Friday, June 27, 2014

Cows, Hops, and Potatoes

Last weekend, we went to Belgium again. You might be wondering, why would we go to Belgium? I think the relevant question is, why wouldn't we go to Belgium? Even though we have been there twice before at this point, there were still some things we hadn't seen. Since some of the places we wanted to go were a bit out of the way, we planned to rent a car. I wasn't sure if it would be allowed, since I don't have a German driver's license, but I called twice and was told I could rent one with my American license. I was still afraid that once I got there, they would tell me I couldn't take the car, but everything ended up fine. I also was a little scared since I hadn't driven in Europe before, but ultimately, driving is driving, so it wasn't bad. One kinda funny thing happened at the rental car desk: the clerk saw my license was from Alabama and said, "Oh, they are very good at football." That alone would have been weird to me, that a European knew that. Then he said, "They are the Crimson Tide. But I like Oregon Ducks better." Which, I mean, obviously.

We left on Thursday, and the first thing we planned to do was go down to Chimay, which is near the French border. Chimay is a Trappist beer, made in an abbey, which you aren't allowed to visit, but there is a cafe where you can taste the Chimay D'oree, a beer that is only sold there. I liked it much better than the other Chimays, because it's just a style of beer I prefer. We also got to taste a bunch of the Chimay cheese. I would have bought some to take home, but I wasn't really sure how well it would keep. We learned that there is a little bit of the abbey you can walk around in--the gardens and the cemetery, so we did that. It was peaceful and beautiful. I didn't get any pictures because I forgot to bring my camera in, but it probably would have been a little bit frowned upon anyway. We drove back up to Ghent and decided to have fries for dinner, because Belgium. I also got some chicken nuggets, which I would describe as mediocre but I think that would be an insult to mediocrity. Hunter's fries had Stoovlies sauch (I really have no idea how to spell that, but it's like Flemish beef stew) and they were really good. I also learned that I like Belgian Cola Light much better than German Cola Light.

Friday morning we got up to go see the Ghent altarpiece, a pretty famous painting housed in St. Bavo Cathedral. No pictures are allowed, a rule which I followed despite many other visitors' shameless flaunting, but you can Google it to see what it looks like. Parts of it are being restored--I'll talk about that later. The cathedral itself is free to get into, you just have to pay to see the altarpiece. After we saw that, we walked around a little bit.

Sadie and I next to the Cathedral

Li'l further out
Li'l closer in
The middle figures in the statue are the Van Eyck brothers, who painted the altarpiece.

Since we wanted to have a more fun dinner, we figured just a quick/cheap lunch would be good. We grabbed some noodles and took Sadie back to get her fed, changed, etc. before the next activity: a brewery visit! 

We were able to schedule a visit to the Gruut Brewery. This was the only "official" visit we managed. Many of the breweries require either several weeks advance scheduling, groups of at least 10 people, or both. This is a fairly small, new brewery, but the most interesting thing about them is that they don't use hops! They use a mix of herbs to get the same effect as hops. It was very interesting to learn about the process, and the beer was quite tasty. The guide shared my opinion on German beer: it's well-made, but there is very little variation in it. We had a fun time tasting the different beers!

We also had a fun time posing for pictures with Sadie.

We went home to take a bit of a rest, then looked up where to go for dinner. I was thinking Belgian food, because it's good, so we found a restaurant off the main square with pretty reasonable prices. I got an amazing thick steak, which you really can't get in Germany, and Hunter got the stew. In addition to the food being really good, Sadie behaved herself so well, at least until the end of the meal when we were waiting for a dessert we thought would never come. I mean, who doesn't want to cry when that happens? We made it, though.

The next day was one of the most exciting parts of our trip. We were heading to the western side of the country to try a beer that many refer to as the "best in the world." It is made in extremely limited quantities and only available at the abbey where they make it, and the cafe they have there. To buy cases, you have to call a few weeks ahead of time and give them your license plate number, then you can't buy more until 60 days have passed. We had tried calling after we got the rental car, on the off-chance we could reserve some, but weren't able to get through. We figured we could taste it at the cafe, assuming they hadn't run out. When we got there, we were pleasantly surprised! They were selling bottles of the beer, in a set with glasses. So of course Hunter got one! I tasted the beer and I will say, I don't usually like abbey beers, but I would drink that one.

Hunter tastes the beer

Sadie tastes her hand

In the nearest town to this abbey, there is a hops museum, because I think it is where a lot of the hops in Belgium come from? Anyway, we had heard it was cool but it was late afternoon by that point, and we figured it would be better for Sadie if we just headed to Brussels, which is where we'd be spending our last night. We did drive by a giant statue of a hop, though!

Saturday night might have been my favorite meal of the trip. We found a Tunisian restaurant, and it was so good! Plus, they had a high chair for Sadie, so we could eat in peace while she... tried to pick up food and then dropped it on the ground. We were sitting outside, of course, so it didn't worry me too much. Every time people walked by, her little head would follow them and I'm sure she got more than a few smiles. So this trip, we had two meals that weren't just passing Sadie back and forth between bites!

So that's basically it. Renting a car wasn't scary but there is one thing I will keep in mind if we do it again: planning. We didn't use the car at all on Friday; we would have done better to just return the car in Ghent and then get another one on the last day, since we were paying for car and GPS. We also probably could have just returned it Saturday night and that would have cut down on parking charges. Often our travel is kinda spontaneous, but if we get another car, I will try to maximize the efficiency there. Otherwise, it was a great trip! Of course we came back with more chocolate; we had just finished our box of Neuhaus from our last trip to Belgium. Maybe next time we'll go somewhere a bit farther...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

We'll Always Have Paris

It has taken me forever to write this post, partly because there was so much to say and partly because Sadie can make it hard to find time to write. So it's overdue, but I hope you enjoy the pictures!

Well, recently my mom and sister, Caroline, came to visit us for about ten days. We did some things in Germany and the Netherlands, but the highlight of our trip was Paris! Hunter had a long weekend for Ascension, so Sadie, my mom, my sister, and I went on Wednesday morning and Hunter planned to join us that night after work. For accommodations, we went with an apartment rental, and it was really nice, and much cheaper than a hotel would have been for four adults! We used this site and were really happy with it, in case anyone is planning a trip!

We got on the Thalys train to Paris and right away hit a snag! Hunter texted me to say that the train was sold out for that night! I was pretty panicked, but thankfully was able to use the train's super-slow wireless to find him a ticket for the next morning. So basically, he only missed 12 hours that would have been mostly sleeping. Crisis averted!

We got to the apartment, which was on the 4th European floor, same as our apartment in Germany, which wasn't exactly easy with suitcases and stuff but we did it. Then, my sister wanted to go visit the Paris sewers, so we headed that way. I kinda thought it was just going to be a museum about the sewers, but you were in like, an actual functioning sewer. Interesting but also kinda gross. It probably wasn't the *best* place for Sadie to be, and she did end up with a cold that night, but it was definitely an experience. I convinced my sister to pose for a picture in front of this giant ball they use to sift out sand and stuff:

That night we were looking around for stuff to eat and ended up at a fondue place. We were wary at first, because it was the kind of place with a guy standing outside trying to pull you in, which was pretty off-putting to Caroline and me. But mom convinced us to try it and it was really good! Care and I shared a fondue and Sadie had some of the bread. After that, we went on a cruise down the Seine, which was pretty nice. Travelling with them made it so much easier, because we could all take turns comforting Sadie. 

Thursday morning, my sister wanted to go to several markets. At the first one we went to, I got a little dress for Sadie--it hasn't been washed yet so no pics, sorry! After the second market, Hunter had arrived in Paris, so I had to miss the third--sadly, this is the one that they thought I would have liked the best. C'est la vie. Hunter and I dropped his stuff at the apartment and then met up with mom and Caroline. We had some lunch before splitting up. Hunter wanted to see Notre Dame, and my mom and sister wanted to see the Maison Victor Hugo (it turned out to be closed, but they were able to see this Holocaust ghettos type museum). Here is Notre Dame:

There was a big line outside, but it's kinda constantly moving, so it wasn't so bad. There was a mass just ending as we went in, as we were there on Ascension Day. We also paid to look at the treasury, which was I think our first encounter with people just taking pictures of themselves with anything that happened to be in their way. So like, we are trying to look at a jewel encrusted reliquary and then a person is like, oh, here I am standing right in front of it so I can prove to my friends I saw it! Sorry for being mean about it, it can just get really frustrating when anything you want to see is also something a thousand other people want to see. I usually don't have really bad crowd anxiety, but I just felt so pressed in the entire time we were there. I think Paris would be an amazing city to live in, because you don't have to go to all the touristy areas, but if I'm there as a tourist, of course I want to see those things, so I just have to deal with the lines and crowds.

There is a statue of Charlemagne outside of Notre Dame, which I took a picture of because he is kind of a big deal in Aachen:

That evening, we went to check out the Eiffel Tower, just to see what the lines were like. There is a shorter line for if you want to take the stairs up to the 2nd floor; I think it's like 600 steps or something. Anyway, the line was crazy and I think the elevator to the top was closed, so we decided that we would try to go early the next morning. It's a bit hard to take phone pics from that close up, since it's so tall, but I gave it my best "shot," haha.

We headed to Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur. I was under the impression that it would be less crowded and less touristy than everywhere else we had been so far. When we got there, Hunter described it as, "whatever is BEYOND Beyond Thunderdome." So yeah, it was crowded, but there is a great view of Paris from up there. I didn't actually take a picture of said view, but here are some pictures of the Sacre Coeur:

We went in and looked around. It's really pretty, but the kind of weird thing was that in addition to the ever-present gift shop, there were these souvenir coin machines scattered around like, in the actual church. Mom said it reminded her of the moneylenders in the temple, although I suspect that the profits went to the upkeep of the church and weren't just independently contracted out like arcade games in a pizza parlor. After the Sacre Coeur, we walked around a bit and I found like the only secluded courtyard with no one in it to feed Sadie. My sister wanted to go to the Cafe des Deux Moulins, from Amelie, so we went there and had a drink and then continued on our way.

The last part of that day that I remember was going out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Hunter and I have a habit/tradition of eating Ethiopian food in cities all over the world, hopefully one day in Ethiopia. The annoying thing was that we had to wait for a table, it was like 9:30 or 10:00, and Sadie was Not. Happy. But once we got the food, it didn't matter. It was so good! Mom and Caroline had never tried it before, but they liked it (or at least pretended to). So that was Thursday.

Friday morning the plan was to head to the Eiffel Tower early. Sadie still had a cold, which had kept me up a bit, so I volunteered to stay behind with her. It's a good thing I did, because even to take the stairs there was a long line and I don't think I could have done it carrying Sadie. My feet already hurt sooo bad. So I chilled with Sadie while they walked to the 2nd floor. The elevator to the top was open that day, but I think they decided that since it was already close to noon by the time they got up there and there was a line for the elevator, that they would skip it. If I go back to Paris, I really would like to go to the top, so I will probably check very early about getting the advance tickets online.

The things we had planned for that afternoon were the Catacombs and the Little Prince store. When we got to the Catacombs, the line was insane. It wound all the way around a very large block, and I heard someone saying it would be three hours. I think the way the tours work there is that a set number of people can go in at one time. The Little Prince store wasn't far away, so Hunter volunteered to stand in line while we went to the store, and we would decide what to do afterward based on how far he had gotten. Sadly, we went to the store and it was closed! It was a holiday weekend I guess, and I know I could get a lot of the same stuff cheaper online, but I did want to check out the store. When we got back to the line, Hunter had moved up a bit. The Catacombs were one of Caroline's top things that she wanted to do, so she and Mom decided to stay in the line while Hunter, Sadie, and I went to the Louvre.

On the way over, we stopped by the Centre Pompidou just to see it. When we got to the Louvre, the crowds to get in really weren't bad. The tickets are bought from a machine, so that streamlines things a bit. I had to change Sadie and then go to the bathroom myself, so it took a while for us to get started. Protip: There are bathrooms in the galleries, after you show your ticket, and there aren't really lines for them. Of course, I didn't find that out until after I'd stood in the ridiculously long one. Anyway, we saw all the typical stuff, but I took pictures of a few things that were a bit more interesting to me.

The Code of Hammurabi

They said this statue was 9,000 years old, but I prefer to describe it as OVER 9,000!!!

Of course, we saw La Joconde or as you rubes probably know it, the Mona Lisa. I had seen it twice before, and remembered it being a lot smaller. I had really built it down in Hunter's mind, and my own, so we were pleasantly surprised. Of course, there's just a huge blob of people around it and apparently the new thing now is to take Mona Lisa selfies. I get it, on some level, but it's just really inconsiderate. Like, other people are trying to look at it and you just see a mass of phones being held up. So anyway, we saw that and a lot of the other really famous things. I wanted to see the portrait of Joseph Ducreux, but although the Louvre owns it, it isn't on display, so boo. We never even made it up to the top floor. We wanted to see some of the paintings they had there, but first we had trouble finding how to get up there, then halfway up a staircase we decided we were just really, really tired and we wanted to go back.

Back at the apartment, my sister and mom had gotten some macarons from La Duree and Pierre Herme. I was so tired and my feet hurt so bad, I really didn't want to go out anywhere for dinner. Mom and Caroline went to pick up Chinese food and we ate that with some of the macarons. So, that was our last night in Paris. It was tiring, but we definitely want to go back. There is just so much to see and do. It was also fun speaking French, which I think I did pretty well with, aside from ending every sentence with "bitte" out of habit.

Saturday we went through Luxembourg. There was a big marathon going on there, apparently the "sporting event of the year" or something. So there were food and beer stands and lots of people on the streets, some with vuvuzelas, which was pretty annoying. We took a walk around the city, seeing some of the old walls and things, and by the end of that, we were basically exhausted. That night, which happened to be our sixth anniversary, Hunter and I got to go out and eat a meal by ourselves, without passing a baby back and forth. We had some traditional Luxembourgeoise food, which is very similar to German. On Sunday, basically everything was closed, even most restaurants. That's even worse than Germany. So we found a place to grab some breakfast/lunch, and then headed home. I'll close out with a few more pictures my sister took of Sadie.