Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.


The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

Now the tunnels are full of art.

The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.


Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section!

     

If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!

   


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

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Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

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In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


Belgium:

In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

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It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!

Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.


The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

Image result for De Lijn ticket

I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

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There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

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My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?

When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.


A Little Rant About Water

Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.


Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

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In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.

Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

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The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.


Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

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I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.


Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.

Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.


Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.

I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?


Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.

I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?


I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display.

There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same.

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 

Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

     

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

 

 

Fairground Museum Paris

My travel tastes tend to range from the classic bucket list items to the hipster “you went where?” items. On my first trip to Paris, I visited the major must-dos like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery. At that time my “off the beaten track” experience was going to see my friend perform Burlesque at La Féline Bar. Sadly, I never had the chance to write this trip as my life in 2015 became rather hectic shortly afterward. I did upload my photo albums, however, so you can still see those on the Facebook Page by following the links on each location above.

For my second trip to the city of lights, I made it to the Catecombs, a couple art museums, and a bike tour of the hot spots, which I’ll be writing about later. My more obscure find was a tiny museum of Fairground Arts, the Musée de Arts Forains. It’s actually not a public museum, but the private collection of Jean Paul Favand. It includes object d’art from fairgrounds around Europe in the 19th century. The museum has done extensive restoration on the artworks, and patrons are free to ride and play many of the “exhibits” on display. It was enchanting beyond all expectations and lasted just under 2 hours.

No Bag Storage? Starbucks!

Since the collection is private, the museum doesn’t keep regular opening hours, and tours are by appointment only. I was slightly desperate to go, but the only time a tour was available during my 6 days in Paris was the afternoon of my very last day, the day I was planning to catch a bus onward to Brussels. I had no choice but to choose that day, and move my bus to a later time. I’m so glad I did.

I had to check out of my Airbnb by 10am, and my host did not offer any variety of luggage storage. Neither does the museum offer any sort of cloak room or bag-check room. I checked a few websites for storage options, but it turns out that there are only a few places around town where it’s even possible and they are mightily expensive. I was travelling light (backpack only, yes, that is my actual luggage for the whole 7 week trip), but it was still at least 10-12 kilos, which can become tiresome to carry for many hours.

My tour was at 2pm, and I didn’t want to walk around Paris with all my luggage, so I headed straight to Bercy where both the museum and the bus would be found. I zeroed in on Starbucks for a clean bathroom, an iced latte, and a place to sit while waiting. This long haul travel is giving me some new appreciation for the use of American stand-bys. I’ve become addicted to iced lattes in hot weather, and the French seem to think that ice in coffee is anethema. Even McDonald’s McCafe failed at providing iced coffee options, but Starbucks is the same world wide with a few exceptions for seasonal specials.

I love French coffee, and I could have sat at a cafe the whole time I was waiting. No one kicks you out of a restaurant in Paris. Oddly Starbucks was a cheaper option since a coffee here is a tiny shot of espresso for 2€ or maybe a small cafe creme for 3.5-4€. At Starbucks, I got a Venti iced latte for 4.65€. I don’t want to be the tourist who goes abroad and only visits American chain stores, but sometimes, especially on a long trip, it’s nice to have the choice. Free clean bathrooms, cheaper large (iced) coffee, air-con, and free wifi do make it an ideal place to kill time if you have to.

Getting There

The museum was easy to find, although it looked a little foreboding from the outside. The grounds are covered in fences and the buildings all have shuttered windows. The tour guides only speak French, but they were kind enough to make an English language pamphlet that contained the pertinent information about each area of the museum we would visit. I read through it while waiting for the group to assemble, hoping that it might help me follow along.

When we finally assembled and began the tour, my feelings were primarily childlike glee. My joy wasn’t the only childlike feeling I had. Standing in the courtyard listening to the guide talk in French I had a sudden flash of understanding of how every kid must feel when tour guides talk and there’s nothing to look at or do. I tried to listen, but he talked so fast I couldn’t catch much. Fortunately, as he pointed out to us, it’s really a visual tour. The courtyard was pretty and I enjoyed the gargoyles and decorations amid the trees and flowers, but I was impatient to get inside.

The Giant of Bercy

This is the story he was telling while we were standing outside. I found the English version later. According to legend, Kind Louis XIV came to Bercy to attend mass at a nearby cathedral. Of course, all of his subjects were expected to kneel before their king during his royal visit, but when the time came for this obeisance, one man remained standing. When the guard were sent to investigate, it turned out the man was kneeling after all, but he was a giant who loomed above the crowd even in genuflection. The giant was a vintner named Martin, who used this unique chance to meet the king to talk about the taxes on wine merchants in Paris.

Charmed by the giant and amused by his complaints, the capricious king decided to grant the Pavilions of Bercy a tax exemption. The 106 acre region became closed off behind walls and ware houses with railroad tracks leading to the Seine where wine shipments could be transferred by boat. The buildings that now house the Musée d’Arts Forains were at one point warehouses and market buildings.

It wasn’t all wholesale business, however, and Bercy was also known for it’s wine bars and guiguettes where patrons could sip by the glass or by the bottle in convivial company.  Such an atmosphere prompted festivals, fireworks and other fun, giving Bercy it’s reputation as a joyful place.

The Venetian Rooms

As soon as we stepped inside I realized the photos I found online do not come close to representing the atmosphere of this place. Beautiful pieces of art displayed around a centerpiece of a merry go round from a classic Venetian style carnival. There was no roof, as a modern carousel might have, and most of the seats were elaborate gondolas and carriages with a few ornate animals with saddles. Our guide invited us to hop in for a ride and we whirled around to a recording of the original music.

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After the ride, we stayed seated but turned to face a wall which was decorated as the Grand Canal. The lights dimmed and we were treated to a beautiful light show that had clearly been made just to fit the size and shape of the room. We went from outer space, to under water, to a cityscape, a gondola ride on the river, a ballroom and a theater as the lights and sounds created this beautiful illusion.Image may contain: night, bridge, outdoor and water

The adjacent room was an animatronic opera with singers mounted around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. The lights and speakers moved as different characters (including Columbine, Harlequin, and Cassanova) sang and the robots moved. It was like Disneyland’s tiki room or hall of presidents.

It was easy for me to wander away from the group or start behind as they moved on and get photos of the rooms with no people. Since I couldn’t really understand, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Sadly, the rooms were so dark that most of my photos are only any good for jogging my memory of the experience.

The Carousel-Salon

In the 19th century, the Fairground was quite popular, and the Carousel-Salon was a style of fairground that included the pipe organ, the carousel, a ballroom for dancing, and of course, a bar.

Our guide cranked up the pipe organ, which was stunningly loud, and I took the time to get a closer look at some of the statues and carvings around the room. The detail of craftsmanship in these pieces was impressive. It was clear that the fair or carnival was much more than it is today. When I think of the clunky state-fairs of my childhood covered in bare bulb blinking lights and cheaply airbrushed panels on easily disassembled rides and booths, I can see how much we’ve lost in the last century of fairgrounds.

Once the pipe organ ended it’s song, we were invited to ride again. This time, a more familiar carousel with the faux tent roof and a few horses that trotted up and down as the ride goes around. My only complaint is the the tours allow more people than there are seats. The guide ran the ride twice but I didn’t get to ride a moving horse either time. Despite this small disappointment, I had tremendous fun riding the antique carousel inside a room filled with similarly antique carnival rides, games, and decorations.

Vue d'ensemble du manège de chevaux de bois du Musée des Arts Forains

We rode a pedal powered carousel as well. It was made up of a circle of large brass bicycles. This carousel was all about the thrill of speed. When the device was in use, warnings had to be issued that if a patron should lose their footing, they should not try to catch the pedals. Apparently the speed and force of the pedals resulted in more than one lost foot. The cycle carousel was capable of reaching 40mph (65kph) which in 1861 was dizzyingly fast! Once upon a time it also ran on electricity or steam, but the museum’s ride was purely pedal-powered. Don’t think that makes it less impressive. With every seat filled, the cycles seem more like a roller coaster ride than a carousel.

Vue d'ensemble du Manège de Vélocipèdes du Musée des Arts Forains

There were many other oddities, pieces from other rides, and classic fairground games to look at as well. German swing boats, card tables, shooting galleries, and exotic animals lined the walls around us. Electric lights and moving pictures will still a novelty often found only at such public shows. One of the most famous shooting games is the French Waiters. I’ve seen similar racing games in most modern carnivals and fairgrounds. Shooting at your target advances your waiter and the first one to the finish is the winner.

The Theater of MarvelsMusée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 02.59.30 by Laika ac)

Next we entered a room full of oddities and treasures. It was Jean Favand’s own Cabinet of Curiosities including oddities such as a tree that could grow a leg and a dwarf in a boot. The center piece was made to look like the balloon of Baron Munchausen made by the collector himself. Esmerelda, the patroness of the funfair is depicted dancing. There was a huge papier-mâché elephant with a glamorously dressed rider, and Unicorn Cave is made from petrified wood, preserved plants, and mythical creatures.

Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.03.52 by Laika ac)                              Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.34.26 by Laika ac)
Our guide showed us a game called Palio di Sienna that was played by spinning a top through arches to hit a bell,and we all got to participate in a racing game that seemed like a combination of skee-ball and the shooting racer. Instead of hitting a target, you roll a ball into numbered holes for points, and your racehorse advances a little or a lot depending on how many points you got. The group played four times and I sat only one. It was very popular!

We ended the tour with a waltz in a music room. A self playing orchestra like the ones I would later see in Utrecht played a waltz comprised of 12 different musical instruments. Members of the tour group paired off and danced joyously around the dance floor while waxwork oddities looked on. Great historical figures like Victor Hugo and Thomas Edison stared down, dressed in disguise, and an unimaginably queer unicornitaur (like a minotaur, but the head of a unicorn?) stood by a grand piano ready to deliver a song that would never play.

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The fall in Korea has been keeping me busy. I volunteered to teach a debate club this semester and I’ve been trying to get out to a few more local social groups, maybe join a book club or two. We’ve also had a lot of school holidays. Last year, the three main fall holidays came together for one glorious 10 day vacation, but this year they’re spread out across three weeks. Counter-intuitively, this has actually made more work for me, and given me less time at my desk to work on this blog.  I would also like to shout out to the beautiful photogs who donate to Creative Commons because they saved my bacon from my tragically dark-derpy camera, and provided beautiful royalty free images for me to share. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this hidden gem of Paris.

Chocolate! A Glorious Day in Brussels

I don’t know about you, but the current news cycle has me going back and forth between fiery rage and hide-in-bed anxiety, so I decided to write about something everyone can agree is wonderful: chocolate. Belgium is known for it’s high quality chocolate, despite not being able to grow cocoa, and that’s because it was a Belgian who first perfected the blend of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk that became the creamy, bitter-sweet confection we are all addicted to today. Naturally, as a lifelong chocoholic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a full day visiting the best that Brussels has to offer. I pulled a basic itinerary from another blogger, and modified it a little to suit my own needs. I also made a couple of extra stops in the days afterward to round out my Belgian Chocolate Experience. Get a napkin, because you may drool.


I’m not going to go into the history of chocolate (it’s fascinating), nor am I going to give detailed information on the chocolate flavor profiles (just as complex as wine). I’m also not going to do a lot of explaining of basic chocolate vocabulary. I think most of you can still enjoy these descriptions without that, but if you are curious to learn more about chocolate, I suggest you check out any of the websites of the chocolateries I visited in Belgium.

After each shop and description of individual candies, I’ve given my rating out of 5 stars and my recommendations for what to try. You can decide which shops are most appealing to you to make your own Brussels chocolate tour. Nearly all of them have multiple locations within a walking radius in Sablon, but those that are a little farther out are well worth the bus ride.

A note about being a tourist: When I read about chocolate touring in Brussels, I was warned that shops did not give out samples, but that single pieces would be about 1-2€. I was prepared for the price of fine chocolate, but I was delighted to find it wasn’t actually true. Nearly every shop I went into was happy to let me try one or more of their flavors if I stopped and talked about it with them. I’m guessing that other tourists have found the shops to be sample stingy because they want to go in and get free chocolate without engaging anyone socially. For me, chatting with the staff was half the joy of this chocolate self-tour! They are friendly and very knowledgeable about the history of chocolate and of their own shop. I also found that most places were very reasonably priced if you were willing to have your pieces in a bag, rather than a fancy box.

Neuhaus

160 years ago, Jean Neuhaus (depicted in chocolate to the right) discovered the magical combination of ingredients that has lead to every chocolate confection and candy bar you’ve ever enjoyed. His chocolaterie is easily the most famous in the world, and it was my first stop.

Best Truffle in the World: No really, it won the award. It was given to me as a sample. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best chocolate I’ve ever eaten but I think it might be the epitome of “truffle”. The chocolate was not too bitter, not too tart, not too sweet, just the Goldilocks zone of chocolate and cream, dusted with cocoa powder. Simple and elegant.

Irrésistibles Coffee: Everyone in Belgium has ganaches, pralines, and truffles out the wazoo, but Neuhaus is the only place you can find the “Irresistables”. These little triangular gems are made with a base of nougatine (a crispy caramelized sugar), filled with cream or ganache, and enrobed in chocolate. I has the coffee ganache flavor. The coffee is very subtle, the filing is quite smooth, and the nougatine is delightfully crunchy and caramelly.

Hazelnut Creme Cone: The cones are “just filling”, held together with a gold foil cone instead of a chocolate shell. The hazelnut flavor was creamy and smooth with tiny bits of nut, not too sweet and good balance of chocolate, cream and hazelnut flavors. I could eat a dozen. In fact, I went back another day and got more because these were some of my favorite treats from the whole tour!

4 stars: The cones are tantalizing, and the Irrisistables are so unique. Plus, it is the oldest chocolaterie in the world.

Mary

Mary Delluc was the first female chocolatier in Belgium. She also designed the boxes of silk back in the day, and though they use paper now it’s still her design.

Champagne Truffle: The champagne flavor is clear and the texture contrast of the brittle chocolate outside and very soft creamy inside is nice. It was a little sweet for my personal tastes.

Earl Grey Ganache: There is no bad chocolate here, but it’s harder to judge the middle players after eating the best. I can’t really taste the bergamot flavor here. It’s a pleasant chocolate, but just chocolate. It’s disappointing because the truffles are good.

Violet Ganache: The flavor is subtle and the flower is more of an aftertaste. At first I thought it wasn’t there but as the chocolate left my tongue the violet became more obvious. I think violet tastes a bit like bubble gum. I noticed this when I tried violet liquor some time ago. The chocolate is good quality, the ganache is very smooth.

Champagne Rose Truffle: This is made with ruby chocolate, which was just introduced to the chocolate world one year ago in 2017 by Swiss chocolatiers at Barry Callebaut. The champagne flavor comes through strong. The powdered sugar exterior is a bit sweet, but the overall flavor is more mild cleanly chocolate. It was my favorite at this shop.

3 stars: Her chocolates aren’t my favorite, but it’s worth stopping by for the history and the champagne truffles.

Dandoy

Dandoy isn’t a chocolaterie, it’s a waffle shop. Waffles: the other confection Belgium is famous for. I didn’t know, but there are different types of Belgian waffle. I tried the Leige style with stracciatella ice cream. It was more chocolate chip than stracciatella, but still good.

The waffles are magically caramel on the outside. It’s as if a thin crispy later of sugar was caramelized. On the inside the Leige waffle is dense and bread-like, though think sweet bread like a cinnamon roll. Creamy ice cream is the best topping choice since it breaks up the sugar with fat.

Be careful if you order take out. They’re really serious about it, and won’t let take out orderers sit at the tables outside. If you want a table, you must request a seat and order from your waiter, not from the counter. The cost is the same.

4 stars: You have to try the waffles in Belgium, you might as well go for the famous name.

Chocoholic

I stopped to take pics of the tool shaped chocolate. Found …other… shapes. This shop isn’t anything to write about flavor-wise. The chocolate is mid-range and the flavors are unimaginative. It is purely a novelty shapes shop.

1 star: Don’t bother.

Pierre Marcolini

While I was interrogating the staff about their chocolate it became apparent they were only selling boxes (8 piece minimum). When I asked about the possibility of only buying a few pieces, I was sent upstairs to a little dining area. Although their chocolates focus mainly on single origin, bean to bar flavors, they do have a signature dessert line called the “Desir” which comes in a variety of flavors from white to dark chocolate and passing through a range of fruit and nut compliments.

Translation: “Every day, our pastry chefs prepare these deserts with passion, to offer you a rare and unexpected emotion.”

Desir Noisette: I felt I had died and gone to heaven. The desert starts with a cookie base, followed by a hazelnut mousse filling, the center of which nestled a jewel of  custard and caramel, coated in more chocolate and caramel. 

I talked with the staff about my chocolate loves, and my plans for the day. I told them that chocolate and hazelnut was my all time favorite flavor combination, and the waiter gave me three hazelnut pieces to try. ❤ I don’t know their names, so I can only describe them by shape. 

Round: The chocolate is very intense and a little bitter. The texture is dense with crunchy bits, probably a praline. 

Square: It is sweet and very crispy. Almost like many thin layers of sugar or dough. The hazelnut flavor is strong, while the chocolate flavor is lighter.

Oval: Similar in intensity and flavor to the square, but with a gooey later of liquid salted caramel in the center. Just what it needed to balance the sweet and crunchy. It is the clear winner.

5 stars: I can’t imagine not liking anything there, but make time to sample a Desir, you will not regret it.

Laurent Gerbaud

This shop is a little far out of the way but it is 100% worth the detour. It is a beans to bar production which means they actually make the chocolate from scratch. Most places buy chocolate from a bulk supplier and then add their own flavors. A few more places in Belgium are moving away from the couverture and into the beans to bar. My top 3 picks in Belgium are all bean to bar makers. Laurent Gerbaud is one of them.

In addition to making their own chocolate, their fillings are incredibly creative and diverse. Most other chocolatiers here have the same flavors, each shop having maybe one or two unique twists, but Laurent Gerbaud goes all over the flavor map! I love it! 

Black Olive Ganache: This award winning flavor was given to me as a sample. I probably wouldn’t have bought it just to find out, but they were excited to show off. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The filling evoked raisin and anise notes as my brain tried to reconcile chocolate and olive. I did have some cognitive dissonance as my palate refused to accept the blend. The second bite was smoother. Since I’m not really a fan of anise or raisin it wasn’t a winner for me, but neither did I feel the need to brush my teeth afterward. It went a long way toward showing me the skill of the makers.

Candied lemon peel: I’m used to candied fruit having more sticky chewy and this one seemed a bit dry for my taste. The lemon flavor is solid, no acidity and not overly sweet, and the chocolate is great, but the texture is a little odd.

Ginger praline: A milk chocolate filling that was light and creamy. There were candied ginger bits for added texture. The gigner was prominent but balanced.

Sesame praline: Stunning! It’s like the best halva in amazing chocolate. I could eat it by the pound. The toasting flavor comes through, there’s a crispy texture from the sugar, and the chocolate just glides in to the mix.

Marzipan: Good crystalized texture, not too sweet, nice blend with the dark, rich chocolate.

Chai ganache: Good balance of flavors, playing well but not overpowering the chocolate. It’s a savory chai which is almost like a sweet curry. I actually thought it WAS the curry at first, but the real curry had more heat.

Curry ganache: Nice spice blend, similar to the chai but with an added bonus of heat. Like everything here it’s well balanced between chocolate and infusion and sweetness.

5 stars: Even the flavor I would not have imagined was well done. Things that are traditionally sweet are still only lightly sweet. They don’t need to use too much sugar to cover sad flavors because their flavors are amazing! Excellent ganache infusions and a truly magical sesame praline!

Corne Port Royal:

Pistachio Marzipan: So sweet! Even with the dark exterior. The almond flavor was ok, but the pistachio was not noticeable. 

Manon Sucre Vanilla: This shop is famous for inventing this particular confection, although other shops make and sell it now, too. It is so so so sweet. Nougat creme and nuts in white chocolate. It’s like someone took divinity and added white chocolate and whipped cream. Not… bad? Just so much sugar! I think the filling would have been great as a contrast to a dark, bitter exterior but only vanilla and coffee were on offer.

Ganache Violette: I was disillusioned with this shop by the time I tasted this one, and really only did so to compare it to Mary’s violet ganache. Here the chocolate is more tart/citrusy, where Mary is balanced, the ganache is thick where Mary’s is lighter, and although the final taste in Mary’s was more of an after taste, here it feels overpowered by bitter chocolate and extra sugar.

White chocolate speculoos praline: It was better than the Manon and the marzipan, but still quite sweet. Not a unique flavor, so I’d say just try the speculoos praline elsewhere if you’re curious.

1 star: Sugar, sugar, sugar. Seriously, I don’t know how this place is on the famous list. The white and milk chocolates are overly sweet, the special flavors are not present or are overpowered. Disappointing. Skip it.

Mathilde

Another “historical” stop. The dark chocolate here is a little on the fruity/sour side. Some people like that in a dark chocolate, I prefer the earthy flavors. The chocolate squares came with things like pop rocks, m&ms, or artificial fruit flavored dots. The chocolate bonbon balls were uninspired and bland flavors.

 Anywhere but Brussels, I’d call this good mid-range chocolate, but it’s much to expensive for it’s quality. 4.9€ per 100g, and the shop was one of two that had a minimum  I liked the samples but those were simple chocolate squares. I ended up buying more novelty flavors and some of the bonbon balls to fill out the 100g… I was frankly disappointed.

2 stars: Perhaps their liquors, spreads and vinegars are more impressive, but as for chocolate? Skip it.

Elizabeth

Bay leaf / Laurier groseilles: The flavor is very subtle. The chocolate is dominant, and the filling is very smooth. Overall, it is rich and earthy with a pleasant bitterness.

Black cardamom /ganache cardamone: This one had a strong fruity flavor like berry? No sign of cardamom. It tastes good… but what flavor is it? I should be able to tell.

Jasmine ganache: Why can’t I tell what flavor it is when it’s in my mouth? I know what these things are supposed to taste like. Again more tart and citrusy, maybe a little earthy, but not clearly recognizable as floral.

Orange Fleur de Sel: It is sweeter with a milk chocolate exterior, less acidic, probably orange peel. I can find the orange but it is very very faint. The fleur de sel is more a suggestion than a flavor. It tastes good, but not especially like what it’s supposed to taste like.

Chocolate truffle (sample): Delicious and rich, it has the perfect sweetness with a light crunch from a layer of cookie.

Caramel rose / truffon rose: I ate this last and it blew my socks off! Liquid caramel, buttery and with the edge of bitterness that I like in caramels. The rose flavor is prominent and balanced and so easy to find, but it doesn’t hide the richness of the caramel or the chocolate. The dark outside layer is a little on the acidic side but not enough to put me off that amazing filling!

Lemon meringue (sample): Next to the Elizabeth chocolates is the Elizabeth meringue shop. I’ve had meringues before but never imagined they could be so good. The crispy outside dissolved in my tongue like a cloud and the inside was chewy but light. I don’t think they sell them individually unless you but a huge one. But great to try!

A parade came by while I was inside. The shop woman told me it was Flemish Independence day. They aren’t independent, they just want to be, so they have this event every year to rally support.

4 stars: Worth going if you stick to the truffles and caramel on the chocolate side. Skip the flavored ganaches, but DO make time for the meringues next door.

Benoit Nihant

While I was chatting up the generous staff at Pierre Marcolini, they recommended another shop that was not on my list. When a quality chocolatier tells you to visit a rival shop, you know you have to go, but it was too far out for me to get to on the same day.

When I finally had time, I hopped on a bus that took me practically to the door and was greeted by a bubbly and kind woman behind the counter. She was blown away that Pierre Marcolini staff had recommended me to go there and happily told me about all the chocolates on offer. It’s beans to bar, and high quality, but as a smaller and younger shop they can’t afford the rent in Sablon yet, which is a tragedy because they are amazing.

She was so excited to share with me, I tried several different flavors before deciding what to do my box with. The minimum is 4 pieces at 5€, but it is so worth it.

Sesame: The balance of flavor chocolate is perfect. The toasted sesame comes through clearly without hiding the chocolate or bring hidden. Just sweet enough, and a good earthy chocolate base.

Strawberry with Sichuan Pepper: I was warned this was sweet, the strawberry is a jelly and the pepper is a ganache infusion. The jelly was very sweet and the pepper and chocolate were both a bit run over. It was a good jelly with amazing fruit flavor and smooth texture but the lady helping me was correct when she said it was sweeter than I was really looking for. She says all the jellies are like this, so I didn’t get any others, although the fig raspberry and pear cardamom both looked intriguing. 

Baracoa from Cuba, Single Origin:  Rich and creamy, it was pushing the tart side  a little but not over the line. These are made with a simple ganache filling to show off the unique flavor of the origins.

Marzipan:  I had a marzipan from the sample dish. It is the best marzipan I have ever put in my face. They use 70% almonds to keep it from being too sweet. In addition to the almond, there are light floral notes and dreamy dark chocolate robe.

I did actually buy some chocolates that day as well. I took away a box with 4 more flavors.Earl Grey Ganache (two lines): This has a beautiful dark chocolate flavor, not acid or sweet, but earthy with a slight astringency from the tea. The bergamot is subtle, but it’s still a delightful piece.

Orange Thyme (orange line): It has abright zest flavor, without being too citrusy. The thyme is subtle but ads depth and range to the flavor I don’t think you’d get with just the orange alone. The chocolate is still amazing.

Cuyagua Village Single Origin from Venezuela (gold line): Just so good. Intense chocolate flavor smooth and clean with a tiny hint towards the fruity but just a whisper to make it interesting. Light and bright, but strong and powerful. The ganache is smooth and dense and helps spread the flavor access the tongue. Much love. Single origin is meant to highlight the unique flavor of a region rather than other ingredients.

4 Spice Praline (silver line): I was told this was classic gingerbread spices. Definitely true. The praline had a nice crunch and crisp with a lovely gingerbread flavor. Not too sweet, beautiful classic chocolate, the spices are there but quiet. It’s a classy candy.

I loved Benoit Nihant so much that I hunted down their shop in Leige when I was there later in my trip. The weather was so hot that my chocolates melted a bit on the boat ride, so the textures were impacted by that, but it was still a trancendant experience.

Haceinda Single Origin: This one was dark and creamy, fruity without being overly acidic, with a slight spicy finish. Bear in mind, all that complexity comes from the chocolate alone, since there are no fruits or spices added. It’s a little like wine tasting.

Marzipan Pistachio: Since the original was so good, I decided to try the 2.0. It’s still delicious, but a bit sweeter. There is clearly a diffusion or mixture that isn’t all almond, I would not have been able to say it was pistachio if no one told me. Really good marzipan. I think I’ll stick to the original if I ever get another chance.

Peanut Praline: It’s like the most sophisticated peanut butter cup you’ll ever eat. It walks straight up to the edge of burnt sugar, bringing bitter, salty, sweet, and peanut in with the chocolate together with a nice crunch.

Hazelnut Praline: Surprisingly not as good as the peanut. It still has a dark close to burnt caramel in the praline. I can’t tell if the texture was off because of the melting but it seemed a bit more granular than it should be.

Lavender Ganache: Wow! Good lavender flavor without being potpourri. I love florals but balance is hard. I had become disenchanted with the violet ganaches in other shops and interrogated the shop staff mercilessly about this, but they nailed it!

Mint Ganache: This transported me back to my mother’s garden. The mint flavor is so fresh and natural I can taste the green. I believe it must have been made with fresh leaves in the infusion and not an extract.

Lime with Basil: The lime is dominant and reminds me of a lime chiffon or even a key lime pie, more like a creamy pastry lime than a drinks lime. The basil is a bit lost. Like the orange thyme, I think it added depth without drawing attention to itself.

The staff in both places were pleased to talk endlessly about the chocolates and the shop. In Leige there is also a cafe next to the chocolate shop that sells several chocolate deserts as well as chocolate drinks. I didn’t get a chance to try anything on that side, sadly. I also learned that you don’t actually have to get a box for 5€. If you buy the chocolates in a bag it’s 100g for 9€, which works out to about 15 chocolates, but there is no minimum.

5 stars: I wish everyone on a chocolate tour of Brussels could take a side trip out here or find one of the other 5 stores in Belgium as they are not available anywhere else and are truly a treat worth having. Try anything, but especially the marzipan.

Galler

Finally, I didn’t find this brand in a fancy shop in Sablon, but in nearly every grocery shop in the city. Galler praline bars were definitely a great score. They’re quite affordable and far superior to the average supermarket chocolate bar. Stop in a Del-Haize and grab your favorite flavor.

4 stars: Compared with the very best in Sablon, it might be 3, but taken in the context of the supermarket aisle, it blows away the competition.

Chocolate with Compassion

Chocolate is one of my favorite things on Earth, however it is an industry rife with slavery and abuse. Cocoa only grows in a few places on the planet and those are almost exclusively in 3rd world, developing nations in Central & South America, as well as Africa. Cheap chocolate companies use child labor, forced labor, and under paid labor, putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of the economic disparity between developed and developing nations.

In recent years, more and more fine chocolatiers have become interested in supporting these cocoa farmers by paying a fair price for this very labor intensive product. I often hear excuses about ethical consumerism around the basis of “all the companies do it”, or “how else am I supposed to afford xyz?”, but chocolate is a luxury and there are plenty of companies that source their cocoa responsibly.

Buying ethically sourced chocolate not only feels better, it often tastes better since these companies would not dream of diluting their top dollar cocoa with milk-fat, sugar, paraffin or other additives commonly used by the check-out aisle candy companies.

Please choose one of these the next time you want to indulge. Look for a label: Fair Trade, Fairly Traded, Jane Goodall, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ. You can see a list of many slavery-free chocolate companies at this website. Small chocolatiers are not listed, so if you have a neighborhood chocolatier, you can always ask them. People who use ethically sourced cocoa are proud to tell you.

Happy eating!


Writing about chocolate has helped take the edge off of the sheer horror that is the US News Cycle this week. I can’t say chocolate makes it all better, but there is a certain amount of truth in J.K. Rowling’s assessment that chocolate helps in the battle against the Dark Arts.  I will treasure this memory for as long as I have taste-buds, and I hope that you didn’t drool too much reading it 😉

Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

aachen-map

The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

You know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

어떻게: How

I have to admit, I’d rather be posting about my trip to the DMZ. I’ve got pages and pages of stories left from my summer and fall adventures, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to keep blithely moving on to happy travel posts without at least acknowledging what just happened. I’m not a political blogger, but those who read here know sometimes I share my thoughts on a major world event, and/or event that causes me deep emotional reactions. If you just want the happy travel stories, that’s ok. I like those better anyway. But, for what it’s worth, my .02 on the election.


I’m 16 hours ahead of the West Coast. The election was well underway when I woke up Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the Koreans were staring at the electoral map on my phone, just saying 어떻게 (ottoke) over and over. It means “how”. By the time I left work, it was over and I was in shock. My Canadian and I ate pb&j sandwiches and drank 2 bottles of wine while trying to talk about literally anything else.

I didn’t sleep well. Anxiety and stress combined with some lingering back pain. I woke up tired and numb. Random thoughts keep scrolling across my brain like one of those LED tickers in New York. Tears coming and going as I walk down the street to the bus station. No appetite at all. Even when I’m finally hungry, I can only eat a few bites before it all seems disgusting again. I cried, I yelled, my coworkers laughed because they thought it was a joke until I gave example after example and then they cried too. I spent the whole day fighting the urge to just lay down on the floor and stop moving. My body is in grief.

어떻게 (ottoke)

yayomg-oh-sad-mad-dreamworks-home

I was (am?) one of those disenfranchised white people who is sad-mad about the loss of my future. I believed in the meritocracy and it failed me. I’ve changed careers 3 times because every time I invested in the training and the low level experience building, it was just in time to have the economy hiccup and destroy my future. In America, I couldn’t get adequate health care because it was too expensive. I put myself in insane debt for a career that I will never have now. I couldn’t afford to live on my own with a full time (30-50% higher than minimum wage) job. Even with a roommate, I couldn’t save up for a car, a house, a new TV or even dream of getting out from under the credit card debt without the aid of my family. I took a job I didn’t like with no prospect of advancement simply because I needed the health benefits more than I needed a job with a future. I drove the one new car I bought way back when the economy was still good until it died a sad death from lack of me being able to afford regular maintenance 16 years later. One of the reasons I never married or tried to have children because the very thought of even more financial burden terrified me to my core.

What makes me different from the rest of the disenfranchised white people who believe Trump can save them? I am honestly not sure. It could be my educational level. It could be my hippie mom. It could be my urban location. It could be … nothing.

You can make jokes and snide remarks about racism, but we all know that only a small portion of the Trump base are really off the hook haters. Most of them are the lost people, who like me, thought that if they worked hard, they could get that house with the fence and the kids and the dog and it would be ok. We are all processing what it means to realize that just isn’t true.

the-american-dream-is-over

My cousin – my mixed race, female cousin told me she would have voted for Trump if she’d voted. (Do not even get me started on that “if”) When I expressed my worry for her and her family members of color, she was surprised and said she had no clue how I got the idea he was racist. Even when I tried to explain, she dismissed it as having happened so long ago (the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and you know the recent election cycle) that it wasn’t relevant anymore. When I asked her to tell me some things she liked about Trump, all she could tell me were the same things I’ve read and seen over and over. Hillary is BAD, the establishment is BAD. Trump is not those bad things. Yeah, but what do you like about him. He’s not the establishment.

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She was just as politely patronizing to me as I’ve seen well meaning liberals be, too (and if I’m being brutally honest, as I’m sure I’ve been to people when I feel like they are being dumb but I still want to try and be nice). I was hoping my liberal media “bubble” was exaggerating that “voting-against” response. That if I just talked to a reasonable Trump supporter they could explain the good things to me, but nope. It looks like the people who don’t love Trump are so in hate with Hillary and “the establishment” that they don’t care who else gets hurt, including themselves.

I can’t tell you how much I want to be wrong. I want to be Chicken Little and not Cassandra. So. Much.

어떻게 (ottoke)

obama-protestAnd there’s the riots, which I am not happy to see. I don’t want violence to be an answer ever. Yeah, I know, the Trump supporters did it first, but now that they’ve won, they’d like it all to stop. People are like “oh you’re overreacting”, “oh you’re whiny cry babies” (nevermind that’s been pointed at us for caring about anything ever for decades, so it’s lost it’s oompf as an insult), but I voted in 2000 when this happened with Gore and I was not scared for my nation’s future (although, it turns out I should have been). I was mad when Kerry lost in 2004, too because that explitive promised to do recounts and bailed. And the Democrats didn’t take to the streets in protests and riots because voters who lost an election were capable of telling the difference between a guy we didn’t like the policies of, and a guy who we honestly believe will enable the ruination, incarceration, and deaths of humans we care for and respect.

It’s not about oh we lost, boo hoo. It’s not about, oh we didn’t get our way and now we’re throwing a tantrum (looking at you House Republicans). It’s about all these horrible stories on twitter of people being harassed, threatened, and assaulted in the name of the President-elect. It’s about high school students being groped and bullied and beaten while their classmates chant “white power”. It’s about spray-painting the President-elect’s name on cars and churches then setting them on fire, sometimes with people still inside.

They say they’ve never rioted when their candidate lost (a debatable claim at best), but I say we’ve never abused people in the name of our winning candidate. This isn’t like any other election.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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Oh, yeah, I’m not going back. It’s not as big a political stance as it sounds. I left when the country was improving. I left before marriage equality. I left, not because I was disgusted or afraid, but because I like to travel. I’ve stayed away for the very practical reason that I get paid better for work I find more rewarding in cultures that have superior access to quality health care and in communities of like-minded globe trotters. It’s better for me out here than it is at “home”. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going back before. What would I do? How would I pay rent? How would I afford health care? This is just a sort of nail in the decision. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m struggling to just get by when I can live somewhere that I thrive. I desperately want America to be that kind of a place again, but I’m not optimistic for the near future.

Not everyone can leave. Not everyone would actually have a better life outside America. Not everyone even wants to leave. That part’s just about my life choices.

어떻게 (ottoke)

Democratic National Convention: Day One

Bunch of folks are looking for the love. We know hate is bad, we know love conquers hate. I personally don’t like hating because of how it makes me feel. But I’ve also seen a lot of people in the at-risk minority groups get righteously upset at those “love uber alles” type messages. They worry, and I think justly so, that we who remain un-impacted or less impacted by virtue of our skin tone, our gender, our economic status, or our geographic region can take the moral high ground and love without suffering, thus forgetting the pain, fear, anger, loss and very real danger being experienced by people not us. But, I think it’s ok to love while still being hurt, angry, sad, mad, and scared.  I don’t think you have to choose.

I’m trying not to hate. I saw the Daily Show the other day, the it comes with the package speech Hassan Minhaj gave, and it so succinctly put into words why I’m upset with the not-actually-horribly-racist Trump supporters.

source

Maybe right now, I feel the same way about them. I don’t actually hate you, non-racist, non-misogynist, non-xenophobic, Hillary-hating, establishment-destroying Trump supporters… I just don’t care about you? Doesn’t really feel good.

I’m trying to find all my compassion and use it, but I’m tired, wrung out, this year has seen so much tragedy in the US and I am afraid it is only going to get worse. And yeah, I’m mad at the people who voted for this. But I’m trying to be like… family mad. Mom mad. That kind of mad where you’re like, “I can’t believe you just took the family car for a joyride and crashed it into a telephone pole!” HUG “I’m so glad you’re ok, I love you.” because those go together. We can be mad at people we love and we can love people we’re mad at.

I’m not sure I have it in me to love the super bigots yet. I may not be that enlightened. But I know that’s not most of the people I’m mad at.

So they’ve shown it’s possible to not-hate someone, but at the same time not care if they live or die. I’m saying possible to be mad at people for doing dumb, dangerous, shortsighted, selfish things and still . That’s the struggle for me right now. That and trying to decide what to do with my book collection if I’m really never going back there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay down on the floor and stop moving.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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#UltimateCoOp – A Seattle Gamer-Geek Wedding

As some of you know by now, I have returned to my US stomping grounds in the Emerald City. While I have been away, I wrote many stories about new experiences with new people and now I’m going to try a little experiment and write a story about something familiar using the same perspective I had while travelling. After all, there’s no reason not to keep having adventures just because the surroundings are familiar.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett


I came back to Seattle just in time to attend the much anticipated wedding of a couple of friends of mine who rank among the geekiest gamers I know.  Over time, through accident or design, they have come to talk about their lives in video game terms and so their engagement was announced as “Achievement Unlocked: Engaged”. The groom designed a video game using the wedding party as the characters, and a local comic book artist designed some beautiful comic art versions of the bride and groom for the website and invitations. The wedding theme was “gamer geek”, so I knew we were all in for a fun and non-traditional time.

I picked out a simple outfit using some clothes I’d picked up in Japan and tried to create a bit of an “anime” look with hair and make-up to blend in with the theme and to highlight my recent adventures. I felt a little bad because I hadn’t had time to gift shop at the registry places, but I’d promised the bride a “traditional Japanese wedding present” and she seemed happy with that idea. Mind you, this was before I researched Japanese wedding traditions. As it turns out, the most common gift is money in a very elaborate envelope. What can I say? I’m broke. My friends now have a very elaborate envelope.

First Impressions

I arrived at the wedding hall about 15 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin and got to see the basic outlay. There was a wine bar on the patio, which is fairly standard at American weddings, but the divergences started as soon as I walked in the door. In the foyer, the traditional “guest book” had been replaced with cards (each bearing the comic art bride and groom characters with the names and date of the wedding). Instead of signing a book, guests were asked to write a message (or draw a picture) on a card using the colored markers provided and place them in a treasure box.

For snacks, a candy bar had been set up. No, I don’t mean a square bar shaped candy, I mean a bar (like snack bar or pub) with many full bowls of candy. Guests were invited to fill a bag with their favorite sweets to snack on or take home. Offering guests wedding favors is an American tradition, often small bags or boxes of candy (butter mints and jordan almonds are very popular), sometimes small bottles of bubble solution, and even on occasion a decorative trinket. This couple had opted to use the candy bar to let guests make their own candy bags, and had some beautiful copper keys (with a secret bottle-opener feature) as wedding favors, each adorned with a brown paper tag bearing a loving quote.

Off to one side of the entrance was an old fashioned arcade game set up with the groom’s homemade wedding video game that allowed guests to play a joystick/button-mash adventure that pitted 8-bit bridesmaids and groomsmen against one another with highly customized (read “inside joke) attacks like spilling a drink or flinging a crowbar. And on the other side stood a giant red telephone box replete with a Mario Question Mark cube dangling tantalizingly in the air.

As we were ushered to our seats in the main hall, each guest was equipped with a walkthrough and strategy guide to the day’s events (aka, a program). Written in the style of a video game walkthrough and complete with FAQs, the program gave us some tantalizing glimpses of the night to come, including the eventual appearance of Seattle’s premiere steampunk band, Abney Park.

Looking around me, I saw that the theme had been well and truly taken to heart by the guests who were dressed in an astonishing array of geek finery from
Star Trek uniforms to renaissance garb. Corsets abounded along with crazy hats, gear adorned ties, aviator goggles and foam weapons. The bridal party were possibly the most in harmony with traditional wedding garb, wearing suits and ties for the men, and simple black dresses for the ladies. The geek shone through in the adorable corsages that included a miniature blue spiky shell (from Mario Kart) and a rune adorned mini-dagger.

The Ceremony

The ceremony began traditionally enough (although the officiant had pink hair and a serious steam-punk vibe), but quickly took on the couple’s own unique flair. They began with a ring warming, trustingly passing their wedding rings around the seated guests to be “warmed” with handling and good wishes. Reading special passages is very common at American weddings, although for many this would include an excerpt from the Bible or classic literature about the nature of love or marriage, this couple took instead from their own favorite fantasy writers: Madeline L’Engle and Patrick Ruthfuss.

Side note: The argument about how much marriage should or should not be religious or secular is quite hot in the US in recent years, however Seattle is one of the most liberal cities around and has been embracing all kinds of life-partnership for a long time. Perhaps as a result of the overwhelming liberalness of the area, weddings here are often more about the individuals’ personal values than about a traditional “church” affair. Nonetheless, it was really cool to see how this couple took those church traditions, dug out the meaning behind them that they liked best and then created a new way to share that meaning.

Another new take on an old tradition involved the blending of two into one, and the set-up for the 1 year anniversary. For the for representation of two lives becoming one, many couples choose to use two candles that light a central single candle, and for first anniversaries, a chunk of the wedding cake kept in the back of the freezer is common. My friends decided to integrate their love of Mexican tequila into these traditions instead. Having solidified their love on annual trips to Mexico which included lots of tequila tours, they each chose their own blanco to pour into an aging cask so that it could mature into añejo by the one year anniversary when they will open the cask and enjoy (much tastier than frozen wedding cake!).

Even the exchange of rings had a gamer twist, for when the officiant prepared to hand over the rings, she looked at the couple seriously and warned them, “It’s dangerous to go alone… Take this.” And of course the ceremony ended with a final traditional kiss along with the Achievement Unlocked: Married.

The Wedding Quest

As we filed out to the patio for cocktail hour, members of the wedding party passed out another pamphlet containing the Wedding Quest. The Quest was a great ice-breaker activity set that got people mingling and playing with the various games and props that had been scattered around the building. Not only did a guest have to perform the task (such as play the wedding brawler video game, or take a selfie with the bride), but they had to get someone to witness the achievement and sign off on the checklist. Some quests involved signing the guest book or using the photo booth to help create more memories for the couple, while others involved dancing with strangers or feeding the bride’s mom.

The photo booth was a fun way to make wedding memories for everyone. In keeping with the video arcade theme, they had set up a computer and printer inside a box that looked like an arcade game. Guests were encouraged to choose from a range of silly props and costume pieces just outside the photo room. Then with a single press of a big red button, the machine captured 4 silly photos against a Mario background and printed your souvenir card with the wedding comic art and date. Below is Abney Park and some of the bridal party having a good time with the photo booth between sets.

The Quest kept me happily busy until the wedding hall had completed it’s transformation sequence into a dining hall, where we all convened for dinner and toasting. I took some advantage of my status as welcome home guest to finagle some of the bridal party’s special vodka and generally enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t seen for the last year along with meeting the new people that had come into our community during my absence.

Toasting, Caking & Dancing

The toasting began with a bottle of champagne that the bride’s parents had set aside at their own wedding, not realizing that unlike still wine, champagne does not improve with age after purchase. I really hope the photographer was standing by to capture the looks on their faces.  I think the aging tequila cask will be a much more successful investment.

Once safer drinks were provided, the toasts resumed with funny stories and clever antics. The bride’s brothers even presented her with a lovely sword to defend her own honor with. Although many of the audience felt that the new sword would be a great cake-cutter, it turned out that the couple had installed a dagger as part of their cake topper for that precise purpose. In addition to the dolls matching the comic book character themes there were several layers of geekery including the Portal cube, a dragon with a hoard of gold, a D20, some Mario Bros., a small library of gaming books and a solid foundation of Pac Man. And, for extra humor, the cake was a lie. It turned out that only one layer was cake for the couple to cut and share for the traditional cake-face-smash, er I mean feeding, and all the other layers were cleverly disguised styrofoam with fondant frosting decorations. Guests were served cake from a hidden resource somewhere in the back (which is just as well because fondant is nowhere near as tasty as butter-creme).

The traditional first dance of a newly married couple is often a sweet and romantic song like Eta James or Frank Sinatra. Sometimes a couple will take dancing lessons or plan some “fancy” moves like twirls and dips to look good on their special day. My friends took this to expert level, as it were, and chose for their first song Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton. In addition to dancing their way through the chorus, they took turns being the code monkey in the story and acting out the lyrics. It was pretty much as insanely cute as it sounds. Parental dances were then followed up with a honeymoon fundraising “dollar dance” that allowed any guest an exclusive dance with the bride or groom for a financial contribution to the getaway fund.

After I took my turn dancing with the groom, I stepped aside to the bar and while chatting with another guest about our Wedding Quest achievements, I related that I had yet to achieve “Dance With Someone You Don’t Know”. At which point, the bartender swiftly emerged from behind the bar to treat me to a quick jig and witness my achievement. I think the catering staff were just as amused by the wedding as we were. It’s always fun when my group gets to attend events with staff, since so many of us have worked those grinding jobs before, we’re all extra nice and friendly to them, and it’s awesome to see their reactions when they realize they’re being treated like people instead of robot servants.

Finally, I stepped outside to get some fresh (cool) air, but my respite did not last long before a bride led conga line snaked into the courtyard to scoop everyone up and down the stairs into the hidden speakeasy. The basement room was decked out with a small stage and dance floor and plenty of comfy lounging couches around the walls plus another bar off to one side. Giant tubs of popcorn provided anyone still hungry with more snacking options and the slices of wedding cake kept appearing as if by catering ninjas. I proceeded to have a lovely time being flung around the dance floor by two very good friends who take dance lessons in swing, blues and salsa. My hairdo did not survive the experience, but I can’t say I was upset.

Abney Park

I’m really not sure what kind of shenanigans, bribes or blood sacrifices were made to accomplish this, but Seattle’s one and only Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk band played at this wedding. These guys aren’t just a local gimmick band, they’ve traveled internationally and enjoyed sold out shows. Apparently they also have a series of genre books about the airship captain and his crew. I however live in a cultural hole in the ground when it comes to music, so until that night I only had a brief and passing awareness of the group based on posters I had seen advertising concerts around town.

As you can see from the picture, they have a violinist among their musicians which is always a good way to win me over. The music is fun and bouncy without being painfully loud, another plus. And it seems to be largely story based type lyrics that are reflective of the characters and world they are portraying. They are also really mellow, fun folks. The venue was pretty small, so the stage was really just a step up from the dance floor and there was no green room or backstage area for them to go so they had to mingle with the guests. Perhaps because most of the guests were also in costume, or perhaps because of the bottles of wine that found their way from the bar to the stage (open bar is music to any musicians ears), they were highly complimentary of our vibe, totally seemed surprised at how happy everyone was, and quickly settled into enjoying themselves too.

Light it Up & Let it Go

At one point in the performance, I stepped away to help create the send-off decorations. Some people throw rice at a departing couple, and I’ve seen doves and butterflies released as well. Apparently the families had wanted to release floating fire lanterns, but the long dry summer had left a normally damp Seattle too dry. In fact, most of the state of Washington had been on fire only a few weeks before. So instead they got a couple hundred tiny battery operated lights and white balloons. This meant a hardcore team of volunteers spent a while assembling the final product, a non-fire starting floating glowing thing to release to the skies.

After we filled all the balloons, there were a couple dozen lights leftover, so I decided these should become fashion accessories for as many people as I could get them to.  This made for some new fun as we all tried to figure out the best places to add lights to our costumes. Several groomsmen wound up with back-lit ties, and an equal number of bridesmaids had glowing cleavage. I handed several around to the band while they were on break. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and wore the lights in hair, clothes and goggles for the second half of their show.

As the dancing went on, it became apparent that the bride and bridal party’s lack of sleep and early start to the day were taking a toll. Among the hundred or so regular size balloons were three giant ones that the couple used to lead everyone back upstairs and out the gates into the street. Once each remaining guest was armed with a glowing balloon, we huddled together and counted down to release. It was quite lovely to watch the glowing pearly balloons float off into the cloudy black sky. When the last balloon had drifted from sight, the couple looked around for their car and had a fun surprise. At some point the groomsmen had decorated the couple’s car with cling wrap and shoe polish as well as about a dozen more glowing balloons. However, since gamer geeks are notorious utility knife carriers, the plastic was swiftly dispatched and the couple drove off into the night, exhausted but happy, all quests completed and all achievements unlocked at the Ultimate Co-Op Wedding.


Special thanks to all the photographers I’m using here. I forgot to point and shoot for most of the event, so I’m relying on other guests phone photo skills to provide the fun imagery. I managed to personally achieve all quests in the Wedding Game before leaving (bragging rights) and had a great time reconnecting with my Seattle family. I love you all to pieces. Megan & Brendan, thank you so much for letting me be a small part of your special day, I know you’ll work hard to take care of each other and be happy and I look forward to more games and stories with you in years to come.

France 2015 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

 

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.


Sadly, I never had the opportunity to write about my first visit to Paris… The summer of 2015 transitioned into Japan and became frantically busy trying to figure out my job, my life, and my future. The rest of my European travels that year are memorialized only in photographs.