Ancient! Charming! Unusual! Authentic! The City of Troyes amazed us, and is probably one of the most unique cities we have visited in our travels. A fire destroyed most of the city in 1524. When they rebuilt, it was in the style of half-timbered houses. The Old Town overflows with them! They have kept them up, painted them in vibrant colors, and preserved this tradition for almost 500 years! It is amazing, and you can feel the history of bygone days as you walk the streets. So, we have started with photos of buildings, as they make Troyes what it is. By the way, don’t pronounce it as we did – Troy-ess. It is Twa! If you pronounce it the way we would in English, the locals will have no idea what you are saying. We have the same problem with the French word for butter – beurre. As hard as we have tried, even with their coaching, we still can’t pronounce it so they know what we are saying.
The city is also known for its high number of churches. We just can’t understand how, for hundreds of years, they have supported behemoth buildings, just a block or two from one another. We put in photos of two of the most noteworthy churches, but figured that was enough.
When we drove out of Troyes, through the new part of the city, it was quite ordinary – just office buildings and block houses. The treasure is in the Old Town. Are you ready for a tour? We have started with the oldest, least renovated building that we encountered…and we loved it!
Reims is a Cathedral Town, and yet so much more was happening here! We found the cathedral to be truly magnificent. We gaped in wonder inside (as we usually do!), wondering about the people who had built this masterpiece, and how they were able to accomplish construction at this height without modern equipment or building techniques. It is a stunning church in which you just sit with your mouth open, amazed. What was neat was that for once, we couldn’t see it all over the Old Town as we wandered the streets. We knew it would be massive, and tall, but we turned a corner and it was suddenly there in front of us, in all of its proud beauty. It was really a thrill.
Reims also has a lively pedestrian street just jammed with restaurants and cafes. Everyone was out, drinking something. We visited what felt like one park divided by a highway and some roads, but the locals name them as three different parks. There is an interesting looking ancient Roman ruin in Reims, the Cryptoportique, which is a lovely ancient colonnade from the second century. We walked and walked to see it, as it was free, and open every day from 2 pm to 6 pm. When we arrived at 3:00 pm, it was closed. A restaurant worker shrugged and said, “It is not open today.” A British man, also wishing to enter, also told us it was closed. “But Google Maps says it is open every afternoon from 2 pm!” we said. He also shrugged and said, “That’s Google Maps!”
In Reims there is also Carnegie Library, free to enter and look around. It is situated just behind the cathedral and is in Art Deco style. We found it to be just beautiful, a little chunk of architectural history. All in all, the city is very vibrant and alive, filled with things to see, great food and shopping, and very welcoming. We are enjoying every minute that we are in France.
One of our fondest memories of our European honeymoon in 2003 is visiting Brussels for two days, and needing a break on Day 2, we found a small square, ordered some drinks, and sat and watched the world go by for a few hours. It was a good plan, and one we still subscribe to: don’t try to do everything in every place without rest! This time, we did walk somewhere every day we were here, although rain threatened each day. We explored on our own, met with new friends who also got rid of their home to just travel, took a free walking tour, wandered the streets aimlessly, and walked to a local church for a concert.
We had the best guide on our free Sandemans walking tour! Fraser is Scottish but has been a tour guide here for 14 years, even though he hardly looks old enough! He was fun and funny, and we saw the highlights of the city, learned a lot, and went back to see some of the places that we had just breezed by on tour. We met two couples who had also been on our tour in Antwerp, and we met new friends from Ireland. That is the best part of this life of ours – meeting and chatting with people from all over, and finding out about life in their corner of the world.
We went to Notre Dame du Finistere Church for the weekly Monday afternoon organ recital, only to be surprised with an hour-long organ concert with four soloists. It was glorious. Everyone came in, and turned their chairs to the rear of the church, toward the organ. We did likewise. Nobody applauded after the first five pieces, so neither did we. Out of the blue, they applauded for the next piece, then not again until the end. We just follow the locals! Beneath the organ pipes, on three sides, you can see inscriptions in Latin. We translated them: (1) They shall rise up from the ends of the earth, singing to the Lord with instruments. (2) The ends of the earth scatter at the sound of the pipe organ. (3) From the ends of the earth, praise the Lord with strings and organ.
Please don’t take offense, but in the photos you will see the most famous statue in all of Belgium, dating to the 15th century! People search the city for it, thinking that it certainly will be prominent, in the center of a city square, of course. But it is tiny, in a corner, and now apparently is always costumed according to the day or season. The city museum holds his array of costumes! Every souvenir store sells replicas, in all colors, no less. Chocolate shops sell him in Belgian chocolate form. It is like a mania. If you know what the statue is, you are smiling by now. If not, see him in the photo below! But squint – or enlarge your screen, as he is hard to see!!
The legend as to how Antwerp got its name is the best story, so we have to start with it. The green fountain in the first two photos depicts the legend of Brabo, who killed a giant who demanded a high toll for ships entering the city. If crews couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the toll, the giant cut off their hands. Brabo was fed up and wasn’t going to take it any more. He fought the giant, cut off his hand, and threw it into the river. So, Antwerpen comes from the two words, hand werpen, meaning “to throw a hand.”
The city has quite an ancient history, having been invaded and occupied by both the Romans and the Vikings. The River Scheldt brought commerce and trading to the city, making it the leading port in medieval times, but it also made the city vulnerable to invaders. In the photos, we will show you a few things the Romans and Vikings left behind.
We found this off-the-beaten-track city to be quite wonderful, but didn’t schedule enough time to explore it fully. We took a tour to get an overview, but still missed most of the main shopping street and pedestrian walk, the Meir. We would also love to see the central train station one day, as it is very ornate and said to be the one thing you should not miss in the city (but unfortunately, we missed it!). There are also several museums we would love to explore, but there just wasn’t enough time. In the future, we plan to visit fewer cities wherever we go, but stay longer.
“Bruges is very touristy! You don’t want to go there – go to Ghent instead.” That was the advice from a man we met in the laundromat last week, who helped us buy tokens for the machines. But we had visited Bruges years ago and had a very positive memory of it. Besides, we made hotel reservations in July 2021, so we were heading for Bruges regardless of his opinion. Are we glad we did! It’s fa – bu – lous!
The entire Old Town and all of its buildings are a World Heritage Site. There are towers everywhere, gorgeous facades, Dutch architecture buildings and houses, Belgian beer, and Belgian chocolate, chocolate, chocolate just EVERYWHERE! In fact, there are so many chocolate shops that the city has banned any more from opening their doors – they have decided that enough is enough. Only 17 of the hundred or so that we have passed are artisanal – that is, actually made in Bruges. The others have chocolates imported from China and other countries, which is not what you want when purchasing “Belgian chocolate.”
There is also a lot of water in Bruges – as in canals! It makes for a very pretty walk around town as you cross ancient bridges decorated with flowers. All of the squares are very lively and are just beautiful, already filled with lots of tourists. When we drove into Belgium from France a few days ago, it was very strange. We saw no people out, and there were few cars on the road. It was as if time had stopped, or like the beginning of a weird horror movie. All was well as we arrived in Bruges, as it was jammed with people and activity.
City Hall on Burg Square was pretty impressive, with its towers, flags, and ornamentation. But it is nothing compared to the Gothic Room inside. Wait until you see it! It took our breaths away, and we snapped many pictures, sat down just to soak it all in, then took more pictures. We did not want to leave. You will see why, but the photos probably won’t do it justice. If you are ever in Bruges, with all there is to see, do, and eat, City Hall’s Gothic Room is the one stop you MUST make. It is thrilling, to say the least.
Lille, France, is one of those large, small towns. But now that we’ve looked at the city’s statistics, that might not be entirely true, as it has a population of about a quarter of a million people. The feeling is that of a small town, however. The Old Town in the city center is very compact and very walkable. There are two enormous churches in the Old Town, but only one of them is a cathedral. There are ancient buildings and a modern train station. Every restaurant has outdoor seating, regardless of the view offered. We passed an Italian restaurant whose view was of buildings covered in graffiti across the street, and we wondered why anyone would eat there rather than in one of the pretty squares, or along the pretty cobblestone streets. We can only guess that the food makes it worth it, but we didn’t verify that ourselves.
We caught a little of the European Heat Wave here that we have been hearing so much about on the news. It was very hot walking from place to place, and even relatively short walks felt oppressive. One thing we have found in France is that the businesses don’t provide us with much humor. In other places, we are always seeing goofy windows and funny signs in front of businesses. We did see a lighthearted barber shop, as you will see below, but it isn’t overtly funny, just subtly. And now, we are off to Belgium once again!
Visiting the beaches of the Northeast coast of France/Northwest coast of Belgium is quite an experience. First, it is very windy on the beaches, which makes it chilly when you are out of the sun. Second, you apparently don’t need to see any water when you visit – getting sun is the important thing. And third, views of the beach are somewhat obstructed by rows and rows (and rows and rows) of beach huts. They are small cabanas, and act as a refuge from the wind as well as a place to store your beach items and clothing for the day. It is very different from other beach areas we have been to.
First up, Dunkirk was our favorite beach, although we favor the French spelling, Dunkerque. (Why do we anglicize actual names, instead of honoring the way the country itself spells things??) There is a small area with beach huts (in the photo below painted as “Malo -Les-Bains”), but most of the rest of the beach is wide open. It has restaurants, crepe/waffle/and ice cream stands, and loads of people. There was a basketball tournament taking place, and grandstands were set up for spectator viewing. Of course, Dunkirk is known for its beaches in 1940, as 300,000 soldiers waited for evacuation back to Great Britain, just 50 miles away or so by sea. We watched the movie Dunkirk the night before to refresh our memories about the historical importance of the area. It is quite sobering to see the calm beach today, and imagine it crowded with over a quarter of a million desperate soldiers.
Downtown Calais was more enjoyable than its beach. Town Hall can be seen from around the city, and it is some stunning architecture. The sculpture of the Burghers of Calais in front of it is very moving…and magnificent! The beach was jammed with beach huts, some not in great shape, which made the beach seem a bit degraded. Many people sunbathed in Calais with no view of the water whatsoever, which we found so strange.
De Panne, Belgium is the location of our hotel, just over the border from Dunkerque. Ditto on the beach huts crowding the beach. But we must say, it was very crowded, with both children and adults enjoying the boardwalk area, eating, walking, and biking. We can just imagine it in another month, in the middle of summer, bursting at its seams.
We visited these three cities yesterday. Today we are taking a break, resting and reading in our hotel room. We try not to treat our travels as a vacation, where every single thing needs to be seen (there will be other years, after all), but as our life. Lying here on the bed and sitting in the chair, with the window open, we are feeling the breeze and listening to various birds cooing a hundred times in a row. It is nice. We have a view of trees and gardens, and there is no traffic noise. And Mike just “put the kettle on” for some afternoon tea. Heaven!