While I consider myself a seasoned world traveler, Carol Skipper had only been out of the country once before, but it seemed like I was the one making all the mistakes. I arranged to meet Carol’s flight at the Amsterdam airport, a destination I’d flown into the week before.
Carol arrived in the morning and we transferred our belongings to the airport hotel. Then we returned to get a bus for Keukenhof, Holland’s premier tulip garden covering 80 acres. But when I reached to get my cell phone out of my zippered pocket, it was gone. I’d been pick-pocketed in those few moments.
Feeling naked and without my link to the world, I tried to forget about it. I struggled feeling like someone had violated my personal space and I kept kicking myself for not being more attentive. Nonetheless, we bought our tickets and then missed hearing our group being called. I was so frazzled and Carol was in that haze of an overnight flight, so neither of us had even been aware. Fortunately, another bus left in a half hour and we redeemed the mistake.
The sprawling gardens and the day were spectacular and we got down to using our macro and telephotos lenses trying to isolate flowers. We meandered through the greenhouses, around a lake and up a windmill. When the hungries hit, we bought a waffle, a typical afternoon snack for Dutch and Belgians. That may seem like a boring statement to include, but not when it was the best waffle you’d ever eaten. We became hooked and these dense, sugar crusted gems became once-a-day treats for the rest of the trip.
We lost track of time and when we arrived at the bus loading area, it was mobbed as thick as the pregame swarm waiting to enter the Florida/Georgia game. Where had all of these people come from and where was the line we needed? We hoped for the best and got in a queue among the orderly mass (quite civilized compared to US crowds). Eventually we made it back to the airport, then took the hotel shuttle and ended our first day together- exhausted and happy.
The next morning we wanted to catch the hi-speed train for Brussels. Another snag – our EuRail passes required an extra fee for this direct train. We were okay with paying more, but there were no open reservations. Lesson learned. Instead, we boarded the train requiring us to makes transfers. “No problem,” said the conductor, just cross the platform.”
We did just that, lugging our suitcases and camera gear and got on the next train across the platform. Except the next train was not the 10:12, it was the 10:07. Who knew trains were so exact. We soon realized we were on the wrong train and would have to get off and transfer once again. Whew!
Alas we made it to Brussels and immediately discovered a waffle vendor. One bite and our troubles were over. We checked into the wonderful Royal Windsor Hotel which was within walking distance (thanks Belgium Tourism). This place was gorgeous, one of the perks of my being a travel writer even if just for one night. But, we were not here to relax in a hotel room, no matter how nice.
We had pre-paid for a city tour including a stop at a chocolate factory. Off we went with our cameras and met the group; toured the Grand Place, which was indeed a grand collection of Gothic, Baroque and Flemish architectural wonders including city hall. We saw much of the newer districts – the capitol of the European Union, the royal palace and visited the former site of the 1958 World’s Fair to capture the Atomium – a very cool immense statue of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.
Our chocolate class ended up more of a demonstration; however we had a lot of laughs with the chocolate replicas of the famous Brussels statue, Manneken Pis. Need we say more?
We dined at an outdoor cafe near the Grand Place and then photographed the buildings as super cool recessed neon lightening came on. As much as we wanted to stay until it got really dark (sunset doesn’t arrive until 10 pm), we were just too tired. We walked back to the hotel and almost went to bed. But whoa! I looked out and ended up climbing on top of the desk to open the window to get this shot!!
We left enough time in the morning to see the real Manneken Pis. He is just a tiny statue, barely two feet high, and was dressed in a military outfit, but if you are in Brussels, you must visit him! Then we schlepped all our bags back to the train station and took off for Ghent. Big change from a bustling major city, however, Ghent is large enough that we needed a taxi to get us to our historic district hotel.
That afternoon we took a canal cruise and strolled the streets- and ate another waffle. Ghent is a charming Flemish town, full of canal houses, cafes, cathedrals and a castle. It’s also a university town.
When Carol went to upload her photos to her laptop, the thing crashed. Great- now she was without her computer and me without my phone. Annoying and frustrating, but not enough to stop us from having a good time.
I might also add that Carol was big on ordering water, while I sampled Belgian beer- some of the best in the world. When the bill would arrive, Carol always owed more for her water than me drinking brewskies. Hmmm.
We were staying in Ghent two nights, but the next morning we needed to get back to the train station in order to make a day trip to Bruges. We felt proud of ourselves as we bought tickets from a machine and rode the public tram.
We wandered into Bruges passing house after house with a door, or window, or roofline we wanted to photograph. The medieval town of winding streets and canals is justifiably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. It’s totally charismatic, with a large market square, horse and buggies to ride and even a swan lake.
We waited in line to climb the Belfort or bell tower, 366 steps up a 272 foot tower built between the 13th and 15th centuries. After huffing and puffing, the view was fantastic but the window grating made photography difficult.
We sat outdoors for lunch, me indulging in a big bowl of mussels, a local specialty. We shopped back alleys, went into the Gothic town hall, saw a relic of the blood of Christ, got turned around several times and finally made it to the church to see Michelangelo’s statue of Madonna and Child– at the exact moment the priest was closing the door. “Come back tomorrow morning,” he said. How sad, we wouldn’t be in Bruges again. We did discover a marvelous photo op bridge and the tallest ever brick steeple on the church. And we did indulge in Belgian chocolate on the way back. Bruges is definitely a destination that calls for at least two days if not longer.
Once back in Ghent we hopped on the tram, debating if we needed to purchase another ticket. Our real trouble was that we couldn’t remember exactly where we had gotten on in the morning! Needless to say, we walked a very long way back to our hotel.
The next morning we stopped in St. Bavo’s Cathedral before leaving town, we couldn’t miss another artistic masterpiece. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is 12 famous altar panels by Jan van Eyck and his brother, completed in 1432. All except one panel are original and each is exquisitely painted in great detail except for the two end panels of Adam and Eve which are very stark. Very memorable.
Then off for Amsterdam. Again I goofed and got us on a local train with many stops. But one of the funniest moments came as we checked into our lodging- I had unknowingly booked us into a gay and lesbian hotel. The place was a throw back to the early 70’s, with “mod” decor. We laughed and felt a little strange, but dropped our luggage and took off to see the sights.
We waited in a long line to see the Anne Frank house, again well worth the time and effort. We dined along the canal and wished we had another week instead of a morning flight. Sadly, the sun began to sink and gas lights came on and we vowed we’d just have to bumble through another adventure next year.