Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bruges, Belgium: 2014 Christmas Market

Moving right along...and finally getting to the day for which we actually drove to Belgium, that last weekend of November!

I'm totally going backwards from when this all happened.  I started with Veere, NL, which we stopped to see as we drove home.  Then I showed you what happened on the day of our coastal tram ride.

Today is when we took the train to Bruges from our hotel in Ostend, a 15-minute no-brainer, no-hassle ride to the outskirts of city center.  And we weren't the only ones visiting Bruges that first weekend of their Christmas market, Saturday, November 29.  (We first stopped at the ice festival outside the train station, but that's another post, coming up.)

Immediately, walking into city center, we noticed how autumny it still was on a gorgeous day.
And of course, I started snapping away at all the architecture that still enthralls me.

That meant also noticing all the niches everywhere.
Remember that Belgium is Roman Catholic (while Holland is mostly Protestant).

 Speaking of Roman Catholic, here's Bruges' city church, St. Salvator's Cathedral.
In the 10th century it began as a parish church, becoming a cathedral in the 19th century.
It wasn't open as we entered city center...but it was as we left (see end of post).

The gable stones even in Belgium never disappoint.
As I mentioned on FaceBook, the bottom-right one is a typical "gaper head" (literally:  yawner) 
depicting the place as a pharmacy (see the pill?). They always make me laugh.

 Don't forget the weathervanes and manhole covers....

 ...and the roof toppers/ornamentals, very special to Bruges, and surely meaning something.

 When we see the organ grinders, we always want to take pictures,
so we toss in some coins and snap away.

Sometimes I even remember to take a video.  Short but sweet.
(You can even see the perforated scroll like for player pianos, which I always loved.)

 Once at the market square, we took our remember what we both had seen previously,
even if separately, in our past lives.  Yes, this is Bruges.

But first, we took a side street to find this café for lunch:  Beethoven.
What a quaint little place, serving French cuisine for up to 20 patrons.  Delightful.

Every time we go to Belgium, Astrid tries to get mussels...and these were the BEST, she said.
Since I'm not a mussels nut, I chose something I rarely have these days:  beef stew.
(Notice that my "stew" wasn't stewed with veggies but it still melted in my mouth.)

After lunch, we were on a mission!
We walked on the outskirts of the Christmas market in the square, to save it for late afternoon.
This Provincial Court building from 1294, on the square, is a masterpiece.

We wanted to get to the canal for a boat ride before it was too late.
But see that long line (top right)?

We decided to just hoof it around (on foot, that is) and get the main points,
always with the 12th century Belfry tower from the square looming overhead/behind.

When we wound our way back to the Christmas market, we window-shopped along the way.
Surely you know Belgium is known for its lace....

 ...and did someone say BELGIUM CHOCOLATE???
(just like the Dutch, the Belgiums can take a joke!)

By now, late afternoon, it was time to pay attention to the Christmas market.

After all, this is what we had come for.


Fun, irreverent, Christmassy Belgium.  How can you resist it!
Half a moon (as we left) was better than no moon at all.

And as we walked back to the train station, St. Salvator's Cathedral was open for Vespers.
Half a peek was better than no peek at all.

As we neared the train station, the morning's ferris wheel was all lit up.
It seemed an appropriate Good-Bye for what had been a delightful, sunshiny day.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Longest Tram Line in the World: Belgium

This is still the "last trick" of 2014, going backwards in time from our 4-day trip to Belgium at the end of November.  In the last post I showed our stop in Veere, NL, on our way home, December 1.

Today's post is what we did Sunday, November 30, celebrating our 7th year of meeting on the internet, via our Shutterchance photography blog.  Has it really been 7 years?!

One of Astrid's co-workers told her about the tram line the full length of Belgium's coastline.  And since we were staying in Ostend, around midway on the coast, we both got very excited about spending a day on the tram, getting on and off wherever we wished.

The Coastal Tram, as it's called, is 42 miles long with 70 stops, making it the longest in the world.
Since we started in Ostend, we first went south to De Panne, near the French border,
and then back all the way north to Knokke-Heist, near the Dutch border,
then back south to Ostend, making the full trip up-n-down in one day.
(image from Wiki)

And it cost only €5 each for that entire day!

We started at the Marie-Joséplein tram stop in Ostend around 10:15 a.m. that Sunday,
just a 5-minute walk from our hotel, on a very foggy day.

Disclaimer:  some of the following images may be hampered because of the fog or moving tram!

I knew we'd see the North Sea, of course, but had no clue about anything else.
The architecture was just astounding along the entire coast, and still building.
Astrid says the English and the Germans in particular come to vacation here.

I grabbed whatever churches I could get along the way... well as these 5 water towers.
The Dutch aren't the only ones who build these magnificent water structures!

We figured we'd have a hot-chocolate break in De Panne at the southern-most stop,
which we did, right on the coast.  That's a Belgium waffle, yes.  We're not dumb.

Little did we know that at that exact time, the 19th Panne Beach Endurance international bike race
was happening!  Talk about serendipity!  It was our biggest surprise of the day.

So, both before and after lunch, we were spectators of the 1000 plus participants,
at the starting line of their 52 km endurance ride.
A real beach race over one distance, a struggle against nature and against yourself.

Are you ready for the race of your life?  We were all waiting.

Finally, they started coming, gaining speed to climb the ramp...

...over which they would then hit the quagmire of loose sand before riding the beach.

While many sailed through with flying colors, many others didn't.

Once they saw the water, I bet they thought they were home free, almost before they started!

But of course, they still had miles to go!

Here's where I was standing most of the time, seeing mishaps and all.
You can actually see Astrid at the end on the right, crouched down in the crowd (red coat).

 Back in the tram again, heading north to Knokke, we enjoyed the Ostend sights as we passed by.
We had already seen many of them on foot the previous two days (a later post).

It would have been fun to get off at many of the tram stops, of course.
But the purpose of the day was to get off at the "bottom" and the "top" only,
and just look at everything else while passing by.

Speaking of which, we did see all kinds of fun things (besides sand dunes, of course).

You could spend much longer than a day on this tram to see everything.
And yes, that's a windmill (bottom-left) and my one weathervane of the day (upper-right)!

All along the way we had looked to see where we might stop for our anniversary dinner.
At the end of the line in Knokke, we switched trams and started back down the coast.

We had picked the Blankenberge Pier once we passed it going north!

The present Blankenberge Pier was built in 1933, crossing 350 meters into the North Sea.
(The original pier built in 1894 was destroyed by the Germans during WWI.)
The pier is now a leisure complex with several catering businesses, an auditorium and exhibition space.

And that's where we chose to eat our anniversary meal.  How exotic!

Besides choosing the local Blankenberge beer,
we noticed they had spaghetti carbonara on the menu.
Have you ever seen it served with a raw egg like that?
Hands down, it was the best carbonara either one of us had ever eaten.
And the pork dish suited it well (we always share, remember).

By then the daylight was "setting," with the fog ever-present as we left.

What a way to end the day, get back on the tram and go home.
Look at Astrid's sheepish grin.  We had the time of our lives.

It really doesn't get much better than this, Folks.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Veere, NL: The Last "Trick" of 2014

Hold that thought, which I'll explain at the end.

Most of you know that the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November is my hardest time to be away from family.  The way we've ended up "fixing" that is by Astrid taking that Friday off and having a long weekend to do something.  Besides, November 30th is the anniversary of our first meet-up in real life (2007), and December 5 (tomorrow) is the anniversary of when I moved to the Netherlands, on Sinterklaas (2009).

It's a good weekend to celebrate many things!

So, we decided to go to the Christmas market in Bruges, Belgium!  Lucky for us, Astrid found a 4-day, 3-night hotel (with breakfast) in Ostend, on the Belgium coast, 30 minutes west of Bruges...for a total of €154.  It was too good to be true.

But this post isn't about that.  This is about the day, Monday (yes, just 3 days ago), when we drove home and stopped in Veere, NL, in Zeeland Province.  I'm starting at the end, yes.

As we left Belgium, Astrid spotted the Kim Clijsters website advert (any tennis fans?).
And as we drove into the Netherlands from Holland, a windmill welcomed us HOME.

 Driving into Veere, our side-trip of the day, we came in and went out past this Grote Kerk from 1450,
in the middle of "rehabilitation."  We didn't even try to go inside.

We didn't want to stay long, eager to get home, but we wanted to get a feel for this small harbor city,
starting with the Tower from the sixteenth century, which once serviced as an Inn and coastal lighthouse. 
 It is now one of the oldest still-existing hostels in the Netherlands.

 It was freezing cold as we walked around the harbor.
It felt like winter weather had finally come to our part of the world!

We both had to "use the facility," so we stopped to eat at the Peter Bliek café.
Warm beenham sandwiches with hot latte macchiatos...just what the doctor ordered.

Then we went strolling around to see the magic.
This is the city hall from the 15th century,
whose carillon has been voted one of the prettiest in the Netherlands.

 Talk about charm oozing everywhere!

I "collected" the gable stones I found, of course.

And the weathervanes.  How could I resist!

After all that, we were back on our way home....

 ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Okay, now back to the last trick of the year!

A few of you know that I will have a left-knee replacement, scheduled for January 8th, allowing a full year's recovery (24 physical-therapy sessions) on my deductible (I'm not stupid).  It started with a volleyball injury back in 1971.  Two surgeries later, without any cartilage left, bone on arthritic get the picture.  It finally cried "UNCLE!"  Enough is enough.

So, we don't plan any other tricks trips for awhile, until I'm up and at it after the surgery.  The holidays are upon us, with miles to go before the end of the year.

In the meantime, I'll get three more posts done on the Belgium part of our wonderful long-weekend away:  Oostende/Ostend, Brugge/Bruges, and the longest tram ride in the world.  

Stay tuned!