Grand shopping adventure

Have we got some advice for you! If you like us and your curiosity outstrips your taste for shopping in massive crowds, try heading to the Grand Bazaar on a Monday morning. That’s what we did and it worked out great (although we didn’t buy anything). Well, we did buy one thing, but it was outside the bazaar.

The vendors weren’t quite awake yet so all we got were a few halfhearted, “Welcome, want to see my rugs?” No pressure and we just kept walking.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from heading to the bazaar, but most anything we wanted to buy was also for sale on our street in Beyoğlu. We went back and forth on the idea of a rug, but no one wants to feel the fool and we just assumed we would get ripped off. Plus, we’re nomads, so what to do with a rug? I am sure if you love bargaining, you could buy anything you wanted and maybe even for a bit less than you could find it elsewhere. Istanbul is shopping heaven, with everything from bargain basement merch to high-end Fifth Avenue stores. (I suspect the $10 Nikes are not real, but….)

OK, now for the big reveal … We bought a suitcase! We went back and forth on this too. I wanted to be cheap (surprise!) and get a duffel on wheels from a vendor and Steven wanted (quality) to get a hard-sided case on Istiklal Cadessi. Guess who won. We only brought one suitcase here from Nice so we could buy a cheap one here. Then, we could buy gifts (don’t worry Mom, nothing for you) and send them home with our nephew, who is in Nice too. Of course, we then realized that he would be going back to Pennsylvania and many of the gifts have to come with us to Chicago. Oh well. We’ll make it work.

Most of the rest of the week we chilled out (and bought those gifts), but today it is beautiful out so we finally made it to the top of Galata Tower. Well, one of us did. Can you guess which one? (The one who isn’t petrified of heights.) We could see our apartment (oh, and lots of other stuff). Each floor of the tower also houses small museum exhibits, a model of the city and information. Definitely worth the price of admission (about $8.75).

Since it was so beautiful, we decided to head to a shoreline area at the tip of the Golden Horn, which we had seen from our ferry ride. What a view! Then, after paying our respects to the statue of Ataturk, we crossed the street into Gulhane Park, which houses the Column of the Goths and runs adjacent to Topkapi Palace. We walked the length of the park and then headed home to work. (She forgot to mention that we agreed to walk one way and ended up walking both ways – a mere 5.3 miles, 13,000 steps and 32 floors worth of climbing – good thing we had relatively light work days.)

A “working vacation”

I realized this week that we are acting as if we are on vacation, but we’re also working full time. Well, mostly full time. What does that mean? We’re tired! But we’re not going to stop. If you remember, we were going to spend six weeks in Nice, but ended up coming to Istanbul for about three of those. Given the short amount of time we have here, we are trying to pack everything in. What’s the point of being in Istanbul if you’re hanging in the apartment?

We thought that maybe we should slow down. I’ll let you decide whether we succeeded.

Friday: We took the ferry across the Bosphorus to the Anatolian (Asian) part of Istanbul (Kudos to Sue for getting on the ferry. She gets terribly seasick and even with a patch it can be an adventure for her). Although it’s technically the East, to sure seemed a lot more Western. The clothes, the roads, even the way the people dressed. We took a long walk along the water and except for the view, we could have been in a dozen different cities. Lots of English in stores, tons of coffee shops that would have been at home in any hipster U.S. neighborhood.

Then we had lunch at Ciya in the Kadıköy Market, which features tons of restaurants and shops (pretty much like the rest of Istanbul!). The food is traditional Anatolian. We had ezme which we can’t wait to figure out how to make at home. This isn’t a food blog, so I will quit there (but there is also a pizza-like dish called lahmacun that your eat with lemon and parsley rolled into it).

We wandered some more so Steven could go to Meshur Dondurmaci Ali Usta to get ice cream that is different from regular ice cream (I will let him try to describe it) (The best I can say is that it seemed less creamy, but more sticky than American ice cream – sorry I don’t have any other way of describing it.) and headed home. The ferries are so easy to deal with and since we have our IstanbulKart, we are set. They run so frequently there’s no need to even check a schedule. We’ll write a blog on the transportation, but I thought that was worth noting.

Saturday night on Istiklal Cadessi on the walk back from the movie. Imagine this: trolleys run up and down this street and cars try to cross it. It’s an obstacle course.

We had tickets to the jazz club again and wanted a little break in between. Friday night’s jazz was OK. The band didn’t quite seem to gel and the singer sang some Stevie Wonder (?) (and some modified Aerosmith) in with the jazz standards. Steven likened it to a cruise show (or an easy listening lounge act). Not complaining at all, we just like the Tuesday band better. (We also sat upstairs and so many people were talking – mildly annoying).

Saturday: Dana (thanks again again) recommended a food market in Besiktas. We have been wondering where people get their fruits and veggies. The stores are tiny and don’t offer a very good selection. Even the produce markets are a bit thin, although we are in a touristy area and figured that was it. It was about a 20-minutes walk in the rain to get there from the train. We were a little soggy and first went to the upstairs area that has tons of clothes, random housewares and other non-food items. We were starting to get crabby when we realized we had missed a ramp that took us down to all the delicious food. Suddenly, all was perfect again. The rain stopped, we packed the backpack full and headed back home. (In an Istanbul first, it was downhill on the way to the market – but just so the city could torture us by making the walk uphill back to the train when we had a full backpack).

Soy una mierda de sumiso: CINCO PUTOS AMOS POR LOS QUE ME ...
Gratuitous Steven Daniel Craig pic

As per our taking it easy, we did spend some time in the apartment, but then hatched the plan to see “No Time to Die.” Finding the first theater was an adventure, but the man didn’t want to sell us tickets unless we were a group of four (I think). He told us to come back, so we wandered some more and found a theater (CinemaPink) inside a mall. We had to show our HES QR codes (the Turkish equivalent of the Passe Sanitaire) to get in, then again to the ticket agent. Cash only, assigned seats. Fine with us. The seats were old-time man chairs that had seen better days, but were comfortable. We sat back and started watching (English with Turkish subtitles). All of a sudden, in the middle of an action scene, the screen went blank. Then, what looked like a commercial started. People started to walk out and the lights came up. Huh. Finally, the screen said film arasi, or film break. Intermission! At exactly an hour in. In the middle of an action scene. I guess this is how it always works in Turkey.

Sunday: We took the tram to the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, which is housed in Ibrahim Pasha Palace. The palace was built on top of a corner of the Hippodrome, and you can see part of it from inside the museum. The art consists of rugs (of course), ancient Qurans, Islamic treasures such as hairs from Mohammed’s beard and pottery plus clothing from more recent history. We enjoyed it. Then, it was lunchtime. Off we went to Hidden Garden, which does have a garden at the back of it. I had what was basically Turkish eggplant parm and Steven had a gigantic lamb kebab. We topped it off with pomegranate and orange teas. Sugary and delightful.

But, we’re not done. What do you know? We were across the street from the Theodosius Cistern. Can’t miss that. We had no idea what to expect. We got a laser light show! We aren’t really sure what the point was, unless it was a very abstract interpretation of the cistern’s history, but it was a enjoyable nonetheless. Because it was only 4 p.m., we decided to take the 40-minute walk home, which went right through the markets surrounding the Grand Bazaar and back over the bridge.

Relaxing weekend? What do you think?

Settling into Istanbul

The days here are long as we tend to get up by 9, head out for some sightseeing until 1 or 2 p.m., then home to work until 8 p.m. and then have dinner. We are generally getting to sleep between 1 and 2 a.m. Long, but really fun days. One thing to note is that Istanbul is built on a series of seven hills, however in a feat of geologic engineering, they have managed to make it so that no matter what direction we walk, we are going uphill.

Monday we acquired train passes. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but if Kafka were going to design a way to sell transit passes, he would have used the Istanbul system as a model, perhaps even deciding it was too complicated and bizarre for one of his stories. It started Sunday evening when we wanted to ride a bus to see a mosque about 40 minutes away.

You can only buy single ride passes at the bus/metro/tram stops and they cost 6 T₺ (which is about $0.67each — the Turkish lira is about 9 U.S. cents). However, the machines only take cash and gives no change. Our smallest notes were 50 T₺ and that didn’t seem worth it. So, we asked the guard where to find the InstanbulKart, the refillable train pass. He vaguely waved in the direction of another tram stop about 10 minutes away. We went there. Nothing. We found a sign to a metro station and walked over to it and it had a tourist information booth. It was empty. (We assumed because it was Sunday evening.) There were machines that apparently sold the pass. However, the language selection function didn’t work and the screen would go blank after about 20 seconds. So we tried a few times to translate as we went and then gave up. We planned to return on Monday. As we were walking out we found a sign that explained that due to COVID you needed a code that registered your card to you and gave instructions (in English!) to get them. We went home, got the code, logged into the app and tried again. Nope. That did work either.

The codes in the app were limited to numbers and ours were alphanumeric. Which brings us to Monday morning. We returned to the station hoping that there would be someone in the tourist booth, but yet again, no luck. We found a guard and asked him. In broken English he said you have buy the card from the IstanbullKart office, which was a few doors down. We found it easily, because it was the place with the line out the door. After about 30 minutes, we were able to purchase the cards and were informed that the card had no balance. To load it, we needed to go back to the station (technically we could load it at any station or tram stop, but the metro station was the closest place). We went back to the station, and tried our luck at filling the card. We were really lucky because after we tried and failed a couple of times, a mann wandered up and was waiting to refill his card. We stepped aside, figuring we would watch him and mimic those steps. He was kind enough to see that we were idiot tourists and showed us how to do it. Hurrah! We could now ride the transit system – at a discounted rate! The tram costs only about 3T₺ (we think).

Tuesday we took the tram (using our InstanbulKarts!) and visited the Turkish Archeological museum. The museum has three buildings. The main one has three floors, the other two are single story. Unfortunately, while the two smaller buildings were both fully open, only the ground floor of the main building was accessible as the others were undergoing renovation. The museum is really well done and houses an enormous collection of ancient statutes, sarcophagi, friezes and other antiquities. The main building’s collection is all from Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, with quite a bit from an excavation in Sidon (in what is now Lebanon). The other two buildings housed collections from Egypt/Babalyonia and Turkish ceramics. It was very impressive and well worth the visit. We purchased the audio tour (4T₺) and while almost all the signs were in both Turkish and English, it was worth having.

Tuesday was also our wedding anniversary, and we had a nice (early) dinner at a Mexican place called Los Altos which had a beautiful view overlooking the Golden Horn (thanks again Dana!). We spent the rest of evening the listening to the Bebop Project at a local jazz club which is about 3 minutes’ walk (uphill of course – both ways) from our AirBnb. It was wonderful.

Wednesday morning we headed for the Süleymaniye Mosque. It was about 25 minutes away on the top of one of the hills of Istanbul. We took the metro for the first time (using our IstanbulKarts again!). I think it took us longer to get down to the trains than the train took for the couple of stops we were on it. The metro is a DEEP subway system. I assume it is because Istanbul is built on hills and the trains run relatively flat, but I am not sure. Suffice to say the next escalator down had a sign over the top saying “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” When we left the metro, we walked (uphill, of course) to the mosque complex. It is only the third or fourth most famous mosque in Istanbul, but is was still extremely impressive. I am not including any of our photos as our amateur ones do not do the place justice. Please look at the photos in the link above.

After wandering out of the complex, we headed for a coffee shop that Dana (Sue’s friend) suggested. The directions were (I am paraphrasing); exit the back of the complex, go across the alley, head down a sketchy looking hallway, up the rickety stairs and the café is there. We followed the directions and found a rooftop café. We have no idea if it was the right one or not, but who cares. The place had huge windows and we had a great view from the Golden Horn looking back on the area where we are staying which is called Beyoğlu (it also had a roof deck, but it was a bit too chilly to eat outside).  We ordered the Turkish breakfast, which was enough food for a small (or not so small) army. It included:

I liken this to having the entire brunch buffet on your table.

bread

french toast

simit (a Turkish bagel)

Two types of jam, honey & nutella

harissa

five types of cheese

cucumbers and tomatoes

two eggs

some sort of processed meat product that was vaguely smoky

hot dogs

french fries

spring rolls (which are like blintzes but made with filo dough)

and a pot of tea.

We also ordered coffee, because we didn’t think it through. We ate and ate and ate, and barely made a dent in the food.

After we finished we headed back on the metro, took it one extra stop and walked an extra kilometer or two to allow some of the food to digest, before we sat down to work. Needless to say, we had a very light dinner of yogurt, fruit and nuts.

We’re bullish on Istanbul

We’ve been in Istanbul about 29 hours now (but who’s counting) and we already decided we love it! It’s quite a change from quiet Clamecy. It’s 22:30 here and the street is still hopping, on Sunday night. Not as much as Saturday night, but there are still people milling around and browsing in shops. We are right on a main drag, on the third floor (which is four stories up since the first floor here is 0), so we can watch the world go by from on high. We are staying in a loft with glass walls so we can see the Bosphorus out one window and the Galata Tower out the other.

“I was under the mistaken impression that the streets were straight.”

Steven, when we decided to go “around the block”

Yesterday we just wandered around getting the lay of the land, but today we marched (and in case you’re unaware, this city is HILLY!)(Ok, so there are no flat areas. We are either going up or going down.). First, we tried the Grand Bazaar not realizing that it is mostly closed on Sunday. The surrounding streets are very shlocky, so we may go back when it’s really open. The best part of the walk was the view from the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. It was lined with fishers. (We suspect they supply the restaurants that sit one after the other along the water below the bridge. They are part of the bridge, built at the waterline and extend about 1/3 of the length of the bridge on either side). Then, we headed to the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), which was a church, then a mosque and is simply stunning. We stopped in at the Blue Mosque, but it is under construction and very disappointing. Corrugated metal walls cover the most of the interior walls and a drop ceiling hides the rest. Oh well. I looked at these pictures.

We kept wandering and found what we thought was a garden but turned out to be a cemetery for sultans, sooo accidental dead person bingo round 5. There was a cafe and we stopped had a cup of tea (because of course everyone puts a cafe in the middle of a cemetery – just sort of surprised that the French didn’t think to do that) and then visited Sultan Mahmod II and some of his relatives and fellow sultans.

The only hitch in our Istanbul adventure so far has been trying to buy an Istanbulkart, or a transportation card. The machines to buy them don’t give change and you have to have an ID number to get one (for Covid reasons). The app wouldn’t let us put in letters (which the ID number had, so we were temporarily thwarted). I think we have that figured out, so fingers crossed we will get those tomorrow. Instead, we went strolling on Istiklal Caddesi (or Independence Avenue), which is a bustling shopping street full of a lot of the same stores you find on every main shopping street around the world, but with a Turkish flavor. Street musicians, different foods, side alleys full of restaurants and bars.

Finally, we headed back toward home and had dinner at the Smyrna Art Gallery-Cafe, basically around the corner from us. The food was delicious and we met a waiter who was very nice and is moving on to greener pastures (good luck to her!) and a man who frequents the place. Then, when we thought we were completely full, they brought us an extra dish and we had to at least eat some of it. Steven likened it to mint latkahs and I agree. We’ll be going back.

This blog is dedicated to Dana, who lived in Istanbul and gave us many great ideas. Thanks, Dana! (Feel free to send us more!)

On the road again

Today, tomorrow and Saturday are all travel days. Today we drove from Clamecy to Valence and tomorrow we drive to Nice. Saturday we are off to Istanbul.

We have spent the month driving our trusty ride, a Dacia Sandero, all over France. For those of you who have never heard of Dacia, it is a Romanian subsidiary of Renault. We got the car through a program called Auto-TT. For reasons that I don’t really understand there is an incentive to car companies to create short-term leases to non-EU citizens. The leases are tax free as long as they are 21 day or more. For us, it was significantly cheaper than a rental car and allowed us both to drive it. Per the terms of the lease, we “own” the car the for the period of the lease and then simply return it to Renault. Renault provided all the insurance.

A quick recap of our travels included this month:

Paris to Clamecy; Clamecy to Chambery (the Alps); Clamecy to Brugge, Brussel & Chimay (Belgium); Clamecy to Dijon (Mustard); Clamecy to Strasborg (the German border); and now Clamecy to Nice (Côte d’Azur). All in, about 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles).

We have noticed a few things about driving here:

  • The majority of the highways are toll roads and they are relatively expensive. The drive to Strasborg cost about €50 ($60) in tolls.
  • Gasoline is very very very expensive compared to the US. The average litre of gas has been about €1.70 ($7.50 per gallon).
  • The country is much hillier that I expected. We are routinely going up or down 7% grades.
  • The roads seem to be either highways (A roads) or two lane “country” roads.
  • There are rotaries (traffic circles? roundabouts? rond points) everywhere. In Paris, the cars entering the rotaries have the right of way over those in the rotary; everywhere I have ever driven, the driver in the rotary has the right of way.
  • When approaching an intersection, the person on the right has the right of way, unless they have yield or stop sign. That means that if you are on a main road and someone on a side street doesn’t have a traffic sign, you have to let them in.
  • I had forgotten how much I enjoyed driving a manual transmission car.
  • With the exception of a faulty front radar sensor, the car performed admirably.

We had one recurring issue when driving – buying gas. For some reason, virtually none of the gas stations would accept our credit cards. I checked with our banks and they both insisted that the gas stations were declining the transactions before it was passed to the bank for approval. We ended up using a debit card, which worked everywhere, but at the supermarket. We had the very odd experience of paying for groceries with a card, then having the same card be declined trying to buy gas outside the store. Very odd. When we used the debit card, they initially put a charge of $345 on the card, but then adjusted it to the actual amount in a couple of days.

Tomorrow we will complete our drive to Nice, and then return the car to Renault.

Saturday morning we hop an Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.

Dijon and Strasbourg and home (oh my)

Steven has taken the past couple of Fridays off for travel. This week, we weren’t leaving town until Saturday so we decided to take a day trip to Dijon, about 2 hours away. We didn’t know anything about Dijon except that we could probably get mustard. It turns out that Dijon is a fairly big city and quite pretty, although it is the only place we have been that does not have a river. We did what we always do and wandered around.

This arch in Dijon reminds me of a low-rent Millennium fountain.

As luck would have it (or our lack of research made it seem like luck), there is a Delerium Cafe (French FB page, English website) in the middle of the city. Steven had wanted to tour their brewery, but they were booked and we didn’t make it to the one in Brussels, so we had a beer and some delicious salads and desserts in Dijon instead.

Every town here has a market and Dijon is no exception. We decided to do our weekly shopping there and ran into some very friendly vendors. Steven, another English-speaker and one of the vendors had a great Franglish conversation about rugby, too (The other English speaker was from New Zealand and there was an upcoming New Zealand (All Blacks) vs South Africa (Springboeks) match). The fruit and veggies were beautiful, as usual. I could get used to shopping for food that way.

Dijon also contained a very minor parking incident. We were proud of ourselves because we capably followed signs to a garage that was big enough to fit the car. We pulled in, grabbed a ticket and drove down an aisle. The next thing we knew, a gate was lifting and we were driving out the exit. Oops. The entrance was down the block and it wasn’t apparent how to get to it, so we followed different parking signs to a different lot and were able to park in a spot about 4 cms wider than the car. Yay!

I think we also found a place to add to our wish list. We bought some souvenirs and a gift to take to Steven’s cousin at a little gift shop whose cashier was from Senegal. He recommends it highly. We are seriously considering it. As a Clamecy transplant said when I asked “pourqua ici?” (Why here?) he moved there, “Pourqua pas?”

Our sense of French geography may leave a little to be desired when it comes to our gas budget.

IF we had thought about it, we might have spent the night in Dijon, since we almost drove right back through it on our way to Strasbourg. Ah well, what’s a few extra hours of driving? (OK, so the map is a bit confusing. The total time from Clamecy to Dijon was 2 hours each way; the total time from Clamecy to Strasbourg was about 5 hours each way).

We actually had a reason for going to Strasbourg (yes, I know we are not known for reasoning or at least reasoning anyone else understands), but Steven has cousins who are on sabbatical there, so off we went. Granted, when we all lived in the same state, I never met them, but when you’re in France and you magically know people, you visit. Strasbourg is another pretty city and it has A LOT of water. It’s more international (the European Parliament meets there) and very close to Germany, so everything was in two languages we don’t really speak.

Steven’s cousin Jessica and her husband, Mark, were great hosts and lovely people in general. They have a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old, so more power to them for going on a grand adventure with those two great kids in tow. Jessica’s parents just happened to be visiting as well, so I got to hear some good family stories and learn more about how Steven got to be who he is. I’m not putting any adjectives in here just in case the family reads this. Really, you’re all fabulous!

The old town of Strasbourg is an island in the midst of the River Ill. It is a major port on the Rhine and the capital of Alsace.

We stayed at a sort of cross between rooming house and hotel. There were maybe 8 rooms (I am guessing) and they had tiny kitchenettes complete with two-burner stoves. It was clean, comfortable and within walking distance of Jessica. Plus, there was ample, free street parking and it was across the road from the Parc de l’Orangerie (hence the name: Le Relais de l’Orangerie). It definitely suited our purposes, but we also left finding a place until close to the last minute, so maybe it wouldn’t have been our first choice.

L’Orangerie itself was beautiful, even in the drizzle we encountered on Sunday morning. A lake with swans, a restaurant, plenty of cute bridges and trails, plus storks and their nests, a zoo, farm and statues. Lovely.

Now for a bit of a downer (but nothing too terrible)

We had the brilliant plan of stopping in Beaune (mentioned in this entry) again, but this time to get an early dinner since we had noticed the last time we went through that restaurants were serving on Sunday. Well, they are, but not early. We settled in to an outdoor brasserie to sip our wine slowly and wait for the kitchen to open. We did what we normally do when we’re planning more travel and began looking up important information (how far is it from Casablanca to Tunis? for instance) on our phones. Unfortunately, one of the local thieves noticed this. He watched us for a bit and then came over, sat next to us and started sputtering some nonsense. The distraction worked, because he had set a map on top of Steven’s phone and when he left, the phone had magically disappeared. What a drag!

The owner of the place called the police (le flic!), brought over a guy he suspected was the thief (he wasn’t) and said his wife would take us to the police station. We declined. What were they going to do.? The phone was long gone. Lesson learned. As Steven said, “Sometimes we do dumb things and we know we’re doing something dumb. Other times we do dumb things without knowing.” This was the latter. We just use our phones so constantly that we don’t think of hiding them or putting them away. Steven rolled with it, we got him a new phone today. (The joy of living in the country? The nearest phone store is an hour away and the nearest Apple store is 2 hours away – in Dijon!) and we’re out the money and feeling a little stupid. It could have been worse. But, people, watch your phones! And maybe sit in the middle of the crowd instead of on the edge.

Once again, props to my husband for keeping life in perspective. We are on a grand adventure and it is still might grand!

Belgium, part 2

Steven graciously ceded part of the weekend travel to me (because he was too tired to write about the whole thing — yes, I was too tired to write the rest, but I will certainly take the compliment), so I finally get to tell you about something more interesting than a trip to the grocery store. So, where did he leave off? Oh yes, Brussels.

I like this statue better than mannaken pis and she’s just on a Brussels street we happened to walk down.

We did not have a great desire to go to Brussels, it was just closer to our next destination: Chimay Brewery at Scourmont Abbey, a Trappist monastery. I have to say that it started out as a comedy of errors. Once again, we were driving on streets that seemed perhaps as if they were not intended for cars. I thought I had asked about parking, but didn’t get a reply so we passed by the B and B and followed parking signs. Alas, all they meant was that there was potential parking on the street (and when we found a parking lot on Google, it turned out not to be a public lot). To compound the problem, there was a parade. Streets were closed. Traffic was stopped. Then traffic was terrible. No street parking. I called the B and B and he directed us to parking around the corner, but we had already passed the corner and couldn’t easily get back. One-way streets! With all I just mentioned, it took about 40 minutes to find the lot and then, and THEN. Well, he did ask how big the car was before he told us about the garage.

The spiral was tight, the ceiling was low (the scrape marks on the ceiling and sides were a wee bit worrisome) and we had a man who worked at the hotel that owned the lot running behind us yelling, “Slow. Slow! SLOW!!” and pointing. Then he would run ahead and gesture us forward into what maybe was a spot? Well. Luckily, Steven is a great and patient driver. (Two compliments! I wonder what she wants.) We finally parked and got to the Art de Séjour bed and breakfast. We temporarily breathed a sigh of relief. And then, and THEN, the host told us that Sunday was “no driving at all in the cities of Europe including Brussels” day. All the streets would be closed from 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. and wouldn’t that be great! Well … it would have been great except we had reservations at Chimay at 12:30, so we scheduled an early breakfast and headed out the door to see some of Brussels.

Happiness is beer amid the skeletons.

I think I am spoiled because Brussels was just … fine. We walked up to the best view of the city and it was … nice. I did get to have a waffle for a snack, so there’s that.

The best part of Brussels was the two bars that Yves (remember him from the last blog?) recommended. The first, Le Cercueil (The Coffin) looks like a great Halloween house. The tables are coffins complete with skeletons. There’s blacklight and creepy-sounding drinks. Steven was in heaven (no pun intended) when he realized they had Orval, which continues to ferment in the bottle. The bartender came over with the bottle to show Steven that it had truly been sitting around since 2013. (It had a fabulous, deep rich flavor.)

From there we wandered some more looking for food that wasn’t Flemish (read: heavy and meaty). In keeping with the theme of Asian food in Belgium, we ended up eating some baos. (Here’s a tip: always ask how big things are. I assumed they were small like the ones in the States so we each ordered two and they were not small.) Oh, and frites (NO MAYO! Mayo on frites is just plan wrong, curry sauce in an English or Irish pub is fine, Ketchup anywhere is fine. Mayo – no. Just. No … What about sriracha?). Because you have to. I don’t think you are allowed out of Belgium without having eaten frites. After a fruitless search for a bar recommended by the B and B owner (it was closed), we headed to another of Yves recommendations: Poechenellekelder, which has a huge beer menu and is across the street from the puzzlingly popular manneken pis.

Back at Art de Séjour, we watched Ocean’s 8, because sometimes you just need an American movie. In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast at the B and B. I don’t know what it is, but the fruit in Belgium is DELICIOUS! So flavorful and juicy. (I know I mentioned this before, but it was really good!) Plus, homemade croissants and excellent coffee!

And then, and THEN, we had to get out of the parking garage. I’ll just put up the video and you can see for yourself. Watch it full screen to get the true effect (although sorry for the poor video quality). The white at the top is the very low concrete ceiling.I think Steven had the steering wheel pulled all the way right around the curves.

Phew. And then we were off to Chimay. You may have remembered that we had 12:30 reservations, but we had to leave town by 8:45 for a drive that was less than 2 hours. Well, here’s where a mistake I made came in handy. I accidentally bought 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. tickets. Voila! We made the 10:30 appointment time. They kindly realized my mistake and gave us two extra beer tokens, because we both needed to drink two beers before noon. (I could have had a third to lighten your load.) Chimay is run by monks, and there are no tours of the actual brewery. They brew in peace! They do have a nice little museum-like exhibit that explains the history and process, so we did that. They also make cheese, (well, they don’t really make it at the abbey any more, but it’s still Chimay cheese) so we learned about that process too. Right outside sit some forest paths that lead to the church, garden and cemetery (yes, another cemetery, but no one famous), so we did a little walking before our beer tasting.

After a couple of hours, a couple of beers (and a couple of souvenirs and some beer to take home), we hit the road for the 4-hour drive back to Clamecy. As you know, there are no border controls between EU nations. Heading into Belgium on the A6, we passed a sign that reminded me of crossing state borders in the U.S. On the way back, on a smaller road (the N964 in case you care), we passed a border control booth. We couldn’t resist the photo op, so I quickly (Steven would say too quickly) pulled a U-y so we could get these:

Note the fake guards. We’ve seen them in a few spots, including at a winery. Give them props; they look as bored as real guards.

Finally, it was home sweet home and a moratorium on beer drinking for awhile — at least for me. (I guess the ones we took home will last a bit longer than expected.)

This is Saturday — it must be Belgium(*)

This weekend we went to Belgium. We left “early” Friday morning – about 9:30 – and headed to Brugge. It was about a five-and-a-half-hour drive.  For those who do not know, Belgium has two parts (here is brief primer on the divide). The southern part of the country is occupied by the Walloons. They call this area Walloonia and they speak French (Yay, French!)The northern portion of the country is occupied by Flemish people. This area is called Flanders and they speak Dutch and Flemish. Brugge is part of Flanders and so the people naturally speak Dutch. Dutch is related to German and has, to our ears, a very guttural and unnatural sound. (I thought it sounded really funny. Like, laughter funny and very foreign after six weeks of French.) Luckily virtually everyone speaks English as a second language.

We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Academie, and Sue wisely arranged for parking. The drive into the center of town where the hotel was located, was, to say the least, interesting. Small cobblestone streets, which may or may not have been pedestrian only. (Google says they weren’t – the pedestrians all seem to think they were.) Either way, we arrived at the hotel at about 3:30 and pulled into their covered entrance way and then drove straight down into the tightest smallest parking underground parking lot imaginable. To get into our spot, we had to do what seemed like fifty multi-point turns. After a few minutes of playing avoid the concrete post, I got the car parked in a space that was only slightly smaller than a postage stamp. I only wish I had thought to take photos of the garage. (Stay tuned for more on Steven’s excellent driving under scary circumstances.)

Once we had parked, we dumped our stuff in the room and headed right out into the tourist fray. It was madness. We didn’t realize that there was some sort of bicycle race/convention going on. The place was packed and to be pretty honest we were a bit overwhelmed. (Maybe I am becoming a country mouse or maybe I have never liked throngs of tourists.) We did our usual couple of hours of wandering and then reached our limit. We found a nice brasserie off the main market square, ordered some beer and spent the next hour or two watching people and the sun set. It was a great counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the tourist crowds.

We passed a Thai place on the walk back to the hotel and decided we wanted that for dinner. (In case we haven’t mentioned it, food around here is BLAND.) We looked at some reviews and found Sivalai, about a 10 minute walk and, very importantly, in the opposite direction from the maddening crowds. It is run by a husband (waiter/host) and wife (chef) team and it was wonderful. We arrived without a reservation and when we asked for a table the husband/host looked absolutely pained that there were no tables. He asked for 5 minutes and would seat us. We were in no rush so we went for a little stroll and when we returned he had a table waiting for us. The host was fabulous, taking time to talk to us, in parts of English/Dutch, French (and tried to teach us a bit of Thai), running here there an everywhere taking orders, getting the food and keeping everyone smiling. His good nature was infectious. We asked him to make our food fairly spicy as we have been finding the food in France, tasty but mild. He did not disappoint and our food came out spicy, flavorful and delicious.

After dinner we had a wander through the now nearly deserted town and it was wonderful. The canals are gorgeous, the buildings and architecture great. It was such a different experience than only a few hours earlier. (When we arrived, I fear both of us were thinking that Brugge was a bust. We liked it much better when it didn’t resemble Time Square.)

In the morning, we decided to have a breakfast bagel and a place called Sanseveria. We generally avoid bagel places as many do not boil the bagels, they just bake them. This leads to round bread rolls, which are good, but they are just not bagels. However, this place has great reviews, and so we figured we would give it a shot. It was well worth it. We both ordered bagel and egg sandwiches and shared a bowl of fruit. The fruit bowl was exceptional; it had pear, banana, apple, mango, blueberry, strawberry and pineapple in it. (The fruit in Belguim overall was fantastic.)The bagels were good, not great, but overall the sandwiches were delicious and hit the spot.

After breakfast, we went for another wander; it was still relatively early and the streets were still pretty empty. When the crowds started to appear, we headed for our car and drove to a town called Buggenhout, and Browerij Boostels.

The carriage they lent me to carry the beer we bought.

Browerij Boostels is the maker of two of my favorite beers (Tripel Karmeliet and Kwak). When we were planning this trip, we purchased tickets to a brewery tour at 14:00. However, the only tours they do on Saturdays are in Dutch, but we figured what the hell, we did a tour of prehistoric caves in French, how much would be lost doing a beer tour in Dutch? Besides, you get free beer at the end of the tour and beer tastes the same in any language.

We arrived somewhat early (about 45 minutes) and found our way to the tasting room/starting point of the tour. When we introduced ourselves, the tour guide said “Oh yes! I remember you have booked the tour in Dutch, but do not speak it.”  We nodded our heads foolishly and then he informed us that one of his colleagues – Yves, had volunteered to give us the tour in English.

This turned out to be a huge and happy surprise. First, Yves is great. His English is impeccable, he has a great sense of humor and was patient with our (many many) questions. The tour information was really quite interesting – Did you know that hops were added to make the beer last longer? That the yeast is used multiple times? That for a long time beer was safer to drink than water because the water is boiled? So many interesting facts that we would have missed in Dutch! We heard about the history of the Boostel family who have brewed beer on that location for seven generations and earned most of their income in the ’50s and ’60s selling lemonade as Belgian style beer was out of fashion. And of course…the beer tasting.

Once we finished at the brewery, we headed for Brussels which is about a 40-minute drive. Sue is going to finish telling of the weekend’s hijinks on Wednesday’s blog post. But before we go, if anyone is looking for a private tour of anywhere in Belgium, Yves does them under the banner of Beardbarian Entertainment (he is also a musician and plays Celtic music) and I would highly recommend you use him.

(*) Click here for the title reference

Forgive the reflective digression

On this erev Yom Kippur (for those who do not know, it is the Jewish Day of Atonement), I want to take a moment out of reveling in our travels to remind myself how lucky I am. Has the road always been easy? Of course not. Am I all the things I imagined I’d become. Again, no. But I also wouldn’t have dared believe I would be in a position to be sitting in an AirB&B in the middle of nowhere France visiting with my best high school friend. And having a husband who wanted to be along for the ride. To travel. To explore. To (try to) learn a new language. To have great family and friends I know will always be there for me. And to have found a wonderful man to share it all with (I am assuming she is talking about me…Dear readers please feel free to send in your opinions).

Below are a couple of photos from our morning walk. Life is tough.

Is life perfect? No. Are there dreams I haven’t fulfilled? Yes. Do I miss the people who are gone? Absolutely. They have all left me with something and I aspire to live my best life in their honor. I don’t always succeed, but these days I find myself marveling at the wonder of all that is around me. Yes, I worked to get here, no doubt. As I write this (Sept. 14), my son is celebrating his birthday seven time zones away. Do I have a twang of sadness about that? Of course. But as it should be, I am much more melancholy about it than he is. Did I spend my 26th birthday with my mother? I am sure I did not.

So, I will reflect. I will try to be the best I can be and I won’t succeed, but I will keep trying. I will look out the window and understand that not everyone gets to see a medieval church whose magnificent domed ceiling makes one feel small and that getting in the car and taking a weekend trip to Belgium just to say “fuckin’ Bruges” because you thought the movie was funny, is an extraordinary way to live for a blue-collar woman from Queens.

I will reach, fall short, waste time playing on my phone and beat myself up about it. I will fall short in so many ways (at least in my eyes), but I will remember what a new friend said to me recently and I will try to radiate positive energy and be a magnet for attracting good people into my life.

I’m old enough to have sloughed off a lot of the anger and learned to appreciate what’s in front of me. My motto these days is: Experience over objects, not that I was ever the most materialistic person in the world, but I was in Paris for a month and all I bought besides food (and wine!) were two fridge magnets.

Enough of the sanctimonious navel-gazing (although I do mean it all).

Here’s a reality check:

It’s tough when:

  • you’re living and working remotely in a one-bedroom apartment with crappy WiFi,
  • something goes wrong and you don’t speak the language well enough to get help
  • nothing is open on Sunday or Monday or between noon and 2 pm
  • (your wife seems to think a 15,000 mile hike up and down the side of a HUGE mountain is fun)

But every time we start whining about one of these things, one of us looks at the other and says, “We’re in France and then we’re going to Istanbul and Nice and Barcelona and Fes!” and the whining stops.

Here’s hoping for continued growth, learning and self-awareness in the coming year.

Into the Alps

We headed out Friday morning for a town called Chambéry. It is about 4 hours southeast of us and in the heart of the French Alps. For those of you who are fans of the Olympics, it is an hour north of Grenoble (1968) and an hour and a half west of Albertville (1992). Once we arrived, we did as we always do and wandered the town. For some reason there is a giant fountain of elephants in the main square. I will leave it to you to investigate why.

On Saturday morning, we went for a stroll in the market and then headed out for our day’s main activity, a “leisurely” 11.5km (7.2 mile) hike that we found on AllTrails called Circuit of the Bridges. It was in a small village called Saint-Jean-d’Arvey about 10km away. I neglected to notice that it was also 335m (1,000ft) higher than Chambéry.  For those of you who do not know me, I am very skittish when it comes to heights. Driving up and down mountain roads is at best difficult and at worst has me wanting to curl up in the back seat and whimper – even when driving. So the ride up to the trailhead was a little unnerving, but we made it.

The trail started at 600m (2,000ft) and was easy to find, but AllTrails states that the elevation gain is 450m (1,500 feet) which is well within our limits; afterall, we climbed Toubkal in Morocco, which was 16km and 2,500m (8,000ft) in elevation gain – just to the base camp. However, that was 4 years ago, and we had not been sedentary for 18 months due to the pandemic. I found the hike quite difficult. It started by dropping 250m to a single span wooden bridge over a deep ravine. (Oh yeah! Walking across a wooden bridge with a terrible fear of heights! ) I took a deep breath and pressed on. (He’s very brave.) I even stopped for Sue (who has no fear of anything and is a hiking machine) to take a photo of me – I am attempting to smile.

From that point it was an all-uphill hike to about 700 meters (2,300 ft). We had a picnic lunch along the trail and then climbed up and down the ravines.  We made a detour of about 1.5km when we followed an incorrect sign on the path. (Oops! It said Thoiry, but we didn’t notice it also said “the long way.”) The village of Thoiry is about halfway through the hike. We had hiked almost 8km (5 miles) and I was done. Sue graciously agreed to cut short the hike and we took a couple of short cuts and ended back at our car in Saint-Jean-d’Arvey after about 12km (7.5 miles), a bit longer than the original hike length. I still don’t understand how we cut the hike in half and took a shortcut, but still hiked longer than the original long route. Faulty GPS, faulty AllTrails, faulty us? Over the entire walk we saw perhaps 10 people, so it was just us, our cameras and our thoughts. Enough words…Here are photos

Sunday we decided to go to Grenoble to look around. We started by visiting the Resistance Museum. It was very well done (and free, but they did not have a “Viva la Resistance t-shirt — disappointing) and we spent about an hour in it. Afterwards we wandered into the old part of town and were terribly disappointed. Nothing was open (ach, dimanche!) and we just didn’t see anything of any interest. We walked back to the car and headed home.

Google says it is a 4-hour drive on the highway; we drove to Lyon on the highway, stopped for some lunch on the highway and made the grand decision that we were in no hurry to get home. Steven neglects to mention that we took the highway hoping that the rest stops were open since there was no other way to get food on Sunday. We told Google to find us a way home without the highways and off we went on a scenic tour of France. Boy do the French love roundabouts (des rond points). We hit one every kilometer or so. After a few hours we decided to head to a medieval city called Beaune that one of our friends said was pretty (also it is the wine capital of Burgundy). By the time we got there, it was about 7pm and we once again had a wander. (Restaurants were open. Viva la tourisme!) The place was packed with tourists and after about 45 minutes we had enough.

Once back in the car, we decided to go back on the highway and covered the last 130km in about 90 minutes. It was nearly 9pm by the time we got home. A long but very fun day.