Day 12 the Stillness of Dunkirk

The sun was bright; The air was clean and fresh. I could hear seagulls overhead. We were only in an ugly bus stop, but I had the feeling I was going to like Dunkirk.

I had sensed that Dunkirk, France was not a popular tourist destination. There were no tours, no trains, and not much else between Brussels and Dunkirk, so I had built my day around a public bus schedule which meant a very early start.

It also meant I spent two hours waiting for a bus that morning—5:45 to 7:45. The bus had been an hour late also which meant I arrived in Dunkirk an hour later than planned. Which also meant I would have only two hours before I needed to catch the only bus back.

I checked Siri and the 1940 museum and beach were a 34 minute walk away. Which meant that I was going to have less than an hour to do both.

It wasn’t ideal, but I did enjoy the walk. It felt so different than the craziness of Amsterdam…I wasn’t constantly dodging bicycles whizzing past me and shops selling trinkets and French fries every four feet.

My walk wound around the port and a few signs now and again paid tribute to the events of 1940 and the miracle of the mass exodus that saved 330,000 troops. But for the most part, it was just a simple quiet walk through a small port town going about it’s Friday morning business. The hills were not alive with the Sound of Music, there was no Tour de France, and no 1992 Olympic Games.

It did take all of the 34 minutes Siri said it would, so I was in a rush by the time I got to the museum. This whole trip, I’ve scarcely been to a museum and now I found one I wanted to see and there was not time. :(. It’s not huge, but I could have spent an hour except that I wanted to save enough time to climb up to the beach.

The beach was quiet too. There may have been a dozen other tourists, but that was it.

I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel glad there was no one there to break the stillness of the place or whether, perhaps, this is a bit underdone give the significance of the events that took place here. (I mean, they only had five magnets on a little stand for a gift shop and the only one commemorating WWII was an airplane. I mean, I like airplanes and all, but this is Dunkirk. Just sayin’)

I practically ran back to the bus station only to find that, once again, the bus was crazy late. Didn’t seem quite fair that I had to spend a third of my time sitting at the bus stop; but I decided just to be glad it was a beautiful day and, unlike this morning, there were benches to wait on.

There was not a direct route back to Brussels, but that was okay because I still had one last place I hoped to see in Belgium: the village of Ghent.

If you ever go to Ghent, do yourself a favor and take the tram to the center of the old city. It’s a long walk.

Of course, I walked.

My plan here was to rent a bike and just ride around the back streets instead of doing the typical churches, castle, canal, and belfry. I’ve seen so many great places to ride a bike the last few days but hadn’t ridden at all.

I’m not sure how, but I ended up doing the church, castle, canal, and belfry stairs. I’ll post the pictures although it probably looks by now like every other little town I’ve visited in the last twelve days. It’s a bit of a shame, because it does have its own little flair…but I guess I’m a little burned out on picturesque towns. I didn’t even want chocolate or ice cream. Shoot, I even paid the 3 Euro for the tram on the way back. And I didn’t even buy a magnet.

It must be time to come home.

I’ve loved my tour of Europe. In twelve days, I went to 10 countries and walked over 100 miles…just me and my black back pack…Full of magnets.

I visited Ireland (Galway, Cliffs of Moher, Bunratty); Cologne, Germany (if it counts); Italy (Venice, Cortina and the Dolomites); Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Salzburg, and Schönbrunn in Austria; Barcelona; Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Dinant in Belgium; Luxembourg; Amsterdam and Harlem, Netherlands; and Dunkirk, France. [I had previously visited four of these countries and at least four others in Europe (England, Scotland, Czech Republic, Switzerland). I had planned to also go to Slovakia, but we’ll have to save that for another trip].

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the scenes of Europe, but at the same time, I don’t think I could have crammed much more into two weeks. And when it was all said and done, I lived out of that back pack for 17 days. That’s long enough.

It was a trip I hope to always remember. It was a return home that I hope to forget. I may or may not blog about my return trip, but regardless, let me make it clear once and for all: I do not like JFK airport. Sitting in it for hours on end is awful. Sleeping on the floor there is pitiful. Getting help there is impossible.

So…while New York is not at all a pleasant welcome, it is sure good to be home.

Thanks for taking this trip with me and if you feel even a little bit jealous that you didn’t get to go, picture yourself on the 17th day living from a backpack sleeping on the floor of the airport. Then be glad you’re home.

Day 11 – Dodging Bikes in Amsterdam

Each day starts with me locking my hotel room door with a key from the roll I was given when I checked in, then winding my way down six flights of steep, creaky stairs to the lobby. There, a little man who takes his duty to feed us breakfast very seriously, gives a cheery “Bon Jour!” and offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never say no.

After that, he brings a basket of bread to the table, crowned with a soft buttery croissant. I do not know who makes them but I want to take them home with me. I can smell the freshness. He also brings a plate of meats and cheeses and will make a boiled egg if I ask. Of course, There is also a selection of fruit and muesli. Today, I had a plumb and an apricot.

I realized that I still haven’t had a waffle here in Belgium and I probably should before I leave. In fact, I definitely should.

The area around my hotel (the main square) is being set up for the Grand Start if Tour de France beginning Saturday. I have watched the set up take shape each day as I walk past.

Last group tour today; I was going to Amsterdam. Our guide today couldn’t have been more opposite of the energetic Spanish girl we had yesterday. He was tall and large and quiet. This tour was supposed to be in both English and Spanish and I don’t think either was his native tongue, so it seemed like it was often too much trouble for him to translate, so he said nothing at all.

Our first stop was a small, family owned farm near the city center where they make cheese and clogs. My first impression getting off the bus was that it was a bit quirky and unkept—not at all the type of place you would expect a tour bus to stop. My second impression—and all of them after that—was that it was VERY quirky and unkept.

Perhaps we stopped there because the owner spoke many languages. He impressed us by spouting off in English, and the languages used in the surrounding countries (French, German, Dutch), but also Chinese (says he knows three dialects), Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and maybe others; I don’t know.

He tried to do his little cheese making demonstration in English and Spanish—he really did. But I think it was more of switching back and forth—one step in English, the next in Spanish, and so on. Either way, he had a lot of personality and was fun to listen to. He started and finished with samples of their Gouda cheese in various flavors and it was delicious. He said he was an eighth generation cheese maker. That’s hard to get my head around.

We didn’t get a demonstration, but they had clogs in all stages of development and he was clacking around on the concrete floors modeling them for us and claiming they were very comfortable.

His wife and son ran the gift shop so it had some order and charm to it. I have no room in my back pack for a block of cheese, so I choose a magnet for my memory of this fun and funny little place.

After the cheese shop, they gave us a photo op with a windmill. While the technology of these old windmills has been replaced with a newer version, there are lots of the old ones still running. I learned they were meant to be (and this still is) someone’s residence. I don’t know how convenient it is, but It’s sure cute.

Another thing I never knew about that area is how many Dutch live in little houseboats along the water. There were all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. And there were cool looking bike paths all through the country. That looked like fun to me.

The guide showed us some of the highlights of Amsterdam as the bus slowly crawled through the city. While Belgians are more known For their bike riding, I quickly realized that the Belgians have nothing on Amsterdam. “Beware of bikes!” Was the guides final admonition as we got off the bus. I heard some folks talking that there are 3,000 bike/pedestrian accidents in Amsterdam a year and I realized this was, quite possibly, the most dangerous part of my trip. The bicycles often had their own lane, but one had to cross the land somehow and there was a constant stream of bikes and they did not slow down. The bike parking lots were amazing and at the train station I wondered how one would ever find their bike again.

I decided to go to Haarlem by train first. I have been there before but I was drawn to the home of Corrie ten Boom and her family. They helped Jews during WWII and consequently Corrie suffered in Ravensbruck concentration camp and her sister died there. I would recommend the stop if you are ever nearby.

Back in Amsterdam, I walked around, smelling Cannibis and attempting to get in the Anne Frank museum, but I guess you can’t even enter a gift shop unless you buy tickets months in advance.

I dodged bikes, walked along the flower market, attempted to avoid the red light district, and and eventually bought a smoothie and some Dutch chocolate. It’s a very busy city and there was lots more to see but things I was most interested such as the Bible museum and Jewish museum seemed to be closed. If I had known the bus was going to be more than 30 minutes late, I would have taken the time to go by the Jewish WWII memorial that we had driven by earlier. Oh well.

My take away from Amsterdam is that it is a beautiful town and you might enjoy it if you are quick on your feet and like the sickly sweet smells. But the highlight of my day was probably the quirky cheese man and his delicious Gouda cheese.

Step count: 19,000

Cumulative step count: 203,000

Day 10 – Luxembourg and Dinant

Up until now, the group tours I have taken have had max a dozen people. Today, we were 50 people strong all on one big bus. The common tie between all of us: English.

That definitely doesn’t mean American. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how few Americans I’ve met on this trip. Far more have been Canadian, Australian, from the UK, or even India. Many times, I’ve looked at someone and thought they were from the US until they opened their mouths.

Anyway, our perky Spanish guide held a large purple sign over her head and hearded us toward the bus. There were a half dozen other tours leaving from the same time and place so it was a bit of a zoo. Thank goodness for her purple paper taped on a wood stick which she held triumphantly above the crowd.

It is a long ride to Luxembourg. But Marium taught us a lot about both Belgium and Luxembourg on the way. Belgium is a country of about 11 million (roughly the population of Georgia); Luxembourg has about 600,000 residents. Both are effectively governed by Parliament although Belgium has a king and Luxembourg has a duke.

Luxembourg, the city, is as old as the ninth century—having originally been settled by the Vikings. Luxembourg, the country, only dates to the nineteenth century. The name Luxembourg means “little fortress” and the city was apparently a very good one. When we got there, we saw some of the old city walls and it was easy to see why the location above the river was formidable.

The main industry in Luxembourg is banking and finance and it is a wealthy country considering its size. Minimum wage is roughly ~$13,50/hr and they have more Porsches per capita than anywhere in the world.

I didn’t really feel like paying 25 Euro for lunch, so another girl and I walked around a bit and then got a wrap at a small corner cafe. I haven’t said this (or thought it) about any food I’ve had so far this trip, but there is only one word to describe it: disgusting. (Mostly mayonnaise with wisps of lettuce, tomato, and prosciutto). I noticed my friend threw hers in the trash can too as we walked as well.

The guide showed us Parliament and the Duke’s residence. There were a number of churches, squares, an outdoor farmer’s market, and all the typical retail offerings of a small, high end town. She also talked a good about the EU, which had its beginnings here and cracked me up with some of her English phrases such as her frequent references to “sky scrappers.”

Leann and I walked across the bridge to the new part of town and back…There is a pedestrian/bike bridge suspended below the car bridge which made for a nice shady place to walk and take some pictures.

By the time we were back, we pretty well felt like we’d seen Luxembourg. There were some nice parks, and overall, I got the feeling that it would be a pretty nice place to live if you’re in the banking and finance world and you really like mayonnaise.

On our return trip, we stopped in Dinant, a very picturesque Belgian village where the inventor of the saxophone is from. We then wound our way up the river; it was a very beautiful drive. The area had had a coal boom in the 60s and 70s but has since lost most of its industry and is now mostly summer homes and strawberry growers.

I felt a little yuk by the time we got back. I wasn’t sure it is was from the long ride or the mayonnaise lunch that I had tried to chase away with gummy bears.

Overall, it had been a good day, but I felt the boxes had sufficiently been checked and I likely won’t be returning to Luxembourg.

Step count: 16,000

Cumulative count: 184,000

Day 9 – The Beautiful City of Brugges

Brugges 20

It was another beautiful day. I had not gotten the early start needed to go to Dunkirk, so I decided to switch things up and take the day to go to Brugges, a small Belgian town by the ocean.

When I say small, I’ve heard it has a population of 1,000 but receives an average of 25,000 tourists a day.

So I guess it goes without saying that it is a tourist town. But there is a reason why 25,000 tourists a day go there. It really is beautiful.

I was on my own today and it was about noon when I arrived. I wandered my way through the city in comfortable shoes, in no particular rush and with no particular destination. I was determined to let today be a less stressful day.

Roughly in the center of the city is this looming bell tour…83 meters tall and I’m sure, at one time, important to the defensive strategy of the city. I waiting in a long, slow line to climb the 366 steps to the lookout over the city. I got to hear the chimes from inside the tower which left an impression. It was all interesting, but I hated to waste any time because I felt sorry for all the folks waiting in the long line below.

But I did get a few shots of the city from the look out 366 steps up:

Some of the city had medieval history, but I didn’t really know what the history was, so I decided to take one of the canal tours. I had read that they were a beautiful way to see the city and I figured I’d learn some of the story at the same time.

The guide packed us in and immediately began talking and joking. He was switching off between languages though (Belgium has three official languages, French, Dutch, or German), and while I know English was in the mix, I couldn’t tell when he was speaking English except that I kept hearing him boom “Sixteenth Century”…”dates to the Sixteenth Century…” “vas built in the Sixteenth century…” and finally with pride, “twelfth Century!”

So it was a pretty ride and I decided just to enjoy it and not be frustrated that I didn’t learn a thing. There is always Wikipedia.

Brugges 8

There are 1,000 restaurants. Maybe more. I settled on a take away of Finnish beef stew and fries. It was good and definitely filled the space that had freed up since the hotel breakfast.

Brugges 5

I also thought I would satisfy my sweet tooth by popping in to some of the 1,000 chocolatiers that all boasted they had the world’s finest chocolate and figure out which one was actually best for myself.

I ended up only buying chocolate at one but I looked at a lot of beautiful chocolate. Smelled a lot of good chocolate. And, if they offered samples, I never said no.

Brugges 12

In true tourist town form, it was retail heaven and all the big names were there as well as lots of local specialty shops, antique shops, and souvenirs shops…where I got my magnet. Again, I was glad for my little backpack which helped me avoid temptation, but I did enjoy looking at the handmade lace and a few of the other shops of curios.

Brugges 4

It was tempting to rent a bike…it’s a thing in Belgium and they were convenient to rent, but the main streets were a bit too crowded; and anyway, I had splurged on the boat tour. So I contented myself to walk some of the outskirts. It was a larger town than I expected. Surely, far more than 1,000 people live there at least with seasonal help.

I took the train back to Brussels where things are getting crazy as they set up for Tour de France beginning here Saturday. There was a tiny bit of evening left, so I caught up on email and made a much needed trip to the laundry mat.

I looked it up and learned that Brugges (spelled four different ways…depending on which language you’re using) was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century. It was a port town and had its hay day between the 12-14th centuries before Antwerp rose in size and importance and Brugges began to decline. By the 1800s, it was the poorest city in Belgium.

Recent tourism has undoubtedly turned the tide and one of the row houses along the canal sells for 1.5 million Euro. And I could feel good about my life knowing I had done my part to sustain this lovely little town with almost no history and no industry. Except selling the world’s finest chocolate.

Step count: 22,000 Cumulative step count: 152,000

Day 8 – Bratislava…or Barcelona…then Brussels

I woke up naturally. Finally. It was nice to feel like I was in something of a routine. I had time for a leisurely breakfast and tried three different kinds of jam with my bread. They were all delicious.

At the last minute, I changed from my most comfortable walking shoes, to the flip flops to match my skirt. I felt much more relaxed today.

I was still not in a rush as I headed out for my tour to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. This time, the tour guide was not coming to the hotel, we were to meet in front of the Vienna Opera House.

But I was not concerned about getting to the right place. I had plenty of time and the green line runs from right near the hotel to right in front of the Opera House. What could go wrong?

But not only was there an easy plan for today, I also had a plan B and I had been severely torn between the two. Due to a series of events, I had a flight to Brussels both Monday (today) and Tuesday. If I made it to Brussels one day early, I would lose the opportunity to go to Slovakia, but I would gain a longer layover in Barcelona and a possible day to visit Dunkirk, France. While I have been to France and have not been to Slovakia, I was getting a little burned out on Middle Eastern towns; and the idea of visiting the famous beaches that hosted the escape of 400,000 Allied soldiers seemed like a good trade.

But after much deliberation, I had stuck with plan A because, after all, I had paid for the tour to Slovakia and the night’s hotel in Vienna and I hate to waste money.

So, by 7:45, I was sitting in a seat on the green line. I was supposed to be at the meeting place by 8:15 and the tour was to leave at 8:30. It would be about a 10 minute ride to get there; so I zoned out briefly; still chewing on Plan A and B and the pros and cons of each.

vienna 16

After a few minutes, I started paying attention to the stops; my general sense was that mine, Karlsplatz, was still a few a away.

But to my surprise, I was almost back to my starting point. What? I was so confused. But sure enough, the train was running toward my hotel stop.

I was scratching my head as I got back off the train and headed up the stairs and across the station to get back on. I felt like I was in some kind of a time warp movie. I heard them make an announcement (in German) but it meant nothing to me.

I rode the train again until everyone suddenly got off. Everyone but me. I figured it out at the last second and jumped off too. They had closed a section of the train for repairs and the train would return to start. I would have to find another route.

I looked at Siri—I was 3 miles from my destination but it would be a slow three miles walking. It was already after 8:00. There was no way I could walk it in time.

I didn’t really have time to figure anything out, everyone else was jumping on another train; in fact, it was so full, I didn’t think I could fit. But I was just able to squeeze in on and wedge myself between some other travelers.

But now I had another problem. It was so tight, I could not see the train map showing the lines, stops, and directions. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

As the train gradually began to unpack a little at each stop, I could catch glimpses of the map whenever another traveler moved her arm.

I kept checking my watch. Did I have time? Could I make it? Should I give up and go to plan B? I didn’t have time to decide anything, I could only keep moving…generally figuring it out on the fly…jumping from the green line, to the brown, to the purple, and finally, to the orange which would take my to my original destination. I had the subconscious sense that if something went wrong, I’d retrace the maze of lines back to the hotel and switch to Plan B; but miraculously, I kept getting on the right trains going the right directions.

The clock was unforgiving though. 8:15 came and went and I began to realize I wasn’t even going to make 8:30. They would not wait for me. I knew they would not wait for me.

The final train station, Karlsplatz, was a large one, and I practically raced through the station to see if there was hope of catching the tour. It was 8:29.

The Opera house was not there.

It was a little mistake, but it had huge consequences. I had come out the wrong exit. It probably took a full ten minutes for me to fix my mistake.

By the time I got to the front of the Opera House, there was no sign of a van. I tried to reach the tour operator but there was nothing I could do but email. It was past 8:40 and I was sure they were gone.

So here was the other thing. My flight—the plan B flight that I had not planned to take—left at 10:40. And I was four trains away from my stuff back at the hotel.

Plan B it was. Back down to the train station. I studied the map just long enough to confirm that the route I came truly was the most direct. I also set a timer to see how long it would take me to get back. I would have to get to the hotel, pack, ride four trains back here, then catch the airport train…which only ran on the half hour. Then I would ride the sixteen minutes to the airport, check in, and go through security, and board all in about 1.5 hours. It wasn’t doable.

But still, as I waited for the train, I tried to write down each train line, direction, and stop I would need for the return trip for quick reference. God bless whoever it was that came up with the idea of giving each line a different color. They deserve knighthood, sainthood, and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Siri, however, was not so helpful. She stinks at German and as I typed in all the names, she kept trying to auto correct them. Finally, I gave up.

I caught the train and used the ride to keep playing the timing through in my mind. I *might* be able to make the flight if I took a taxi to the airport instead of chancing the train. I had to try.

I packed in no time at all and had the driver waiting outside. But this driver defied every reputation of cab drivers everywhere. He was in no rush. The only thing that seemed to be moving was the clock.

It was 9:59 when we pulled up at the airport for my flight which was supposed to board at 10:00. I kept checking my phone, but the flight was on time.

It was 63 Euros for the cab ride. And there was pretty much no way I was going to make it. So much for plan B. Little mistakes can sure be expensive.

Plan C would be to catch a train to Slovakia myself. I didn’t feel much like going back to the hotel to drop off my stuff and then retracing all those steps for a fifth time that morning. Maybe I would just throw my back pack in the Danube and go.

But I pursued plan B doggedly, trying to be kind to the elderly couple in security in front of my who kept pulling more and more bits and bobs out of their pockets. Then the Spanish gentlemen…acting very much like he has never been in a hurry in his life.

I made it. Not by much, but I made it.

Barcelona 2

 

My layover was in Barcelona. I took the Aerobus into the city center. Turns out, the 1992 Olympic Games were to Barcelona what the Sound of Music was to Salzburg.

Given my limited time and disinclination to repeat my Vienna experience and walk 10 miles with my backpack, I decided to splurge on one of the hop on, hop off bus tours with the audio guide.  I figured that way I would learn some of the rich history of the area.

Basically, the audio in a nutshell was: this city was reinvented for the 1992 Olympic Games.

One would have thought that the Mediterranean Sea made it’s appearance for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Since I really didn’t have time to hop on or hop off, I contented myself with the leftovers of a chocolate bar I bought in Saltzburg and taking pictures from the top deck of the bus. But if I’d had time, I would have gotten off here which apparently is where you can view ancient ruins from the Roman Age under the city. The guide didn’t tell us much about it…it must not have played a part in the 1992 Olympic Games.

Barcelona 7

I don’t know if all of the trees were planted for the 1992 Olympic Games or not, but they offered pleasant shade and the breeze off the ocean was very welcome. Between that and the overall friendliness of the Spanish people, I was starting to release some of the tension of the morning’s craziness.

I took the train back to the airport, and I was glad I did because it took us, apparently, through the part of the country that hadn’t gotten reborn for the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a very different picture that reminded me more of South America. Maybe that’s why they push tourists to take the Aerobus.

I’ll spare you the details, but it ended up being another harrowing near miss of a flight due to a 15 minute bus ride between terminals, super slow security, and a gate that kept changing. But God is good and I made it okay; just started feeling like I need to get back to work to get away from all this stress of vacation. :).  That’s what I get for wearing my flip flops and trying three different kinds of jam on my bread.

But that’s the way it is sometimes. And the good news is, I should sleep well tonight. That is, after I burn these shoes.