for good reason. We nibbled and sampled our way through at least five chocolate shops before making the choice to purchase heavenly truffles at the most famous shop in Belgium – Mary’s. This chocolate has been the official chocolate of kings and queens of Belgium for decades. We figured if it was good enough for royalty, it was good enough for us.

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Aksum Cafe in the Galeries

And what’s the best chaser for chocolate? Why, espresso of course! The Aksum coffee company pulled a perfect shot and had a not-so-shabby ambience in the Galeries, too. So we settled down to digest and savor and people watch. We lingered over coffee perhaps longer than we should have – or perhaps not long enough. Either way, we loved the idea of taking the pressure off to sightsee and instead savored the moments in between.

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Aksum Cafe in the Galeries
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The Galeries Brussels

 

 

 

 

Windmills, waders and wild roosters

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A boat/bike cruise is a perfect way to explore the charming towns as well as the serene farmlands and woodlands of the Netherlands. A week aboard the boat provided us with well-marked bike routes, interesting harbor visits and some delicious cuisine to savor along the way. Cruising through the lush countryside and through charming villages was a bonus to spending the day on our bikes. We had the option of a guided tour with our knowledgeable guide Piet, or to venture off on our own with a well-marked map and a “See you back at the boat!” We decided to play it by ear and do a little of both. The Dutch bike network uses a point-to-point system (Knooppunt) which is much easier to follow than a traditional “route names.”

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And if “knooppunt” isn’t a funny enough word for you, try “wild rooster.” Occasionally we came across warning signs on the path and wondered if we needed to be worried about some kind of feral chicken hiding in the woods ready to pounce on unsuspecting two wheelers. Turns out that “wild rooster” (pronounced “vild roaster”) is actually a grill (roaster) in the road to prevent animals from crossing over. Better known as “cattle guards.”

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The Dutch have a saying…”In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth except in the Netherlands where God created the waters and the Dutch created the land.” And in many cases, the innovative engineering of containing and relocating water substantiates this claim. Extensive agricultural land and in some cases entire cities have been built on land created by a sophisticated network of dikes. So, one of our journeys included riding a few kilometers on what used to be the bottom of the sea as recent as the 1970’s and is now fertile farmland and young forest.

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Biking at the bottom of the sea

The days on the trail were spent ticking off the kilometers over meadows and through forests between one charming village after another.

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Hattem

Just when I thought I found the best photo, something around the next corner would surprise me and make me smile.

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At the end of one particular long day of biking, we pulled into a sweet fishing village with a history of devastation from the huge flood of 1916.   Now a distant memory, the village stands as a reminder of the resilience and stamina of the Dutch. On this late August day the harbor and the cobbled streets were a happy rendition of peaceful serenity. A small group of us walked along the water’s edge marveling at the colors and designs of the old fishing boats. We finished off the day sharing stories over a few good Dutch beers at a sidewalk café that was bathed in the glow of the late afternoon sun.

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Spakenburg

 

DIKES AND BIKES – Wandering the Netherlands

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The barge glides steadily through the gentle waters of the Ijssel River whose banks are lined with river rock and sandy beaches normally submerged under the water. This year has been particularly dry in the Netherlands with rainfall at record lows, and the river level sits three meters below normal. But today, the sky is heavy with low dark clouds and the steady drizzle offers much needed moisture and foggy vistas of gray water, gray sky, gray landscape. A perfect day for writing.

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My home for the next week is aboard the barge “Sarah” – a boat that sails the rivers of central Netherlands known as the Hanseatic region.  This area flourished during the Middle Ages as one of the most important trade routes in Europe with the Ijssel  River being the highway of commerce. The quaint towns along the river have a distinctly Medieval flair evident in the old architecture and cobbled streets.

The rest of the small group aboard our boat chose to follow our determined guide, Piet on the planned 45km bike excursion around the hills and towns of the region today. (Piet reminds us that, “There is no such thing as bad biking weather. Only bad clothing.”) Yesterday we enjoyed our biking under clearer skies, knocking out about 45 km on well-marked paths that meandered under deep green canopies of tall trees and open meadows filled with purple heather. We pushed on at a leisurely pace fueled by the occasional coffee and Dutch pancake.

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Our group of fifteen guests, four crew and one guide is a congenial mix of Germans, Dutch, Poles and Americans from all walks of life. We are today only two days into our weeklong bike/boat excursion and have already settled into a comfortable rhythm of living together in very tight quarters and forging new friendships in the process. It helps that everyone on board is here because we share the same passion for travel and adventure as experienced from the saddle of a bicycle.

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I’ll be blogging every few days or so whenever I’m not on a bike or indulging in some fantastic cuisine on the boat or engaging in lively conversation with my new friends. Until then, “Proost!”

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Altitude High

Traveling to far away places and writing about them can be exhilarating.  But so can wandering to places near your own backyard.  It really makes you appreciate what you have…especially when its’ very existence is threatened.

 

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Two boys view Spring Creek wildfire near LaVeta

 

Colorado Wildfire Update:  Spring Creek Fire has grown to over 100,000 acres

Third largest fire in Colorado history

Reading headlines these days can be heartbreaking, especially when it’s so close to home.  Spring Creek is located in the southwest mountains particularly in the Spanish Peaks area, home to some of the state’s most beautiful scenery and epic hiking/climbing.

 

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East side view of Spanish Peaks

 

Just three weeks ago, we were enjoying a camping trip with friends to Spanish Peaks.  Our campsite was at the top of Cordova Pass, nestled at the foot of the 13,600′ West Spanish Peak mountain.  We arrived on a Wednesday evening, set up camp and then headed out on a short hike to view the “beast” we hoped to summit the next day.

 

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West Spanish Peak. So close, yet so far.

On Thursday morning, we were grateful for a chill in the air as we started out on the trail.  The short hike to tree-line was enough to warm up the bones but it didn’t prepare us for the long haul up the face of the mountain which involved scrambling up a steep stony slope covered with loose shale and scree for another three hours.

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Halfway point rest stop

We summited mid-afternoon and were rewarded with 360 views from what seemed like the top of the world.  If you’ve ever hiked a 14’er, then you know what I’m talking about.  Rocky Mountain High never felt so good!

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Summit – West Spanish Peak

 

We are thankful for the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful part of our country just two weeks before the devastating fire that has gobbled up land and homes around little towns like Cuchara and LaVeta.  Our prayers are with those residents who are left homeless and traumatized by the carelessness of one camper.

And we hope that soon the skies will be red with nothing except the awe-inspiring southwestern sunset.

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Mamma Mia On Crete

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Writing a book is like birthing a baby.   Except the labor has been over two years long.  There were moments I literally screamed, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” but it was there inside me demanding to be born.  And I knew that the labor would produce a happy ending.  A beautiful reflection of my soul.  Or at least I hope so.

Things are moving fast now and I’m “pushing” to the end of this project.  Manuscript edits are completed, as well as cover design and back cover text.

And I have a name picked out:

Uniquely Crete:  Life Redefined on a Greek Island.

Now the big push for book release this summer.  Then comes the hard work…announcing to the world that my baby is out there for everyone to see…and love.  Of course, I’m fully aware that not everyone will see my baby in the same glowing light as me.   But I don’t care.  I’m a proud (and exhausted) mama.

More to come on that later….

As I was writing this travel memoir I had so many flashbacks to my years of living on Crete and many opportunities to revisit this island both in my mind and in the flesh.

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On one of my recent visits back to Crete, I sat down with a friend who immigrated there from Zimbabwe when she was just 22 years old.

Meet Jeannie – a modern day Mamma Mia.  An entrepreneur with a flair for hospitality.

Jeannie always had a heart for the sea and dreamed of living by the water someday.  When she turned twenty-two, she packed up everything she owned, immigrated to Crete and started looking for a job in Hania. She cleaned hotels, waitressed, cooked and was a self-proclaimed “jack-of-all-trades.”

“I pride myself on being a very positive thinker.  I could be mopping floors and be thinking about new ideas for my next venture.”

She married a local Greek when she was twenty-four, but even when that ended in divorce, she stayed “because of the love of Crete, not a man.”

Never one to sit still, Jeannie took odd jobs, eventually landing in management positions at various resorts.  Her newest venture is managing and promoting the Clio resort hotel outside of Hania.

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When I lived on Crete, the Clio was a tired deserted-looking hotel in an absolutely stunning location.  I remember thinking, “This place just really needs some love.”  Jeannie thought the same thing.  Only she did something about it.  When the owner announced he was going to close down the Clio for good, Jeannie approached him and said, “Take a chance on me.”  (Cue music from Mamma Mia.)

Today, the Clio is a vibrant but quiet retreat with spotless rooms and view to die for.  There’s no better place to view the sunset.

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Jeannie’s secret to success?  “Believing! I focus my attention on what I want to do, see the  opportunity and take it.  I don’t hold back. I’m always looking forward, not back.  And when I hit a snag, I get through with prayer. I believe my difficulties are what make me strong and that I am a winner with God on my side.  My confidence comes from deep inside because I believe.”

Great advice for a writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Savoring Mexico City

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Local handiwork shop in Roma neighborhood

Our first travel adventure of 2018 started out as a seed of an idea to accompany my nephew and his wife on a easy(?) trekking holiday in Patagonia.  After reconsidering the amount of time and hassle to get there for only a week’s time, we looked into Nicaragua or perhaps Costa Rica.  Same problem.  We finally settled on an easily accessible location that promised warm weather, good (and cheap) food, and friendly people.  Put that in the mix with some pretty epic history and great urban vibe and you have a very cool place to spend a week – Mexico City.

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La Angel – Monument to Independence

We’re into our fourth full day and night here and I have to admit, while we’ve done miles of wandering through this city on foot and by bike, we haven’t done much lingering.  Traveling with millennials that have boundless energy can have that effect on you.  But one thing we all have in common – the quest for that good cup of coffee…perfect cup…third wave over the top espresso cup of coffee.  I knew my nephew was serious about this “coffee field trip” when I saw his wife’s google map with every high end coffee shop in the city marked and categorized.  They obviously had done their homework and now we were reaping the benefits.

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Our favorite place was just blocks from where were we staying in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City.  Rafael (owner of Forte) is passionate about coffee, and he took the good part of a morning talking coffee lingo with us.  Home baked croissants and pastries (as in made fresh from scratch right there on the premises) were the perfect companions to our morning cappuccinos.

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Forte coffee shop in Roma

We’ve been getting around the city primarily on bikes provided by EcoBici, the city biking program.  It’s a breeze to use once you get registered and we chose the “temporary one-day pass” for a whopping 94 pesos.  That’s $4.86.  Sure, this city is incredibly crowded but there are more parks and green spaces than any city I’ve been in that comes even close to this size.  Biking through the parks or a tree lined avenue almost makes you forget that you are one in 9 million people that buzz around this city.

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EcoBici city bikes

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this city is how affordable it is to enjoy a visit here.  We’ve sampled street tacos, visited museums, ridden in taxis, eaten in great restaurants complete with drinks and have always walked away with reverse sticker shock.  Yesterday, we ate lunch at a local Mexican taqueria in the Historic District and walked away completely stuffed for under $5 – per COUPLE.

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And a table with a view at the upper terrace of the Gran Hotel overlooking the cathedral and palace was priceless.  But the four of us managed to have our afternoon espressos and a phenomenal designer dessert for less than $6.00.

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El Zocolo Plaza – the heart of the historic center of Mexico City.

Mexico City is not for everyone.  It pulses with people, pollution and frenetic energy – all the time.  The air carries a mix of the aroma of Mexican street food and the stench of pollution.  I have to admit, I’m looking forward to taking a deep breath of clean Colorado mountain air when I return home.  But until then, bring on the fresh pastries and tortillas, the colorful characters and murals, the colonial architecture and green parks.  Wash it all down with some of the best coffee in the world and that’s what I call an adventure – city style.  Ciudad de Mexico.

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Street Market – Condesa neighborhood

Wander, Linger Savor Christmas

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I’ll come right out and say it…this is the hardest time of year to write a blog post about slowing down. I’ve already failed miserably at not “shoulding” on myself.

I should send out Christmas cards.

I should bake all those cookies.

I should have my shopping done.

I should have the tree decorated by now. (Oh wait, I don’t even have a tree yet.)

Guilt, self-criticism, failure, Bah Humbug!

Not exactly a good start for preparing my heart to soak in the true meaning of Christmas.

 

Imagine if God had a list of “shoulds” for that first Christmas.

I should’ve sent my son to a wealthy, firmly established Roman family instead of an unmarried, poor Jewish couple.

I should’ve waited until they got back from Bethlehem so they wouldn’t have to travel while she was pregnant.

I should’ve provided a cushy, comfortable room with qualified medical personnel to assist with the birth of my son.

I should’ve proclaimed the glorious news about the savior of the world to influential people that would immediately get the word out to other influential people…instead of the lowliest of humans – uneducated, unclean shepherds.

Point being…it wasn’t a Norman Rockwell perfect Christmas. But through the ages, painters, sculptors, retailers, and even churches have tried to glamorize a very messy, scary, confusing event that changed the history of the world. The Light of the World arrived on earth and for those who recognized Him, they would never be the same.

God had no shoulds. His timing and execution were perfect. And once again I’m reminded that He is God, and I am not. Perfection is His alone.

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Winter morning in Evergreen Colorado

This year I’m not aiming for the perfect Christmas – that was already done 2000 years ago. This year I’m looking for ways to:

Wander through a pine forest knee deep in snow instead of neck deep in chores.

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Linger over a few precious words about the first Christmas instead of trying to come up with the perfect Christmas sentiment in my own cards.IMG_3253

Savor a cup of coffee with a friend in need instead of shopping for things nobody needs.DSC_0036

My tree is up and lit but I don’t know if I’ll get around to actually putting ornaments on this year. And that’s ok. Because all those details pale and seem unimportant when the lights go on.

May the Light of the World illuminate your days with Love, your nights with Peace and your life with Hope.

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Quiet Christmas Day on Crete