Fairy Tale Forest

You can tiptoe through the tulips, dance through the daisies, and run through the roses, but only for a tiny brief bit every year can you bathe yourself in bluebells in the Hallerbos forest, just southwest of Brussels, Belgium. For these few, very short weeks before the weather warms up, the forest floor transforms into a carpet of bluebells that looks like a floating velvet cloud. Grab the camera and get there at precisely the right time. But that will have to be next year because this year’s perfect day was Sunday, and my beautiful shutterbug friend and I were there with our cameras at the ready.

Here is some of what my lens captured. Collage 2017-04-24 20_05_02

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Usually the date hovers around the third weekend in April. Wear layers because the weather is fickle and the sunshine can be deceiving. This year it was comfortable in the forest but the walk from the car into the woods was windy and too cool. Find out more information at the official flowering season website, here.

And please don’t step on the bluebells!

Remember to enter to win some Belgian chocolates! All you have to do is comment on one of my posts before June 1, 2017, and you will be entered to win!

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Hiking the Ardennes

Spent a few days last week hiking in the Belgian Ardennes, specifically the region known as Hautes Fagnes, French for High Fens. Oh. Em. Gee. Crazy beautiful. Want proof? Here ya go.

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The Hautes Fagnes are the wildest, highest mountains in Belgium, and apparently they are the last of the Ardennes before the Eifel Hills, on the border with Germany. Spring can be an iffy sort of time for this area, and the weather report called for snow the week after I left! Luckily for me, the few days I was in the high country, I had good weather, not warm but when you’re hiking you don’t want warm. Not if you’re really hiking, anyway. I learned to hike in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, very rugged country. Did you know that the highest peak east of the Mississippi River is in my home state of North Carolina? Yep, Mount Mitchell, just around the bend from where I was born in beautiful Mitchell County. But enough about me. Hiking. Ardennes. Belgium. Here’s what you need to know.

There are literally hundreds of hiking trails, as well marked as any I’ve ever used. Of course, you CAN get lost — be aware of where you are and in spite of the temptation to look down, keep looking up. That’s where the signs are posted. Trail markers tend to be colored shapes: green diamonds, blue crosses, etc. The trails criss-cross each other sometimes, and you shouldn’t be surprised to maybe meet the same person twice on the same trail in spite of the fact that you are following different markers. The hikes also double onto some of the GR (Grandes Randonées) trails. These are hikes that may be as long as 180 kilometers and are marked with squares of two lines, one red and one white. There are many hundreds of kilometers of GR’s in Belgium. Find out more here.  You can pick up a booklet of potential hikes at any hotel or tourist spot. Most of the booklets are in French, Dutch or German; I suppose you can find versions in English; I didn’t. There are good websites to guide you as well; I’m a fan of this one.

The hikes vary from three or four kilometer strolls to many kilometer mountain trekking and everything in between. The hike I chose for the first day out was a long one, fourteen kilometers, and definitely mountainous. I wanted some nice views, so I asked at the desk for advice, and I ended up on a hike called Vallées et Cretes which promised beautiful views and advised “hiking boots which support the ankles well.” They were certainly right about that. The hike was supposed to be about four to four and a half hours long; I supposed it would be if you had taken it in the right direction, but as I am directionally challenged, I did the hike backwards from how the booklet advised. As a result, the same thought kept running through my head — haven’t the Belgians ever heard of switchbacks, for crying out loud???  However, uphill is probably preferable to going downhill at my age; my lungs got a serious workout but my knees were saved.

Switchbacks Needed

It was a decent workout, as you can see by the photos above, and it also gave me a lot of opportunities to enjoy some nice views and clean air. The hike took me about five hours, largely because I stopped fairly often to thank our Creator for his spectacular beauty, and to try to capture some of it in photos. And of course, it’s Europe, so there was at least one surprise along the way. Collage 2017-04-22 16_45_00

I hiked another day, a short one, and again it was beautiful, moreso, in fact, than the first day, with spectacular views. On this day, I was heading back home, so I hiked only for a couple of hours.  You can see all the photos I took on both days if you click on this link.

I used a Belgian site to book the mini-vacation: travelbird.com. The trip was a bargain at 200 euros for three nights in a four-star resort located in the village of Ovifat, near Robertville, and included free parking, a three course dinner in the restaurant and breakfasts. The resort, Domaine des Hautes Fagnes, boasts a spa, and they do speak English. It isn’t much of a “spa,” though. Indoor pool, small whirlpool, sauna and steam room, with the opportunity to purchase massages and such. Relaxing, comfortable, but not really a spa. (If you are looking for a spa, choose Thermae Boetfort, near Brussels (profiled here) or Spa itself, also in the Ardennes, or Thermae 2000 in Valkenburg, Netherlands. All of these are world-class spas, offering just about everything you could imagine, including accomodations.) I did get a pretty decent massage, but it was pricey. That wasn’t what these few days were about, though. I needed a good base from which to hike, and Domaine des Hautes Fagnes was just right for that; there were a lot of other hotels around, too.  If you want to stay on water, there is Robertville, which has its lake. Very near where I stayed, and still in the Hautes Fagnes, this is where I want to stay next time. Find more information here. I drove by the Hotel des Bains, and it looked really super, also four-star, I believe. I didn’t stop, though; do your research. There are plenty of hotels to choose from.

Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany: if you live in one of these places, get out there! The hiking rivals any I’ve experienced anywhere.

 

 

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Tenerife Towns

Last February, I walked all over La Laguna, La Orotava, and Santa Cruz, the capital, sort of urban trekking, if you will. La Laguna and La Orotava are little towns, both filled with colonial-era architecture and historic character. La Laguna is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its colonial buildings: homes, churches, public spaces. The mostly sixteenth to nineteenth century houses are generally a bit shabby by now, but they are still filled with memories of mariners stopping over during voyages from the Continent to points west and South.

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The famous Teatro Leal, below. La Laguna 2 (41)

The image below is of the Real Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de La Laguna, widely considered to be the holiest place in the islands because of the crucifix believed to be gifted from Seville in the sixteenth century.
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It also boasts perhaps the prettiest statue of Mary that exists anywhere, certainly the prettiest one I’ve seen.
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Orotava is also very photogenic, with the Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop.
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La Orotava (34) And interestingly, the little town has a morning bread delivery. Look closely at the photo above, then at the detail below. La Orotava (35)

My arrival in Tenerife conicided with the start of Carnaval. Good news for partiers, as Santa Cruz’s Carnaval is considered second only to Rio’s! I’m not much of a party animal, but I didn’t mind; I visited Santa Cruz on one of the quiet days, so I missed the craziness but got to see some of the color anyway — the best of both worlds!
Santa Cruz (31) Santa Cruz (9)Part of  the local color was especially colorful. Look closely; these are fellas in drag. They were dancing some mean salsa in those dresses, and one was singing his heart out.
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Santa Cruz is a beauty in her own right. A very modern port city with an auditorium to rival Sydney’s (well, almost), art and architectural treats galore, it’s a must-see.
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Below, see some examples of aforementioned art and architecture; it is an inspiring city, indeed.

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It also boasts a beautiful market. I wish I could share the smells from the herbalists there; those were intoxicating!
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Highly recommended, but if you go around Carnaval, it won’t be like summer. It will be comfortable, but not beach weather. Be aware, also, that Carnaval changes everything, especially in Santa Cruz. If you’re a big partier, you’ll love it. If you aren’t, maybe you should schedule your trip for another time.

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT on it, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

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What is Amsterdam?

 

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles!

Lots and lots of bicycles!

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Over 600 thousand bicycles, in fact!

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles and canals!

Amsterdam is canals, and where there are canals, there must be boats.
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Amsterdam’s canals keep the city from flooding, so that its inhabitants can continue to ride their bicycles from their jobs to do their shopping and back to their homes in the distinctive houses we’ve come to recognize as distinctly Amsterdammer.
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Amsterdam is filled with color, from churches…33207982276_13a787761e_z_d
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…to cheeses!

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Amsterdam is old meets new.
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Amsterdam is BEER.

Unfortunately, I prefer Belgian…
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Practical advice:

Make your appointment for the Anne Frank House online ahead of time. Otherwise you’ll be standing in a line like this:
33094906182_955848c0cf_k_dAnd prepare to be moved in a way you might not expect as you walk through the rooms where she and her family hid out for two years, 1942 – 1944. The decorations she placed on the walls of the room she slept in are the only personal items left there. Otto Frank, the only surviving member of the family, insisted the rooms they lived in be displayed devoid of furnishings to represent the emptiness left when so many people captured by the Nazis did not return home.

More practical advice:

There are more museums than you can shake a stick at. You’ll never see them all, and probably you don’t want to. But the Van Gogh Museum is a don’t miss. So don’t miss it.
Most, including the aforementioned and the huge and famous Rijksmuseum, home to nearly a million works of mainly Dutch fine art, are located on or near the museum square, appropriately named Museumplein.

If you drive, park outside the city center and take a tram in. Parking is sparse. Trams are plentiful and fast. And driving in the center is like playing tag with people on bicycles. And the bicycles are also plentiful and fast.

There are a lot of choices of restaurants, especially if you are a meat-eater. There are more Argentinian steakhouses in Amsterdam than in Buenos Aires, I think. And there is usually at least one veg option on the menus of most restaurants.

Located two and a half hours by car north of Brussels, Amsterdam’s location invites visitors from all over the world. Will you be next?

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT ON IT, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a free box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

 

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More to Love about Belgium

If you’ve read my blog for the past few years, you know I like the little country where I live. Belgium has beautiful scenery, lively cities, cutting-edge cultural experiences, great beer, and top-notch chocolate. Brussels, the capital of Europe, hosts hundreds of events every year. Tour and Taxi is one of the companies responsible for some of those events. The company’s Chocolate Salon combines culture, beer, patisserie, and of course, chocolate for a stimulating weekend-long feast for the senses.

If you like chocolate, there’s plenty to taste and to buy. Chocolatiers come from all over Europe to participate. I bought at least a six-month supply of my favorite chocolate from Germany: Goufrais ! Delicious. Of course, the displays treat the eyes.
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But not to be outdone, the International College of Design created mini-works of art to challenge chocolate lovers and artists.

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And lest we forget that Paris is only three hours away… img_9220

For those budding pastry chefs among us, there is an all-day pastry-making exhibition. Very cool with the mirror hanging over the chefs to show us exactly what they are doing.

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But…the piece de resistance had to be the haute-couture chocolate fashion show. The dresses and outfits that waltzed down the runway were made at least in part (some in very large part) out of chocolate and were the results of collaboration between Belgian chocolatiers and couturiers. From elegant dresses to couture, it was a runway show to inspire lovers of fashion and chocolate connoisseurs alike!
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This model threw pralines out to the crowd. And who can resist little kids? Well, when they’re dressed in chocolate, anyway…
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Just like any other runway show, the chocolatier-partner in the design walked the runway with their creations at the end of the show.
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A lovely day to be had, as evidenced by the happy faces you see below. If you missed it this year, put it on your calendar for next!

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There’s nothing like a German Christmas Market!

Christmas markets the world over have one thing in common: they all wish they were German. And if they don’t, the rest of us do because German Christmas markets are the best.

I visited two markets yesterday, Aachen and Monschau. Very near Belgium but definitely German, they both are charming and fulfilling. My friend and I enjoyed delicious street food in Monschau, and Aachen’s cathedral was the highlight of the day.

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Monschau

Monschau is a picturesque little town by a river. They host one of my favorite markets because it is small and not too crowded, and it has a really fun little store for decorative items that really does Christmas decorations well. We also loved Aachen’s street food: kartoffelpuffers or potato latkes are my absolute favorite. Served with applesauce, they are a vegetarian’s dream, especially a vegetarian who happens to be from the US’s southern region, where fried = delectably delicious. My non-veg friend greatly enjoyed her bratwurst und brotchen, one of my former favorites. A fire-roasted pork sausage in a crusty roll, it is served with ketchup or mustard, your choice. I’m not a vegetarian because I don’t like the taste of meat; I’d have eaten one of those in a second if my personal ethics didn’t get in the way. The gluwein is also quite yummy.

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Aachen

Aachen is very different from Monschau but fairly typical of German markets. There are several market areas in the center, and the store windows are fabulous. Lots of street performers are out and about, from the typical human statues to a brass band and a man playing some sort of barrel organ. Street food is good, and so are the restaurants, when you can get a table. We had a tough time but ended up in a tapas bar that served a wonderful Spanish wine and some really good tapas! This year, because of the warmer temperatures, the streets were incredibly crowded, but the experience was worth it.

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Aachen Cathedral

No visit to Aachen is complete without a peek inside the most ancient cathedral in northern Europe. Aachen’s cathedral dates from the ninth century (that’s the 800’s, y’all!); actually it was begun in 790!  The Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle (officially named) is the home of several extremely important relics (the baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes!) and is the burial place of Charlemagne. Read more about that here if you are interested. The gold mosaics, much newer than the building itself, are spectacular and there are beautiful stained glass windows. And you can, for a mere two euros, climb a few stairs and get to see the throne of none-other-than Charlemagne! However the throne was more thoroughly used to crown the Holy Roman Emperors throughout the Middle Ages. But Charlemagne’s presence is everywhere here, including a statue of him outside.

Other great markets are cronicled here and here. Have a look-see when you have a minute to get to know some of the other markets, including Cologne’s and some of Brussels’.

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Practical Paris

Paris, the City of Light. Without equal in beauty and iconic symbols, visitors to this historic city find themselves agape at every turn.

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The view of Montmartre and Sacre Coeur from the Musée d’Orsay

But the difficult thing is finding a decent hotel, with parking and wifi, and in a neighborhood that is well-situated and feels relatively safe.

Gentle readers, I have good news for you. I found it.

In spite of the lovely fact that I live less than three hours from one of my favorite cities and I usually visit it for the day, returning home to my snuggly pets by bedtime, my pal and I spent three days overflowing with activities and two nights bundled up in comfy beds in one of the most sought-after quartiers in Paris, the Saint-Germain-des-Près, in an American hotel: the Holiday Inn (Saint-Germain-des-Près). We paid only 240 euros for two days and two beds, and with free wifi (doubly fast if you are a IHG member) and parking for 18 euros a day, it is a deal!

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Located a few steps, mere minutes from bus 92, metro stops Saint Placide and Rennes, the hotel has underground parking. Drive in, park, and don’t touch your car again until you leave. When you check out, feel free to leave your car there for the rest of the day, as the low 18 euro fee (most parking in Paris approaches or exceeds 30 euros) pays for the whole day, not just until you check out! Nice!

My friend and I enjoyed breakfast twice at the Trait d’Union, a little bar/café at the corner of Rue de Rennes and Rue Vaugirard, the street the hotel is on. At 3 euro 50, “le classic” provides a crunchy baguette with butter and jam and a coffee of your choice. Ask for milk and they bring it. Very friendly staff and a comfortable terrace if the weather permits. Across the street, a similar breakfast costs 9 euro 50! Seriously?

And what is Paris without a visit to the Louvre? Well, if you have been to Paris more than once and haven’t visited the most awe-inspiring museum in the world, shame on you! Did you know that 1) there is parking under the Louvre, but it is maybe the most expensive in the city at 50 euros for a 24 hour period and 2) the museum is open late, until 9:45 pm on both Wednedays and Fridays? Admission is 15 euros and worth every centime. The history of the building involves kings, queens, popes and revolutionaries dating all the way back to the 12th century. The collection includes peices from ancient Egypt to 20th Century USA, and from every continent. Fifteen euros? Really? I’d pay far more; I’m grateful for such a price.

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And lest we forget, at 12 euros, admission to the Musée d’Orsay is also a bargain! The former train station houses the most intriguing selection of impressionist, post-impressionist and symbolic art in the world. Don’t think you’ll see the building and its collection in part of a day; it will take at least the day. Lucky for you, there are three restaurants in the building! dscn1544-2

In spite of the fact that Orsay is just across the Seine from the Louvre, please don’t be tempted to see both in one day. You’ll be exhausted and forget what you’ve seen. The Musée d’Orsay deserves its very own day.

More to come on this lovely city. In the meantime, if you want to see more photos, please take a look at my most recent ones here .

 

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