Sunday, December 5, 2004

A Taste of Trier

We had a nice time in Trier today. We arrived around noon, found parking right by the Porta Nigra, and after a short visit to the Tourist Information Center, we hopped on the little tourist tram that takes you past all the major landmarks of the city. Good thing we did that, because we hardly would've seen anything otherwise. We stuck mostly to the market square, exploring the Christmas market (which was a really good one, I might add).

Trier has one of the most beautiful market squares in Germany. The guidebooks say this, but I believe it's true. It really was unbelievable.

Anyway, we got lunch at the Christmas market - cheese crepes for Lance and I, and Sue and Zoe shared a bratwurst and a nutella crepe. We also enjoyed a lot of street performers. The atmosphere was very lively and festive, but the market was very crowded.

After we walked around the market for awhile, we decided to go into the Domstein of the ones recommended by the guidebook. There are Roman artifacts kept in glass cases on the bottom floor. So we sat down there and Sue and I had apfelstrudel. Lance and Zoe had hot fudge sundaes.

We decided that it was time to go home, but not before we climbed up to the top of the Porta Nigra, which is a 2,000 year old Roman structure. There were beautiful views of Trier as dusk set in. Around 4 or so, we left. I am definitely going back so I can explore things further.

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Va Va Va Valkenberg!

This morning was very frosty and cold, and we had to meet at the Family Support Center at 8:15 am for our tour of Margraten and Valkenburg.

First stop: Margraten - the Netherlands American Cemetery. I wasn't terribly interested since I spent so much time there for Memorial Day. I should've just stayed in the visitor's center where it was nice and warm.

Around 11, we left for Valkenburg, which is a 10 minute drive from Margraten. It was NOTHING like I expected. You come into the town and suddenly you come around a bend, and there are the HUGE castle ruins right at the top of the hill overlooking the town.

After we found parking, our first stop was to the VVV (tourist office) to buy tickets for the Christmas markets. Then we decided that we would all split up and enjoy the town on our own and meet back up at the parking lot at 3. So Lance, Sue, Zoe and I went in search of lunch. We ended up at this restaurant called Au Soleil. I had a kroket with fries...krokets are hard to describe. Basically, it was like this fried, breaded thing on my plate...when I bit into it, there was this delicious shredded meat inside. I think it was chicken, because it reminded me of my Grandma's shredded chicken sandwiches, but it was also dark meat. It's hard to say. A lot of times I'm not sure what I'm eating.

There are two major caves in Valkenburg. You can take tours of them normally anyway, but this time of year they are set up for Christmas with all kinds of goods being sold and beautiful decorations inside and American Christmas music being piped through a loudpspeaker system.

I should mention that the caves were a place where Allied soldiers hid out during World War II. We saw their names carved into the cave walls, with the dates that they were there and where they were from. We even saw names and years from the 17th century carved into the walls. There are also murals painted onto the walls.

The Christmas markets themselves were nothing special. Most of the stuff being sold was flea market type stuff...not the good quality handicrafts that I see in most Christmas markets. There also weren't a lot of food stands. There was a restaurant inside one of the caves, but none of the delicious food smells that we normally associate with the Christmas markets.

Anyway, we bought tickets for both markets, so we spent most of our time in one and just kind of did a quick walk-through of the other. We were supposed to meet back up with our group at 3. But we decided when we met up again that we wanted to stay another two hours. So with some extra time on our hands, we decided to explore the castle ruins. That was really have fantastic views of the city from there and the ruins themselves are pretty interesting.

After we were satisfied that we'd seen enough of the castle, we went back down into the pedestrian area where there were shops and restaurants aplenty. Lance and I popped into a store called the Treasure Trove, where we found something that his sister wanted...fake Delft stuff. Then we sat outdoors at a cafe in a tented-in heated area, so we could still watch the people going by and hear the hustle and bustle of Valkenburg while staying toasty warm. We had some absolutely incredible hot chocolate with whipped cream (warme chocomel met slagroom). We sat for awhile and watched darkness descend upon Valkenburg and the lights come on around us. Then we met up with the group at 5 to begin the carpool home.

Lance and I decided that we have to go back in the summer, when things are more slowly paced and we're not freezing!

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Christmas in Aachen

I took my aunt and cousin to Aachen today to visit the Dom, treasury, fountains, and the Christmas market. Of course, I've been to Aachen before, but it was still a fabulous day. The weather was and crisp, but not cold. No wind. It was very festive.

The Christmas market was wonderful! I liked it much more than the ones I saw in Cologne last year. I found a gift for my Grandma - a handpainted glass globe from Monschau. There is a place to put a tea-light candle inside of it. A beautiful snow scene is painted on it. I just hope I wrap it well enough so it doesn't get broken.

I got a couple things for a friend's care package. And I bought some chocolate covered printen for is delicious! How have I already been to Aachen twice before now and have never tried this before? We ate some whilst enjoying a hot drink at Starbucks. I had a chai's been so long since I had one. It was such a treat.

I took them to the Spanish restaurant where I ate the first time I came to Aachen - Paella. Sue and I had the all you can eat lunch buffet. Again, it was delicious. We stuffed ourselves sick. For that price, how could you not? I mean, 4,90 euros per person...ALL YOU CAN EAT. Awesome!

It was such a great day. I even gave 50 cents to the juggler who I've seen around Aachen before...I would rather he spend it to feed his dog, but he looked like he could use some spare change.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Anniversary in Clervaux

Once again, it's time for another "Karyn and Lance took a trip somewhere" update. We decided to take a little getaway to Clervaux, Luxembourg because it's was relatively close (a 2 hour drive) and looked to be a pretty nice place to relax. Clervaux is a tiny town with a few things of interest, but not so much that we have to cram in a lot of sightseeing, so it sounded pretty good to us.

We left yesterday at around 10 am. The drive was interesting, since there was construction and we were made to go on a detour that took us on some pretty winding mountain roads. The area is in the Ardennes mountain region, which stretches from southern Belgium to northern Luxembourg. The Battle of the Bulge was fought in this region during WWII. We went through some picturesque small villages and past some really quaint hotels and restaurants.

When we finally got to Clervaux, we were pleasantly surprised at our hotel. It wasn't where we wanted to stay originally, but it was a 4 star hotel and the nicest one we've stayed in so far since we've been in Europe. It had a king size bed, a balcony that looked out onto a mountainside with a view of a charming little church and old railroad buildings, and a bathroom with a bidet. We had never seen a bidet before, so we had no idea what it was at first. The room was also quite large...most of the hotel rooms we've stayed in so far have been cramped. We had no shower, but a big bathtub, which was good enough. We were half-board guests, meaning that we got dinner and breakfast with our room rate, but it was only about lunch time when we arrived, so we decided to venture out in search of lunch.

It was quite cold and I was in the mood for soup or a sandwich. So we walked to 10 minutes or so into the touristy part of town. Most everything was closed except for the restaurants, the Chateau de Clervaux (Clervaux Castle), and the Abbey. We stopped to look at one of the few WWII monuments set up to honor America before we looked for a place to eat. We found a restaurant called Splendid, which served sandwiches and such, and had a bakery attached. And it wasn't too expensive. So I got the Quiche Lorraine, which was very good. Lance got the spaghetti carbonara.

After we ate, we decided to head to the chateau to have a look around. The chateau houses two museums: the Family of Man and a museum devoted to the Battle of the Bulge. Right inside the castle walls is an American tank from WWII and a howitzer. We decided on the Family of Man museum, which is one of the most famous photography exhibits in the world. There were several hundred black and white photographs depicting human life all over the world. Some of the photographs were pretty famous...some appeared in Life magazine...and I recognized at least one photo from Ansel Adams. It was a very interesting exhibit.

There was a Gregorian chant concert scheduled at the abbey at 3 pm, and I really really wanted to go. So Lance and I decided to head to the abbey after our visit to the chateau. The abbey is at the top of a mountain, so we had a lot of climbing to do to get to the top. There were a couple of trails that went up there. We took the one that took us past the large Clervaux Church, so I could take a look at the beautiful mosaics on the front. We took a peek inside too, but it was very simple on the inside, unadorned except for the stained glass windows.

We reached the abbey around 3, but didn't go to the concert. Lance wasn't particularly interested in it anyway and they wouldn't let people in past 2:50. So we walked around the grounds for a bit to get a closer look at the building and then went to a small museum inside that explains the history of the abbey, the order of the Benedictine monks, and the various musicians that have worked there (the only name I recognized was Claude DeBussy). The museum was all in French, so I didn't understand enough of it to get anything out of it, although Lance and I had to laugh at the picture of the monk in full monk regalia, wielding a weed whacker as he was tending the abbey lawn.

After that little exploration, we decided to go back to the hotel and get some rest. The main point of this trip was relaxation, after all. And it was raining between a fine mist and a pretty steady rain, so we wanted to get warm and dry. So we hung out in our room and watched television for a bit (CNN was the only thing we could find in English), then walked back to Splendid to get a couple of croissants and some drinks to tide us over until dinner, which wasn't being served until 7. After we had our snack, we laid down for a nap.

A little after 7, we went down to the dining room for our dinner. I had no idea what to expect since we never did the half board thing before. I ended up calling it the "No Choice Cafe" because they didn't give us a menu. They just served us food and we had no idea what we were having until they put it in front of us. There were four courses total. The first course was a very smooth and creamy potato soup, served with bread and butter. Lance and I both liked it. However, he was less than thrilled with the second course, which was salmon on toast (I like salmon though, so I didn't mind it) with capers and pearl onions on the side. For our main course, they served us a HUGE very raw steak topped with herb butter with a big bowl of french fries to share between us. And for dessert we had a mirabelle tart, which is a tart with tiny green plums on it (they looked like olives). Lance picked all his off and just ate the crust and whipped cream. I ate mine, but I had no idea what it was, and I didn't particularly care for it. I asked the waiter later on what it was.

So after almost 2 hours of eating, we walked up to our room, feeling nearly ready to explode. After letting the food digest a bit and then taking a bubble bath, we went to bed.

This morning we awoke and went down to breakfast...had a gorgeous meal of croissants, brotchen, various spreads, meats, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, orange juice, and some of the best hot chocolate ever. We walked back to Splendid to pick up a couple slices of very luscious looking chocolate layer cake to have for dessert for our anniversary dinner tonight, and we stopped in the grocery to pick up a bottle of Federweissen, which is a seasonal beverage that I heard about from my German friend Katrin. It's not wine, but she calls it "rotten grape juice." It's bottled at the in-between grape and wine stage, I guess. It was cheap, and I hear it's really good, so it's worth a try.

We went back to our hotel, packed up our stuff, stopped to pose for a few pictures together using the self-timer on my camera (because it seems we never get pictures of us together when it's just the two of us traveling). And then we checked out of our hotel and drove home.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Not a Typical Market Day in Sittard

I haven't been to the market in Sittard for a little over a year, and I've been missing the experience. The smells of the food, the friendly vendors, people's not so much the shopping that I enjoy as it is the atmosphere of it.

So I slathered on some sunscreen and headed out. It is a gorgeous, sunny, fantastic day today, although it's very hot. Not unpleasantly so.

I got to Sittard around 11:45 and walked to the market square. It was jam packed with people who were either browsing, sitting at the sidewalk cafes, or discussing prices with the vendors at the various booths. For those of you who have never been to one of these markets, the outer perimeters usually sell perishables: meats, cheeses, produce, and flowers. The inner part of the market square has the clothing, housewares, and stationary vendors. I'm primarily interested in the food, but it's always worth looking at the other stuff too.

The entire area usually smells like fried fish. The Netherlands is a big seafood country. Herring is the particular favorite (the preferred method of eating it is whole, raw, with some onions and pickles on top...bleargh. You're supposed to slide it whole down your throat, but I don't know how anyone can do that without gagging). It's easy to get your lunch at the market...maybe some fried fish or some food from the Vietnamese can finish off your meal with a fresh hot Belgian waffle drizzled in chocolate or powdered sugar. The waffle man is always very friendly and speaks wonderful English. But I skipped him this go round since I hadn't had lunch at that point.

The produce always looks so beautiful and fresh. The flowers also look incredible and are amazingly cheap. The cheese...OH, THE CHEESE. European cheese is the greatest food on earth, I swear to God. I salivate just thinking about the huge wheels of Gouda and Edam.

I limited myself to some produce. A carton of gorgeous strawberries for one euro - had to have them. A couple of Granny Smith's nice to know for a change what kind of apple I'm getting (the ones at the commissary usually aren't labeled).

I stopped at a flower vendor. They were selling potted, not fresh-cut. I wanted a couple containers of mini sunflowers to put out on our little stoop by the front door. That area gets a lot of sun...other plants haven't fared so well there. The "sonnenblumen" were 2 euros per pot and were just gorgeous, perfect looking sunflowers ("sonnenblumen" is actually German, not Dutch...I think the Dutch word is "zonnebloemen," but the ladies working at the booth understood what I wanted). Of course, after I carried them around in a plastic bag for a couple of hours, they got a little wilted. But they're sitting out in the sun now, freshly watered, and should perk back up soon.

By this time, I was hungry. So I went to my usual place for lunch in Sittard - Bakkerij Bart ("bakkerij" being the Dutch word for bakery). I go there because I know the menu and because most of the staff speaks English. I ordered a tuna salad, but ended up with ham and cheese for some inexplicable reason. That's was still good. I got it on multigrain broodje (the Dutch term for roll) with "salad" on top (shredded lettuce, cabbage and carrots), cucumber, and tomato...oh, and some hardboiled egg. Yes, egg. And I didn't even order it with egg. *shrug* Whatever, it was a damn good sandwich. All they had cold to drink was Coca Cola Light with Lemon. I hate Diet Coke with tastes like Lemon Pledge. But this actually tasted better. (Cola Light is NOT Diet Coke. Diet Coke does not exist in Europe, with the exception of the British Isles. Trust me, they taste completely different).

So I get my food and I'm looking for a place to sit. There wasn't an empty table to be found in the place. I noticed a family was getting ready to leave. The mom was wiping the crumbs off the table. So I stood there with my tray and waited, only a couple that had been behind me in line went and grabbed the seats at that table before the family had even completely left yet. I couldn't do anything else at that point but ask if it was okay to sit with them. In Europe, this is a perfectly acceptable practice. If there is nowhere else to sit in a restaurant, you are expected to share a table with total strangers. That's just a little out of my comfort zone. But what choice did I have? So I sat with this young Dutch couple, who seemed nice enough but didn't talk to me, although we exchanged smiles occasionally over bites of sandwich. Well, okay...the guy and I exchanged smiles...the girl totally ignored me from start to finish. I finished my meal, said goodbye to them, and left.

I had nothing else on my agenda at that point, and still an hour before my parking permit expired. So I figured I would window shop for a bit. Oddly enough, I ran into a tour group from the Family Support Center on base (the FSC coordinates tours in the local area...that's how I got to go to Maastricht and Aachen earlier this year). I had no idea they were doing a tour of Sittard today. So I was invited to join up with them, as they were about to go and check out St. Peter's church. After getting a little history lesson on the church, we discovered that it was closed. And so was the Basilica of Our Lady, and St. Michael's. None of them opened until 2. So we walked back to the shopping area for some ice cream and then I had to get back to my car since my parking permit was about to expire. I was invited to stay longer and just pay more for parking...they were going to the chocolate factory too. But I was kind of hot and sweaty and I wanted to get home.

It was a good day today. I'm glad I went out and enjoyed myself instead of running errands, which is how I usually spend my days off. It was badly needed.

I tried to get some pictures of the market today. But none of them came out well. They don't really give you any idea of the local color and flavor of these markets. It's really something that you should experience in person anyway.

Sunday, July 11, 2004


Lance and I just dropped Kim off at the airport a few hours ago. We had a nice visit, although she had a jam-packed itinerary in the week that she was here: Aachen, Cologne, Rhine castles, Monschau, and then yesterday we went to Amsterdam for the day.


Amsterdam is a very fun city...very lively and with friendly people. I was surprised that EVERYONE we spoke to spoke flawless English. In fact, they speak English first to everyone before they'll speak to you in Dutch.

There is a lot to do in Amsterdam, so of course we couldn't do everything in one day. I have to go to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rembrandt Museum the next time I go.

After we got to our hotel (too early for check-in), which was located near the airport, we took the shuttle bus to the airport and then took the sneltrein (semi-fast train) into Amsterdam's Centraal Station. One thing I noticed was how insane it was in the area surrounding the station. It's loud and vibrant and jam-packed with people (same with the Markt, which is the area where the Royal Palace is situated). By contrast, the residential streets along the canals are very quiet and peaceful, with quaint sidewalk cafes.

It was nearly lunchtime when we arrived, so we headed to the Jordaan district, which is where the Anne Frank Huis is located (the one absolutely sure thing I had planned for the day). We found the Prisengracht, which is the canal along which Anne Frank and her family hid during WWII. As we were walking down that street, we found The Pancake Bakery, which claims to make the best pancakes (pannekoeken) in town. Now in the Netherlands, they don't make pancakes as a breakfast item...this ain't no IHOP. Their pancakes are both sweet and savory. You can get them with fruit and ice cream and whipped topping. Or you can get them with bacon and egg and cheese or any sort of meat that you wish (they even had international pancakes with exotic savory fixings). So I ordered a bacon and cheese pancake and I got this gigantic, large plate-sized thin pancake, which was absolutely fantastic (the bacon and cheese is cooked inside). The waiter talked me into trying it with a little of their house syrup, which was in a large plastic flower pot and you drizzle it over your pancake with a wooden spoon. It was made of sugar beets. And let me tell you, it was GOOD. It was a fantastic, very filling lunch that sustained us well for the rest of the day.

We walked to Anne Frank Huis, but the lines to get in were huge (no wonder, as it's the most visited museum in the world). So we decided to try later.

Our next objective was to hop on a canal cruise. So we found a boat that was about to depart and enjoyed a lovely cruise through Amsterdam's canals and also into the harbor on the North Sea, which was a bit rocky. That is definitely a good way to see the city. It took us past some pretty nice buildings that we wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

After our cruise, we strolled around and checked out the various shops. They had these great cheese shops, but as tempted as I was to look around, we passed on those. And of course there were plenty of shops selling drugs. They're legal in Amsterdam, at least soft drugs are. And "coffee houses," which are actually weed bars. It was just an interesting glimpse into Amsterdam culture. And I think we were fairly near the Red Light District, because it seemed that the stores kept getting raunchier and raunchier and mannequins in the store windows were displaying fetish type stuff.

After that interesting walk, we headed back to Anne Frank Huis. The line seemed to be just as long as before, but we decided to just go ahead and wait. As it turned out, we didn't stand in line all that long. And it was so worth it. I can't even tell you how somber it was in there. There were a couple of times that I started crying. All the footage of the concentration camps and the victims...the pictures from Anne Frank's film star magazines still pasted to the walls...her original diary and various other documents on display. It was just an incredible and emotional experience. I'll never forget it. When we first walked in, they had a brief film on Anne Frank's life, including footage of Hitler and the concentration camps. A large group had gathered to watch it, and when it was over, there was dead silence. I think everyone felt something in that museum.

We decided that we needed something to lighten the mood after that, so we walked to the Markt. There was all sorts of stuff going on there - various street performers, places crammed with tourists. Lance wanted to sit at a bar and take a load off, so we went to this place across from the Royal Palace and sat at an outside table (the weather had been good all day despite the weather reports we got before we left). We sat and had a few drinks. While we were there, a huge group of drunk British men were putting on a show at the bar. They were singing a lot of songs VERY BADLY and VERY LOUDLY and making general spectacles of themselves. People were actually videotaping them. They kept trying to get passersby involved in their antics. At one point, they actually got a woman walking by to flash her breasts at them. And after that, they tried to get any woman who was walking without a man and who was obviously not wearing a bra to flash them. One guy from their group actually fell into the street and almost got hit by a car (if you want to call it a car, it was one of those tiny things that you could drive through the front door of your house). We enjoyed their performance for awhile before moving on. I stopped to get a picture of the Royal Palace (although it turned out badly because the sun was behind it) and we went in search of food. We all agreed on Italian and Sbarro was the first place we saw. But the food there was bad. Definitely not the Sbarro we have in the States.

We went back to Centraal Station, took the train back to the airport, caught the shuttle back to our hotel (and that was the scariest bus ride I've ever taken in my life). And we checked into our hotel. The rooms were awful...smashed bugs all over the walls. Actually, Lance and I were given someone else's room at first...we punched in the code to unlock the door and found an unmade bed and luggage strewn all over. Thank God nobody was in the room at the time. The hotel next door, which is owned by the same company, was awesome. I'm kicking myself that we didn't get reservations there, but we were allowed to use their facilities. So we availed ourselves of their all you can eat breakfast buffet this morning, and then we set off for the airport to drop off Kim. And if her flight left on time, she should be airborne right about now.

I should mention that it was a neat drive to and from Amsterdam. Yes, there are a lot of windmills. They're neat. I wish I could've gotten pictures.

Here are the pictures I did get:

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The Royal Palace

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Prisengracht - the canal on which Anne Frank lived

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Anne Frank statue outside the Anne Frank Huis

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Anne Frank Huis

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Birthday in Paris!

Lance and I are back! I had a fantastic time. There are things I loved and hated about Paris, but for the most part, it was really great.

Thursday was kind of a wash. We were told it would take about 4 hours to drive from our house to Paris, but we didn't count on so much construction in Belgium. We were stuck in traffic jams for hours...literally almost across the entire country. So it took us about 7 hours to get there, and then once we arrived in Paris, we couldn't find our hotel! The directions we had were very confusing, so we were lost for quite some time before we finally figured out where the Avenue Jean Jaures was. And then once we found the hotel, we needed to figure out where to park. The hotel actually had a private garage, but it was on a side street and we couldn't see it and the hotel's website did not indicate that the parking was on premises. It implied that parking was down the street somewhere. So we were confused about that and Lance finally parked in a lot one block away (which only took parking cards) and he stayed in the car while I ran to the hotel to figure out where we were supposed to park. I felt really stupid once they told me there was a private garage around the corner.

So by the time we figured things out and checked into our room, it was past 5 pm. And none of the restaurants served food until 7 pm, which we learned the hard way. We stopped at a cafe, hoping to get some food, but they were only serving drinks. So we ordered a coke and a lemonade and he brought our bill with the drinks and then came a few minutes later to get payment. That was very surprising to me because we've always had to ask for the bill whenever we're at an eating establishment. I got the impression that we weren't wanted there, especially since I saw what the waiter did to the other patrons and he treated them differently. He didn't bring their bill along with their drinks or demand payment right away. The drinks were also way overpriced...twice what we pay for the same drinks here in Germany. And that was just the beginning of a weekend of price gouging, which was certainly one of the things I hated about Paris.

After our drinks, we decided to kill some time before we could eat, so we walked to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, which was a couple of blocks from our hotel. That was actually a pretty neat little park. There was a cool waterfall and a cliff that offers an interesting view of the Montmartre district and Sacre-Coeur basilica. We climbed the cliff and there was a group of young people up there and Lance noticed a weird smell. He later realized that it was urine! And we actually smelled that quite a bit throughout Paris. That was when I first realized that Paris is actually pretty dirty. I saw people littering everywhere and dogs doing their business in the streets and sidewalks and nobody cleaned up after them. Some parts of it were pretty scuzzy. The German cities I've visited for the most part have been pretty clean, so I was really surprised by this. Anyway, after our visit to the park, we grabbed some dinner at a nearby Italian place and then went to our room for the evening.

Friday - my birthday! We decided to start out by taking the Metro to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, which empties out right at the Arc de Triomphe. So we started out there and began our walk down the Champs-Elysees. I actually enjoyed that...that area of Paris was reasonably clean. I got distracted when I saw the Eiffel Tower when looking down one of the side streets, so we turned down that street in search of it. And of course, the street did not take us directly to it, but it emptied out to a monument bearing a replica of the Statue of Liberty's torch (which I later learned has become a tribute to Princess Diana since her fatal car crash was near that spot). We had a good view of the Eiffel Tower from there, so I took a picture of Lance standing by this torch with the Tower in the background. We finally made it to the Eiffel Tower, but I spotted a boat cruise on the Seine that was about to depart, so Lance and I got on it. So from that tour, we saw most of the major Paris highlights: the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame, etc. etc. And we had interesting historical commentary being piped in various languages into a telephone-like thing.

The boat took us back to the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to walk underneath it. We were accosted by several men selling cheap souvenirs. And we noticed the lines to get into the elevators going to the top were very long, so we opted not to do it. Instead we decided to return to the Champs-Elysees at the approximate point where we left off and complete the walk to the Place de la Concorde, which is where the guillotine stood during the French revolution and is now marked by a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk. We stopped for some lunch at Deli's Cafe along the way and sat in the outdoor dining area to enjoy our sandwiches.

Once we reached Place de la Concorde, we decided to see Notre Dame. So we made the walk to it, and I actually found it to be very disappointing. Lance did too. We just expected it to be so much grander than it was. I guess we were spoiled after seeing the beauty of the Cologne Dom, which is still the most magnificent cathedral I've seen yet. We were also accosted outside Notre Dame by a little girl who was trying to collect donations for her so-called poor Serbian family (which I think is a scam since Lance has encountered something similar in the past).

After Notre Dame, we crossed the river into the Latin Quarter and went to the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which has the largest collection of antiquarian English-language books in Europe. I picked out a few paperbacks for Lance to buy me as a birthday present. I made sure to get Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which was written about his life as a struggling writer in 1920's Paris. It's been neat reading that since he mentions the places we just visited, including Shakespeare & Company. It was a very cool bookstore, and they even have a souvenir stamp to stamp your books with, so I got all my books stamped as my souvenir from Paris.

After that, Lance and I were both exhausted. My feet were starting to get swollen from all the walking we did and I think I twisted my ankle at some point on Friday, probably on the cobblestones. So we tried to find a nearby Metro (and there wasn't really one that took us directly back to our nearest Metro station) and we walked to the closest one that would take us back to our hotel, passing the Paris zoological gardens on the way (where we got to see two ostriches mating, which is not an experience I wish to ever see was pretty strange and scary).

So we got back to the hotel to rest for awhile and we watched Ronald Reagan's funeral on BBC, since that had just started. I took a shower because I felt grungy and I was sunburned, even though I slathered on the sunscreen. Once I felt kind of human again, I dressed up in my nice dress and heels and pearl necklace and Lance dressed up and we looked for a place to have a nice dinner. The hotel clerk recommended a place a couple of blocks away, but when we got there, we saw that they served mostly fish, and I wasn't in the mood for seafood and Lance doesn't like seafood. So we checked out a few other places and finally settled on a restaurant at the Hotel des Buttes-Chaumont, which was right across from the park. They had pasta and some French dishes, so both of us were happy. I was trying to decipher the menu for Lance before we stepped inside. The host asked if I spoke French, to which I replied (in French) that I spoke only a little. And he smiled and handed me an English menu. We liked what we saw, so he seated us in an empty part of the restaurant in a nice romantic little booth where it was quiet and private. He asked us if we wanted an aperitif, and I initially said no, but he talked me into a glass of strawberry champagne. Lance ordered one too so we could toast my birthday. And it was GOOD champagne. Yummy. I asked for a cheese plate and they brought out a plate of 4 different french cheeses (brie, camembert, roquefort, and another cheese I couldn't identify) and a basket of french bread. Lance didn't care for most of the cheese, although he thought the brie and camembert were okay. So I ended up eating most of it. I ordered rabbit and mushroom stew over egg noodles for the main course. Lance ordered pasta and tomato sauce. My food was VERY good, although it was the first time I ever had rabbit and I was initially freaked out, because it was served to me on the plate, looking like 1/4 of a leg and half of the rib cage. Once I got past that initial "ewwwwww" factor and I tasted it, it was very very good. For dessert I had this awesome chocolate lava cake with a scoop of vanilla (?) ice cream, and Lance had chocolate pie, which tasted for all the world like fudge on a very thin graham cracker crust and he had a scoop of coffee ice cream with his. Lance had serious sticker shock from the bill...he didn't want me to see it, but I took a peek when the waiter laid down the credit card receipt. Ah mon Dieu! I will say that the champagne alone was 9 euros a glass (about $11), so it's a good thing it was tasty. And even though I heard that the servers in Paris typically aren't friendly, we had very friendly service. The waitstaff kept checking on us to make sure everything was to our satisfaction, and they attended to the tiniest details, even making sure to come and light a candle halfway through our meal when the lighter was finally found (I guess it was lost). And they just could not have been nicer. I was pleasantly surprised.

After that, we went back to the hotel and I called Mom to talk to her on my birthday. We didn't have a phone in our room, so I had to call from the hotel lobby. I was supposed to call more people, but I couldn't because there were other people waiting to use the phone. So for those of you expecting a call from me on Friday, I apologize that I couldn't.

And that was it for our first day of sightseeing.

I woke up yesterday (Saturday morning) feeling for all the world like a decrepit 90 year old. My feet were swollen and bruised from all the walking we did and I could barely walk when I got out of bed, I was so stiff. I worked out the kinks the best I could and Lance and I were on our way again after the really disappointing breakfast at the hotel. We took the Metro to the Louvre. We walked around in the Louvre for a couple of hours, spending more time in awe of the actual building than the art that is housed inside. But we saw the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. I couldn't believe the crowds at the Mona Lisa. It was just insane. I don't think it's one of the most remarkable paintings ever created, so it's fascinating to see why people love it so much. People were even talking to it (quote of the day: "Hi Mona! You're SOOOOO popular!"). I just had to see the crowds for myself. We spent most of our time walking around the ancient Egyptian/Greek/Etruscan art displays. I decided that I had had enough and we left. I wanted to get lunch and picnic at Luxembourg Gardens, so we set out for that as our next stop. On the way, we stopped in a little sandwich shop...BIG mistake! We didn't realize until we stepped inside that it was an American deli. They had bagel couldn't even get sandwiches on a baguette there, and that's what Lance and I both wanted. But he saw that they had A&W root beer and he hadn't had that in awhile, so we decided to get food there after all. He just got a bagel with cream cheese (he ordered ham on it too, but the guy forgot the ham) and I had lox and cream cheese and Lance got a root beer and I got an Orangina. So two bagel sandwiches and 2 drinks...the bill was 15 euros!!! That's about $18!!! I about had a coronary right then and there! I think we paid more because it was American stuff that you can't get easily in Europe (they even had Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and it was obviously created to cater to American tourists. We walked further down the road and there was actually a small market set up with breads and cheeses and I wanted to cry right then...we could've gotten the fixings for a beautiful lunch right there! We finally made it to Luxembourg Gardens and sat and ate our lunch. We sat in the gardens for a long time. It was just beautiful and peaceful there and I was too sore and tired to leave. I wanted to stretch out there for a long time and take a nap. But finally we decided that we needed to move on, and since the Pantheon was right there, we decided to make that our next stop. I had not planned on the Pantheon, but I was feeling spontaneous.

I'm glad we went. But let me say that on our way there, there was a large display of D-Day photographs hanging on the gates surrounding Luxembourg Gardens. So we looked at those briefly before heading up the street to the Pantheon. We both thought it was really neat. The French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau are buried there, as are some famous French writers (Victor Hugo, Emile Zola) and the Curies. There were some other noteable people buried there too, but they were only noteable either in Paris or France...not internationally. The crypts were interesting...some were fantastically gaudy and others were just very simple. And the building itself was really interesting.

After that, I was still feeling pretty worn out, but not quite ready to call it a day yet. So I suggested on a whim that we take the Metro to Montmartre and explore that area and get a close-up look at Sacre-Coeur. I hadn't planned to do that initially either, but it was a day for throwing itineraries out the window. I'm glad we did that too, but my feet hated me for it. We took the Metro to this station called "Abbesses," which is very deep underground. There were elevators to take you up to ground level, but there were long lines, so Lance and I opted to take the steps. How bad could it be? HAHAHAHA! We climbed and climbed and climbed. And then when we were finally out on the street, we were at the bottom of this very steep hill that we had to climb to see Sacre-Coeur. There was a flea market going on, so it was insanity. And again, we were accosted immediately by some guy upon exiting the Metro station. He spoke to us in French and when we didn't respond, he asked us if we spoke English. Lance and I just played stupid and pretended not to understand him at all. He was trying to get us to come with him so he could show us something. I didn't pass for American anyway because I had been stopped by a French person on the street who wanted directions and seemed surprised when she discovered that I was American, so I was perfectly content to make people think I was European.

So we climbed up this hill. And I thought Montmartre was charming despite the streets being clogged with tourists. It had this great Bohemian flair to it, even if parts of it are cheesy and totally catering to tourism. We got to Sacre-Coeur and admired the fantastic view of Paris from there. I didn't recognize anything except for the Georges Pompidou Center (this crazy modern art museum with all the utility pipes and ducts on the outside). I didn't even see the Eiffel Tower from there, which I thought was strange (although I suppose if I had paid to look in the spotting scope, I could've picked out some of the places we'd seen already). But anyway, we took a look inside Sacre-Coeur and I liked it better on the inside than Notre Dame.

Lance stopped a souvenir shop to get a spoon for his grandmother (she collects souvenir spoons from all over the world and already has quite a massive collection) and I was in search of ice cream and a Paris Christmas ornament for our tree. We decided we were going to get an ornament from every place we go together. And we found both the ice cream and the ornament. So our day was complete and we went back to our hotel for awhile, took a nap, and then ventured out for the first cheap meal we had since arriving in Paris. I got takeout Turkish and Lance got takeout pizza. We were just sick of the price gouging and so deliberately set out for cheap food that we could get before 7 pm. And there was a grocery store right next door to our hotel, so Lance ran in there to get our drinks. And we ate in our room, feeling disgusting for all the grease-pit food afterwards. We spent the rest of the evening watching BBC or soccer with French commentary, and I read my book from time to time.

This morning we got up, had our crappy hotel breakfast, hopped in the car, got lost again (Lance made a left-hand turn instead of a right), retraced our steps, and found our way finally and then got on the freeway to leave Paris. It took about 5.5 hours to get construction this time and we stopped a couple of times for restroom breaks/gas/lunch. I'm glad to be home. Paris is a great city, but there was plenty about it too that I didn't like. But overall, the people were very friendly, which was a pleasant surprise, given the stereotype that Parisians are rude. We never once encountered that (not even at that cafe the first night). Some of the sights there just took my breath away. But I could do without the expense and the litter and the smell. I think I would go again if an opportunity presented itself, but I'm not sure Lance and I will go together again. There is just too much we want to see in Europe in general and not enough time to see it all, so we don't want to see any place more than once if we can help it if it would take away an opportunity to go somewhere new. And Lance didn't like Paris enough to want to go back again. But I would go if a friend or relative wanted to go and asked me to meet them there. There are things there that deserve further exploration, and I never got to see places like the Tuileries or the Musee d'Orsay, which I wouldn't mind seeing. But we did cram in A LOT in 2 days, so overall I'm satisfied that I got a nice snapshot of Paris, regardless of how much we didn't see.

Anyway, I'm coming down with something. I've had a dry cough for the past few days and now I'm getting laryngitis. And I want to thank those of you who sent birthday wishes before/during/after our was nice to get them all. I had a great birthday overall

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Memorial Day at Margraten

Today I had the privilege to accompany the Girl Scouts on their yearly task of preparing Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten for the Memorial Day ceremonies, which take place tomorrow.

The experience was just amazing.

I'm not even sure how to put everything into words. But I'll try.

First of all, the drive there is incredible. The Dutch countryside is full of rolling hills and there are charming villages throughout...not very touristy, but with plenty to see! I was so tempted to plead with the bus driver to stop so that I could get out and look at all the tiny little art galleries and antique shops. And some of the villages had very old and astonishingly beautiful buildings...the kind of buildings you see in the big tourist trap cities. I definitely want Lance to take a trip with me so we can stop at all those little towns along the way.

Once we got to the cemetery, the first thing I saw was the reflecting pool. The place was crawling with tourists, both American and European alike, and Girl and Boy Scouts everywhere. But despite that, I found the reflecting pool to be peaceful and somber, a beautiful reminder of the sacrifices that these brave men and women made during World War II. The statue at the reflecting pool represents the figure of sorrow with doves and a new shoot emerging from a war destroyed tree. The inscription at the base (which isn't visible in the picture) says, "New Life from War's Destruction Proclaims Man's Immortality and Hope for Peace." Behind the sculpture is the memorial tower, which contains the chapel.

There were also two walls that feature the names of 1,722 missing Army and Army Air Corps men. There are asterisks marking those who have been recovered since the construction of the walls.

The first thing I did was walk around the entire perimeter of the cemetery, taking as many pictures as I could of the grounds (I used my good camera too, so the digital camera only produced 8 decent photos). After I was satisfied that I had some good shots, I got down to the business of helping the scouts with their task - putting US and Dutch flags at the foot of each grave. Its a process that takes several hours, as there are 8,301 headstones. But there were a large number of scouts and a portion of it was already done by the time we got there. A special tool is required, which has spikes to put the holes in the ground deep enough for the flags to stand. So the Dads and some of the scout leaders were doing that, while the girls followed behind them with the flags to place into the ground. There were flower arrangements that also needed to be put out, sent by some of the families of the people buried there. I was responsible for making sure that the flower arrangements went to the correct graves.

While we were there, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands arrived. He comes every year to pose for pictures with the scouts. Dutch television crews were there, so I might possibly be on the Dutch news tonight.

I was also asked to help put Oklahoma flags out on the graves of those from Oklahoma. There is a man who has been doing this for years and he's too sick with cancer and he's had several strokes. From what I heard, he doesn't have very long to live. But he asked the scouts to continue his tradition, so I was handed some Oklahoma state flags and I carefully walked to each grave to look for the ones that said Oklahoma. And then I placed a flag there.

I also want to note that every hour on the hour, the bells inside the memorial tower would chime and carillon music would play for maybe 10 minutes...mostly patriotic songs and things like "Amazing Grace."

I was allowed to go on top of the memorial tower, which gave wonderful views of the cemetery and surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, I had run out of film on my good camera, so the pictures on the digital didn't come out well. The only one I saved was the view of the cemetery. The ones of the surrounding area didn't turn out so well.

I won't be able to attend the ceremony tomorrow, but rehearsals for it were held today and I think it's going to be very moving.We couldn't have had more perfect weather for this. It is in the mid-70's and bright and sunny (which wasn't good for some of the photos, but great for the task at hand). I guess it usually rains every year when the scouts do this, so everyone was absolutely thrilled that the weather turned out so wonderfully.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Awesome Aachen

Lance went off to participate in a couple of shooting tournaments today, so I took the opportunity to catch a sightseeing tour of Aachen with a group from base. Let me tell you, I have no idea why I waited so long to go! Aachen is very close and going by train is pretty takes 20 minutes to get there by train. I couldn't have spent the day with a nicer group of people. And we even had an Aachen native to assist with the tour...Nadja is my age and super cool. She was a lot of fun.

The tour was annoying enough at first. We spent quite a bit of time in Aachen train station while our tour guide showed us how to get our train tickets from the automated machine. It is the easiest thing in the world to do, but she wanted to make sure that each of us knew how, so she had each of us pretend to buy tickets so she could make sure we knew how to punch in the proper city codes and choose the right kind of ticket, etc. I was horribly impatient. I really wanted to explore!

Finally she was satisfied that we knew what we were doing and we set out. But not before stopping at a delicious bakery that had the most out of this world pastries! I wasn't even hungry, but I just couldn't resist. I could get so fat living here!

We didn't get to see much since it was a large group and there were small children slowing us people had different interests and we just couldn't follow the itinerary that was laid out for us. But I got enough of a taste to know that I want to go back to Aachen!

Our first stop was one of Aachen's theatres. Aachen has several theatres and is a world class theatre city. We only had time to see one theatre though, but it was closed, so we couldn't see inside.

Aachen has many thermal hot springs, so we stopped in an area where tourists are allowed to taste the water. The water is said to be medicinal if you drink it or bathe in it. I took a sip of smelled like rotten eggs and it tasted like hard boiled eggs. Not impressed. But it was very warm though; if you can stand the smell long enough, I bet it's nice to bathe in.

Before lunch, we mostly walked around to look at statuary and fountains. Aachen has some interesting statues. My favorite was the puppet statue, which features several moveable puppets and masks. There was a violin quartet playing near this statue...they played the most incredible music, so we stopped to listen for a few minutes. Out of all the street performers I've seen so far in Europe, that was by far one of the best. We stopped for about 20 minutes to do some shopping in this massive bookstore that had an International section. The books were too expensive though.

We split up at lunch time because we all have different tastes, but most of us ended up at a Spanish restaurant. They had an all you can eat buffet for the extremely cheap price of 4.90 (trust me, in Europe, that is a steal). The food was A-MAZ-ING. Seriously. Wow. I had the most awesome soup I've ever tasted in my life at this was a garlic and yogurt concoction. I imagine you're all wrinkling your noses, but it was seriously soooo sooooo good. I stuffed myself sick, but by then the weather was warming up nicely, the sun was out, and it was just lovely and perfect. We just had a very long lunch and just sat and soaked up the sun and enjoyed conversation. It was so great and relaxing.

After lunch, we headed to the Dom. I was very upset to learn that the Dom is in a lot of danger right now. The structure sustained some damage during WWII. Most of it remained intact, but some parts of it are very unstable right now and they're trying to rebuild it before it falls apart completely. It's such a gorgeous gorgeous structure, so it would be a shame for it to fall apart (in fact, if you look at my pictures, you'll see scaffolding on it and that is why). The Dom is so old (it was built in Charlemagne's time...around 800). Charlemagne is buried there. In fact, I saw his grave. His bones are actually encased in silver and gold, and then housed inside this very elaborate casket that looks like a fancy house. And that is encased in glass). His casket sits right smack in the middle of the cathedral...I didn't even realize it was his grave at first because it was so conspicuous. That is pretty unusual (most prominent people have sarcophagi in the wings of a cathedral somewhere, but not right in the middle and elevated as to be the entire centerpiece of the church). Also, the Dom has these really amazing mosaic ceilings and the stained glass inside is just incredible.

The Rathaus (government seat) is located right across the square from the Dom, and that too is an imposing structure. In fact, it sits up higher than the cathedral because Charlemagne wanted to remind the church that his rule was above theirs. But he couldn't say it outright, so he had the Rathaus built so that it was taller than the Dom. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to view this on the inside.

After our visit to the Dom, we stopped by a neighboring church, which was also Roman Catholic affiliated. Since the Dom was built for royalty (in fact 38 kings were crowned there and many royal weddings took place there), there was a parish church built in the 1400's for all the regular people. A good deal of this church was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1952. The contrast to the Dom is startling. While the Dom was just ornate and fantastically beautiful, the other church was very stark and plain on the inside. And I don't think it even resembled its former self, because the stained glass inside that church was very modernistic...not something that was created in the 15th century. And the old half of the structure looked drastically different than the newer half.

Anyway, that was mainly all I got to see, but I can't wait to return to Aachen again. It's an absolutely fantastic city, and the people are very friendly. And from what I can tell, there is great shopping and a good variety of restaurants. We had a really good laugh when one of the young boys on our tour (he's 5) was checking out a Vespa that was parked on the sidewalk. The owner of the Vespa arrived just then, and he grabbed the boy and put him on the seat of his Vespa, put the helmet on his head, and turned on the engine so the boy could "vroooooom" it. The man spoke absolutely no English, but we all still managed to communicate with each other despite that. The little boy was thrilled...his day was made. It was really cute.

Oh, and as an aside, I did speak some German today. I was quite proud of myself. I ordered everything in German and I was understood. And some people even spoke English back to me, so maybe my German wasn't that good. But at least I tried!

Saturday, May 1, 2004

A Visit to Monschau Cut Short

I have yet another update to share with you all. Lance and I took a day trip to Monschau today, except that we had a setback that forced us to go home early. But we had a lovely three hour visit.

Monschau is a little over an hour away. It's south from here, still in the North Rhine Westphalia region of Germany (the same region we live in), but you would never know it by looking at it. The city is worlds away from where we live. It's nestled in a mountain valley and it looks as if time has stood still...I know I say that about a bunch of places we've visited. But it's one of the few German cities completely untouched by war, which means that practically every building is hundreds of years old. Although it's odd to see television satellites sprouting up like ugly weeds on the rooftops of these ancient and charming homes. All the streets are cobblestone. Most of the houses are half timber. And raging through it all are the rapids of the River Rur, which you can still hear, even when you're standing on a mountain overlooking the city.

Lance and I arrived at Monschau around 11. It was a pretty drive, taking us through some charming little towns as we went deeper into the mountains, and taking us through Belgium for about 5 minutes. We parked at the glass factory, and there was a handicraft market going on inside, so we decided to stop there first. Of course, there was a lot of glass being sold. There were some really exquisite pieces, and of course those were the most expensive. But there was also some reasonably priced stuff that was nice too. I kind of wish now that we'd gotten something from there, but we plan to return to Monschau when Lance's sister comes this summer. Anyway, the inside of this glass factory now resembles a mall, with a food court in the center and little shops of craft items surrounding it. I don't know where the actual glass factory was even located. Supposedly you could go there and watch them make glass. But it might have been closed today anyway, since it's a national holiday.

After we walked around there, we found ourselves just meandering through the narrow streets in Monschau. There were many different directions you could go, so we just randomly chose one. It led us down a path that contained mostly private residences, but we saw a sign that would lead us to some ruins at the top of the mountain. I'm not sure what the ruins were of...there are already 2 castles overlooking the city. The ruins themselves didn't look like much, but we wanted to check out the city from above. So we climbed up some slippery steps (Monschau is very damp, it seems) that were very steep until we finally got to these ruins. And the view was absolutely astonishing. We could see a castle on another mountain on the other side of Monschau, and we vowed to go there later (no, you couldn't really see the castle from the town...the buildings are too crowded together to give you much of a view of surrounding mountainsides).

After our descent down the mountain, the church bells were indicating that it was noon, as was my stomach. So I told Lance we needed to find a place to have lunch. We ended up on the same street we had been on before, but we walked back to the center of town and went down another street which appeared to have a lot of restaurants. Lance saw one that said "creperie" on the side. And he is all about having some crepes (they are not always for dessert...they have both sweet and savory). So we went to La Petite Creperie for lunch. When I opened the door and we walked in, we were surprised to find that it was tiny on the inside (the "La Petite" should've given that away, don't you think?). This was most definitely a Mom and Pop operation. And it was run by a husband and wife team and the kitchen is right there in the open so that you can watch your food being prepared. We were motioned to sit at a table on the landing of this stairway...I have no idea where the stairs went to...I assumed the restaurant owners lived up there. But the place was a little crowded and smoky (not from cigarettes, but from cooking) and hot, so this is where our troubles began.

Nobody that was in this restaurant spoke English. We were prepared for that. I doubt they get much tourism from the English speaking masses, as you'd be hard pressed to find Monschau in most tour books of Germany (and if it is mentioned, it gets a few me, I looked. I have access to dozens upon dozens of different tour books where I work). So Lance and I had to speak German and we managed to get our point across. He managed to convey that he didn't want sauerkraut on his crepe (he ordered ham, salami, and cheese), and I was able to vaguely figure out what was being said when I was told that there was no more Cola Light (no, they don't have Diet Coke's Cola Light...altogether different), so I responded with "wasser, bitte." And of course, I was given fizzy water. Blech. But I'm actually starting to acquire a taste for it, since it's served almost everywhere. By the way, I ordered a crepe with tuna and cheese and tomato.

So we had to wait awhile for our food because there were only two people preparing it. But they had jovial conversations with the other customers while preparing the food, and good laughs were had by all. Although Lance and I didn't understand a word anyone was saying, so we felt a bit left out of the fun. By the time they got around to making our food, I noticed that my crepe was looking mighty oily...the tuna fish he put in it was packed in oil, not in water. Ugh! I didn't even think of that. So I ended up with a soggy crepe. And it was right about when I was in the middle of eating it that I started to feel woozy. And Lance complained that his eyes were burning. I couldn't finish my food because I wasn't sure what was happening to me...if I was going to be sick to my stomach or what. I was just feeling dizzy at that point. I get that way when my blood sugar is very low, but I thought eating was supposed to make me feel better.

Lance and I got out of there as quickly as we could, which, if you've ever eaten a meal in Europe, is no small task. I actually stumbled when I got out of my chair to leave...I couldn't really feel my feet. I had a feeling not unlike an alcoholic buzz, only much less fun. Once we got out of the restaurant and I started breathing in some fresh air, I was feeling a tad better. Lance's eyes also stopped burning. We had decided earlier that we wanted ice cream, so I agreed that I could stomach it and we got a table at an Italian eis cafe. I ordered a small spaghetti eis (basically it's a sundae made to look like a plate of spaghetti with vanilla "spaghetti noodles"...a mound of whipped cream is hidden under the noodles, strawberry "spaghetti sauce", and white chocolate shavings to look like parmesan cheese). It seemed evident to me as I was eating my ice cream that this weird feeling I was getting was manifesting itself into a migraine. So I told Lance that we needed to go home after we finished eating. He even had to finish my ice cream for me, and he had a huge sundae himself.

So after that, we said goodbye to Monschau and drove home. My headache got steadily worse as we drove, but I took a 2 hour nap when we got home and I feel somewhat better now.

As an aside, today is May Day here in of the traditions associated with this holiday is that young men place a birch branch at the home of a young woman that they love. So this morning at about 8:30, this tractor pulling a large cart filled with teenage boys and birch branches came down our street. Lance and I would never have noticed except for the extremely loud techo music that was coming from the vehicle. One young man hung a sign on a house across the street from us that had Snoopy and Woodstock holding a heart. As we were getting in the car to leave about an hour or so later, I noticed another sign had been hung on this house...a heart with streamers hanging from it. So the teenage girl living in that house apparently has two admirers. We saw similar signs on other houses as we made our way to Monschau. And the may poles are also out and colorful streamers hang from some of the trees.

Pictures of our travels to Monschau:

Monday, April 12, 2004

Honeymoon in Brugge and Ghent


Lance and I left around 2 pm. We hit rush hour in Brussels. Not fun. Belgium has one of the worst accident records in Europe, and I can see why.

We arrived at our hotel (Inter Hotel) around 5:30 pm. The hotel looked very lavish both on the outside and in the lobby, but our room certainly wasn't that way! It was just very basic. The room was kind of bland and lacked decorations, but at least we had a private bath. It was right on a busy street though, so I could've done without the traffic. But the guy running the hotel was nice and spoke at least 4 different languages (aside from the regional Flemish, I heard him speak French, German, and of course English...all fluently). We also had a welcome committee - the owner's dog - who was a constant presence at the hotel and whose bark was worse than his bite (he was actually very sweet, but he just loved to bark at everything). Lance and I got settled into our hotel and then we walked to the t 'Zand, which was just down the road a few blocks...the t 'Zand is basically just a square with a bunch of restaurants and hotels. Most of the restaurants seemed to have similar menus, so we settled on Cafe Leffe (named after one of the local brews) and ordered dinner. Lance ordered a Leffe Blond...I actually sipped it and I hate beer, but it wasn't bad. But Belgium is famous for their beer, after all (and their chocolates as well...I'll get to that later...and of course lace and tapestries, which were everywhere in Bruges). One interesting thing is that they brought us these 2 little dishes of was a party mix with crackers and pretzels...the other one was pieces of raw fish in vinegar. I thought that was kind of weird, but I was brave enough to taste it. Too vinegary for my taste. Anyway, we had a good dinner...if you could call what I had dinner. I ordered cheese kroketten, which is basically 2 balls of breaded and fried cheese, and it came with some salad on the side (and their idea of salad is separate piles of shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, some lettuce, cucumber, and sometimes shredded beets and corn). So I didn't feel like I had a very substantial dinner. But I was okay, so we walked around a little to see what was past the Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) and discovered a nice little park with a big statue of King Albert in the middle. Then we went back to the hotel and played a couple games of pool in the hotel basement and called it a night. We spent the rest of the evening in our room watching television...we got a lot of British stations and a Belgian station that showed mostly American shows and movies with Flemish subtitles (Flemish, by the way, is a dialect of Dutch).


We had an AMAZING breakfast at the hotel. Seriously, what the hotel lacked in room attractiveness, it more than made up for with breakfast. There was this incredible spread of croissants, brotchen, meats, cheeses, yogurt, jams, honey, nutella, and cream cheese. They had orange juice and they gave us a choice of coffee or tea. I got addicted to croissants with cream cheese and strawberry jam...perhaps the best breakfast in the entire universe. And we could smell all the bread baking a couple of hours before they started serving breakfast...that wonderful smell wafted up to our room. So we enjoyed 3 days of that (and they even gave us chocolate eggs with our breakfast yesterday since it was Easter).

Anyway...we needed a big breakfast, because we had a long day ahead. Our first stop was the Markt, a 10 minute walk from our hotel. We climbed 366 steps to the top of the bell tower, which offered fantastic views of the city (note: if you ever go to Bruges, buy the "5 museums for 15 euro" pass...we got good use out of ours and saved quite a bit of money...this pass also includes the bell tower). After the rather nerve-wracking descent, we walked to the Burg, which is one of the finest medieval squares in all of Europe. The stadhuis (Town Hall) is absolutely breathtaking, and adjoining the stadhuis is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses (supposedly) a few drops of Christ's blood. It being Good Friday, they were having a special service where you could go in and see the holy blood up close. So we walked in to watch it...we didn't get close, but we could see the priest holding the crystal vial that contained the blood, and people were walking up and kissing it. Of course, we looked around the basilica as well, and as with even the smaller churches in Europe, it didn't disappoint.

Our day also included a visit to the Gruuthuse Museum, which is devoted entirely to life in medieval Flanders. The artifacts were very interesting, and the building itself was a work of art, including the fantastic courtyard that contained statues representing the four horsemen of the apocolypse...and the courtyard leads into the Church of Our Lady, another one of Bruges' beautiful cathedrals, which contains the famous Michelangelo sculpture, "Madonna and Child" (in fact, there is a private chapel in the Gruuthuse museum that has windows that look into the cathedral, so we caught of glimpse of the inside from the museum, before we even stepped foot inside the cathedral).

We also took a boat tour on the canal. I highly recommend it. It is a very interesting way to tour the city.

About the aforementioned chocolates...we visited a chocolate/souvenir shop to get some goodies because we had a 15% off coupon that we got from the hotel. We chatted with the woman behind the counter, and when we mentioned that we were on our honeymoon, she gave us two Belgian chocolate truffles that were shaped like Easter eggs (and trust me when I say that you don't get much free stuff in Europe, so this was very unexpected, but very nice). Mmmmmmm...

Side note: we had an interesting lunch. We popped into one of the many "tea rooms" and ordered ham and cheese stuffed was actually ham and cheese pressed between two thin waffles that had heart shapes all over it. Very cool...and very tasty. Dinner was at an Italian place that was very cheap and good.


A bit rainy and colder than Friday, but still a fantastic day. After our cream cheese and jam croissants, we walked back to the park we saw on Thursday, only we went past the park. This leads to Minnewater, which is a lovely park also known as the "Lake of Love." It's right next to the Beguinage, which until recently was a place for women to live who wanted to devote themselves to religious life without taking vows. They would spend their lives devoting themselves to religious study and the craft of lace-making. It is now a benedictine convent. The nunnery is one of the most photographed locations in Bruges...the fields surrounding it were blooming with thousands upon thousands of daffodils, and dozens of swans swam in the waters surrounding it. I can see why it's one of the most photographed was just breathtaking.

Once we toured that area to our satisfaction, we visited the archaeology musuem, which was a total waste of time, but at least that was included on our pass.

After the museum, we decided to try to get into the stadhuis to see the gothic hall. There was a huge group of people with cameras that were all going in together, so we figured they were a tour group and we went in with them. We followed them up into the gothic hall, which was just incredible and rivaled the beauty of most churches I've seen. It wasn't until a minute after we got there when they closed the doors and we saw a woman standing in a white dress with a bouquet of flowers that we realized these people were wedding guests, not tourists (although they weren't dressed like they were attending a wedding). Our only escape was into a room adjoining the gothic hall, but there was no way out of that room except through the gothic hall. So we stood there and waited until the wedding was over and then sneaked back out with the wedding guests as they left. We had a good laugh about that after we were freed from the building. But hey, we got a free look at the stadhuis (although I realized after we left that it was also on our museum pass, so we would've gotten free admission anyway).

After that adventure, we took a romantic horse and buggy ride, which took us past everything we've already seen, but it was a nice way to relax. It was a little cold, but they provided us with blankets, so we snuggled up as the buggy tripped over the cobblestones (I seriously thought we were going to tip over several times). The horse took a 10 minute break for food and water at Minnewater, so we took our pictures with the horse.

We had some lunch after that, and then decided to go to the Groeninge Museum, which houses great masterpieces of the Flemish primitives. Lance has never been that much into art, but even he enjoyed this. Some of the paintings were just incredible. The religious art in particular was very realistic looking and beautifully rendered.

That pretty much concludes Saturday. There was some good television on at the hotel, and we were tired and cold and damp so we hung out at the hotel (with the exception of going somewhere for dinner) and watched television for the rest of the day.


We checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove to Ghent, which is about a half an hour away from Bruges. We got to our hotel way before we could check in, but they allowed us to park there for the day while we went sightseeing. This hotel was less expensive and our room was much nicer (although breakfast was disappointing, but at least they brought it to our room and we didn't have to eat in a specially designated breakfast room like we did at the other hotel). Our hotel, however, was not remotely close to the tourist attractions. It was just a 2 minute walk to the train/tram station, so we walked over there and bought our ticket to take the streetcar into town. I wasn't really expecting anything to be open, with it being Easter and all, so I figured we could only walk around and take pictures of the outside of buildings.

I was surprised. There was quite a bit open on Easter. Most of the museums were closed though. Our first stop was Gravensteen Castle. They had a chilling collection of medieval torture devices (and killing devices, including a guillotine) that were used in the castle, and we got to see the dungeons and the rooms where the tortures took place. It was kind of creepy, but very cool. The castle is looming presence over the city, so when we were able to take the stairs up to the top of the castle, we had spectacular views of the city (we didn't even need to go up in the bell tower here, because the bell tower wasn't much higher than the castle). And the church bells were ringing constantly while we were there, having just completed Easter mass, plus we heard the sound of horse hooves on the cobblestones, so it really did transport you back to the Middle Ages (that is, if you could block out the sound of the streetcars going by).

After that, we grabbed some lunch. And to our surprise, we discovered that a couple of the cathedrals were open to the public. So our first stop was to St. Bavo's (Sint Baafskaathedral). Oh my God. It was just astonishing on the inside. There was so much art...lots of fantastic marble sculptures and so many paintings, including Van Eyck's famous "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," which is arguably Belgium's greatest treasure. And for some reason, the crypt at St. Bavo's was displaying the exhibits that are normally housed in the Museum of Fine Arts (I don't know if that museum was temporarily closed or what), so we went down to the crypt to look at the artworks (we got to see them for free, I'm sure the museum would've charged a fee). And there were religious relics too...priests' and bishops' garb that dated back to the 16th century and remarkably well preserved. The crypt itself was interesting to look at. Some of the graves were very very old. And of course, we got to see some of the sarcophagi in the cathedral itself...bishops who died hundreds of years ago. After that, we went inside the church of St. Nicklaus, which was disappointing by comparison, but had one of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen.

We didn't see much after that. We just wandered around along the canals...we stopped at a waffle stand to taste "the best waffle in town"...mine was fresh from the waffle iron and smothered in chocolate sauce (if you think the Belgians eat waffles for breakfast, then you're mistaken...waffles are are pancakes...typically smothered in lots of slagroom (whipped cream)). Once we decided that we saw everything there was to see, we hopped back on the tram and headed back to the hotel. We watched some television, and then walked to the area across from the train station, which had some restaurants, so we could have some dinner. Then back to the hotel for the rest of the night...

And this morning after breakfast, we checked out and were on our merry way, this time past Antwerp (for a change of scenery).

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Maastricht, the oldest city in the Netherlands

I had the opportunity today to tour Maastricht with some people from the base. Lance had to work, so he was unable to go, which was both good and bad...good, because it was coooooooold. Bad, because Maastricht is a very very cool city. But it's pretty close, so we will go some other time.

We had what was tantamount to a snowstorm in this area all of last night and part of today. I froze my butt off, despite being dressed in several layers.

Anyway, we spent a better part of the morning at the train station. Two people who were supposed to come with us decided to meet us at the train station instead of on base, and they ended up going to the Geilenkirchen train station when we were leaving from Sittard. They ended up getting very very lost and never made it...and we wasted a couple of hours waiting for them. Finally, they called us and told us to go without them.

So we started our slushy walk. We went across the bridge that goes over the Maas River. We stopped at a little restaurant for lunch. It was recommended that I try the bloedwurst (which is blood sausage...I was assured that it was excellent and was a Dutch delicacy). But I was in the mood for some soup or stew. So I got some chicken mushroom stew, which was served over a crusty roll, so it ended up being a lot like pot pie. It was good and perfect for the cold.

After lunch, we began the sightseeing tour. I took my crappy digital camera today because I didn't want to risk getting my expensive camera wet. Highlights included visiting the medieval city gates and touring one of the beautiful basilicas (name unpronouncable and unspellable). After a couple hours of sightseeing (and freezing), we got about an hour or so for shopping. I did a little shopping here and some piddly little things and some postcards. Then was the train ride home...whew. Rush hour. Not fun.

Pictures are located at: