After my working trip to Iceland I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was already on the other side of the pond to visit a few cities and reconnect with some dear old friends.
I made Utrecht, Netherlands my first stop where my friend Hida lives and who graciously invited me to stay at his place for a few days. Hida’s apartment had a great view of the water canal running alongside his street. It served as a great place to relax for a few days. Hida was the perfect host with his wonderful cooking, taking me out to some beautiful nature parks, and inviting me to his salsa class. I also had the chance to hang out with my buddy Kevin, another world traveler whom I’d met in Moroccan Sahara during my trip around the world. I took it rather easy while I was in Utrecht but did make time to see the main part of this beautiful historical town to enjoy the views from the famous Dom Tower, the oldest tower in the country.
My next stop was Amsterdam where I spent a few days visiting my friend Evita, one of my best friends from college. I had not seen her in a very long time. To be honest I wasn’t sure if Evita and I would have much in common since she had followed a very strict up-the-corporate-ladder path and was happily married with two young boys, as opposed to me who had just left the corporate world to reinvent myself in the travel industry, never been married, never had children. To my pleasant surprise, hanging out felt super comfortable and right, as if time had never passed and we were back in our twenties. We actually had more in common than I expected. Evita continues to be an amazing lady, full of great stories, and a huge heart. After catching up for a couple of days, Evita and her family invited me to stay at their place while they traveled to France to go skiing. I happily accepted their offer and stayed in their beautiful artsy apartment in the middle of the city. One can immediately understand why Amsterdam is so popular amongst travelers. Like many, I also fell in love with its cafes, bakeries, historical buildings, bikes, and water canals.
I later traveled to Rotterdam, which turned out to be a pretty spectacular city. The best part was visiting it with a local expert- Amber- the Founder of 2glimpse.com platform where people can exchange cultural experiences with others in any country. She showed me exactly how it’s done by taking me around to see the best landmarks and food her city offers. We visited the train station, Op Hetdak- an eco garden on a rooftop with a restaurant where you can get good views of the city, the Hofplein fountain where people celebrate whenever there is a soccer (futbol) victory, the main street Coolsingel, the tourist info center with interactive screens that show how the city was rebuilt after WWII and how its infrastructure has evolved since, the shopping area Koopgoot, the Markthal to try different local foods, the famous cubic houses, and the old harbo. We took a ride on a water taxi below the Erasmus bridge, and passed the Holland American building from where the big steamships sailed to America once upon a time. We also visited the Fenix food factory and got a Plank Ge or food tray to try different samples of local cuisine from the different vendors found there. We ended our day at the Witte de Withstraat, a lively street full of cafes, restaurants, bars. What an amazing day I had and all thanks to Amber’s time, great local knowledge and hospitality. Definitely check out her website!
And just 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam is Haarlem, a beautiful Dutch town with canals, cobbled stone streets, gabled houses and monuments. The only remnant of once a walled city is the Spaarnewouder Poort, one of seven gates the city once had. This city, often called the “most Dutch” town has a large square or Grote Markt with the beautiful late Gothic Church of St Bavokerk dominating the square and skyline over other buildings. At the Grote Markt you can sit at one of the cafes to do some people-watching.
Some of the known highlights of the town are the Hofjes or houses with inner court gardens that served as almshouses funded by Churches, rich families and Guilds to perform Christian works of mercy in earlier centuries such as housing the poor. Here you also find Adriaan, a traditional Dutch Mill from the 18th century reconstructed where one of the wall towers used to sit. It was first used to grind stone, then tobacco and finally grain. It was in use until 1930. There are thousands of mills all over Netherlands but most of them are now used as private houses or for tourism like Adriaan.
I chose Antwerp as my base while in Belgium where I stayed in a nice airbnb with a Brazilian family. My whirlwind tour of Belgium begins with a night visit of Mechelen, a charming city in the Northern Flanders region of the country. My friend Thibault whom I met in Egypt four years ago gave me a well summarized tour of the city complete with history of Belgium and a traditional Belgian dinner. We walked around and saw some of its highlights like the imposing St. Rumbold Cathedral, the tallest structure in town, the Brusselpoort, the last remaining gate (of twelve) of the walled city, the row of beautifully restored old houses, walked along the canal in the Vismarkt (fish market) and the Bruul its major shopping area. We enjoyed a traditional Belgian meal of Steak Tartare and Vol au Vent (chicken stew with a pastry in the middle) with french fries, salad and of course, Belgian beers to accompany it all. We ended our tour with spectacular views of the city from a rooftop parking lot, his secret place where he takes all his visitors.
Fun fact: The city inhabitants are also known as the “moon extinguishers” (because once upon a time, someone tried to put a fire out in the cathedral which turned out to be the moon shining through its towers).
The city is working hard to attract young families to live there as it is conveniently located between Antwerp and Brussels but with a “town” feel and lower cost of living. I would totally live there!
The following day I took a 1.5 hr train ride from Antwerp to Bruges for a day trip. Bruges is a beautiful city in the Flanders region with medieval buildings, cobbled stone streets and canals. I walked around for hours visiting the main square or Markt, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and learned all about the history of Belgian chocolate and chocolate making at the Choco story museum. Next time I will spend a few more days here, so much to enjoy in this place.
Next stop, Brussels. What a city Brussels, so much to see and learn! It is too bad I only had one day to see it so I took a free city tour from Sandemans; which turned out to be a great decision. Bea from Spain was our guide and was truly fantastic, I have never had a more enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide on a free tour. If you ever go to a big city anywhere just find a free tour, they are truly great and at the end be sure to leave a good tip!
Here are some interesting things I learned from Bea: Brussels is the home of the world famous comics Tin Tin and the Smurfs (pitufos in Spanish). The popularity equivalent of the Eiffel tower in Paris is the Manneken Pis for Brussels. It is a bronze statue of a small naked boy urinating. He is so popular that there is an organization that was founded for the sole purpose of dressing it and the little guy even has hos own tailor. There is a calendar that shows when different companies or organizations will be in charge of funding its costume for one or a few days. 70% of the city’s inhabitants are expats due to the city being the de facto capital of the EU and the headquarters for NATO. Brussels is officially bilingual with Flemish and French however French is more widely spoken. And you can find people everywhere that speak English. Over 1000 different beers are made in its many breweries. This is one of those cities where sunlight is so scarce that the number of sunny days are counted and reported each year. In 2017 they only had the equivalent of 5.5 days of sunlight. I got lucky as it was sunny the entire time I was there. St Michael is the city’s patron and the city has a beautiful Gothic Cathedral for him and St Gudula. St Michael is depicted on the Belgian National flag. King Albert I is one of the most important figures of the history of the European Union. Thanks in great part to him, the city became the headquarters for the EU as his vision of a united Europe, which he shared after WWI was finally understood and recognized after WWII. He proposed that all countries come together, learn from their past mistakes and build a future together as one Europe instead of putting the focus on humiliating the Germans which would eventually only bring another big war (and it did)…
Marcolini and Neuhaus offer the highest quality of Belgian chocolate and they are the preferred suppliers of chocolate to the Queen. Jean Neuhaus a chemist turned chocolatier was the one who invented the “pralines” which were originally made to hide the bad taste of cough medicine by covering it with a thin coat of chocolate.
What a great city, full of history, beautiful buildings, shopping, restaurants and delicious chocolate!
And before leaving Belgium, I finally gave sometime to Antwerp on my last night there. Another beautiful city with long promenades full of shops, the Grote Markt (main square), the Cathedral of our Lady Antwerp, the water front, and the train station…truly the most beautiful station I have ever seen!
My travels continued from Antwerp to Dijon, capital of Burgundy in France. I spent a few days with my friend Delphine and her family in their beautiful countryside house eating amazing French homemade food- fois gras, crepes, apple pie, boeuf bourguignon, fondue, crambole, breads…oh man, how I love French food!
We visited the very beautiful city of Beaune, walked along the banks of the Saone river, tributary to the Rhone River, visited the iconic Chateau de Clos de Vougeot- a historic monument that begins with the Cistercian monks cultivating vines in the 12th century, eventually where a castle is built in the middle ages, and its vineyards becoming the heart of the “Grands Crus” (highest terroir classification) of Burgundy and the flagship for the very exclusive Brotherhood of Knights Tastevin.
Burgundy is full of beautiful domaines producing high quality wines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and other smaller grape varieties in its different regions of Cote d’Or, Cote de Chalonnaise and Cote Maconnais. We visited Chateau Pomard in the Cote des Nuits, northern region of Cote d’Or for some wine education and tasting. The enclosure where their vineyards are is called Clos Marey-Monge where they have 20 hectares with 7 different “terroirs” of soils and microclimates. The terroir “Simone” only takes 0.53 hectare and is their most most complex and exclusive terroir with very dense clay producing very high quality Pinot Noir and giving fame to this chateau. In the enclosure you can find vines that are 109 years old!
The complex system of “appelations” (naming the wine) in Burgundy comes from traditional local land inheritance laws for the division of plots which gives fractured ownership of many small plots leading to small harvests. Wine “negociants” will buy these smaller quantities and mix the wines. The bottles will therefore carry the name of the district and not the specific grower. There are 100 different appelations in the region, the largest covering the entire Burgundy region to smaller appelations covering a single village, to even smaller ones covering a single wine maker. The theory behind the system is that the more specific the appelation, the higher the quality of the wine.
Burgundy in general has been blessed with a variety of plots of different soils with different geological benefits that have allowed for the growth of some very strong and resilient vines leading to very high quality wines.
What a beautiful region that any wine lover should definitely visit.
After enjoying wine tasting in Burgundy sooo much, I decided to go to Bordeaux to learn about France’s biggest wine producing region. In the city itself there are a lot of tasting rooms from different producers or chateaux. I tried “chateau en ville” of Lestrille which has some great Sauvignon blanc from the entre deux mers region. I also visited a couple of chateaux in the nearby towns of Medoc and the Unesco world heritage site of Saint Emilion. Bordeaux has 8,500 chateaux making 700 million bottles annually with 61 appelations (namings) of AOC or appellation d’Origine Controlle.
The region is mostly known for its red wine- merlot, cabernet varieties, malbec, etc. Other wines found here are rose, sweet and dry whites. Â I visited Chateau Jean Faure which shares the same type of soils (mixtures of clay, sand and limestone) as Petrus and White Cheval, some of the highest quality wines (and priciest) found in the world. Also visited Chateau Fromaine. In these two places the older vines (which can live up to 150 years) will produce the highest quality of wine which is aged in French Oak barrils for up to two years and will take the name of the chateau itself. Just as in Burgundy, the “terroir” is the most important element of a high quality wine. There is no irrigation allowed in the vineyards so the vines are at the mercy of the climate. The experts explained that the more the vines suffer in finding water in the ground, the higher the quality of the grapes.
Besides great wine, Bordeaux offers a lot of wonderful bakeries, cafes and bistros. A good glass of wine is always best enjoyed with good food. In the city try some canard confit at La Brasserie Bordelaise or a big platter of fresh oysters, prawns and sea snails at the Marche de Capucins.
I travelled from Bordeaux to Rennes, the capital of Bretagne or Brittany on a Blablacar, a great application for shared transport in Europe. Instead of paying 120 euros for two trains or the same for a flight, I paid 28 euros to travel in a car with three others. This also provided an opportunity to practice French with others other than my friends. The ride was a total of five hours including a short pit stop at a gas station. My intention for visiting Rennes was to see my old friend Nadine whom I met in Paris 21 years ago when I lived there. She transmitted her love and pride of her new city through a perfect 2-day tour of Rennes. It felt like the perfect sized city, not big and congested like Paris but with enough action and people to keep you busy and entertained. And as you can imagine this city offers great gastronomy, specially the seafood, being in close proximity to the ocean.
The historical center with the big cathedral and its medieval half-timbered houses, its beautiful green parks, and tons of bars, restaurants and shopping make Rennes a very pleasant place to visit.
And to end this awesome trip, PAAAARIS!
I finally made it back to this amazing city after 21 years! I don’t know what took me sooo long to go back! I don’t know what it is about Paris but I feel right at home there. I must have been French in a past life. Besides seeing my favorite places in the city, the best part was reconnecting with my old hosting family who hired me as a fille-au-pair in 1998! I had dinner with them two nights in a row in the same beautiful loft apartment near the Ecole Militaire where I worked. We caught up on our lives and they showed me an envelope full of letters they had sent to me throughout the years but that had been returned to them (crazy!). It was so special to spend time with this wonderful, sweet, loving family! I also had the chance to visit with my old boyfriend Xavier in a local bar. He was definitely a very changed man, married with children but as sweet and nice as I remembered him.
It was amazing to visit all of the old places that made me fall in love with Paris 21 years ago! Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, Place de Tertre in Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, and the Palace (Opera) Garnier among others. I ate lots of great food including my favorite crepes and the traditional parisian jambon baguette with cornichons. It was like a dream being there again. Paris will always have a special place in my heart.