Alan’s Birthday Trip to Belgium and Holland

 Where do I begin? Alan and I took a fabulous trip to Belgium and Holland for his birthday weekend, 29 August – 2 September, and I am just getting around to jotting down the details. Enjoy………..

Day 1

It was a Friday and we had reservations to ride the Eurostar train to Brussels in the afternoon. We were so excited to ride the train that goes under the English Channel.

We arrived at the Eurostar station, which is based out of the London Waterloo station, and it was massive. There were terminals, check in, check out; it was just like an airport excluding the fact that nothing was officially to leave the ground. With in the Eurostar terminal there were restaurants, gift shops, news stands and of course a pub. I must admit it was extremely clean and much nicer than most airports I have seen, San Jose,Costa Rica to just mention one.

Boarding time was at 5:00pm for a 5:20 departure. We were in the waiting area and Alan was so excited he couldn’t sit still, so off he wondered to check out all of the shops. Meanwhile the precious wife stayed more than willingly stayed with the luggage. Alan arrives back with some treats and drinks for us to share; including some ICE COLD bottled water for me. Why would that be anything to write home about, let me tell you to find any drink cold I mean really cold, just doesn’t happen on a daily basis here in London. Of course Alan had to let me know just how cold it was by dripping some down my shirt. Don’t worry I got him back later.

The announcement came "time to board coaches 10-15". We were in Coach 14, just one away from the food car. We located our seats and were very impressed with the looks of the train. Our seats weren’t bad but we spotted a set of 4 seats facing each other, ahead of us by two rows, and thought that would be prime seating. I sat in the unassigned seats hoping the seats weren’t sold as each and every person walked past.

Jackpot! No one ever sat down, so Alan moved up and we were travelling in STYLE.

We brought our books on the train to do some research on the countries we were going to. On our 3-hour train ride we sketched out a plan for our extended weekend and also snuck in a nap. Before we new it we had crossed under the English Channel and were travelling through France, what a noticeable difference in the speed on that side of the water. We were going 170 mph, and it seemed like minutes and we were arriving in Brussels. We arrived about 9:30pm and now the hunt was on for our accommodations.

I reserved a flat through the Belgium Tourist Board on the Internet. I phoned a couple of times for directions and no speak English. I did phone the flat owners upon our arrival and with poor French and Italian I somehow managed to let them know we were on our way. None of the maps we had of the city were very detailed. The streets were on the maps, but no names. We hopped on the Metro subway and headed towards the Grand Palace, because we did know the flat was 4 blocks from the Palace and only one block from the famous Manneken Pis. We exited off of the subway and out onto a very busy and lively street. We got our bearings and ventured south. After walking for about 7 blocks we realised we must have gone to far, only because we were having a great chat and loving all of the sights. Back we went and voila there was Le Fleur de Balcon.  

Time to check in, at 11pm the owners weren’t thrilled. An older Italian couple that also spoke some french, but no English. We had the flat on the top floor, so up the spiralled marble stairs we went. When we entered the flat we were both stunned. It was a full on apartment. There was a bedroom, living room, dining room, tiny kitchen, a tiny room with a toilet and a sink the sized of your hands, and a showering room (douche) with a bidet. We loved the bidet, in fact if we ever build a home one is going in. The décor was a bit much to handle, burnt out psychadellica 70’s browns, but it was huge.

We were exhausted and had big travel plans for the following morning, so off to bed.

Day 2

Rise and shine, time to check out Brussels. We walked around the neighbourhood and saw all of the "sights". First stop was the Manneken Pis, statue fountain of a little boy going pee. What a disappointment, in the guide books it said it was the 2nd most visited sight in Belgium. Ha… a statue about 2 feet high and on a tiny little corner on a tiny little alley. A must see, to try to figure out why it is so highly rated. Now down towards the Grand Palace.

The Grand Palace was incredible. As you enter from the side streets you come upon an extremely large cobblestone square completely surrounded by incredible buildings from the 12th century. Each and everyone had their own character with each façade consisting of hand carved stone. On each of the roof tops there were many statues of saints to watch over them.  There were also quite a few café’s and restaurants which had some tables outdoors that spilled over onto the square. At various times in the evenings artists and entertainers would be in the square and along the alleyway’s performing. We watched a juggler for a short time on the square and then 2 guys playing a xylophone and a guitar, and they were really good. I told Alan next time to bring along his flaming torches to juggle and then he could do a little show and have cash thrown to him.

The streets are all very narrow brick alleys, with flats above the street side shops. We must have ventured into the "Pita" district because there were an overwhelming number of Pita restaurants. Oh boy were they good, we ate there almost every day. Apparently in the old days the Grand palace was the central area for the morning markets and all of the little streets that branched off from the centre were named after the good that were sold there. For example there is one named fromage, and Beurre another named Fleur and so on.  

By 12 noon we had to pick up our car that was on hold for us. After going on a wild goose chase we did get the car and off to explore a little. We did get lost immediately trying to find our way back into the city from the rental agency. At this point we decided to just go to where ever the road we were on was going. It was heading north and within about 30 minutes we were in Antwerp, near the border of Holland. We strolled around here for the afternoon and went Diamond shopping. This is one of the biggest diamond hubs in the world. We didn’t have much luck on the weekend because everything gets locked into the vaults. The best advice we received was to return on Monday. We explored this town in the car and on foot and exhausted ourselves.

We decided to take a different route back into Brussels and explore some small villages. We did stop at one, of course I forget the name, and we must have been in the Flemish region of Belgium. Not many people spoke English and the menus at the pub were impossible to make out. We tried to communicate that we wanted a milkshake and a mocha to go, but it was more like a game of charades. Alans milk shake arrived in an old plastic butter tub and at this point we decided to deal with the smoke and have our drinks in the pub so they could be served in a glass. My mocha arrived with two biscuits covered in chocolate and fresh whipped cream, Yum Yum.

Also in this town we came up with this crazy idea to go to the grocery store to buy bacon, eggs, bread, etc. to make a fantastic breakfast in the morning. WELL, have you ever gone to the butcher who only knows Flemish and asked for bacon, yet another game of pointing and charades. Our grocery store visit consisted of quite a lot of pointing and nodding, but we did manage to find everything but hashbrowns.

Each little village we passed through seemed to have a distinct centre of town, usually a round about with some sort of Clock tower, Gazebo, or Statue. This particular town had the clock tower. It was now getting late and time to head back to the flat, knowing we were going to once again get lost trying to enter the city.

You see, most of the cities in this area are surrounded by a Ring road, which encircles the city above and under ground. It is almost like you go a few blocks above ground to get a glimpse and then into a long tunnel down under. As we were clueless as to where we were by landmarks we could circle the city forever. After much effort we did make our way back and found prime parking around the corner from our flat. Time for a good nights sleep after we put away our groceries to make a great breakfast in the morning.

Day 3

I awoke around 9am, flicked on the TV, and heard the news about Princess Di. I was in such shock I ran over and woke up Alan. We watched the news for a couple of hours, while eating our home cooked breakfast. We lost track of time and the owner of the flat rang our room, about 11:30am, and asked us to leave. Apparently she had someone else checking in to the room in an hour and needed time to clean it. We unfortunately did not read the check time, which was posted in French. We packed our bags and hit the road.

Our plans were to head north to Holland and find a room somewhere when we got tired. On the way out of town we made a stop at the famous Atomium. It stands 335 feet high and each sphere has a diameter of 69 feet. The total weight is 2200 tons. This was built for the worlds fair in the 60's. You can actually go up to the top in an elevator and then you work your way back down on very steep escalators inside the arms. In each sphere there is a large display, excluding one which is a restaurant.

From there we drove on B roads to make sure we passed all of the small villages and towns. At one point we were so thirsty we stopped at a McDonalds and everything on the menu was in Flemish. Even the garbage cans said Dank U. It was so adorable. We tried to order a large coke by attempting to pronounce the word next to the coke symbol with the highest price. Smart cookies aren’t we? Well, we mutilated whatever word it was and the girl said "a large Coke?" She spoke perfect English and we looked like complete fools. 

Back on the road and headed into Holland actually we were probably in Holland and didn’t even know it. There was no big Hoorah when we crossed country lines. We drove through a harbour town named Rotterdam and decided to keep on going until we happened upon a small town. Not 15 miles further we did just that, we found Gouda (like the cheese!). It is pronounced like such: Howda Gurgle the H like you have something stuck in your throat. NO, that’s not it, you must try again…Just try one more time. There ya go, no you’ve got the idea of how difficult it was to ask directions and read signs. Every sign seemed to have words that consisted of mostly K’s, J’s, and G’s. What a nightmare!

Gouda was a quaint little village with tiny roads lining canals. The main types of transportation around this town were 1) bicycles, 2) tiny boats, 3) tiny cars. We stayed at a cute little Bed and Breakfast just a stones throw away from the canal. We checked in at about 3 in the afternoon unloaded the car and then back on the road to spend the evening in Amsterdam. The drive was only 40 minutes and finding parking wasn’t as difficult as we thought. There was a cultural festival going on that weekend and there were plenty of people and their rubbish around to prove it.

We strolled along the main outer canal and stopped at a fabulous outdoor café for dinner. We then walked for hours around this beautiful city, full of life and plenty of people partying. There were a few canal ways blocked off with floating stages where bands were playing. People were cruising around in their boats on the waterways having a grand old time. We arrived back to Gouda for the night about 11pm and then time for bed.

Day 4

The next morning, Monday, we were up for our home cooked breakfast. We decided to rent a couple of bikes and explore for a few hours. We hopped on our lovely old lady bikes and zipped around town and through all of the back alleys. The town was extremely quiet and not many people were out and about. We did smell the lovely aroma of cinnamon in the air. Being the great detectives that we are, we managed to track down the source of this mouth-watering smell. We located the backside of a small shop that was making fresh stroopwaffles. These are 2 tiny paper-thin waffles sandwiched together with honey and cinnamon in the middle. They were fresh out of the pressing machine, and the stroopwaffles were being sold by the dozens. Of course we couldn’t resist and we bought a dozen of these yummy treats. Our first bite was a bit of heaven because they were so warm and delicious. On with our bike ride around town. The entire country, including this little town, was geared towards bikes. They had bike lanes everywhere with their own traffic signals and turning lanes. We thought that the traffic lights were just adorable; a miniature version of "Real" traffic lights. The turning lane was a bike lane just to the left of the car turning lane in the middle of the road. We were in the big time now!

 After exploring this city for a few hours it was back down to Belgium and to Antwerp to check out more diamonds. We arrived into Antwerp and shopped around, but we felt the dealers were all a bit cheesy and a little too eager to bargain for such precious stones. We bagged that idea and headed back to Brussels for our last night in the country. We were exhausted and just grabbed a room at a hotel near the airport so we wouldn’t have to find parking. After checking in to the hotel we hopped back in the car to find a place to eat some dinner.

We drove down the road a mile or so and happened upon a cute little neighbourhood. We parked the car and went into an Italian restaurant with french speaking employees; Scary! We were hesitant but starving, so we sat down. No English was spoken here, so ordering was quite fun. I had the most incredible salad and steak of my life and Alan had a fabulous pizza and soup. Can you tell we were a little hungry? It truly was incredible and the service was impeccable. I am sure they got a kick out of us conversing with them via charades, but hey it works. The universal language that is guarantied to come with a good laugh! Up the next morning and back to the train station to take the Eurostar HOME to England!