Leiden, Netherlands

Yoga in the sun room  of our charming little row house was a perfect start to our perfect day in Leiden, our last stop before going home. As we walked into the town center we noticed all the people enjoying the beautiful day on the canals. The Old Rhine and the New Rhine rivers meet in Leiden and after Amsterdam, Leiden has the most canals of any city in the Netherlands.

A tour boat ride on the canals gave us a different view of the city.  Operated by Rondvaart, the tour, narrated by a Leiden University student, lasted about an hour. Our guide conducted the tour in both Dutch and English, but as we were the only English-speaking people on the tour, I don’t think we got quite as much information.  There are a number of boat tour companies, and some of them may focus more on English, but we enjoyed our tour and our guide and learned a lot about Leiden.

It was interesting to learn about Leiden history and architecture.

It was fun to learn some of the quirky things about the city.  As we passed the beautiful new library at Leiden University, our guide told us that the university had recently renamed the library “Leiden University Library” to better reflect their international focus. Unfortunately, no one anticipated that the name change would become a bit of joke because the acronym, LUL, is a Dutch word for penis.

All over Leiden people were sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful day. We found an outside table at a little corner cafe for lunch.

Nothing on the menu looked recognizable to us, but we saw a great-looking dish go by and asked the waiter for two of those. Our surprise lunch turned out to be a wonderful open-faced sandwich with speck, brie, honey, walnuts and thyme.

After our delightful lunch, we visited the Leiden University Botanical Garden, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Begun at the end of the 16th century, it was originally established to benefit medical students. The beautiful garden winds around one of the canals and was the perfect setting for an afternoon walk.

I especially enjoyed the Traditional Chinese medicine herb garden.

As we arrived home, the two neighbors we met the night before were sitting outside. We had a great time talking with them about traveling, bicycling, and local culture. Having the opportunity to meet locals is one of my favorite benefits of staying in home-sharing rentals.

For dinner we had the best Thai food I have ever eaten at Siri Thai. Like many other businesses in Leiden, they did not take credit cards. Our waiter told us that was pretty common in Leiden to only accept cash.

We loved our time in Leiden and hope to return. The beautiful canals, winding streets,  bicycling culture and friendly people reminded us of Amsterdam, but Leiden is quieter, slower and quainter.

The following day we used the few hours  before leaving for Amsterdam to fly home to take one last little stroll to the Leiden center. The quiet atmosphere on a cloudy Monday morning was very different from the vibrant activity of the sunny Sunday afternoon the day before. We stopped for lunch and Paul had a final local beer, Texels which is from the Dutch island of Texel.

We had a great time talking with our young waitress. She recommended that we visit de burcht before we left.  We took her advice and enjoyed our visit to the 11th century structure in the center of the city. Formerly used for protection, the site is now a park and the views of the city from the top were lovely.

 

Mechelen, Belgium

Today we said “good-bye” to Lille and left for Leiden, Netherlands, our home for the next two days. On the way to Leiden, we stopped in the lovely town of Mechelen, Belgium, just south of Antwerp. As we approached the square, we saw the dramatic St. Rumbold Cathedral Tower and heard the beautiful bells ringing the hour. Mechelen is the home of the Royal Carillon School, the first and largest carillon school in the world..

We had a great time exploring the quaint town. It was a beautiful, sunny market day. We saw some people eating this yummy looking fish at the market and decided to try some for lunch. The people next to us were also drinking a yummy looking beer with their fish, so we got some of that as well.

The most delightful young man helped us choose cheese from his choices of young, old, older and oldest.

Since we were in Belgium, I had to buy more chocolate. The most helpful woman at Gauthier Chocolate helped me choose some wonderful chocolates.

Our few hours in Mechelen went much too fast, and it was time to be on our way to meet our landlady in Leiden, Netherlands.  Our adorable little row house in Leiden is in such a friendly neighborhood. I went outside to take a picture and two women next door introduced themselves and we had a great little chat.

The best part of this house is the enchanting back yard. I am looking forward to having my morning coffee there tomorrow.

Brussels and Beer

We had a great day in Brussels today-took the high-speed train from Lille, walked from the train station to the Grand Place and joined a guided walking tour.  The Grand Place is one the most beautiful i have seen; so many of the building are embellished with gold.

Our walking tour guide was from Scotland but did a great job leading us around Brussels. The popular symbol of Brussels, Manneken Pis, a small sculpture of a little boy urinating was one of our first stops.

We saw the first mural of the fifty murals on the Comic Book Route which honors Belgium’s role as a leader in comic arts.

In the afternoon we did a beer tasting and brewery tour.  After tasting and learning about some of Belgium’s traditional beers, we toured the Cantillon Brewery, the only brewery in Brussels that makes Lambic beer.  Unlike most other beers that use brewer’s yeast, Lambic is fermented by exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria in an open vat.

We got to taste the  first stage of the Lambic beer.  Our guide told us it was quite a special treat to taste the Lambic, but we didn’t really like the sour taste.

In our nine hours in Brussels, we tried the big four culinary specialties of the city-frites, chocolate, beer and waffles.  We ate frites for lunch and drank Belgium beer in the afternoon. Before our beer tasting we had a Belgium chocolate chaud, a big square of chocolate on a wooden spoon stirred into hot milk.

We ended our Brussels adventure with the best treat of all, a Liege waffle. Our beer tasting guide directed us to Maison Dandoyher favorite place for waffles and told us what to order.

Low-Key Day in Lille

Today’s plan was not to plan but rather to see where the day led us. We strolled in a new part of Lille and discovered the charming Place aux Oignons, a little square tucked away from traffic and pedestrians. It looked so inviting that we decided to return for lunch at in boco al lupa.  The day was perfect for dining outside.

For the French, almost every day is perfect for dining outside. We are amazed at how the French tighten their scarves and dine outside on even the coldest days.

I was delighted to discover an Aux Marveilleux de Fred shop. The little Marveilleux cakes are light and sweet and luscious.  True confession – the first one was so tasty we went back and got another for later.

We visited the Musee de L’Hospice Comtesse.  In the 13th century Countess Jeanne of Flanders founded the hospital in her palace. Part of the palace became a convent for the nuns who tended the sick . The ground floor was furnished to look as it did when the nuns lived there. The English audio guide described the significance of the art and furnishings and the nuns’ lifestyle.

I especially enjoyed seeing the medicinal herb garden.  Little hedges defined each separate herb space.

After repeatedly passing le furet du nord bookstore on the Grand Place, I finally went inside. Seven floors of books and related items made me wish for a similar store where I live.

When we were in the organic market buying some fruit and cheese, a young American woman who is living in Lille this year overheard us and asked if we were American. She told us we were only the second Americans vacationing here that she had encountered. Her comment confirmed the sense we had that there were not many Americans in Lille.

We have enjoyed being in are area that is not tourist-oriented. The lack of English-speaking wait staff has sometimes made ordering a challenge because not all menu items translate well. We always get it figured out, and the people here are so, so friendly. And everyone seems to know the word “bye-bye.” So even when no English has been spoken, the last words we often hear are “bye-bye.”

Day Trip to Arras

Today we drove about forty-five minutes south to the town of Arras. A lovely little town that experienced loss and destruction during both world wars, Arras rebuilt each time and today is known for its architecture, history and culture. Our first stop was the stunning Town Hall and Belfry, location of the TI. We got a map and set out to explore the town.

I experienced a bit of French culture shock in one of the cafes.  The restrooms consisted of two urinals in a narrow hallway with a private stall at the end.  When I came out of the private stall, a man was using the urinal. Not sure of French restroom etiquette – wait for him to finish, say “pardon” as I walk by, turn my head-I looked straight ahead and quickly walked past his back.

After lunch we planned to do the Gardens and Monuments walking tour.  Unfortunately, the TI, where we planned to get the guide, closed for two hours during lunch.  Using our town map, we created our own gardens and monuments tour.

Just when we were questioning if our Arras experience had been worth the drive, we came to the Arras Memorial, which commemorates nearly 35,000 soldiers of the British, South African and New Zealand forces with no known grave. Most of those commemorated were killed in the Battle of Arras, fought between April 9, and May 16, 1917. Our experience at the memorial and cemetery made the trip worthwhile.

The grave sites of 2,650 Commonwealth soldiers and a few German prisoners are behind the memorial.

It was sobering to see the grave sites and all the names engraved on the memorial walls of those who had died in battle. In a matter of weeks, almost 38,000 soldiers died in the Arras region. There were a number of “Memorial Register” boxes with notebooks of information about the soldiers.

We finished our walk along the Crinchon river and ended up back at our car park.

I ate a vegetable tagine and Paul had chicken couscous for dinner at Le Souk, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant.

Lille Walks

Finding the best chocolate shops in Lille is a great way to start the day.   Guided by a “chocolate walk” app, we visited some scrumptious chocolate shops.

Jean Trogneux Chocolatier

Mid-chocolate walk, I got sidetracked by a beautiful patisserie.

Meert Patisserie, established 1761

Before we finished our walk, I bought both chocolates and pastries – for later, of course.

We packed a picnic and set off to hike in the the Parc de la Citadelle. Our route took us through the Jardin Vauban where we discovered a beautiful little fruit garden that was created in 1868 to teach the growing of apples, pears, peaches and grapes.

The Parc de la Citadelle is a large green space surrounding the Citadel, a pentagonal military structure built between 1667-1670 that is still used today.

Bridge leading to the Citadel

The park is a popular spot for runners and cyclists. We didn’t see any cyclists, but we saw tons of runners.  Sadly, it rained on us, so we had our picnic in our apartment.

Louvre-Lens

We started our day with a self-guided architectural walk around Lille.  There are a number of self-guided tours that can be downloaded, but the one we like is GPSmyCITY.com. It was a great way to get some exercise and learn more about the beautiful buildings in Old Lille.

After lunch we drove to Lens, a small town about thirty miles from Lille, to visit the Louvre-Lens, a satellite museum of the Louvre in Paris. The museum, which opened in 2012 on a former mining site, is designed to blend in to the surroundings.

The entry area is spacious and airy. We were surprised that so few people were there.

The permanent collection, Galerie du Temps, consists of about 200 works from the Louvre in one large open space.

The works are arranged chronologically from 3500 BC to the 19th century. A timeline covers the length of one of the long walls. The English audio guide was excellent.

There is also a Exhibitions Temporaires space which shows exhibits for three months. We saw the “Mirrors” exhibit which examined the role of mirrors in art.

The sweetest young waiter in the world served us tonight at the restaurant next door to our apartment. He was working on his English, and I was working on my  French, and we had fun communicating. I thought we were doing pretty well until the small salad I thought I ordered arrived, and it was huge -wonderful but much more than we thought we ordered. He offered to box up our left-overs (which I thought the French did not do) and taught me how to ask for carry-out in the future.

Welcome to Lille

We arrived last night in Lille,a lovely town in northern France with an urban population of about a million people. The view from our living room window looks over the Place Gilleson and the Lille Cathedral. Tables and chairs were set up in the square this morning, and when we returned from our walk, people were enjoying the beautiful day drinking and watching circus performers.

Lille Cathedral is an interesting mix of Gothic and contemporary. Inside the Gothic interior is adorned with contemporary fixtures and outside the Gothic building has a contemporary facade.

We visited the Wazemmes market, one of the largest in France. It was difficult to move among all of the people.  Sellers were yelling out the cost of their produce and seemed to be competing with each other to get people to come to their stand.

We ate lunch on the Grand Place, the main square of Lille.

Paul had the mussels and frites he had been looking forward to and I had a great salad.

We weren’t going to have dessert, but the people next to us had the yummiest looking crepes; we changed our minds. The chocolate sauce was perfect.

We noticed that many of the statues had mirrored boxes on their heads. I think I translated the information about this next to one of the statues correctly They are an urban installation that transforms commemorative statues with mirrored heads to invite the public to question their own identity and look at the statues in a new way.

We spent a leisurely first day in Lille, exploring the area around our apartment.

Champagne

Today we spent the most delightful time in Hautvillers, a traditional village in the Champagne area known as the birthplace of champagne. In researching where to visit, I discovered the Champagne Joseph Desruets winery, a small, traditional winery founded in 1888.

I emailed them for an appointment to visit and at our scheduled time, Elena, our most helpful guide and wife of one of the owners, met us and gave us a personal tasting and tour of their winery.

After tasting each of their champagnes (which were fabulous), we walked across the street to their winery. They are the only winery still using a traditional press, which takes more time than the new models. The oak in the top part of the press is the original wood from four hundred years ago. The wood in the bottom part of the press is replaced every fifty to sixty years.

Elena took us into the room where the first fermentation occurs. The harvest was completed the week before, so the juice had not been fermenting long. We had to enter and close the door quickly so the warm temperature was maintained. The pungent scent of fermenting wine filled the air, making it difficult to stay in the room for long.

The next stop was the cellar where the champagne is aged in oak barrels.

Champagne Desruets is a small winery, producing 25,000 bottles a year from three hectares (there are about 2.5 acres in a hectare) of grapes. The sixth generation of the Desruets family now runs the winery.

We greatly appreciated the time Elena spent with us; educating us about champagne, showing us the winery and recommending other points of interest in the area. By the time we left, I felt like we had a new friend.

Before leaving Hautvillers, we visited the Abbey of St. Peter of Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon, a 17th century French Benedictine monk, is reputed to have invented champagne. Although he didn’t really invent champagne, he contributed much to improving the refermentation process and methods for growing and harvesting grapes. He is buried in the church.

The abbey was the former home of the relics of  Saint Helena, Empress and mother of Constantine.The relics brought pilgrims and revenue to the abbey which allowed the abbey to purchase vineyards in the areas. During the French Revolution, when the abbey was destroyed, the relics were hidden and then moved to Paris in 1819. The reliquary is still on display in the abbey.

We loved walking around the beautiful little village and enjoying the spectacular views of the Marne valley.

When we first drove into the champagne region I was surprised by how vast and open it was. I had assumed it would be all vineyards and charming wineries. The region also grows barley, alfalfa, beets and other produce.

 

 

 

Day Trip to Freiburg, Germany

We had a few challenges planning our day trip from Colmar to Freiburg (pop. 230,000) – neither of us speaks German, parking is very limited in Freiburg, and we didn’t know any natives who could advise us like we did for our Strasbourg trip. But after finding a helpful article that provided parking resources as well as the names and locations of the four “park and rides” on the outskirts of town, we had a plan.

With our plan and a lot of luck, we found our way. After just one wrong turn, we located the lot, parked in the last spot, and boarded the correct tram for Alstadt, the old town, and the TI where we planned to get a map. A very helpful woman on the tram explained to us that we had gone too far and needed to go back a few stops. She spoke no English, but we communicated well enough to get to where we needed to be.

We found the TI, got our map and saw a very German scene as we walked outside – a wedding party with men wearing lederhosen, German leather shorts, posing for a picture in the square.

Guided by our map, we explored the points of interest in Alstadt. One of the first buildings we saw was the massive and beautiful Munster Cathedral, one of the few Gothic churches built in the middle ages to survive a number of wars unscathed.

We enjoyed a very popular farmers’ market that is held Monday to Saturday in Munsterplatz, which surrounds the cathedral.

The most popular item at the market was the Munsterwurst or “Lange Rote” sausage. It smelled wonderful and looked a lot like a foot-long hot dog at the Minnesota State Fair. Everywhere we looked, people were eating them.

So, of course, we tried one. it was amazing!

Well fortified from our sausage, we continued exploring beautiful Freiburg.

Konviktstrabe, one of the most beautiful Freiburg streets

On the side of many Freiburg streets, I noticed tiny canals. Called “Bachle, these little canals were originally used to provide water for fighting fires. Now children float toy boats and people dip their feet in the clean water.

Larger canals provide beautiful settings for dining and strolling.

I couldn’t leave Germany without trying one more traditional dish, so we found a lovely little outdoor cafe and ate spaetzle (German egg noodles) and drank  German beer. It was the best macaroni and cheese I have ever had.