The City that Loves to Pee

When I talk about Belgium, I often call it “a quirky little country.” This is true for many reasons, and one of them is its fascination with peeing. At least in terms of Brussels, the capital. There are three statues dedicated to peeing beings. No kidding. Yesterday a friend and I did a Brussels Pee Tour (our own inventive name) and made the rounds of all three.

Undoubtedly, the most famous is Manneken Pis, the peeing boy. There are several legends behind the statue, the one I’ve heard most often retold is perhaps the one of a little boy who peed on the fuses of explosives set by an enemy, thereby thwarting the city’s destruction. In any event, the statue was, er, erected in the early 1600’s and it has become the symbol of the city. Sometimes he is wearing one of his numerous outfits that coordinate with holidays and seasons; around July 4, he is often wearing an Uncle Sam outfit. The clothes can be seen in the Maison du Roi on the Grand Place, but yesterday he was au naturel.

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Less famous, but no less odd, is Jeanneke Pis, the peeing girl. This statue was created in the 1980’s to counter manneken pis. She is often forgotten, as she is on a hard to find street, but if you are ever at the more famous Delirium Café, across from the front door, you will find Jeanneke unashamedly peeing away.

My favorite of the three statues, though, is the newest: Het Zinneke, the peeing dog. Het Zinneke is life-sized and determined-looking. He has been peeing on the post since 1998.  He was missing for a few months after he was hit by a car and had to be restored. He will let you pet him, but don’t expect him to stop his determined urination.

All three statues are within about a five or six minute walk from the Grand Place. Do your own Pee Tour, and post your photos in the comments! I’d love to see them!

 

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The Rain in Spain

“It will be our Thelma and Louise trip!” Angela exclaimed.

“With a different ending!” I added.

Spain, four cities, four days. We were planning, finally, our road trip in Spain, the one we’d been talking about doing for two years, the one we had to take NOW, because Angela was leaving to live in the US for at least two years.

Angela and I met when we were walking to an event in Mons (Belgium) with a few other friends in 2013. She and her family had just arrived. We discovered we have a lot in common: we both are from the Southern United States (Yeehaw!), we both speak Spanish (¡Arriba! ¡Vaya!), and we are both related to Daniel Boone (…was a man. A big man). We promptly began calling each other “cuz.” Unfortunately, we didn’t spend a lot of time together while she was here — Angela, having children and a husband, runs in different circles, as it were — until this school year, when she was hired to teach Spanish and ESL just down the hall from me. We have come to regret not making more time for each other because we enjoy each other’s company so much. Our professional vocabularies and philosophies and our family backgrounds are similar enough that we never run out of things to talk about.

In the spring, a rare four-day weekend was soon to be upon us. It was her last weekend free before her PCS date (military lingo for moving to another duty station). We had ZERO flexibility; it was that weekend or nothing. We decided much later than we should’ve because both our dogs were very sick all winter long. But in March, we decided it was now or never and we began planning.

First, the airline tickets. Found ’em, not too expensive considering we were getting them less than a month before departure, put in my credit card info, and the little circle on the screen just turned and turned and then wouldn’t accept. Tried again. Same result. Tried again the next day with no luck. Interestingly, the price of the tickets kept going up over these few days. Finally, I gave up. We discussed whether we should take it as a sign and decide the trip was not in the cards for us. Disappointed, Angela made one final attempt from her house, and SURPRISE! She managed to get the tickets, but by this time, they were two hundred euros more expensive than the first time! Okay, well, trip of a lifetime, bite the bullet, pay it. You who know me know that my Scot roots run really deep; hurts a little to pay more than a hundred euros to fly somewhere in Europe!

Angela began working on accommodations, too. I know, I know — why not me since she is the one who got the airline tickets?  Because I’m content with a private room and en suite bath in a hotel with wifi. I’ve stayed in 30 euro a night, clean but simple hotels in the centers of historic cities and been perfectly happy. Angela, like most of my friends, has higher standards than I. She found some beautiful hotels right in the centers of Seville, Granada and Toledo, walking distance to everything, with wifi. Not incredibly expensive but certainly nowhere near my usual happy place. Bye-bye, budget!

“You’ll never regret taking the trip,” our friend, Maureen said. “You’ll only regret NOT taking it.”

I sighed and agreed to pony up.

We checked the weather and it was already in the 80’s in sunny Spain. I was in charge of finding us a car. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and I told Angela, “I’m going to try to rent a convertible! We can’t be Thelma and Louise without a convertible!”

“Woo hoo!!!” she whooped with a broad grin.

The first one I thought I had was this one: fiat_abarth_500c_296

Not terribly exciting but it seemed to be the only one available. Angela smiled enthusiastically. I could tell she wasn’t thrilled but it was better than a non-convertible! So I went ahead. But again my luck prevailed and the site would NOT complete the reservation. I tried and tried. I finally called the company and it turned out the car was not available.

I tried other sites. No luck. Finally, one day, about ten days before the trip, I decided to try again. EUREKA! I found a car. Boy, oh boy, did I find a car. (Insert long, low whistle here.)

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BMW, two-seater, more engine than seating by far. This was way more car than we needed with way less room for purchasing anything on the trip, but WOW. What a car. And what a price. EEEK!!! If I’d ever wanted a credit card purchase to fail, this would be it. But of course, this time, MAGIC. Rental goes through, and TA-DA! We are going to be driving all over Andalucia, top down, wind in our hair, laughing and singing our way through the sunshine and tapas! I won’t have any money but we will have a blast!

A few days before departure, Angela popped into my classroom. “Um, Cuz? Have you checked the weather lately? In Spain?”

I looked out the window at the clear skies and sunny Belgian day, one of the first warm days in weeks. “No, but last time I checked it was almost 90!”

“They’re saying it is going to rain the whole time. That the rain is going to follow us from Madrid, arrive in Seville the same day we do, and stay the whole time.”

I laughed. “No way!” I scoffed. “It NEVER rains in Andalucia. I’ll be surprised if it rains more than a tiny bit.”

Angela was not convinced. I, on the other hand, having been to Spain many times, had only seen it rain in Basque country, far north of where we were going. I was sure we would have mostly nice weather.

Departure day upon us, we packed our light rainwear just in case, along with our scarves, in order to do our very best Thelma and Louise imitations, and we headed south. Brussels Airlines was good if not great, better than Ryanair, of course, and we had an uneventful flight. Arriving in Madrid at nearly midnight, we spent the night in a nice hotel near the airport, arising early the next morning and reaching the airport’s car rental desk by nine. We noticed the skies were unusually cloudy, reminding us both of Belgium. We picked up the fabulous car and decided to leave the top closed.

For the entire drive to Cordoba, we watched the clouds. About forty-five minutes from Cordoba, we dared to put the top down for a bit. Five minutes later, it began to rain, just a little. Angela suggested we stop and replace the top, but I said, “not yet — the rain is going OVER the car and we aren’t getting wet yet!” Angela looked at her jacket and the dash; I was right! We managed to use the convertible for ten minutes that first day. Here’s proof:

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In spite of the weather, we enjoyed the Mezquita in Cordoba, oohing and ahhing our way through the columns and contrasts. A cathedral created out of a mosque, this paradoxical structure amazed us both this time as much as it had the first, when we had visited it about a year apart in the nineties, both of us traveling from the US with high school students. Mezquita.jpeg

And of course, Cordoba herself was as beautiful as always. Filled with flowers and artsy shops, this little city shines, even in the occasional drizzle.
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We didn’t spend the night in Cordoba; our goal for the day was Seville, that gem of Andalucia, and her soaring cathedral. We drove the short distance in a light sprinkle and arrived literally seconds before the apartment rental company, with whom we had our reservation, was to close their doors at 8:30 p.m. We tried with all our might to drive to the place with no luck; we just needed to check in and get the key! Angela began to panic. I jumped out of the car and frantically wound my way through the tiny streets in the city’s center until FINALLY I was on the right street. My sense of direction is not so great, so it’s a minor miracle that I made it, but alas, I got the key in my grubby little hand and somehow found my way back to the beamer. I realized, as I placed my bottom on the leather seat that I was dry; no rain since we arrived in the city center.

That evening, fancy car a kilometer away in a covered carpark, we dined on patatas bravas and chickpeas with spinach (cooked in bacon grease, I am pretty certain — y’all know I’m a vegetarian, right?) and way too much really good wine, in the shadow of Seville’s famous cathedral and just a few steps from our apartment. We walked around the landmark (by now it was raining again) before turning in for the night. The next morning, under clouds but no raindrops, we got in line and waited our turns to go in and pay our respects to Christopher Columbus (entombed inside the enormous cathedral) and get lost trying to find the painting of Saint Anthony, named for Angela’s husband. Or maybe it was the other way around, not sure.

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The tomb of Christopher Columbus, and Angela with Saint Anthony

We walked that afternoon to the Plaza de España, built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition. Angela’s favorite city, Seville did not disappoint. Except for the rain at the Plaza de España and walking back to the car…that was a little disappointing. Thankfully it was only a light rain.

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Seville’s cathedral, her famous tower, and the Plaza de España

We pulled out of Seville that afternoon bearing east, sights set on Granada, a city that has my heart, for so many reasons. The rain accompanied us the whole way. Until we arrived in Granada. As soon as we got off the highway, the rain stopped. It was almost sunny. Almost. And another chance to feel the wind in our hair was past.

Again, we parked a bit of a hike away from the hotel, as it is in the Albayzin, a mostly pedestrian area, steps away from the Plaza Nueva and a short walk to the Alhambra. We checked into the old and elegant building, had a snack and walked up the Darro. We made it all the way up to Mirador Saint Nicolas, stopped into a little restaurant with a view of the Alhambra, and dined on eggplant fried crispy and served with molasses. Watching day turn to night and the lights come on the ancient Moorish fortress gave us both goosebumps. I think I’ve rarely enjoyed an evening more than that one. And JOY! Still no rain!

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The next day dawned cool but not rainy, and we had a guided tour scheduled for the Alhambra. We managed to walk about seven kilometers that day, most of them within the Alhambra grounds. So many beautiful photos! Too many to post. Please enjoy them by clicking here.

Later that day, we savored what I think was our best meal of the trip: more of the aforementioned eggplant (apparently a local dish) and a salad that was beyond belief. Baby romaine lettuce, walnuts, fried garlic slices and warm olive oil dressing. So delicious!  I highly recommend the restaurant, Los Manueles, located just off the Plaza Nueva. Not to be missed, this one. By the time we headed towards the car, it had begun to rain. Again.

Toledo is quite a distance away from southerly Granada in Castilla La Mancha. Most of the way it rained, but it was to be our last opportunity to put the top down on that gorgeous machine. I was driving this time and was DETERMINED to get SOME enjoyment out of that very expensive rental. It let up for a while in the afternoon, and Angela, dubious and cold, reluctantly agreed. This time, it was cool enough that we had to turn on the heat. She shivered the entire time but took a couple of photos anyway.

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We began  to be rained on in earnest within about ten minutes, so we hastily pulled over and put the top back up. I must admit, as fun as it was to drive that car, it was certainly more comfortable with the top closed. It wasn’t more than 60 degrees. Interesting how it rained on us every time we got in the car and let up every time we arrived at our destination. Alas, our luck was about to really run out.

In Toledo, we again were in the center of the historic district. We managed to shop for our knives and enjoy another wonderful meal. The next morning, Sunday, we tried to see the cathedral but they wouldn’t let us in; they were celebrating mass and no tourists were allowed inside. We were too late to go in with the worshipers, so we wandered around a bit and soon found ourselves in a heavy downpour, the likes of which I never imagined in Spain. We managed to get ourselves a little lost and quite a long way from the hotel in the relentless rain, and we resigned ourselves to seeing very little of what we had hoped to see in Toledo. We arrived back at the hotel ten minutes after checkout time and I turned on my charm and Castillian accent (as much as any American can) and the hotelier didn’t charge us extra for our late checkout. Earlier than planned, we left for Barajas airport in Madrid, our clothes soaking wet and our hair a limp mess. Angela took off her shoes to try to dry out her feet and drove barefoot.

By the time we got there and turned in the car, our spirits were a bit better and our clothes had mostly dried out. We checked our luggage and had some tapas and a caña, and reminisced about the preceding days. Our trip of a lifetime turned out a little soggy, but our friendship was stronger than ever and the memories we made were full of laughter, history and delicious food. Turns out the rain in Spain may well fall mainly on the plain, but it can’t dampen the spirits of good friends. Familiar companionship outshines the rain any day.

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Trekking Tenerife

Just over 100 miles off the coast of northern Africa, the Canary Islands are Spain’s subtropical paradise. Tenerife, the largest of the islands, sits sort of in the middle of the archipelago, sandwiched between bustling Gran Canaria and unspoiled Gomera. Tenerife is a diverse and stunning vacationer’s dream, especially appealing for hikers, cyclists, water-lovers and sun-worshipers. The view from my hotel room, below, attests to Tenerife’s appeal to those of us who survive on salt air.

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The locals like to create sort of pools in the ocean, and the hotel had one. It was cold as a witch’s elbow but some of the spa/hotel’s (mostly German) guests were taking a certain “cure” and swimming daily in that icy water was part of the deal, and so they did. Note that this Carolina girl did stick her toe in the water and sufficient was the chill that no other body parts took the plunge. Brrrr!
Oceana hotel  (8) I chose this spa/hotel, the Oceano, on the northernmost tip of the island, trying to steer clear of the crowds. It was a good choice. I enjoyed excellent service, clean and modern amenities, a free yoga class, vegetarian dinners, access to several restaurants and bars, and a quick walk to the bus-stop. I could have chosen Thalasso therapies as well, but got active and saw some of the many local sights instead. And the black lava sand beaches in front and rugged mountains behind made for a stunning setting. Anaga Hiking (6)

Anaga Hiking (59) It also gave me access to a trailhead that leads through the Anaga Mountains to a ranger station about 10 kilometers away. I started at Punta de Hidalgo and ended at Cruz del Carmen. The trail is mostly well-marked with tiny stripes painted on rocks but once in a while you come to a signpost that tells you pretty precisely where you are.

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Most of the first half of the trail is quite challenging, very rocky and steep. I often found myself on a narrow path with caves on one side and a drop-off on the other. Once in a while, I used my hands to grasp a bit of large rock to help heave myself up. The higher I went, the cooler it became, but I worked up a healthy sweat and so didn’t mind. I was glad I had my light jacket, though, as it came in handy at the highest altitudes, 700 meters above where I started.

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This is a good view of one of the early sections of the trail, taken after I’d hiked it.
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The hike was essentially 100 percent uphill, and though classified as moderate, I can assure you it was not. The descent may have been, but I started on the ascending end, and so it was a bit more than moderate. But the vistas were well worth my aching buttocks the next day!

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Every time I thought the views couldn’t possibly get any better, they did. Anaga Hiking (53)
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A little over midway into these 10 uphill kilometers rests charming Chinamada, a tiny community of farmers who live in houses built right into the sides of the mountains. The lifestyle of these hardy people is not all that different from that of their ancestors. Raising everything from chickens to sheep to melons to oranges and even vineyards on these craggy hillsides, they manage to support a little bar/restaurant along the trail. We hikers contribute to the community by purchasing a cerveza or bowl of cabra (goat) stew to steel us for the second leg of our journey. I might’ve partaken of the aforementioned cerveza, but this (mainly) vegetarian will pass on eating a furry potential friend!
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The bar/restaurant is also a cave house.

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Beyond Chinamada, the hike was not as difficult. Still uphill, the path widened and the surrounding laurel forest often reminded me of hiking the Southern Appalachian Mountains when I was younger.
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The flora was beautiful, and the birdsong soothing.
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I was delighted to see that the clover was heart-shaped.
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I hiked quite a lot on this trip, which was part of the plan in choosing Tenerife. In addition to the Anaga Mountains, it is home to Spain’s highest peak, ancient volcano Teide, rising over 12,000 feet above sea level. I rented a car for one day so that I could drive to Teide National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the middle of the island. Along the way, I was sure it was going to be a bust because it was cloudy and overcast. At one point the fog was quite thick. I didn’t realize that I was driving through clouds! Above them, clear and sunny! That’s Teide, to the left, above the clouds, on the right. Teide (24)
I didn’t hike all the way up, of course, just in the park, but it was also a lot of climbing, and the moonlike landscape of Teide National Park didn’t disappoint.
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The view of Teide from my hike: Teide (7)

The hardened “flow” of lava:
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As you can see from the photos, it has been a mild winter all over Europe, including the Canaries, and so the flora is blooming. The trip was a treat by all accounts, and I’ll share the urban trekking I did in the next post. I’ll leave you with Anaga Mountain Birdsong.

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Wheeeee!!!

We were in Klet, Czech Republic, and we were preparing to go to the top of Klet Mountain. We arrived just in time; according to the schedule on the wall, the next ride to the top was leaving any second! We grabbed our water and a few Czech coronas and ran, arriving at the entrance out of breath and feeling every second of our 50-plus years. We paid our fee, opened the door and TA-DAAAA! the next CHAIR was approaching on what appeared to be a communist era chair lift.

When you are expecting a sort of gondola lift and you get a rickety chair lift, either surprise or FEAR is the overarching emotion. We had a bit of both but probably more of the latter, at least at first. We locked eyes and laughed out loud. In for a penny, in for a pound, we stepped into the staging area and prepared for the ride of our lives.

We followed the gestural instructions of the nice gentleman and stepped into the box painted on the floor. We watched over our shoulders as the chairs approached. One by one, my friend and I let the worker shove us into the chairs, which swooped us into the sky. I heard my friend laughing as I spent the first three minutes of the journey trying to figure out how to lock the bar in place so I wouldn’t fall out. When I realized that the pressure of my feet on the foot rest pulled the bar in toward my waist, I practically stood up on it.

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My friend laughing as she settled herself in for the ride.

When we finally got settled in and started looking around, there were absolutely no regrets. Crazy view of the countryside.

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The view from the top was spectacular. It was kind of cold, especially for July, and while it was not so chilly that we couldn’t enjoy it, I admit I wished many times, clutching my arms against my torso, that I’d grabbed my jacket. But at the top, we found some interesting surprises.

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And on the way back down, a bit less terrified now, I was able to relax a bit.

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We were hanging above the ground by tens of meters. 

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A guy with a dog. Who can resist a guy with a dog?

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Oh, my goodness! How old is this kid? Riding ALONE? WTH???? And she wasn’t the only little kid on her own. Apparently Czech kids are smarter than American kids.

 

Beautiful woods line both sides of the chairlift as you journey up and then down again.

If you get the chance, DO IT. Take a jacket, and a few really deep breaths. And DO IT.

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Cesky Krumlov

This past summer, I had the crazy wonderful experience of traveling to some crazy wonderful places, among them a tiny village in the Czech Republic: Cesky Krumlov.

Cesky Krumlov has the reputation for being delightfully beautiful. And indeed it is.

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We flew into Prague, rented a car and drove down, several hours, mostly on two-lane road. My pal and I stayed in a hotel called The Old Inn. Full of character and right on the town square, it sounded perfect, and it really was! Except for the church bells. That rang. Every hour. All night. No air conditioning, so windows open. Lack of air conditioning is standard in small towns such as this, and in fact it isn’t really necessary. On the other hand, it does mean that it isn’t all that quiet. (Did I mention the church bells?) The fact is, the town is quite small, so being right on the square wasn’t essential. But we slept, and it was only one night. And I’d probably stay there again because it was so perfect in every other way.

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The Vltava River runs through the town. 

The Vltava River invites paddlers from all over Europe, and in spite of the fact that I was traveling with an experienced paddler and one of the founding members of the Carolina Paddlers…well, we didn’t. Too bad. Hopefully there will be a next time.

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This is one of the many places I want to return to. In addition to paddling the Vltava, I’d have liked to visit the castle, go inside the church with whose bells we are now quite familiar, eat in a few of the local restaurants, and see some of the other sights.  With only one day, we just didn’t have enough time. We just had so much to see this past summer!

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On our way back to Prague, we did stop and see some of the region via an exciting and unexpected chairlift in Klet. I’ll tell you about that in a few days. Here’s a preview:

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Happy travelin’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Markets

One of the great things about living in Europe is…CHRISTMAS MARKETS! This past year, I visited Cologne and Monschau in Germany, as well as Lille, in France, Maastricht in the Netherlands, and Ghent, here in Belgium. The different countries’ markets display distinct personalities, from their foods to their decorations.

Cologne (Koln) has a lot of different markets all over the city. They are all different. If you only go to one city’s market(s), choose Cologne!

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Cologne: Near the train station

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Cologne: The Angels’ Market (my favorite)

The food…you would expect bratwurst and other sausages, and of course, they were plentiful. But as a vegetarian, I am more interested in other things. Like potatoes. I really like potatoes. Maybe I should call myself a tatertarian…anyway, I digress. Back to the markets! Potato pancakes, potato spirals… Yum. There are also pretzels, smoked salmon, and flammekueche, and of course, gluwein.

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Potato pancakes, potato spirals, smoked salmon, and gluwein!

And it doesn’t hurt that Cologne is simply beautiful on its own.

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Cologne’s spectacular cathedral

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Cologne’s riverfront is RAVISHING!

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Lots of pretty places in this old and interesting city

Don’t be fooled, though. There are other stunning cities with pretty markets. For a taste of a few, click here.  (You can click on individual photos to see what city they were taken in. All were taken in 2015.)

Merry Christmas! Start planning next year’s Christmas market trips!

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Late Autumn in Southern Belgium

When asked what season is their favorite, many people, if not most people, say Autumn, or as we uncouth Americans call it, Fall. I suppose the reasons are the colors and the relief from the heat of summer. As for me, Spring and Summer beat Fall every time. Especially here in Belgium, where Autumn reminds me that everything is dying or going dormant, and we are about to have several months of long, dark nights. That wet, Winter weather is approaching relentlessly. That the Solstice is merely the sigh before sleep fully comes. That Summer sunshine is only a wished-for dream.

But if I want to be positive, and I do, I have to admit that Fall is picturesque and photogenic. Even late Fall, when most of the leaves have succumbed to the rain and wind. Here is southern Belgium, there are many opportunities for pretty pictures.

Notre Dame Church, Chièvres, Hainaut
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In the woods, region Hainaut.
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Beleoil Castle
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Just barely on Beleoil Castle’s grounds, there was a lot of pretty stuff to see.
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That church in the background has a pretty spectacular tree in front of it, on the opposite side from where I shot this photo.

See?
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There’s even beauty in the hard work Fall brings.
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Brussels: gotta love the capital of Europe. Can you believe this old tower, oddly standing in the middle of modern, city buildings?
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One of the few remaining medieval streets. Brussels dates to the 11th century.
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Whoever lives here has transformed a tiny, urban greenspace into an inviting garden sanctuary.  2012-01-01 00.00.00-512

And the Bruxellois who lives behind this window has gone all out!
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And there’s always someone overseeing everything. 2012-01-01 00.00.00-538

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As impressed as I am, though, with the scenery and nice weather, in all honesty, I’m already looking forward to Spring. La Rochelle
I’ll try to enjoy the Autumn and Winter moments. I promise.

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