Another Amsterdam Preview

This building is better than the flu.


Amsterdam Preview

We've been really busy and now I'm sick, so I haven't been able to update our story lately. But here's a preview of what's coming (starring moi):

And here are a couple more views of Antwerp:


Antwerp: A port city with beer and pancakes

It was nice to be able to spend pretty much a full evening just relaxing. Carla made us a classic Belgian dinner: beef stew and fries. Perfect. Except Belgians aren’t big water drinkers. Beer, coffee and wine are the staples, I think. Even when you eat out, you only buy water and it’s expensive. But the other three options are good, so we didn’t complain.

Early morning, Carmen and I went for a walk in Wuustwezel. It’s a pretty quiet place although we still could’ve spent a lot of time wandering. Belgium is a lush country. It's green everywhere.

But the day was meant for Antwerp, and that’s where we went. Lots of history. And lots of money. Buildings and churches were more ornate here. And Belgian architecture is different, with lots of pointy roofs.

Carla filled us in with basically a century by century rundown of what happened in this city. In short, it's a port. And it's quite cultured. I suppose every European city is with the amount of history there, but we heard and saw some cool stories. In the Cathedral of our Lady, there was an exhibition of 15th Century paintings from the city. At one point, all the pieces on display were located in this church, but had since been dispersed to museums around Europe. This show was called The Reunion. Each painting told the story of a guild (a trade-specific group that was taken really, really seriously, each of which had it's own massive building in the City Square).

In particular, there was the Butchers' Guild. Besides their building having lookout spots for ships coming in so they could meet them at the port and tax them as they came in, the Butcher's Guild building has a doorway leading to an alley, where they would drain blood into this street. It's still there. Although the blood is gone.

By the way, if you were rich enough when you died, you could pay to be buried underneath the Cathedral floor:

It poured for most of the day, which meant we could spend more time checking out restaurant and pub culture of Belgium. Lunch was in a typical 16th Century building; a restaurant that took up all three tiny floors with creaky, steep staircases and brick walls. This was my first experience with Belgian beer: De Koninck. Straight from Antwerp. No matter what kind of beer you order in Belgium, the bartender must put it in the proper glass. Each brand has it's own glass and if they don't match, most people will send it back (apparently). They also place the glass in front of you so the label faces you. It's kind of a big deal. And it's worth it. The De Koninck was good.

And later we avoided a downpour by sitting in a pub. Every pub in Belgium is the coolest pub I've ever seen. Seriously. This time I had a Tongerlo, a suggestion of the bartender. Once again, it was good. But what might've been even better were the pancakes Carmen ordered (yes, this was a very healthy trip). How do I even describe them? Hot, soft, chewy, a tiny bit greasy, covered in brown sugar. Pure gold.

We also checked out the old port of the city:

And capped the day off with an amazing dinner in a restaurant that was once a farmhouse ... 400 years ago. I had a traditional Belgian favourite: Kangaroo meat.

Our short time in Northern Belgium was so good. And seeing it with locals was fantastic. But Carmen and I are loners, and it was time to move on. The next morning we'd get on the train and head to one of the most bizarre places on Earth: Amsterdam ...






Day Six: Belgium. More specifically, little towns located in Belgium.

When we started talking about this trip, about ten months ago, Belgium was our first consideration. At one point we were going to spend all two weeks there. It seemed like this somewhat unexplored country and culture was a mixture of everything we picture in a European vacation.

Paris stole our hearts in the six days we were there, and while were still excited to see Antwerp and Northern Belgium, we were kind of sad to get on the train. How ridiculous.

Now there's a bit of a backstory that needs to be told to explain our this leg of our journey. About tenyearsago, Carmen and her parents hosted a Belgian student, Tinneke Van Camp, who came to Saskatoon to do a practicum at MCC. As far as I can tell, everyone liked each other and a (so far) lifelong relationship started, including Tinneke's parents coming to Saskatchewan for a visit ten years ago. We emailed Tinneke and her boyfriend, Eric, for advice about traveling Belgium, which over time turned into us staying with her parents for two days. What a fantastic development it turned out to be. Piet and Carla picked us up at Antwerp Station and drove us to their tiny town of Wuustwezel, 20 minutes north of Antwerp.

They essentially appointed themselves our official tour guides and took the job very seriously. The first thing we did was drive an hour south to a little place called Lier. For the average Belgian, this would be like driving to a place like Taber. For Carmen and me, this was like two sixyearolds going to Disneyland. This place was the Europe we had in our minds.

Belgian towns, like most European cities, have a church in the centre and are built out from there. So Lier had a typical town square with most of the shops and businesses, kids coming home from school etcetc. But once we stepped even a block away from the centre it got strangely quiet. Narrow cobble stone streets, skinny rundown little rowhouses, junky bikes and peeling paint.

The biggest draw in Lier is a Begijnhof. A Begijnhof is a home for women who are kind of like nuns, but aren't really nuns. Just read up on it. In Lier, the Begijnhof is a Unesco World Heritage Site. And it's brilliant.

(Tourist shot warning ...)

Paris is a grand place. But this was small and charming. Dark and dreary. Old and simple.

I was planning on combining this post with Antwerp and Wuustwezel, but I'll save them. I'm also going to add a few pictures every day, in between these longer posts. So keep checking in. Next: beer ...


Day Five: Strip Joints and Bookstores

Last full day in Paris. We really didn't want to leave, but four days in Belgium and two in Amsterdam were enough to keep us thinking happy thoughts.

We were pretty tired. We'd probably already walked a total of 600 miles. Carmen had twisted her knee climbing the spiral staircase in our hotel on our first day, and it was getting more painful every day. So we mostly tried to take it easy. And speaking of easy *wink* we went to the dodgy, sexy area of the city, which included this old relic:

If you've ever seen Before Sunset (and/or Before Sunrise), then you know about Shakespeare and Company, an old bookstore located just near The Marais and just across the Seine from the Notre Dame. We had been planning on going there at some point, and randomly found it the night before during our walk. There was a book reading the next night so we crammed it into our crazy schedule, which included absolutely nothing.

There's a bit of history to this place, but the gist is that it's an English-speaking store meant for writers to hang out and work while they study in Paris. It's got a ton of character and, for someone who doesn't read a whole lot, it made me want to sit down in a corner and read Agatha Christie's life's work. Anyway, we bought some delicious Greek street food. We went to the bookstore. And we hung out.

That was our last night in Paris. We packed, got ready for a morning of traveling and went to bed. Got up, said farewell to Montmartre and our Metro stop, Jules Joffrin ...

... and jumped on the train to Antwerp.

And so began the first of two Belgian legs of our tour. Oh, sweet, sweet Belgium ...



Took some time off from going through trip photos to photograph a wedding.

Day Four: The Louvre and The Marais

This was probably our best day in Paris. We started it by sleeping in. Which kind of wasn't planned but ... whatever.

It was the first Sunday of the month which means entry to The Louvre is free. We meant to get there early because apparently the lines to get in can be a couple hours long, but early is relative when you have no kids. So we arrived late morning through the Carousel Du Louvre entrance, which also happened to be the entrance to some sort of Lindsay Lohan fashion show for Paris Fashion Week. Apparently she's not dead yet.

We were pleasantly surprised to see there was basically no line and we got in right away. It was even more pleasant to see there's a Starbucks in The Louvre. Paris coffee is fantastic, but sometimes you just need a grande black Pike Place. Guilty? A bit. Satisfied? Yes.

I've always been completely unimpressed by the pyramid at the front of The Louvre, but it's pretty cool. It's actually the entrance to the museum. So it works like this:

I don't think it's possible to fully experience this museum unless you dedicate several days to it. It's really, really, really big. We knew we didn't set aside a lot of time for it, so we didn't stress about what we did or didn't see inside. But we did see the Mona Lisa, and at the risk of sounding uncultured, it was underwhelming. There's an entire room essentially dedicated to it (and BTW, the piece is really small). It's behind glass and then roped off, so you can't get closer than about 10 feet. Plus, the room is packed and everyone is shoving forward to get a self portrait with Mona, which is an awesome shot: giant head with tiny painting in the background.

So we saw most of what we wanted to see at The Louvre without spending too much time wandering. Got lost a couple of times. But made it out with some time to spend in the front courtyard.

And that was that. We took the Metro over to Le Marais, AKA The Gay District, AKA The Jewish Quarter, AKA The Coolest and Most Culturally Vibrant Neighborhood I've Ever Seen.

It's packed with restaurants, cafes, pubs, bakeries, shops and really cool people. And cool people in Paris are different from cool people anywhere else. There's something about the attitude of Parisians that makes them seem so relaxed and carefree. Leisure time is important, and I think being generally laid back is an essential part of the lifestyle. No one seems to be in a hurry, people can take hours to get through a coffee and conversations are long. This makes socializing a priority and it's happening all the time. We were in The Marais on a Sunday evening and it was packed. So if you mix all that with one of the most historical neighborhoods in the city you get the best date ever.

I loved these huge doors all over the city, and in this area they had a certain character to them:

Found an old bookstore. Had a delightful conversation with an employee there:

Him: "*Something in French*."
Me: "Bonjour."
Him: "I said we're closed."
Me: "Oh."

Best pasta dinner I've ever had:

Spent a while in a little cafe where an old bartender was wearing flannel pajama pants with his white serving shirt.

We walked around a bit more and figured we'd find the nearest Metro station to head back to Montmartre. On the way, we came around a corner and realized we were across the street from The Seine. The neighborhood looked awfully familiar. And then it hit us, the Notre Dame was just down the street. What a thing to stumble upon. We crossed a bridge and strolled around Ile St. Louis again, meandering our way to the front of the cathedral. It was so good to come here at night. Our first visit there the previous day was a bit tainted; the place was packed with tourists and it was hard to really take it in, as stunning as it is. At night, it was quiet and serene.

There were a lot of things about this night that I'll remember as defining of my Paris experience. These kinds of things are why we want to travel and experience other cultures. It's hard to tell all the little stories and experiences through a blog, and I don't think I really want to anyway, but it's something we won't forget.

All this and we still hadn't even been to Belgium or Amsterdam yet ...