Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Road Trip in Belgium and the Netherlands!

     Buckle up, everybody, this is going to be a long one!  Several months ago, Stephen was invited to be a part of a good friend's retirement ceremony in Holland.  We decided to make the most of it and turn it into a week-long tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.  I had made reservations before May, so when the trip finally came time, I was pumped!  We flew into Brussels, Belgium, rented a car and we were on our way.  Brussels is a huge (and scary when you are driving through it for the first time), and as with many large cities, it .  Unlike cities like Rome and Paris, Brussels does not have a lot of icons everywhere you turn.  Instead, it is a working city with a nice history.  Our first night there we aimlessly walked around and found the Parc de Bruxelles with the Parliament across the street.  We walked back down into the Old Town and sat down in a small square where lots of people were enjoying waffles and fries.

     I found a great recommendation online for a restaurant called Skievelat where Stephen and I enjoyed the most delicious meal we had in our entire trip!  I had a delicious eggplant lasagna, but Stephen ordered the real treat!  He was brought two meatballs in two different sauces and Flemish stew.  The Flemish stew (beef cooked in beer for several hours) was amazingly delicious!  I also tried my first Belgian waffle--the real way, not the tourist way--with only some sugar and maybe a little cream.  It was fine, but I was still thinking of that stew!


     The next morning we got up early and found that a bakery nearby had just brought croissants out of the oven and they were the perfect start to our day.  A cup of Belgian coffee--nothing like Italian--also helped us to wake up since we were taking a walking tour in a few hours.  The other picture below is the small square right outside of our hotel (that was cleaned both mornings).

     Before our tour, we walked around a little bit after breakfast to buy Stephen a sweatshirt as it was a little chilly.  We stumbled upon Rue de Nueve, and after Stephen got a little warmer we found a very trendy shopping arcade, Galeries St Hubert.  There were mostly chocolatiers here selling very expensive chocolates, but we did find a lot of World Cup pride in their windows as well.

     We met up with our Free Walking Tour guide in the Grand Place--the biggest and most historic square in all of Brussels.  He told us all about the history of each of the buildings including the importance of beer-makers in times of contaminated water, and breadmakers during food shortages.  He also took us to see the Mannekin Pis, the Stock Exchange that was built on a river, and the Comic Art Scene where a mural of Tintin, Belgium's most famous comic, is depicted.  We finished the tour in the park where Stephen and I walked the night before.

      That night before having our last dinner in Brussels, I went out to buy some chocolates in Sablon, the best area for chocolatiers, and and I ended up finding a beautiful part of the city that I had not read about: the view near the Palais de Justice where you could see the Atomium from afar (a museum we decided not to visit) and almost all the city.  I brought Stephen back to this spot before dinner to take a quick shot.

 The next day we were back on the road, and on our way to Bruges, Belgium.

     We met up with our friends (the family that is retiring) and decided that the first thing we had to do was climb the Belfry, a medieval bell tower hovering over the main square in Bruges.  Despite a very difficult climb with very narrow and steep spiral staircase (not even mentioning the tons of people trying doing this at the same time as well), the views were well worth it.

      The city itself was quite beautiful with canals similar to Venice (just not nearly as many) and lots of trees and birds.

     We stepped into the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a Catholic church that not only claims to house the blood of Jesus Christ, but hosts a veneration service to bring out the relic and pay to look at it and pray with it.  We just happened to be at the right place at the right time, I guess, because we were able to watch the procession which was quite simple: a priest comes out and reads something in French (or was it Dutch?), then another priest brings out this relic, sets it on the table, and then a line forms to go up to it.  That is about it.

     We walked around a bit more enjoying an outdoor market and the nice weather.  We stopped to get a snack and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to eat one of the most important foods in this country: fries!  We chose two different sauces (a delicious curry sauce and a garlic mayo sauce) from the list of about twenty other sauces and sat down to take a break.

     Keeping up with our ongoing tradition of souvenirs, I bought a lace Christmas ornament from this store on the main road through the town.  We kept walking along and went through the park on the outskirts of town.

     Before getting dinner, we checked into our hotel and then took a quick stroll with our friends to their favorite spot in Bruges where the swans congregate.

  We had dinner that night at a traditional Belgian restaurant where Stephen had the Flemish stew (again!) and I had a delicious fish stew.  Afterwards we found a (touristy) Belgian waffle restaurant as it was closing, so we grabbed a quick dessert.

      Bruges was a beautiful little town and as we drove out in the morning we were reminded of how old it is when we had to wait about thirty minutes to get through this one-way bridge!

     Our next stop was Zaandam where we were staying in the Netherlands, and immediately upon driving in it smelt like chocolate!  The entire time we were there, an aroma of cocoa just flooded the place.  We didn't stay long in that town though, before we were on a train heading into the bustling city of Amsterdam.  Another city full of canals gave us the perfect opportunity to take some pictures and see some really cool boats!  Note: bicycles everywhere!

     We walked all the way down from the train station to the Museumplein where most of the city's museum's are located to find the "I Am-sterdam" sign to find it riddled with people.  People were everywhere in this city!

      We thought we could escape some of the crowds in the Heineken Experience, so we popped in there for a quick drink before dinner.  We had plenty of Belgian and Dutch food so far, so we decided to eat in a Thai place next door to the factory which (to Stephen's credit) turned out to be a success.  It was a really filling meal and prepared us for another long hike back to the train.

      On our way back to the train station we found a little musical gathering and realized that it was the first official day of summer and the citizens of the city had put together a little show to celebrate.  We just walked up to it and joined in on the fun!

     We only spent one afternoon in Amsterdam, but I know that if we ever go back it will definitely be in the off-season when there are a lot less bikes and a lot less people.

     We returned to Zaandam just as the sun was setting and we found this beautiful scene of windmills in our tiny town.

     The next morning was a different story, though.  The town was quiet and empty that night, but in the morning there were people again!  It was a beautiful day nonetheless and we walked along the Zaan to visit all of the beautiful windmills.  A lot of buildings had been transformed into little demonstration buildings for traditional Dutch experiences (like chocolate and cheese making).  Later that morning we drove down to Uden to meet up with our friends again in their town and prepare for the retirement ceremony the next day.

      The length of this posts reflects just how long our trip was, even though it felt so short.  This is certainly one of our bigger trips that we have made in Europe and being able to make it into a semi-roadtrip was a lot of fun.  We are back home now, but I am already planning for another trip for this weekend!

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