The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”
Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”
I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like Ávila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.
The drive from Ávila to Toledo was gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.
Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than Ávila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.
We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.
Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!
Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more. You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!
We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.
One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.
We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in Mérida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.
Mérida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. Mérida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.
One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!
Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.
Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.
A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.
We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.
So this post is a day late… sorry about that. We’re leaving for Ireland this evening and I spent more time yesterday preparing for our trip than I anticipated. SO without further ado, let’s talk about Devon! After lunch in Bath we continued driving south to the county of Devon where we stayed for the next three nights. Devon has coastline in both the north and the south, touching both the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. We stayed in a small town called Lynton in the northern part of the county, very close to Somerset, with views over the Bristol Channel. Exmoor National Park is in North Devon, and we planned to explore that area during our stay. The cliffs and coast on the way into Lynton were beautiful!
The town was quiet and sleepy, no tour buses or crowds, and we loved it! Our B&B served us a wonderful breakfast each morning and the rooms looked out over the sea (2nd picture below is the view from our room).
After a full English breakfast our first morning in Devon, we drove to Mortehoe and tackled an 8 mile hike on the Southwest Coast Path. The weather continued to cooperate and we had intermittent sun, and this section of the 630 mile long trail was stunningly beautiful. Around every corner was another perfect view, and the colors of the flowers, cliffs, and sea changed constantly as the sun moved in and out of the clouds. As usual, I took way too many pictures, but someday I’ll be happy I have all these. Probably. Hopefully. Maybe not…
This was our view on the non-sea side. I could barely take my eyes off the water so most of our photos are of the sea.
Connor and I walked down to this secluded beach at one point and soaked our feet in the cool water. We were probably 6 or 7 miles into the hike at this point, and the water felt so amazing. Penny despises swimming, and we’ve thrown her in enough times that she won’t get much closer to the water than in the below picture.
As usual we saw some sheep who were totally indifferent to our presence. We also saw a couple seals bobbing in and out of the waves. We were pretty high up so the pictures didn’t turn out well.
Below, Penny and I are standing on Morte Point, almost at the end of the hike.
The village in the distance is our final destination! You can see Connor and Dave up ahead if you look closely. Can you imagine living in a little village like this, walking your dog on the Southwest Coast Path each morning?!
That evening, we had dinner at a tapas restaurant in town and I have to say I was impressed. I didn’t expect a little village this far off the beaten path to have Spanish cuisine, and in general I don’t expect restaurant food to be very good. No offense to you lovely English! You have done a fabulous job embracing your flaws (I assume this is why you have so many terrible fish and chip shops)… you do you. And I will continue to seek out ethnic cuisine.
After breakfast (we all opted to forego the full English this time…) we set off for another day of hiking and exploring. Our planned hike was shorter, with more amazing views, but potentially a bit treacherous. The book we were using as a guide didn’t make it sound too bad, and they definitely didn’t use the word “treacherous,” so we gave it a go. It started off innocently enough… and then all of a sudden we realized that Penny was covered in ticks. We had walked through a section of woods and she must have discovered a nes. I had never seen ticks so small in my life… some were no larger than a sesame seed. Others were normal sized… ugh, I was terrified she was going to get limes disease. We must have picked 20 or so off her. Crisis averted, we continued on.
So, innocent enough hike, and then the cliffs became progressively steeper and the path narrower…
And then fog started rolling in…
…and I decided this was ultimately a bad day to die. So we took the next path toward the village, through the farms and countryside, and Connor’s contact rolled up into his head. Never a dull moment.
I do think this hike would have been terrific if we had fresh legs and weren’t toting a little dog with us. You never know when she’s going to get squirmy or freak out or smell a sheep and make a bid for freedom.
That evening we took an old cliff tram down the hill into Lynmouth, the town directly below Lynton at sea level. The train/tram is a hydraulic system that opened in 1890. It uses sea water to transport passengers up and down the cliff and it seemed to be in really great condition.
We had dinner in Lynmouth and met a couple and their dog who were sitting at a table next to us. Because I have no sense of decency I asked them if they have trouble with ticks. The couple, bless them, were very kind and we chatted about ticks and walking in England and they told me about special tick tweezers that we should look into. Before we left, the man tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a sleeve of said tick tweezers. He had run out to his truck to fetch a spare set for us. Isn’t that the nicest thing?!
Fun story: these came in handy a week or so later when Connor thought he had a tick on his shoulder. I dutifully got the tweezers, Googled how to use them, and braced myself for whatever was about to happen next. I’m twisting the damn instrument, pinching the “tick” and twisting, and all of a sudden it explodes. It was a blood blister. I almost barfed.
So anyway, the next morning, Connor and I did a short hike before we needed to say goodbye to Lynton, and we met a bunch of silly little goats! There were a bunch of little baby goats, and one of them was sleeping on a rock on the cliff. As I watched, he tumbled off his perch, poor little dude.
We had a really great time in Devon but had plans to see Hamlet that evening, so we left before lunch!
I’ll post about the rest of our adventure late next week when we’re back from Ireland!
In mid June, Connor’s parents came to visit for 10 glorious days. We embarked on a tour of some of England’s finest, stopping in the Cotswolds, Bath, Exmoor National Park in North Devon, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Birmingham, and Wales. Miraculously, we had absolutely fantastic weather for the entire trip! We rented a car since the Minnow is really only suitable for a couple adults and maybe 1.3 suitcases, and a rental also guaranteed that we could charge our phones and thus rely on GPS.
First stop, the Cotswolds! We based ourselves at a B&B in Ablington, a tiny village with a small river, a manor house, and only a few roads. To say I envied Isabel, our hostess, would be an understatement. Her setup is dreamy. She hosts visitors in a gorgeous, traditional 3 bedroom stone house where she moved after she ran out of patience with London. She works from home, her horse boards down the road, and her dog accompanies her everywhere — even on jump courses when she’s riding her horse. I wanted to talk with her for hours. Gardens in England are magnificent, but something about her garden was so thrilling: herbs were thriving everywhere, flowers were full of dizzy little bees, and the colors were magnificent. I was tempted to ask her if she needed a sidekick for the summer.
Isabel cooked us a full English breakfast the first morning and day 2 was fresh baked bread, croissants, and all the jams, marmite, and nutella you could hope for. We all agreed her kitchen was just perfect, with that traditional charm radiating from the SMEG refrigerator and antique style range, both of which were actually quite modern. We enjoyed walking through fields behind the house and met one of the neighbors who owned a few donkeys, sheep, and dogs. The neighbor was tickled that we came to Ablington all the way from America, and we chatted with her for a half hour. Wild pheasant cackled in the fields, and one followed us back to the B&B to taunt Connor and Dave.
The pace is slow and moseying in the Cotswolds. It isn’t the place to visit if you’re looking for action packed adventure, but if you enjoy little villages, gardens, and nosing around, you would enjoy this part of England. Some villages are completely devoid of tourists and others are just packed (Bourton on the Water was so horribly crowded that we didn’t even stop.) From what I could tell, if your village has a parking lot, you will attract crowds. We made the most of our 2 days in this area and visited a number of villages. We started Sunday morning in Cirencester, the largest town in the Cotswolds. We strolled the streets, admired gardens, and saw the big Bathurst Estate and nearby Cirencester Park.
We also visited Upper Slaughter and walked the 1 mile trail to Lower Slaughter. I was happy to learn that “slaughter” comes from an old English word which means “muddy place” and so has nothing to do with death. The lower village was similar to Ablington, just a few scattered houses, but the upper village had a picturesque river curving through the town and an old mill with attached cafe. I regret not buying something from the little mill shop – so many good things in there it was hard to settle on just one item.
Next we ventured to much larger Stow-on-the-Wold with its little tea shops and ice cream stores and famous St. Edward’s Church. The north door with its ancient yew trees looks like something you’d find in Narnia or Middle Earth.
Our final visit was to tiny Bibury to see its famous row of old wool weavers’ homes dating back to 1380. The timing of this trip perfectly coincided with the explosion of growth in gardens all over the country. I adore the wildness of these gardens and how fast everything seems to shoot up overnight. Sometimes I can’t help but think that if someone went all out and did this to their house back home, the neighbors would think a total nutter lived there. Like all the other tourists, I took pictures of the gardens and houses, knowing full well that normal people lived in these places, people who may not appreciate having strangers crawling all over their town. One person had a sign on their gate warning people to keep out as it was a private residence. The sign was posted in a couple different languages, which made it perfectly obvious who the main offenders were.
I’m not spilling the beans and calling out the main offenders, but I will tell you about the Drone Dolts. As we were walking back to our car, still laughing about the “keep out” sign, we pass the Drone Dolts: two people who perfectly fit the description of “main offenders” who are very calmly guiding a drone downstream. Attached to the drone was their camera, and I certainly hope they were satisfied with the perspective of the photos because they looked absolutely ridiculous. The fact that they were lugging around a suitcase dedicated solely to the transportation of said drone did not help their case. I later saw this drone in a store in Bath as well as in an article about new travel gadgets. Can we not just visit buildings from the 1300s and enjoy them for what they are, following all posted signs and the spirit of the law that is kindly requesting just a bit of privacy for residents? I mean, come on people.
Next stop, a brief stop in the beautiful city of Bath, Jane Austen’s home for a time and site of the old Aquae Sulis Roman baths.
June 24-July 1 was one of those weeks. Nothing goes right and all commitments and sanity go out the window. For one, the weather in Birmingham BLOWS and I do not understand how people live here full-time. Do not let the above picture deceive you. That was not taken in Birmingham. Secondly, I received 2 parking tickets because I’m a total idiot. Third, Penny suddenly became very ill with alarming symptoms and we had a very expensive week in and out of the vet’s office. As a result, I spent my week reading about dog illnesses and medicines and remedies and food. Now, I’m going to share trip reports out of chronological order because I feel like it and I’m the boss. Thankfully, the dog is doing much better and we were able to get away for the weekend to celebrate the 4th of July.
One bucket list item that we’ve been dying to check off our list this summer is a visit to the Jurassic Coast on the English Channel. This part of the coast is England’s only natural World Heritage Site, which places it in the same category as the Great Barrier Reef, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. Of the 1,000 or so World Heritage Sites, less than 200 are naturally occurring, and England’s Jurassic Coast looked positively dreamy in pictures. 95 miles of rock formations, cliffs, and beaches cover 185 million years of Earth’s history: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
As you can imagine, fossil hunting is a popular activity. When I visited London’s Natural History Museum a couple months ago I was surprised at the number of whole, intact fossils on display that were discovered along the Jurassic Coast, many by an impoverished woman named Mary Anning. Mary was a sort of Princess of Paleontology, and her numerous discoveries not only pulled her family out of poverty but also ended up in museums around the country. Her lizard/fish/dinosaur/turtle-like creatures of all sizes are in London’s Natural History Museum, and I highly recommend a visit. It’s the only non-creepy natural history museum I’ve ever seen (due to its emphasis on dinosaurs and fossils over taxidermy). The building itself is also stunning.
Moving on… We decided the 4th of July just wasn’t the 4th of July without a little sun and beach time, and since it’s persistently grim in Brum, we headed south to the county of Dorset, starting in Weymouth. The city is a great launching point for exploring the Jurassic Coast, and it supposedly tallies up more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in England. Fine with me. We walked along the harbor and the beach, explored the tiny side streets and shops, and bought some goodies for our campsite that evening. We met a chatty and very kind man from Wales who was visiting for the weekend with his children and grandchildren. As usual, Brexit and Donald Trump came up, but for the first time, so did Taylor Swift and Beyonce. He asked me if I was from Northern Ireland. You guys – this question marks a triumphant moment in my quest to appear as close to invisible as possible! My accent and adorable puppy-like dog draw attention everywhere I go, and sometimes I just don’t want to answer questions. Sometimes I don’t want to explain why I’m here and what I think about Donald Trump. If the small talk topics would vary, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. At this point, I have picked up enough British lingo that I can utter short phrases or noncommittal sounds without sounding American. But this guy totally made my day when he incorrectly guessed my nationality.
After Weymouth we drove a few miles east and saw Chesil Beach, a 15 mile long pebble wonderland formed by the remains of a landslide that occurred 100 million years ago. Its vastness was surprising, but other than that, it was just a pebble beach, so we moved on to our campsite. This place in Osmington was a serious find and I think we’ll return if we ever decide to camp again. It had great views, coastal access, and was within walking distance of a 14th century thatched roof pub.
Camping Attempt #2 was much more successful than #1. We packed food, our grill, wood, and 2 down blankets. We planned to encase ourselves in feathers so we couldn’t feel the hard ground or the cold night air. This seemed entirely necessary; you can still see your breath when the sun sets. Talk about overkill. I woke up sweating to death, claustrophobic, convinced I was being smothered by an evil cloud.
The following day we drove a bit further east to Durdle Door, Man of War Beach, and Lulworth Cove, three of the more popular stopping points along the Jurassic Coast. There were more people than we expected, many from other countries, and many very overdressed. I don’t know if its an American thing or just a personal preference, but I don’t see the point of wearing anything other than gym/outdoor clothing if I know I’m going to be exerting myself and sweating. Perhaps I’ve just totally let myself go in the last year.
Lulworth Cove had a small visitor’s center, shops, fishing huts, and everyone was serving seafood. We were so tempted to try the Michelin restaurant offering fishermen pints of beer in exchange for their daily catch, as long as the fish passed inspection by “Philip or the chef.” Instead, we opted for a stand at the seaside selling fresh fish so we could continue enjoying the sunshine. Connor had fish and chips and I had a crab sandwich. Both were delicious.
It was a gorgeous weekend and we’ll definitely be back to the Jurassic Coast to keep exploring the bays, cliffs, and paths. And I don’t think I’ll ever have my fill of seafood, so even if we end up with a rainy day I think I’ll be a happy camper. As long as we aren’t camping in the rain…
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a popular walking destination in England made up of river valleys and hills. A “dale” is a valley, a word derived from old Nordic and Germanic languages. Dales throughout the county of Yorkshire are named after their corresponding river: Swaledale, Wharfedale, Waldendale, Raydale, Washburndale, etc. After our fabulous breakfast in Leeds, we drove to tiny Kettlewell and tackled the Great Whernside walking route, heading for the rocky summit of Wharfedale. Gorgeous day!!
Scale is so difficult to convey in photos. That rock was large enough for us to stretch out and have a picnic lunch away from the soggy mossy hill we were climbing.
Sidebar on hiking lunches: we need a new go-to hiking lunch. Last winter in Italy, we developed a habit of buying baguettes and pre-sliced salami for quick and cheap sustenance. This works decently well in countries known for their salami. This doesn’t work so well if you buy the cheapest meat full of chemicals and baddies in random places like Yorkshire. It basically ruins your insides. I won’t go into details. Option #2, PB&Js, had a brief comeback a couple weeks ago when we visited the south of England with Connor’s parents. Something about the sog factor and lack of actual nutrients booted this out of the rotation. I’m all ears if anyone has any suggestions. I’ll give you a blue ribbon if it doesn’t involve bread or sugar.
Penny has proved to be an excellent little traveler. She sleeps most of the day when we’re at home, but is always up for an adventure as long as it doesn’t involve swimming. She seems to be happy as long as she’s with us. We didn’t know what to expect when we put her in a backpack the first time, but she doesn’t seem to mind it. In fact, when she sees us packing up a bag for a day trip she knows a walk is coming and starts jumping all over the place. She does her fair share of walking on these hikes, but we try to carry her when the terrain is muddy or covered in sheep shit. Both are fairly common. Adders (European vipers) are a concern in many parts of England, and ticks are rampant, so sometimes it’s just safer to keep her in the bag.
As usual, we saw plenty of sheep. The lambs are so adorbs.
That evening we pitched our tent and then drove back to the town of Harrogate to pick up some dinner. Even though I was a bit embarrassed to be seen with a pizza box, the other campers in the field didn’t seem all that committed to traditional, rugged camping techniques either. Their tents were the size of small houses with giant inflatable mattresses inside. Temporary privacy screens walled off sections of claimed space (can’t help but wonder if a little Oklahoma Land Rush went down in these parts). Wine glasses were clearly visible on tables. And then, our tiny little clown car rumbles through the scene. I can just see this through their eyes. Out pops a limping man, an odd girl in a baseball hat and sweatshirt (simply not a thing in England), and a tiny dog wearing a puffy winter coat. These rubes pitch their Tesco children’s tent and then drive off, only to return an hour and a half later with a pizza box and bag full of beer. The next morning, they’re gone before anyone else is awake.
Seeing the white cliffs of Dover has been on my to-do list since moving to Birmingham and we had the perfect opportunity to check them out on the tail-end of our Bruges road trip. To my dismay, we emerged from the Eurotunnel into some of the thickest fog I’ve ever experienced. We could barely see the car in front of us, let alone the coast.
Not willing to give up so easily we drove 10 minutes north to Capel-le-Ferne to see a WWII memorial site honoring those who fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The memorial was really nice and judging from pictures on TripAdvisor, a beautiful place when the weather cooperates. A memorial wall lists the names of those who fought in the battle, and the site houses replica Spitfire and Hurricane planes. It was a quick stop – as long as you don’t plan on visiting the cafe or doing the “scramble wall experience” you can easily limit your visit to 30 minutes. The below picture was taken facing the cliffs and the memorial to the airmen. O well.
Another 10 minutes down the coast is Samphire Hoe, a coastal park that was created during the Channel Tunnel excavations. Half of the chalk marl and stone (4.9 million cubic meters) that were removed from the channel were deposited in Samphire Hoe, and the other half went to France.
Nerd lesson: Samphire is a category of succulent plants that grow near bodies of water. Rock Samphire is a particular species native to the UK with white flowers often found on cliffs along the coast. “Samphire” derives from the French “sampierre” or “Saint Pierre.” St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and since this plant grows along the coast, water->fish->Peter->Samphire… voila. In King Lear, Shakespeare mentions the tedious and dangerous task of foraging for samphire (some people pickle it or eat it in salads). The park visitor’s center has a little sign advertising SHAKESPEARE and SAMPHIRE HOE where you can read this particular section of King Lear. A bit of a stretch, maybe, but at least they explain the weird name.
We took the mile-long path from the car park to the rocky beach and by that time the fog had lifted enough for us to see the cliffs. The view was definitely worth the short detour! I know there are other, whiter sections of the Dover cliffs closer to the actual town of Dover, but this was good enough for me. Low-tide meant we could check out some sea critters on the rocks and take some cool pictures of the glowing seaweed.
True to form, I couldn’t resist leaving without a few of those chalky rocks. Some habits die hard. If you could only see my rock collection… These ones are now sitting on my mantel in a very zen arrangement and they make me happy. (Dad, go ahead and roll your eyes. I like rocks. And collecting things.)
The above picture has been a recurring joke in our house for the last two weeks. Something about the overly simplistic yet very public apology struck us as hilarious. Connor actually googled the phrase. Nothing.
Mike – I really hope you didn’t do anything drastic like gamble away your home and then jump in the sea. I hope you would leave Jan with more than just a chalk apology note. (Dude, it rains here a lot, in case you didn’t notice). Or maybe you broke up with Jan. Or just got in a silly argument? Again with my point about something more permanent than a washable chalk message. Snail-mail, perhaps? Since I’m assuming she isn’t answering her phone. Or did you think this was romantic? I guess it could be, depending on the situation.
Jan – Did you see this message? Do you come here often? Clearly you aren’t answering Mike’s calls or texts and you’ve blocked him on all social media so his last resort was writing on an actual wall instead of your virtual one. Yes? No? Who is Mike, by the way? What happened? I really hope you guys are OK.
In other news, I’m planning to migrate the blog over to an actual, legit web address so stay tuned! More details coming soon!
Bruges is a magnificently preserved Medieval town in Northern Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. One of the first things we noticed was that Bruges is incredibly clean. No pigeons, which means no poop riddled buildings and nothing to trip over in the main squares, no garbage on the streets, no graffiti, impeccably maintained buildings, and very fresh air. We’ve become accustomed to the smokey atmosphere of Europe, the garage door-like shop fronts usually covered in graffiti, and some element of crumbling buildings since everything is just so old. Those things are part of the charm of Europe, but Bruges seems like a fairy tale in comparison.
The wealth of Bruges came from their position as an important trading center and manufacturer of textiles, especially wool and eventually lace, and was a thriving market city until the 1400s. The city was constantly at odds with their overlords, especially the French, and continually fought for independence. In the 1300s, Jan Breydel (a local butcher, how fitting) and a friend led an uprising against the French remembered today as the Bruges Matins. Their group of guildsmen knocked on doors all around the city, and if the inhabitants were unable to correctly pronounce a national phrase “shield and friend” they were murdered. Basically, if you had a French accent, it was over. A statue of Jan Breydel and his buddy holds a prominent place in Bruges’ Markt square, and the Bruges football stadium is named after Jan.
Some time later in the 1400s, the people of Bruges were fed up with the Hapsburg empire so they kidnapped the heir and imprisoned him for 4 months. Pretty bold move for such a small city. The angry Hapsburgs ordered Bruges to tear down their city walls, and today, the only part of the walls that remain are 4 gate houses. They also ordered the city to keep and take care of swans… something about “long necks” translating to the same word as the last name of a friend of the Hapsburgs who was executed by men from Bruges. This was the beginning of the end for the city, and because it fell in prominence, it was left untouched by both world wars. Tourism picked up again as people visiting Waterloo passed by the town, and today the city seems to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. Day-trippers from Brussels are insufferable and they crowd the tiny streets, so staying overnight is essential if you want to soak up the magic of the canals without selfie stick people all up in your business.
We joined the Bruges free walking tour on Saturday morning and it was excellent, as usual. At the end of the tour our guide handed out coupons for free beers at a Trappist bar, a discount on waffles, and I made sure to ask for advice on buying chocolate. We took all his suggestions and they did not disappoint.
The tour ended in the Burg, the square adjacent to the main Markt center. We went inside the Stadhuis (City Hall) and checked out its Gothic Hall, which is gorgeous. The Burg is the administrative center of Bruges and the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica) is tucked away in one of the corners. The chocolate shop recommended by our guide was here (Chocolaterie de Burg), as well as the most amazing waffle truck in the history of the world. We had waffles covered in chocolate sauce for lunch.
In the evening we tried the house beers at Cambrinus bar and then went to Le Trappiste Bruges and redeemed our drink coupons. There is such ceremony in the presentation of Belgian beers! They scrape the foam off the top with a tool that looks like a letter opener, and there’s usually a snack to compliment the drink. I tried a lambic at Le Trappiste and the bottle was served in its own little basket. We had a fun time chatting with the bartenders at Le Trappiste and taking their advice. There are a few cellar bars around Bruges and Le Trappiste was one of them. Really really cool.
On Sunday we went to mass at the Basilica which is a lot smaller than I was expecting. It was a bit unusual in that the wall frescoes were very patriotic. The repeating pattern on the walls featured swans, a symbol of the city since the 1400s, and there was a giant fresco of the man who brought a relic of the Blood of Christ back to Bruges after the Crusades.
After mass we had some more waffles since they were sooo good and then took a boat tour through the canals. We learned about the stepped gables of the houses – the more steps you had, the richer you were. The number of windows on your house also indicated your level of wealth. At one time there was a window tax, and many people filled in some of the windows on their homes to reduce the tax they had to pay. Only the wealthy were able to afford to keep all their windows.
After the boat tour we checked out a brewery that recently opened along a canal, but they wouldn’t let us sit outside unless we ate lunch, and we had already eaten waffles, so that was not a good plan. It was warm and sunny so we walked east to see the old windmills in the St-Anna district. They are still used to grind grain but I don’t believe they are in their original locations. There used to be quite a few of these in Bruges, but I believe there are only 4 or so left.
We walked past Jeruzalemkerk, a church that was built to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and went inside a stunning old church with massive framed paintings on the walls. Our canal guide said there are 22 churches in Bruges and 21 are Catholic. I didn’t fact check that, but it’s a lot of churches for a small place.
That evening, we visited Connor’s favorite bar of the trip. De Garre is tucked into an alley off one of the main streets full of chocolate shops; one of those streets where your eyes can’t help but jump from one tempting chocolate display to the next, glazing over whatever may fall between.
Dinner was outside at a little cafe, followed by a brief visit to ‘t Poatersgat cellar bar, which means Monk Hole. ‘t Poatersgat was cute, mostly because of its teeny door half submerged below ground, but I preferred Le Trappiste Bruges. Better service and beer presentation.
And that’s that! The trip back to England on Monday morning was uneventful, and we stopped in Dover to see the cliffs and break up the drive. I’ll post cliff pics next week! Happy Fri-yay peeps!