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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Waterloo and Ommegang

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Our Airbnb was at the eastern end of the municipality of Schaerbeek. Brussels was once a much smaller walled city surrounded by villages. Once the walls were destroyed in the nineteenth century the city became contiguous with the villages but most of them retained their own independent government. A few municipalities to the north ultimately merged with Brussels leading to the large northern projection of the city border. The narrow southern projection results from the annexation of the land on which the Avenue Louise was constructed as well as the Bois de la Cambre park. Schaerbeek has historically been a lower income area with less expensive costs of living and was an attractive destination for eastern European and especially Turkish immigrants during the twentieth century. Schaerbeek's distinguishing characteristic in Brussels is its strong Turkish influence. The town acquired some notoriety in 2016 when the safe house of the terrorists behind a suicide bombing in Brussels was located there, but otherwise Schaerbeek is not well known for being a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Up to this point we hadn't spent any time in Schaerbeek aside from sleeping there but on Wednesday morning we went to the Chaussee d'Anvers weekly market at the western edge of the town. I was a little nervous after neither of our morning markets had materialized the previous morning but as soon as we reached our destination we saw the blocked intersection that marked the beginning of the shopping street. Although it was a sizeable market it turned out to not be very interesting since it was mostly produce resellers, clothing, and household items. There was no one at all selling prepared food so we had to roam around the area trying to find something to eat. All we could find was a bakery and bought some rolls for the kids to eat as we walked back to the car.

I now had to locate a good place for an early lunch which is not a trivial task in European cities. Few restaurants open for the midday meal before noon and at this point it was just after ten. I was able to locate a place using the "open now" filter on TripAdvisor and it fortuitously happened to be next to the Porte de Hal, the only surviving remnant of the city walls. Its current appearance as a Gothic castle is the result of a romanticized nineteenth century renovation of the original utilitarian tower. Although the gate seems somewhat incongruous in the midst of a modern city it is a beautiful edifice. I wondered how many of the locals basking in the park around the gate knew or cared that with respect to its status as a vestige of the medieval area it was an utter fraud.

I was excited about the next item on our itinerary, a Renaissance Village that was scheduled to begin at noon in Parc de Bruxelles. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this but it was one of the reasons I had extended our stay in Brussels from three night to four. The location was the main park in the center of the city, directly across from the Palace of Brussels. It was a nice park but there was no sign of a Renaissance Festival. We walked through every section hoping that we would find it in some out of the way corner but it was clear that there was nothing unusual going on in the park. Eventually we spotted a couple of guys working on some oversize carnival costumes and they informed us that the Renaissance Festival had been canceled. That was infuriating because the Brussels city website still had the event posted at that moment. They did tell us that the costumes were for a procession that would begin at the park that evening as part of the annual Ommegang festival.

So far this day hadn't been working out very well at all. The market had been a bust and now the main event of the day turned out to be canceled. We had no choice but to turn to our back ups, the first of which would be the museum and battlefield at Waterloo. I hadn't found this to be compelling enough to make room for it in our schedule but there was nothing else to fill up the afternoon. On the way back to the car we saw the carillon of the Mont des Arts, a clock with a set of bells and elaborate figurines that plays a melody every other hour. The figurines were designed to emerge from their niches at the strike of their designated hour but are now fixed in place, perhaps because the mechanism was prone to malfunction.

One of the historical truths that became apparent to me over this swing through Western Europe was how crucially important the period from 1789 to 1816 was in shaping the destiny of the nations that comprise the region. The French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon and the eventual defeat of Napoleon brought about the Congress of Vienna, which in turn settled the borders and sovereignty of several of the countries we were visiting. On one day in June of 1815, the future history of Europe balanced on the outcome of a single battle between Napoleon and the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands. The quiet village of Waterloo, a half hour drive south from Brussels, hardly seems to have been the setting of one of the momentous events in modern European history. I made the mistake of following the Google Maps and ended up driving on the narrow paved walkway to the monument, intended only for pedestrians and horse-drawn buggies. Fortunately I realized my mistake and dropped off Mei Ling and the kids before reversing back to the road under the glares of pedestrians who I forced off the path. The long path to the Memorial traverses the battlefield which has long since reverted to its original function as a field of pea plants. Up ahead was the Lion's Mound, the artificial hill erected in 1826 to commemorate the decisive victory of the Seventh Coalition. I passed the buggy that ferries visitors to the Memorial coming towards me and heaved a sigh of relief that I hadn't encountered it during my misadventure with the car.

I caught up with the family at the museum and we decided we might as well pay for the entry, mainly to view the panoramic painting of the battlefield that is housed in its own rotunda. In the museum I soon realized how little I knew about the story of Napoleon's rise to power and his incredibly successful military campaigns. I could have happily spent a couple of hours building my knowledge but the kids were too young to really get it so I could only browse quickly through the displays. The panorama was impressive and I tried to use the moment to educate the kids about the brutality of war and the cheapness of the lives of common people in that era. I think the world is making progress in that department but it's hard to be sure.

The Lion's Mound was the highlight of the Memorial. The climb doesn't look that bad from a distance but we were exhausted once we arrived at the enormous iron lion on its stone pedestal at the summit. The battlefield was a typical idyllic tableau of agriculture in geometric shades of green and brown, betraying no sign of the tens of thousands of combatants who never left the fields alive.

Waterloo had proven to be worthy of a visit and we hadn't even had to spend the whole afternoon there. We had time to see another of my Brussels nonessentials on the opposite side of the city. The Atomium is a remnant of the 1958 World's Fair that was spared from destruction due to its local popularity and success in attracting visitors long after the fair ended. The structure is designed in the form of a unit cell of an iron crystal standing on a vertex. It's a breathtaking sculpture both in terms of its magnitude and its unique architecture. We were surprised that the entrance was only sixteen euros for adults, and half that for the kids, so we didn't hesitate to buy the tickets to tour the structure. An elevator brought us to the central sphere from which a series of escalators brought us through the other four spheres that could be visited. The exhibits were rather sparse and forgettable but the kids really enjoyed the futuristic design that resembled an enormous play structure.

A disappointing day had been rescued by the unexpected success of my backup activities. For dinner we had another night market, this time at Marché du Châtelain in Ixelles. We were looking forward to it after the good food and positive energy at Place Van Meenen on Monday night. The atmosphere at Châtelain was similar with perhaps a few more families and a little less emphasis on wine consumption. It seemed like the young people of Brussels believe in taking full advantage of the summer months with these weekday night markets. I felt some regret we wouldn't have the opportunity to see the city in its most energetic form on the weekend but there was no way with our schedule to spend weekends in both Brussels and Amsterdam.

Remembering the advice of the men at the park we drove back towards the center to look for the parade. All the roads leading towards the park were blocked but eventually I managed to figure out a way to park fairly close to Petit Sablon. There was quite a lot going on in front of the Our Lady of Victories church with a procession of floats and groups of marchers in matching costumes emanating from Place Royale. We followed the parade up to the square which seemed to be the optimal vantage point.

The Ommegang originated in the fourteenth century in celebration of a bizarre episode in which a local woman in a religious fervor stole a statue of the Virgin Mary from the cathedral in Antwerp and brought it back to Brussels. The modern festival celebrates a variety of religious and historical events and involves over fourteen hundred people. This was the first Ommegang in three years after the two prior iterations were canceled due to the COVID epidemic. Ultimately the procession would end at Grand Place where a show would take place for those who had paid admission. It was a relatively low key event but for us the best part was that we had scheduled our visit to coincide with the Ommegang by pure chance. It was one of those fortuitous events that makes travel so satisfyingly unpredictable.

In the morning we packed up and prepared to depart our subterranean garage for the last time. This ten car dungeon had been the stuff of nightmares with its enormous support pillars and tight packing of cars that turned each exit into a feat of topology and engineering. It was one thing to park in a space but identifying the complex sequence of maneuvers required to exit was entirely another. More than once I found myself hopelessly stuck and had to find my way back to the original parked position in order to attempt a new approach. Once we eventually broke free I had to pause on a steep ramp while Mei Ling manually activated the garage door. Every morning one individual blocked the exit with his illegally parked car while he had his morning coffee at a nearby cafe. Mei Ling had found him the first morning by pure luck and he betrayed no remorse whatsoever as he moved his car. On the following mornings we at least knew where to look. I was sad to be leaving Brussels but never having to deal with that garage again was a consolation.

Our final Brussels market was in the municipality of Molenbeek, to the west of the city center. Like Schaerbeek this is a historically working class area with relatively inexpensive housing that attracted waves of immigration in the mid twentieth century. The predominant ethnic minority in Molenbeek is Moroccan and the Thursday weekly market had as strong a Muslim atmosphere as the Wednesday market at Chaussee d'Anvers. The market extended from the Art Deco church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste all the way to the square in front of the Molenbeek town hall, with plenty of action spilling into the side streets.

This was definitely a much larger and more interesting market than Chaussee d'Anvers with a heavy emphasis on fresh produce and Arabic specialties like olives and dried fruits. We did quite well on our usual diet of cherries and bread but once again we were frustrated by the absence of any cooked food. It seemed that either the customers preferred not to eat at the Muslim morning markets or some municipal regulation forbade preparing food in the markets of Brussels.

Four nights in Brussels had turned out to be a good call. I had never given much thought to this city but it turned out to be one of our favorite European capitals with just the right combination of elegance and chaos. We still had a couple of stops to make in Belgium before beginning our exploration of the Netherlands.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:47 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels atomium family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog molenbeek porte_du_hal Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Central Brussels

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Belgium was the third culturally mixed country of our trip after Switzerland and Luxembourg. All of these countries owe their existence to the Congress of Vienna of 1815, one of the most significant events in the history of Europe. During the reign of Napoleon the regions known as the Low Countries were occupied by France but after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo new borders were established for a United Kingdom of the Netherlands that incorporated present day Netherlands and Belgium. This kingdom lasted for only fifteen years before the southern provinces, united by their Catholic religion and disdain for King William I, announced their secession. The new country of Belgium was a union of the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north. We had already spent time in Liège in Walloonia and in Bruges and Ghent in Flanders. All that was left was the separate capital region of Brussels where Walloon and Flemish culture enjoyed equal influence.

We attempted to begin our exploration of Brussels with breakfast at a morning market. Unfortunately neither the markets at Parvis de St-Gilles or Place Flagey turned out to exist on Tuesday mornings. It seemed I hadn't done enough research to confirm the information I had gleaned online, perhaps because I was gathering information on so many cities that I had become careless. We had to eat croque monsieur sandwiches at a lackluster cafe near Place Flagey to fuel us for a walk around the Étangs d'Ixelles. These two elongated ponds are remnants of the wetlands that were drained in the nineteenth century as Brussels sought room for expansion. A small, lush park with a bike path and willow trees surrounds the ponds, which are livened by fountains and tiny islands.

Ixelles is another separate municipality, named for the forest of alder trees that once covered the area. It's a sizable and diverse area but the avenues around the ponds are especially well known for beautiful mansions in a variety of architectural styles.

Past the southern end of the ponds is the Abbaye de la Cambre, a former Cistercian Abbey whose buildings are now divided between various private owners. The grounds boast lush, well-manicured gardens that were originally created in the early eighteenth century. An ornate stone staircase leads to Avenue Louise, a prestigious boulevard that runs through the center of Ixelles. Ixelles objected strongly to the construction of the avenue to which Brussels responded by annexing the strip of land that Avenue Louise passes through. This resulted in the formation of an odd pseudopod of Brussels extending southeast from the center that divides Ixelles into two separate pieces.

The western section of Ixelles was also a classically beautiful urban neighborhood. I loved the way that adjoining townhouses could proudly display different colors, materials, and styles which was such a contrast to the typical uniformity of residential blocks in France or England. Of course both approaches can be used to beautiful effect but the diversity of residential architecture is one of the many pleasures of traveling. By this time we had found ourselves a mission to accomplish. We had arrived in Europe with a backpack full of books but they were on the verge of being exhausted and I did not want to concede the rest of the road trip to the iPads. Brussels would probably be our best bet for inexpensive English language bookstores and I had a promising candidate in Pêle-Mêle, a small chain with an outlet in Ixelles. We found the bookstore in a vibrant neighborhood of tree-lined streets filled with intriguing restaurants and curious little shops. There was a selection of English books on the upper level that was large enough to divide into categories and we came away with a much larger trove than I expected. I found some classic science fiction for Ian and a few literature classics I thought they might both enjoy as well as some light reading material.

We were relieved to find our car still at Place Flagey without evidence of having been tampered with or ticketed despite overstaying the allotted time. For lunch I suggested we return to Wolf since we were going to be exploring the center anyway and there weren't any objections. We'd all enjoyed our meal there on our first night in Brussels and there were still several of the mini restaurants we hadn't tried. We found it just as busy and energetic as the first time and the food was just as good.

The pedestrianized center of Brussels was packed with restaurants that were obviously geared to tourists with an emphasis on crepes and moules frites. On the main drag Rue de Bouchers virtually every diner at the outdoor tables had a heaping bucket of mussels in front of them. At the end of a narrow alley off Rue de Bouchers is Jeanneke Pis, a modern sculpture created in 1987 as a counterpart to the city's famous Mannikin Pis statue. Although the purported idea behind the statue of the peeing little girl is to advance gender equality, it was placed in a location designed to encourage pedestrians to enter the alley where the sponsor owns several restaurants. On another blind alley are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, two nineteenth century shopping arcades with large display windows divided by marble pillars. An arched glass-paned roof completes the elegant presentation of the galleries.

The main attraction of Brussels that ensures that all the moules frites restaurants in the center stay busy is Grand Place. The magnificent gilded Baroque buildings that surround this medieval square are mostly nineteenth century reconstructions of the original guild halls that represented the various associations of craftsmen and merchants in the city. The stone frame of the town hall and its Gothic tower are the only original medieval structures that survived bombardment during the Nine Years War of the late seventeenth century. At the time we visited the center of the square was cordoned off and filled with unassembled bleacher seating for the following night's Ommegang festival. The town hall had an interior courtyard which was free of unsightly debris and allowed a more pleasant perspective on the tower that loomed above us. We had seen so many amazing town squares in recent days, from Nancy to Trier to Bruges, that Grand Place hardly even stood out to us in comparison.

In my research on fun stuff for kids in Brussels I had uncovered something called the Underground Treasure Hunt at the Coudenberg. The Coudenberg is a museum located within the subterranean remnants of the original Palace of Brussels which was destroyed by fire in 1731. The existing Royal Palace was built adjacent to the ruins. The route here passed through the beautifully landscaped Jardin du Mont des Arts and Place Royal, a terrifying multi-lane rotary of speeding traffic surrounded by Neoclassical museums.

From my perspective the treasure hunt was a little disappointing, a self-guided scavenger hunt through a rather boring exhibit, but the kids were easily pleased by the challenge as well as their rewards of candy necklaces and paper crowns. Cleo posed with her crown in Place Royal and wore it occasionally for a couple of days afterwards.

A short walk southwest of Place Royale is the small neighborhood of Sablon which is notable for the beautiful Notre-Dame des Victoires church and the exquisite Petit Sablon park across from it. The central statue in the park depicts heroes of the Dutch Revolt against their Spanish rulers in the sixteenth century. The fence around the park, a landmark of the central city, contains forty-eight tall pedestals each topped by an bronze exemplar of a different historical profession. We found Sablon to be the most beautiful spot that we came across in Brussels.

On the opposite side of the church from Petit Sablon is a narrow triangular square called Grand Sablon. At the apex of the triangle was a busy rotary surrounded by interesting buildings including the flagship store of Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. For some reason the facade of the Marcolini store had been festooned with an array of colorful oversized cardboard hats. On our way back to the car we passed the Manneken Pis, the inspiration for the Jeanneke Pis statue we had admired earlier in the day. This four hundred year old sculpture has inspired numerous knockoffs around the world. The inspiration for the statue has been long forgotten but there are numerous legends pertaining to the importance of a urinating toddler in the history of Brussels. Due to a longstanding tradition of stealing the sculpture the original has been placed in the Brussels City Museum and its place has been taken by a replica, which is still protected by a tall fence. Not far from the Manneken Pis an erotic bakery boasted a large chocolate replica of the obnoxious child standing among a display of penis-shaped eclairs.

While Belgium was not one of the major colonial powers, King Leopold II managed to carve out a sizable area of central Africa as his personal fiefdom in the late nineteenth century. This was a particularly brutal and repressive colony until independence was achieved in 1960 and the nation of Congo was created. In the years subsequent to independence many Congolese migrated to Brussels to work and study. The foundation of a hostel for Congolese students in the northern part of Ixelles eventually led to the development of a substantial African community. Many Congolese and other Africans opened restaurants and businesses in the area which soon adopted the name of Matonge after the entertainment district of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Since Mei Ling and I love ethnic neighborhoods there was no way we could pass up the chance to see one of the few sub-Saharan African neighborhoods in Europe. We found a parking spot on the main drag of Matonge, Chaussée de Wavre, but the African restaurants we walked by weren't the most appealing. We struck gold on a pedestrian alley called Rue Longue Vie which was lined with colorful restaurants that displayed their specialties on outdoor banners. We passed by a busy barber shop and we figured it was a good opportunity to get me the haircut I desperately needed by that point. One of the barbers offered me a price that was too good to refuse, the equivalent of about ten bucks. I sat there for around fifteen minutes while he did away with most of my hair, laving me with a short fringe that was combed back to reveal about four inches of forehead. It didn't faze me much as I'm not too fussy about my appearance and I wanted a haircut that would last until I got home. I didn't have exact change and with some trepidation I handed the barber a larger bill and told him how much change I wanted. My concern proved to be warranted as my barber entered into an animated conversation with an individual at the back who might have been a manager or an owner. After a couple of minutes of back and forth, which appeared to me to be an act, my barber came back over and presented the ridiculous story that his manager wasn't allowing him to accept such a low payment for the haircut. I knew I was being scammed but the bill I had given wasn't large enough to make a big stink about. Of course I wasn't going to add any tip now so I was only out an extra seven dollars. The experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth since I should have known better than to be in a position to need change. I quickly put it behind me and we sat down across the street at what seemed to be the most appealing restaurant with the most exotic dishes. African food can be a bit of a toss up with the unfamiliar textures and flavors but we enjoyed most of the dishes that we were served. We still haven't been to sub-Saharan Africa and it was a reminder that we need to fill that significant gap in our travel catalogue.

On the way back to the car we looked down a side street and saw a brightly-lit intersection where the sidewalks were filled with people eating at outdoor tables. Even though we had just eaten it was an irresistible scene and we needed to be part of that beautiful urban atmosphere. We found an open table and ordered a bucket of mussels and a plate of escargots, somehow finding enough room in our stomachs to consume them with a couple of glasses of wine. We were just a block from the African neighborhood but it seemed we had traveled between continents in a few steps. Brussels and especially Ixelles had given us one of our most satisfying days of the journey thus far. It had been a great way to cross the halfway point of our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:35 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family manneken_pis family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog ixelles matonge grand_place Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bruges and Ghent

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We'd had a few complicated arrivals but we'd never come close to being unable to access our Airbnb so we took the calculated risk of driving straight to dinner in Brussels rather than checking into our apartment first. This made for a much more dramatic arrival in Brussels as we drove straight into the center of the city from the east, passing major administrative centers of the EU as well as numerous embassies and gleaming skyscrapers. It was clear that we were now in a metropolis that surpassed Lyon and Zurich in terms of population and global significance.

Our dinner destination was Wolf Sharing Food Market, one of two food halls I had identified in the city. We usually try the food halls in any major city because it's fun and enjoyable to mix different cuisines, it's easier to get an idea of the quality, and it's logistically easier with the kids than dealing with a restaurant. We'd struck out with Food Traboule in Lyon but we've been to so many food halls around the world that this one bad experience didn't discourage us. The immediate area around Wolf seemed to be a financial district that was rather bleak and abandoned on a Sunday evening. The entrance to the food hall was the only sign of energy inn the area and the interior was bright, spacious, and welcoming. The developers had really nailed the food hall aesthetic with a large central bar surrounded by about a dozen small restaurants that served a variety of cuisines from different continents. Everything we tried was good but we were especially pleased with the African and Italian options. Wolf Sharing Food Market was probably the best European food hall we'd been to outside of Copenhagen.

Our Airbnb was north of the center in the working class residential neighborhood of Schaerbeek. It seemed colorful and had a significant Turkish and North African immigrant population. We found our apartment building and I was able to use the keypad to open the front entrance. The next step required us to access a room in the basement containing lockboxes to retrieve the apartment key, but the code we had been provided did not work. We tried it several times and then started attempting to correspond with our host through the Airbnb app. We were getting responses but only after about a ten minute delay and it seemed like the person on the other end didn't understand the problem we were having. They offered all kinds of solutions that didn't make any sense when the only thing that could help was the correct door code. Eventually I realized that we weren't even communicating with a human but rather some kind of an automated response system. We then activated our iPhone international plan and Mei Ling called Airbnb directly, since no phone number had been provided for the host. Meanwhile I started scrolling through booking.com to find a hotel for the night just in case. Soon after that an actual human contacted us through the app and provided us with a door code that worked. The entire process took a little over an hour but it seemed like much longer with the kids sprawled out on the luggage in the hallway trying to sleep. Once we got inside the apartment was fine but I was absolutely furious that we had been treated so carelessly and forced to waste an hour stressing out in a hallway. We've had some complicated arrivals but that was the first time we've faced the possibility of not having a place to spend the night.

There was no market on Monday morning so we drove straight to Bruges. Ghent was closer but Bruges was the more essential city and I wanted to make sure we had all the time we needed there. I also had a promising lead for a dinner restaurant in Ghent and the timing might work out perfectly if we left Ghent until the end. Driving out of Brussels was an interesting experience as it was often unclear to me who had the right of way at intersections. If I was lucky there was a car in front of me and I would just follow it through but in many cases I had to slow down as I approached the crossing and check for oncoming traffic. I didn't want to stop completely if I had the right of way and create a confusing situation so I would slow down and wait to see if the car coming from the side was stopping before passing through. I was usually on the more major street and cars coming from the side would stop but it was unnerving not to be able to see any signage making the right of way clear. I never did figure this out no matter how hard I studied the intersections for some kind of clue. Traffic in Brussels was also more hectic and disorganized in general than it had been in the larger cities of France and Switzerland. We always left Schaerbeek via the same route and over time we became used to the landmarks of the neighborhood such as a cafe with reproductions of Greek statues on the outer wall.

After an hour and a half we arrived in Bruges and parked in a garage quite close to the center. The old town of Bruges is surrounded by an oval canal that is fed by two long canals that extend to Ostend and Zeebrugge on the North Sea. Several narrower canals penetrate into the old town and divide it into seven or eight quarters. Bruges was originally a coastal settlement that grew wealthy and influential through ocean trade, but in the sixteenth century the Zwin channel to the North Sea silted up and became impassable to ships. Over the next few centuries Bruges steadily declined in importance relative to Antwerp. The medieval architecture of the town remained well-preserved and by the end of the nineteenth century the city was popular with British and French tourists. Extensive restorations in the 1960's and onward helped to establish Bruges as a famous travel destination comparable to Venice and Amsterdam. I hadn't researched the city very thoroughly but I came armed with a list of the essential buildings and squares to be seen.

Our garage was just south of the central canal Dijver. I had chosen to visit Bruges on Monday in the hope that the crowds would be reduced but there was still a sizeable number of people roaming the streets at ten in the morning. I could only imagine what a zoo the city must be on the weekends. One of the highlights of Bruges is the views from the countless bridges over the canals that pass through the old town.

The first towering edifice of Bruges we came across was the thirteenth century Church of Our Lady, a Gothic masterpiece in brown and grey brick. The belltower is apparently the third tallest brick tower in the world. We had seen some impressive architecture on this trip but this church stood out as particularly majestic and intimidating.

As we moved deeper into the old town we were amazed by block after block lined with exquisite brick buildings, many displaying the classic crow-stepped gables that originated in Belgium in medieval times. While some elements of the architecture were consistent there were countless variations in the color of the bricks, their patterns, and the design in the masonry. The stories I had read about the beauty of Bruges were no exaggeration. This was the most remarkable city we had seen since the old town of Prague.

We followed the flow of pedestrians to the most iconic spot in Bruges, Grôte Markt. This market square is over a thousand years old and is ringed by unique and magnificent buildings such as the neogothic Provincial Court and the rectangular Bouckhoute House, a Renaissance era residential building topped by a golden globe that was used to synchronize the town clocks with the sun. Looming over the square is the intimidating mass of the Belfort, a thirteenth century tower that could be the home of an evil wizard from a Tolkien novel. Unlike most of the other tall belltowers we had seen on this trip the Belfort was never associated with a church. It has always been a municipal building that once housed the city archives as well as the bells that kept the residents apprised of the time. The octagonal upper stage that confers such a foreboding appearance on the tower was added in the fifteenth century.

For some reason we couldn't find a single restaurant in the center that opened before noon. To take our minds off our growling stomachs we wandered around the network of pedestrianized streets in the center. It began to drizzle but that didn't stop the people lining up for boat rides at the wide junction where the Dijver and Groenerei canals met at a right angle. The most famous of the alleys is Blinde-Ezelstraat which passes under an ornate Baroque passageway that joins the city hall with the courthouse. The name of the street translates to Blind Donkey which is apparently derived from an inn that once stood there.

Lunch was a strange interlude with a rather eccentric waiter who brought us a complimentary bowl of boiled shrimp and proceeded to grab one and break off its head. Perhaps they had issues with tourists attempting to eat them without removing the shells first. After decapitating the shrimp he held it aloft and looked down at me triumphantly. For a moment I considered opening my mouth for him to drop the shrimp into but the moment passed and he set the crustacean back down into the bowl. Afterwards we wandered to the northern part of the Burg Quarter where the Spiegelrei Canal deadends at Jan van Eyck square. A statue of the early Renaissance painter on a tall pedestal looks out over the square that is named for him. This area was less commercial and touristy which made it easier to appreciate the authentic, peaceful character of Bruges. We browsed the enormous selection of Belgian beers at Bacchus Cornelius but I didn't find it as tempting as I might have when I was twenty years younger.

I knew if we walked further the quarters to the north and east would be almost entirely residential. Instead we turned back towards the center and soon found ourselves back in Grôte Markt. We made sure to study the square from every possible angle and then we walked through the archway of the Belfort into its rectangular courtyard. We completed our Belfort experience with waffles from the truck parked in front of the entrance.

We took a different route back to the car which took us over the charming St. Bonifacius pedestrian bridge. Here we were close to the opposite side of the Church of Our Lady with a great view of its classic Gothic flying buttresses. Our time in Bruges had passed very quickly and I could happily have spent several more hours walking around the town but we were already down to the bare minimum of time available to see Ghent.

It took us less than an hour to reach Ghent and we were still a little dazed from the perfection of Bruges. We weren't expecting much more than a punctuation mark from this less heralded city, but when we saw what lay ahead of us as we crossed Saint Michael's Bridge into the old town Mei Ling and I looked at each other and laughed in amazement. Ahead of us was a jaw-dropping array of massive Gothic buildings that outshone anything we had seen in Bruges. There were innumerable towers and spires of every conceivable shape and design, elongated windows in the stone walls, and parapets with ornate balustrades. I never could have imagined a scenario like this outside of a movie set and now we were about to walk right into the middle of it.

The canals that pass through the center of Ghent are fed by channels and rivers that extend to Bruges, Antwerp, and Temeuzen on the Scheldt estuary. We could see beautiful exemplars of crow-stepped gabled houses along the promenades on either side of the Leie canal that passed under the medieval stone bridge.

Heading towards the center from the bridge three incredible structures were arranged in almost a straight line. The vast, grey Saint Nicholas' Church dominates an open area that was created when the surrounding buildings were demolished at the turn of the twentieth century. Just to the east is Ghent's own Belfort, more conventional and less formidable than Bruges' version but still an imposing tower. Finally there was Saint Bavo's Cathedral which is the seat of the Diocese of Ghent. It was amazing to be able to walk between these three tremendous medieval towers in the space of just two minutes.

Wandering randomly around the old town we came across Werregarenstraat, known locally as Graffiti Street. Local legend has it that the authorities tolerate graffiti on this one street in order to spare the rest of the city from defacement. As a native New Yorker I know that no self-respecting vandal would allow himself to be compromised so easily. I think the true reason for the pristine condition of the old towns of Bruges and Ghent is that the local population takes too much pride in the beauty that surrounds them to seriously consider selfishly damaging it. Graffiti Street is well out of sight of the medieval quarter and presents a colorful and whimsical counterpoint to the stoic religious bastions a few blocks away.

We crossed back over Leie for the last historical sight in Ghent that I had on my list. Gravensteen Castle is older than any of Ghent's towering churches and has been restored to its original magnificence. We had so little time left that we decided not to pay the steep entry price for the museum but apparently the rooftop terrace provides for excellent views over the old town. We were content to admire the beautiful masonry of the exterior walls of the castle from outside.

The tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and elegant brick buildings just west of the castle is called Patershol. The area has become known for a high concentration of ethnic restaurants but it was too early for them to be open and we were practically alone on the tranquil streets. It was easy to see why many consider this historic yet spirited neighborhood to be their favorite in Ghent.

At this point we had a tough decision to make. We could stay in Ghent until the restaurants opened and eat in Patershol or we could hustle back to Brussels for the weekly market at Place Van Meenen . I only had shaky information about Place Van Meenen which seemed to be a conventional market until about seven but supposedly remained open for drinks and snacks until the late evening. If we went back we couldn't be sure if there would be a market at all, or if there was if there would be food substantial enough to make a dinner out of. It was tempting to stay in Ghent and absorb the evening atmosphere but we couldn't turn down the possibility of a night market. Some of our most rewarding travel experiences in China, Taiwan, and France have come at these kinds of events. Place Van Meenen was in the center of Saint-Gilles, a separate municipality just south of the city center. We were relieved to find that the square was filled with food trucks and market stalls even though we were arriving after seven. It was a beautiful location with the ornate Saint-Gilles city hall on one side and classical, ornate townhouses lining the other three sides. It may not technically have been Brussels but the atmosphere was the same. The market was quite crowded and boisterous so it was quite difficult to find a place to sit although Mei Ling soon located an undersized table in the shadow of a food truck. Most of the produce stalls were closing but we had time to pass through once and see that there was nothing extraordinary in that department. The food trucks were a mixture of French and international cuisines and we were able to do quite well feeding ourselves and the kids. The barbecued skewers were a big hit and of course there was inexpensive wine to wash everything down. The best part was the people-watching as there seemed to be a good mixture of locals and expats. We might easily have been the only tourists there. As the evening progressed the square became even more crowded and the wine flowed faster. It seemed like the party would be getting rowdier and we had already had a long day so we drove back to the Airbnb in Schaerbeek and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:19 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels family_travel travel_blog bruxelles tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Liège and Maastricht

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My initial choice for a stop between Luxembourg and Brussels was Charleroi. It made sense because it was one of the largest cities in Belgium and fairly close to the direct route between the two capitals. The funny thing was that when I began my research according to the usual internet searches hardly anything came up. No travel blogs, no magazine articles, just some cursory lists of museums and buildings. At first this intrigued me as I thought we might have a chance to discover a cool city that had been overlooked by international travelers. A closer look at my resources soon revealed that in fact Charleroi is a decaying, poverty-stricken industrial city that is ignored by tourists for good reason. It's always possible that the city has some redeeming features and hidden gems that make it worth visiting but on our quick sweep through Belgium there were too many better candidates. Instead I chose Liège which seemed to have more than enough for one night including a highly regarded Sunday market.

The route to Liège took us through the Ardennes, a vast forested region renowned for natural beauty as well as the horrifically destructive battles that were fought there in both world wars. We only had time to stop in one of the famously beautiful villages of the Ardennes and I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne. The town seemed to have all the features emblematic of the Ardennes: a bucolic setting within a bend of the River Ourthe, a hilltop castle, brick and half-timbered houses. What my research didn't tell me is that the town is a massively over-developed tourist trap, a fact accentuated by our misfortune of arriving on a Saturday afternoon. The parking areas were so packed we had to find a spot on one of the roads leading out of town. A town square was completely filled with parked motorcycles and the streets were buzzing with stereotypical tourists with loud clothes and telephoto lenses. I suppose we weren't any better than they were but ideally we like to see the locals outnumbering the tourists when we travel. Here it wasn't close. Walking across the Ourthe into the old town was still quite enjoyable as we could see the reflections of a row of attractive townhouses distorted by tiny ripples in the glassy surface of the river.

The main street of the old town was lined with ice cream shops and inexpensive restaurants with insipid menus. The flagstone streets and the stone houses didn't look more than fifty years old. In general the stone facades looked more like artificial siding than the genuine article. It was a significant contrast from the authentic antiquity of the towns we had visited in France and Luxembourg. The town had a little bit of charm but overall it was an unconvincing reconstruction of what had been largely destroyed in the second world war. The main exception was the eerie ruin of the medieval castle that could be seen hovering above the town on a verdant hillside.

We had lunch in a butcher shop that doubled up as a bistro called Maison Bouillon & Fils. I thought it would be a good way to get to know the rich local cuisine but we didn't find much that appealed to us outside of the charcuterie which was somewhat uninspired in itself. Mei Ling referred to it afterwards as "that cold cut place". The restaurant was pretty but insubstantial, a description that applied equally to the town as a whole.

Although we don't usually do museums Ian was curious about the World War II museum with a large tank in front of it. I found it as depressing as anything else related to war. World War II probably takes the cake in terms of the worst suffering humans have managed to inflict on each other in any particular episode of history. I learned that La Roche-en-Ardenne suffered far more damage from American artillery than German during the war but there haven't been hard feelings about it. It was part of the operation to trap the German forces in the Ardennes and was considered a necessary evil.

After the museum Ian and I met up with the others who had been sitting on the main street having ice cream. Two hours in this town had been more than enough and we strolled back across the Ourthe towards the car. A line of bright red kayaks extended around the bend in the river. La Roche-en-Ardenne was certainly a charming place but it wasn't the kind of experience we look for when we travel. I expect we'll return to the Ardennes in a few years when we are road tripping through northern France and give it a more thorough evaluation.

I had taken note of a wildlife park close to town as a possible diversion for the kids but when I reviewed it again it seemed too small and limited to be worthwhile. Fortunately I came across something I'd missed previously, an amusement park for kids called Parc Chlorophylle. It took us about half an hour to get there on narrow roads passing through forested areas, allowing us to feel the natural atmosphere of the Ardennes more than the highway we had been on earlier. The park was a slightly confusing place with several different sections. At first it seemed to be just a large playground but eventually I realized that there was a long trail that led to several different interactive play areas, some of which were quite elaborate. It was probably the most fun the kids had had since the games at the Bastille in Grenoble.

After staying at Parc Chlorophylle until it closed we had a late and somewhat complicated arrival in Liège. Sometimes in Europe dealing with an Airbnb can feel like playing an escape game, albeit one in which the goal is to get into a hidden room rather than to escape from it. In order to reach our apartment we had to locate the parking garage in back of the building but we could not activate the gate without the key. I had to walk up the ramp, locate our personal garage and figure out the trick to lifting the door, retrieve the key and activate the gate, drive back up the ramp and maneuver the car into the narrow stall, and then clamber out via the ten inch gap that was created when the car door was pressed against the garage wall. After this harrowing experience we could now pass through the remaining doors between the garage and the elevator to the apartment.

Our building was in a blue collar mixed residential and commercial neighborhood called Longdoz across the river from the city center. The neighborhood's ethnic and immigrant character with a profusion of restaurants reminded me of Brooklyn or Queens from my home city of New York. We were so frazzled after the complicated arrival that we didn't consider attempting the walk to the center for dinner, especially considering the number of restaurants on our street. We eventually settled on a Vietnamese place that turned out to be average at best.

In the morning we packed up and went through the reverse of the complicated process we had gone through to park the car in the garage. I had designed our itinerary so that we would be in Liège on a Sunday morning for Marché de la Batte. There has been a market at the La Batte section of the western bank of the Meuse since 1561, which makes it the oldest market in Belgium as well as one of the largest. We were a little anxious that the disruptions of the COVID epidemic might have put an end to the market but as soon as we crossed over the Meuse from the river island of Outremeuse we could see a lengthy row of white canopies. Parking was already quite tight but fortunately we were early enough to find a spot a couple of blocks inland. On our walk to the market we passed the colorful Saint Bartholomew's church, an icon of Liege. The church is an exemplar of an obscure style of Byzantine-influenced architecture known as Ottonian after the medieval German emperor who favored it. In the square at the base of the church is a playful bronze sculpture by Mady Andrien depicting a group of small people heading to parts unknown under the watchful gaze of a cluster of giant bishops.

The market was stretched out for about a kilometer of the boulevard that ran alongside the Meuse. It was crowded but not packed and we were able to shop and converse with the merchants without feeling harried. There was a strong immigrant presence here and many North African food specialties. Extensive excavations on the inland side of the boulevard and endless construction barriers added to the gritty feel of the market. The stalls weren't as pretty as in the French markets where every item was always laid out perfectly but the quality was amazing, especially the plump, sweet cherries we couldn't get enough of. The other impressive feature of the market was its extraordinary length. It was over a kilometer from the Pont Saint-Léonard where we started to the Saucy footbridge where a final cluster of stalls filled a parking lot.

We walked out onto the footbridge for a look back at the market from above. In the other direction highrises lined the banks of the Meuse. We had crossed this river close to its source days earlier when driving from Langres to Nancy. Since then it had passed through the renowned French cities of Neufchâteau and Verdun before turning eastward at Namur in the Ardennes and now we were standing above it in Liège. The river would turn again to the north and pass through the Netherlands before eventually joining the Rhine as it emptied into the North Sea. I loved to familiarize myself with these rivers and the way they connected the different cities and societies of Western Europe throughout history.

We had no desire to return to the car through the market so we raised our hoods against an annoying but not unexpected drizzle and turned inland towards the city center. The streets of this older neighborhood contained an interesting mixture of classical apartment buildings in Germanic style and more modern edifices. Some of the most impressive buildings such as the Prince-Bishops' Palace and the Hotel de Ville house the municipal government.

The old town of Liège abuts a steep hill which was once topped by the fortress that defended the city. The most famous way to ascend the hill is via the Montagne de Bueren, a 384 step staircase that was built in the late nineteenth century and commemorates a futile battle fought four centuries earlier by locals against the Duke of Burgundy. I wasn't expecting the kids to be up to the climb but to my surprise they tore off ahead of us and maintained a pretty steady pace for most of the ascent, although they were exhausted for the last few flights. The stairs were adorned with inspirational messages such as "Thank you for visiting without screaming" in four languages. It was amazing to see the city recede below us every time I turned around. I'm not sure what I expected to find at the top but a solitary bench and a dull residential street didn't seem worthy of the climb. The fortress atop the hill was long ago demolished and replaced with a large hospital.

Between the staircase and Saint Bartholomew's several alleys called impasses course northward from Rue Hors-Château and dead end in courtyards at the foot of the hill. The entrances to the impasses were nothing more than doorways that led into fascinating narrow cobblestone paths that were heavily overgrown with ivy and other wall plants. The rural atmosphere was completely different from anything else we had seen in Liège.

To my regret we hadn't spent any time in the neighborhood of Outremeuse. Outremeuse once referred to the entire area on the right bank of the Meuse but a short canal known as La Dérivation resulted in the formation of a large river island that co-opted the name. The area was originally dominated by tanneries and mills but is now largely residential with some gritty areas and a growing reputation for hipness. The southern end of the island is occupied by Parc de la Boverie which contains a fine arts museum by the same name. A footbridge crosses over the park and then the Meuse to the Guillemins neighborhood of the left bank. Underneath the bridge enormous geese patrol the grass around a pond with a central island. We walked past the museum hoping to see the confluence of the Meuse with the Ourthe at the southern tip of the island but eventually our progress was stopped by the gated entrance to a boat club.

Liège had been a worthwhile overnight stop. Before moving onward to Brussels we would briefly cross into the Netherlands to visit Maastricht. The Dutch Province of Limburg forms an odd southeastern projection of the Netherlands that seems as though it should be part of Belgium. The strange configuration of the border came about when the military garrison of Maastricht remained loyal to the Netherlands while the rest of the southern half of the country seceded to become Belgium. Even though the general population of Maastricht wished to join Belgium an arbitration by the Great Powers resulted in the city and surrounding areas remaining with the Netherlands. Once we arrived I amused myself by surprising everyone with the news that we were no longer in Belgium and making them guess which country we were now in. They had no clue but the kids were impressed when I reminded them they had now been in four different countries in four days.

In a departure from our usual routine I had scheduled a tour of the Waldeck Casemates, a network of tunnels that was once part of the city fortifications. Our tour wouldn't take place for a couple more hours but I thought it might be a good idea to identify the starting point ahead of time. My instructions indicated that the tour company office was located somewhere within the Waldeck City Park. I tracked down the pin on Google Maps and it put us in front of a locked, unmarked red door set into a weird brick wall in the middle of the park. This seemed like it couldn't be right but we walked around the entire area and there was nothing resembling an office or a kiosk. Since our SIMs didn't allow us to make calls there was nothing to do but continue onward to the city center and hope that we would find our tour guide when we returned. The walk was longer than we expected but it took us through some interesting streets.

We were quite surprised by how crowded and energetic the pedestrianized center of the city was. I had never heard of Maastricht as a travel destination yet most people in the center were quite obviously tourists. It reminded me somewhat of the unexpected energy we had found in Metz and Trier. I had the feeling that many of the visitors were from neighboring regions of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands on a weekend getaway.

There were two impressively large open squares in the old town. At the southwestern corner of Vrijthof were two enormous churches that I first thought were a single structure with diverse architectural elements, something like the Dom of Trier. The red Gothic belltower belongs to the church of St. John while its dignified Romanesque neighbor is the Basilica of Saint Servatius. Both churches were originally Catholic and performed complementary functions in medieval times, but during the reformation Saint John was claimed by the Protestants. Apparently the relationship between the two institutions has not always been harmonious but we didn't see any arrows being shot from one building to the other while we were there. Vrijthof felt rather barren when we were there but it is an important square for festivals and the annual Christmas market. At Markt the star attraction was Maastricht's seventeenth century city hall, a stone behemoth in Dutch Baroque style. True to its name Markt contained several large market stalls selling cheese, sausages, coffee, and snacks but these were clearly the daily tourist shops. The real market takes place every Wednesday and Friday morning.

We had to hurry back to the Waldeck Park to be in time for our Casemates tour. When we reached the brick wall there were several people standing in front of it, one of whom was obviously the tour guide. After providing us with some background he unlocked the red door in the wall which was the entrance to the casemates. I'd never heard the term casemates before and now we had encountered it in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The term has a somewhat obscure origin but may be derived from the Greek word chásmata, meaning gap. Casemates are fortification walls that contain spaces for gun emplacements or human movement. Maastricht was extensively fortified during the late Renaissance period as it occupied an important strategic position at the crossroads of the great European powers. Many of these walls and embattlements were destroyed over time but several long sections of casemates remain and were used as bomb shelters during World War II. As we explored the dark tunnels I tried to impress on the kids what it must have felt like to hide underground as bombs detonated overhead, never knowing how or when this terror and destruction would end. Of course they couldn't begin to conceive of it having never known anything except peace and security.

For a more complete picture of Maastricht we drove to the Wyck District, a historic neighborhood directly across the river from the city center. The area is renowned for its immaculate classical architecture and energetic street life with upscale boutiques, cafes, and galleries. The intersecting streets Wycker Brugstraat and Rechtstraat are the best for browsing and people-watching. At the end of Brugstraat the medieval stone St. Servatius Bridge allows pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the Meuse between Wyck and the city center. The bridge was undergoing some unsightly construction during our visit but it was still interesting to look out over the Meuse for the second time that day. We had now seen two fascinating cities in two different countries in the same day that were birthed from this storied river.

Over the last few days we had discovered some amazing places off the beaten track in Western Europe, from Nancy to Maastricht. All of these cities were well-deserving of being visited and we had seen some stunning places whose existence we might otherwise never have been aware of. For the next week however we would be on a well-worn tourist path from Brussels to Amsterdam. Would we be able to find the souls of these legendary cities amid all the commercialism and hype as we did in Osaka and Los Angeles, or would we be met with the frustrating superficiality that we encountered in Paris and Vienna? It was time to drive onward to Brussels and find out.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:30 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family ardennes meuse family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog la_roche montagne_de_bueren la_batte outremeuse Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Northern Luxembourg

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Luxembourg is a small country but there's still quite a lot more to it than the capital city. We decided to spend our full day in Luxembourg visiting some of the towns and castles in the northern part of the country. Luxembourg emerged as a national identity as far back as the tenth century, but over the next millennium the region was passed back and forth between the neighboring powers of France and Germany like the prize in a tug-of-war. Once the leaders of Western Europe finally sat down to hammer out their differences peacefully at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Luxembourg was formally awarded permanent independence along with Switzerland. As with other small European countries, the culture and language of different areas of Luxembourg varies substantially depending on the proximity to one of its larger neighbors. Before our arrival I was unaware that the country has its own language, Luxembourgish, that was considered a dialect of German until 1984. Luxembourgish is an official language of the country along with French and German and more than two thirds of the natives speak it at home. I wasn't about to spend much time studying phrases in Luxembourgish for two days in a country where practically everyone also speaks French and German but I did learn that "moien" means good morning, similar to the German "morgen". However, the terms for "thank you" and "good bye" are more similar to French.

The first stop of our day trip was the Friday morning market in the town of Ettelbruck, close to the center of Luxembourg. It was a small collection of trucks in the town's pretty central square but there was a rotisserie and a baker, enough for a decent breakfast. It was early but there were barely any other customers. I noticed Spenser jiggling another one of his incisors and helpfully removed it for him, his second lost tooth in a week.

We walked around the center of town for a short time and discovered a few intriguing streets, but there wasn't really much of interest beyond a glimpse of regular day-to-day life in rural Luxembourg. We noticed right away that the town was much more colorful and vibrant than Luxembourg City, more like Switzerland had been. There were no tourist attractions in Ettelbruck and everyone else in town appeared to be locals.

Bourscheid Castle was just a few minutes north of Ettelbruck. There are several medieval castles in Luxembourg and I had done quite a bit of research to be sure we were visiting the ones that were in the best condition. Bourscheid is firmly within the northern region of Luxembourg, a tall plateau named Oesling which is contiguous with the Ardennes Forest. From the hilltop castle we had some wonderful views of the lush, rolling countryside around us.

The castle fell into ruin in the nineteenth century but in 1972 it was acquired by the government and partially restored. It is still a ruin but has been rendered safe and accessible, and there are several portions that have been reconstructed to semblances of their former majesty. The remnants of the thick, imposing walls testify to the enduring craftmanship of medieval stonemasons.

The most completely restored medieval castle in Luxembourg is Schloss Vianden, close to the German border. At the heights of their power in the thirteenth century the Counts of Vianden rivaled the Dukes of Luxembourg in territory and influence. The restoration was conducted in stages beginning in 1851 and was only completed in 1990. The castle looms impressively from the top of a hill that is accessible via a cobblestone path. The interior of the castle didn't distinguish itself much from the other medieval castles we had already seen on the trip. I was starting to realize that the most rewarding part of visiting a castle was the view of it from a short distance.

We drove down into the small town which was composed primarily of two streets. A chairlift ascends from one end of the town to another hilltop even higher than the one that hosts the castle. We walked across the River Our to the northern end of the town from where we could see the rear side of the castle atop a ridge.

The kids had been on plenty of chairlifts when they went skiing so they weren't too fazed by this one. There wasn't much at the top except for a small restaurant and the views of the castle and the town. It's possible to walk down to the castle and then all the way to the town but since we'd already seen the castle we completed the round trip with the chairlift. We walked back along the main street until we reached the best-reviewed restaurant in Vianden and had a decent if unmemorable lunch.

Our original plan was to complete our tour of the country in Echternach, the oldest city in Luxembourg and reputedly one of the most beautiful. However, as soon as we got back on the main road the skies opened up with the most furious downpour we had experienced on the trip thus far. It was all we could do to see a hundred feet in front of us on the road. As alluring as Echternach seemed, it didn't make any sense to stop in that kind of weather at a town where we had no plan except to walk around. Instead we pressed onward over the border to the ancient German city of Trier. I didn't even have notes for Trier since I hadn't expected we would make it there but I did remember enough from a couple of articles I had read to have some idea of where to go. We crossed into Trier over our old friend the Moselle from Metz and then approached the entrance to the old town via the wide boulevard Nordallee which ran alongside a narrow park. Remarkably the rain stopped just as I finished parking. The rows of classic German residential buildings along Nordallee were colorful and elegant.

The entrance to the old town on Nordallee is marked by one of the most remarkable structures I've seen in Europe. When people think of Roman ruins Germany does not typical come to mind but the Roman empire did extend into the Rhineland as far as modern day Köln at its height of power. Trier was an important city named Augusta Treverorum and contains almost all of the preserved Roman structures in Germany. None of these is as remarkable as the Porta Nigra, a towering remnant of the vast defensive walls of the Roman city. The Porta Nigra was saved from destruction by its incorporation into a medieval church that has long since collapsed into the dust of history. Only the towering gate remains, growing more incongruous with every passing century as its surroundings change and modernize. I can only imagine the expression on the face of a citizen of August Trevorum passing through that gate to see cars whipping by on the Nordallee and the bland expanse of the Spielbank on the opposite side. The Porta Nigra name dates from the Middle Ages when the sandstone first began to undergo the dark discoloration that is much more pronounced on the inner face. If the gate had a name when it was part of the original Roman walls it is lost to history. I was shocked that although I consider myself reasonably familiar with Western Europe I had never heard of Trier or the Porta Nigra before doing my research ahead of the trip. It is truly a remarkable and breathtaking sight in a very unexpected place.

As we passed through the gate into the old town the rain began again. We had our raincoats but we were hoping to see and photograph the town in slightly better weather so we made a stop in an ice cream cafe for hot chocolate. It was a bright, upscale place which made it all the more surprising to find a vending machine selling sex toys in the restroom. Condoms I could understand in a bar or club, but vibrating penis rings in an ice cream cafe seemed a little much. Fortunately our kids aren't at an age where they pay any attention to that stuff or I might have had to spend the rest of the afternoon on uncomfortable discussions.

The old town was fairly compact with the main attraction being the Hauptmarkt square that showcases some of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval buildings in Germany. The city has done a wonderful job of incorporating restaurants and other modern businesses into these invaluable old buildings, maintaining the vitality of the city center without compromising the historical atmosphere.

The Trier Cathedral is the oldest church in Germany although only a small part of the current structure was built in the fourth century. Large sections were subsequently added in Romanesque style although Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements are also present. From the outside the enormous cathedral displays a patchwork of shapes, materials, and colorations as though it had been constructed by a child with an enormous collection of blocks and a short attention span. Despite its motley appearance the cathedral is quite dramatic and beautiful.

I briefly toyed with the idea of returning to Echternach now that the weather was better but the truth is we were exhausted and couldn't really bear the thought of walking through another old city. In fact we were so eager to get back into Luxembourg City for dinner I completely forgot our plan to stop at the monthly Strassen food market to the west of the city. Fortunately there would be no shortage of opportunities in the coming days to add to the growing list of markets we had visited on the trip. Overall we felt that we had probably been fortunate that rain had driven us all the way to Trier because it was a remarkable city that it would have been a shame to miss.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:04 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged road_trip family vianden family_travel trier travel_blog bourscheid tony_friedman family_travel_blog ettelbruck Comments (0)

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