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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Savor Autumn

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Nature’s Decoration

I walked into our local Home Depot yesterday and was immediately accosted by a forest of pre-lit Christmas trees and animated Santa figures.  For a fleeting moment I panicked thinking , “Wow!  I haven’t finished (or even started ) my Christmas shopping.”  I felt strangely off balance, like I’d been whisked ahead into December.  For a split second I couldn’t remember the day, or the month.  Stopping in my tracks to pull myself together and check my calendar, I realized it was October 20th.  Not even Halloween yet.  My first response was relief.  Then aggravation.  Then outright indignation.

In an effort to get a jump on preparing for a future holiday, we many times miss the beauty of lingering in the present.  And presently, it is a sunny and crisp day in the Colorado mountains.  A few yellow aspens leaves cling with their last strength to the trees in front of the house and they shimmer in the breeze.  Today I will bake apple cake (see recipe below) and decorate the house with pumpkins and pressed leaves of yellow, orange and red.   I vow to not put up Christmas decorations until after Dec 1.  And I savor these moments even longer, by lingering over some of my favorite Autumn photos from near and far travels.

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Colorado Gold

APPLE CAKE WITH CRISP TOPPING

Cake Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 ½ C sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C oil
6 medium Gala, Fuji or Honey Crisp apples
¾ C chopped walnuts or pecans
2 C flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Crisp Topping Ingredients:
2/3 C rolled oats
2/3 C packed brown sugar
2/3 C flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C (1 stick) chilled butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, cinnamon and oil. Peel and slice the apples and add to mixture in bowl (coating as you go to keep apples from turning brown.) Mix together baking powder and flour and add to the ingredients in the bowl. Mix well until all of the flour is absorbed by the wet ingredients. Pour mixture into a greased 9×13” pan.

For topping:

Combine first four ingredients and cut in butter till coarsely mixed. Sprinkle over cake.

Bake for approximately 55 minutes.

Hidden Heidelberg

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On every leg of our journey, God gave us protection, provision and especially people who made our journey memorable.
The German people work hard and play harder. If there is a way to make a game of it all, they will figure it out – strict rules included, of course. They can be stoic and rigid but they know how to have fun. And they are more than ready to show you how, or just help you out before you even ask. The language barrier never stopped any of them from offering help with a smile. If it weren’t for their open willingness to lend a helping hand, we might still be wandering off the beaten path towards Croatia or stuck in a Bahnhof waiting for a cancelled train. We found most Germans to be very accommodating and self-confident especially when it came to fashion. Hairstyles of all colors and shapes were common especially amoung the younger set. Even the older conservatives could show a little leg and not be bothered in the least.FullSizeRender

The last leg (pun intended) of our biking tour was a short 40 km so we took our time to walk around Eberbach in the morning before departing.

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Eberbach town square

The town dates to the 12th century and the four towers of the fortifications are still intact. Across the street from the tower Rosenturm is an austere little monument dedicated to Eberbach’s Jewish population that was wiped out during WW2. The bronze carvings on a stone map depict the family names and their home locations throughout the town. It was a sad yet intimate portrayal of those who were forced to leave and never return to their homes in Eberbach.

As the Neckar River curved around to reveal the city of Heidelberg we anticipated the first sighting of the massive Heidelberg Castle. It had been over five years since our last visit to this city and the castle was just as impressive as the first time we laid eyes on it.

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Schloss Heidelburg

The streets were also just as crowded with tourists. Travel guru Rick Steves barely gives it a mention in his books except to say it is overrun by Americans (true fact mostly because until recently the American army base housing over 16,000 soldiers and their families was based in Heidelberg.) When the Americans closed up shop and left Heidelberg, it was nothing short of an economic crisis for the locals. But they have obviously bounced back because business is booming especially along the commercialized Haupstrasse pedestrian street filled with stores and restaurants.

We steered our bikes down the Haupstrasse to the Hotel Bayrischer where we were greeted warmly by pretty frauliens dressed in dirndls offering us glasses of cool sparking wine. Our room was spacious and very comfortable but we didn’t linger there very long. It was our last night in Germany and we were on the hunt for a cozy out of the way winehaus to enjoy our last supper. Walking around Heidelberg can be overwhelming with the sheer number of restaurants offering every type of cuisine so we finally resorted to consulting our faithful Lonely Planet. Score!

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Weinstube Schnitzelbank

We had a few hours to kill the next day so on a tip from our Stuttgart friends, we passed on the crowded castle tour (did that last time), and headed back over the bridge into the little visited Neuenheim district.. This mostly residential area of the city boasts some great local shops and beautiful mansions that dot the steep hillside. It is also where a mountain path called the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Path leads to the Heiligenberg area. Since our cycling days were over, we decided to hike the “hill.” We heard that the path led upwards along the side of the mountain and offered spectacular views of the old city and the river. Very true!

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View of Heidelberg from Heiligenberg

Our destination was at the top where the old St. Stephens monastery was in ruins but even more interesting was the stadium built by Hitler in honor of himself during the height of the Third Reich. The Thingstaette is an open air amphitheater with eerie roots. First hallowed as a magical place in the deep forest by the Celts, Hitler chose it as a local rally place and had the Heidelberg people build it for him. To this day, a local will usually tell you about it only if you ask and even then it’s with an apology. Every country has its own stain of shame. America had slavery and German had Hitler.

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Thingstaette in Heiligenberg

But at the end of the day, the sobering visit to Thingstaette made us appreciate even more the strength of the German people to forge a future out of the rubble. And as the greatest party of the year approaches, cities and towns all over Germany will once again redefine their national identity in a deluge of dirndls, lederhosen, bratwurst and beer. Prost Oktoberfest!

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Not your typical Macy’s

 

Biking through Wine Country

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The Freiburg/Marbach area of Germany is famous for its wines made from Riesling (white), Topplinger (red) and Lemberger (rose) grapes. The hills in this region are covered with terraced vineyards between small towns nestled at the water’s edge of the Neckar. One of our favorite stops was at Besigheim. It oozes charms of the old German style with cobbled streets, window boxes and timbered houses all within the old castle wall.IMG_6576

Between Besigheim and Lauffen, we decided to imbibe in some local wine at a conveniently located Weingarten right on the bike path. For some reason, the bike ride seemed more enjoyable after our stop.
Not too far down the trail, the Neckar River flowed through the town of Lauffen flanked by the old castle on one side and a 15th century church on the other.

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Neckarsulm was a welcome sight when we finally pulled into our hotel for our third night on the journey. We would’ve been happy to just lay our heads on a clean pillow anywhere but our accommodations far exceeded our imagination. It was easy to see why The Nestor Hotel had earned every one of its four stars. Our stay was beyond comfortable and the stellar breakfast the next morning made it hard to get back on our bikes.
But before we left Neckarsulm, we knew we needed to visit the famous museum dedicated to two wheeler transportation through the centuries.
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Our trip north towards Eberbach was highlighted by gentle paths, frequent castle sightings and quintessential little German villages with funny names like Zwingenberg and Bad Wimpfen. (Bad, pronounced “Bod,” actually means bath or spa.)
Our only complaint was the head wind we fought while those “cheaters” on e-bikes breezed past us. But once the path curved into the forest, the quiet enveloped us and we slowed down to breathe in the magic of the deep forest.IMG_6709

And no surprise, we found another little weingarten in a sleepy town that had our names on it. It was the perfect ending to another great day of riding a total of 55 km. Wish we could say the same for our hotel that night. Hotel Krone Post in Eberbach – Noisy room, tired food, grumpy proprietor. Enough said.

Navigating the Neckar River

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Today I celebrated my birthday in Eberbach on the Neckar River in southern Germany. We are five days into our bike tour and feeling stronger than ever. Two days ago I couldn’t honestly say that, but tonight I think I turned a corner. Or maybe I’m just in denial about being another year older. Either way, I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to navigate the hills and valleys of life as well as the bike paths of this beautiful part of Germany.

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Unterensingen

We started out from Tubingen on Day One with 55 km of riding ahead of us. Cycling along the flat terrain of the Neckar River is a delight for these hardened hill climbers from Colorado. We actually felt like we were on vacation enjoying a relaxing ride through some pretty amazing countryside.

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But the best thing was stumbling across a quirky “miniature train park”. Little railroad tracks crisscrossed the park in every direction and it was packed with parents and their toddlers clambering aboard the little cars for a ride. But by far, we were most entertained by the size of the German men driving the tiny steam engines. In some cases, you could hardly make out the engine due to the size of the rump sitting on top of it. The engineers obviously took their job very seriously but we thought it was hilarious.

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We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon when the sun cast a golden hue on the old city. Walking across the the Innere Brucke into Esslingen am Neckar we could imagine why this bridge is compared to the Ponte Vecchio in Venice in that is covered with little stores and workshops and has been since Medieval times. The bridge is a welcoming entrance to a beautiful old city.

A great night’s sleep at the modern and very minimalistic EcoInn fueled our tanks for the next morning’s explorations beginning with 270 stone steps up to the castle heights above the city.

We headed out on our bikes later that morning towards Stuttgart. Our route to Freiburg was noted as 40-45 km for the day but navigating through Stuttgart turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Desperately looking for green bicycle signs pointing the way through the outskirts of this huge city was stressful even for seasoned bikers. Another American and his German girlfriend were having the same sort of trouble, so we stuck together until we finally got to the other side of the city. They continued on at a hurried pace while we stopped by a bakery and toasted our success with two strong espressos and a couple of fresh pastries.
We heard that there was a pumpkin festival at the palace grounds of Ludwigsburg just north of Stuttgart so we set our sights there for our next break. As we approached the ascent up to the castle grounds, we were happy to find a rest stop of sorts that included a small pool of cool water where travelers could soak their weary feet. We took full advantage of this luxury at the invitation of a German couple who were sitting by the water’s edge. They showed us how to do the walk properly – slowly with knees held high in a counterclockwise direction. Soon the four of us were walking in a line like slow prancing horses, laughing and enjoying the refreshing break from a long day’s ride.

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The pumpkin festival at the castle was impressive (sculptures, food, gardens all pumpkin themed) but it was the castle itself and the grounds that were amazing beyond description. We spent most of our visit in the pumpkin fest area but I did wander around to the back yard and discovered a full botanic garden complete with fountains, a carousel, an orangerie and flower beds still bursting with color.  (This is an unimpressive photo but it will be will be replaced as soon as I get my good ones off my nice camera!)

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We approached our night’s destination of Freiburg and discover it to be a sleepy little village. A perfect end to a long day’s ride included some great pasta at a local Italian cafe and a great night’s sleep in a quiet inn called Hotel Schober.