Friday, April 12, 2013

Castles, Cathedrals, and Canals! Oh My!

We were lucky enough to have my sis, Kristin, and her husband, Richie come out for another visit this Spring Break.  (The word "spring" being used very loosely...)  They were here for fall break in October, and it's amazing how it felt like we had seen them so recently!  We had a great time together, saw some amazing sites, and had a lot of good food.  You can't ask for much more than that!

They arrived on a cold Sunday morning, with a little bit of snow on the ground.  (I was so mad about that snow!)  It melted quickly, just like Kyle said it would, and it didn't stop us from doing anything that we had planned for that day.  After a breakfast of cherry almond muffins, Nuremberg sausages with mustard and fruit at our house, we headed out for our first day of site seeing.

We headed to an awesome little castle about 50 minutes south of our house.  Lichtenstein castle is at the top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside and small town below.  It's very picturesque and looks like a miniature Neuschwanstein castle!  The only way that you can go inside the castle is to take a tour that's completely in German.  They gave us information to read as we went that was in English, so we kind of got the gist of the tour.  When the tour guide looked at us as she was talking, we just smiled and nodded.

From there we toured the very nice town of Reutlingen before heading to lunch at our favorite local brewery,  Schönbuch Bräu.  We had a great lunch of German favorites like schnitzel, pommes frites, maultaschen, cheesy spätzle, and of course beer. We headed home after lunch to get ready for our road trip the following day.

When Kris and Richie were here on fall break, they decided that when they came on spring break they'd like to visit Belgium.  We decided on Bruges, which is very close to the North Sea Coast.  It's a bit of a drive to Bruges; about 6 hours.  Conveniently, the halfway point was Cologne ( Köln auf Deutsch), so we stopped there for some touring and to stay over night.  Since we didn't have much time there, we hired a tour guide to show us around and tell us about the main sites.  None of us were aware that Cologne had been a major Roman city, so there is a lot of really cool history there.  The Cologne Cathedral, or the Dom, has been on my list of things to see that I learned about in my art history courses in college, so it was awesome to see it in person.  It is really impressive and dominates the city skyline.  Luckily, it escaped the bombing of WWII with very little damage, even though the train station only about 400 meters away was demolished.

Kris and Richie under a Roman gate into the city
A replica of a spire on top of the cathedral
Every European city has a version of this! 
Enjoying views of the Rhine
Haha...putting on Cologne in Cologne
While we were there, we also had to do some beer tasting!  Cologne is known for the Kolsch, and it did not disappoint!  The Kolsch comes in really small glasses, so we went to several breweries to try out different types.  We called it our Kolsch crawl.  That evening, we couldn't find the restaurant that was recommended to us (as it turns out, it was closed) so we ended up at a  Mexican restaurant.  The food was surprisingly good!  It's not what you would get in the US, but it's the best Mexican food I've head since we've been here!

Kristin and I both bought some Cologne in Cologne the next morning before we drove the last three hours to Bruges.  It is such a beautiful little city!  It's known as the Venice of the north because of the canals that run through the city.  It reminded me a lot of a much smaller and more quaint version of Amsterdam.  The official language in Belgium is French, but in the region that we visited, Flemish is much more common.  Richie had booked us an awesome apartment on a quiet, pedestrian only road that was right on a canal.  We dropped off our stuff, then headed out for our first Belgian treat...waffles!  They were scrumptious!

Lunch on the road, a McBaguette
View from our living room window

After we were happy and full of waffles, we had to move the car to where we could keep it overnight.  We parked it just outside of the historic district, surprisingly for free!  On our walk back, we walked along an area that had several old fashioned windmills along a canal.  I thought we had missed our stop and had found the Netherlands!  We made our way back slowly to the historic district while stopping to enjoy a bit of window shopping of antiques, cafes, bakeries, and chocolate shops.  The chocolate shop windows were decorated beautifully for Easter.  That evening, we spent just enjoying being in the city.  We stopped in a pub for our first of many Belgian beers.  They had over 400 different types of beer!  We all decided to go for a Belgian sampler that came with four different types.  They were all really good, but my favorite was a cherry lambic.  It was sooo delicious!  We ate a good dinner at an Irish pub that night, then headed back to the apartment.

We had a self-guided walking tour planned for the next day that took us through the highlights of town and gave us some historical background.  We started off in the market square where they were holding the weekly farmer's market.  We walked around, admiring the cheese, meats, and mostly the beautiful produce.  We couldn't help but buy a carton of delightfully red strawberries to share before our long climb up the Belfry Tower of Bruges.  It is a medieval carillon tower with a measly 366 steps up a winding stair case to the top.  We thought it was going to be a bit rough, but they had it broken up nicely with different rooms of displays on the way up.  Once we reached the top, we were greeted by the daily carillon bell concert that is played by a guy on a piano looking thing.  It was pretty loud, but very cool.  We had amazing views of the canals and red terracotta roof tops.

Up to the top we go!
Bells of the Belfry
Playing the carillon bells
We continued our walking tour after a good cappuccino at an outdoor cafe. We stopped for lunch at a random little cafe where Kyle said he had the best omelette of his life!  We obviously did some chocolate shopping throughout the tour.  We also took a little boat ride through the small canals that was really nice.  We ended our tour at the Half Moon Brewery, where we chatted with a nice couple from Manchester, England.  We ate dinner that evening at a wonderful little Mediterranean restaurant called The Olive Grove.

The Provinciaal Hof
Cold or not, Europeans enjoy the sun when they can!
Church of Our Lady

Bruges is so close to the North Sea, so it was a must to head out and sea it!  (Haha, sea what I did there?  Kyle's rubbed off on me I guess :-)  We drove out to a protected wildlife and wetlands area right on the coast on the Belgium-Dutch border called Zwin.  We saw some really cool birds like storks and owls.  Right outside of Zwin, we saw these big, weird cow or yak looking things.  Richie googled it when we got home, and they were highland salting cows.  From there we drove along the coast through beautiful old resort towns.  We stopped in a nice town called De Haan where we had some pizza for lunch and checked out the North Sea.  They had a beautiful white beach with a nice promenade.  It was very cold, but there were actually quite a few people out and a couple of groups building sand castles!

Spring break, baby!  Woohoo!!

We headed back to Bruges and headed to an awesome little pub called De Garre down a teeny, tiny alley .  They brewed their own beer that was really good.  It was a place that we never would have found if we had not been told about it!

We were heading home the next day, so we had a nice breakfast at a cafe before leaving.  On our drive home we stopped in a cool town called Namur for lunch.  We kind of chose the town at random, but it was a very nice non-touristy town, complete with a castle.  We took a different route home so that we could also stop at the American cemetery in Luxembourg.  It is on 50 acres of land. just outside of Luxembourg City.  Over 5,000 American soldiers are buried there, most of which died during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.   The most prominent person buried there is General Patton.  The cemetery was very nicely cared for, and reminded me of a small version of Arlington National cemetery.

After a long ride in the car we, were glad to be home that evening.  We had a wonderful trip, and we were all very impressed with all of the sites and the wonderful food and drink.  Although it was a cold trip, we were extremely lucky to have sunny skies the entire time.

Stay tuned for part two of Kris and Richie's trip, coming soon!

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