I've always heard that Europe has an excellent public transportation system, and I'm getting a first-hand view of it. To get around, Mr. Pin Junkie and I have used everything from trains, buses, trams, and subways and have walked for miles. We've travelled to several different cities without a car and never felt like we needed one. In fact, in all the cities we've visited, we've been thankful that we didn't have to drive.
For our day trips to Bruges and Amsterdam we used a commuter train. Commuter trains are basically like buses and make stops along the way picking up and dropping off passengers. They can get very full and on the Saturday we went, it was standing room only. We used a high speed train to get from Brussels to Paris which was much quieter and faster. It only took an hour and didn't have any stops along the way.
The subways in both Brussels and Paris are pretty straight forward. Once you use it a few times, you quickly figure it out. There are also helpful people at the information booths at the main stops that can answer questions, help you buy tickets, and help you navigate. The subway in Brussels was a little easier to use simply because it has fewer lines. The subways in Paris were always crowded because of the tourists but especially so during morning and evening rush hour. We arrived in Paris right at the morning rush hour (9:00 a.m.) and were packed in those subway cars like sardines!
There are many places to rent a bike in Brussels. Just put your credit card in the machine to unlock a bike and return the bike to any rental location when you're done. I noticed during a day trip to Amsterdam that bikes are also a popular mode of transportation, but we used the trams. The trams are just like buses,
but they follow rail lines in the street and are narrower than buses.
Even with using public transportation, we have walked for miles! It's always a walk to the next metro, train or bus station and then it's more walking at the park, museum or other attraction we went to see in the first place. Walking in Paris was hectic. There's so much traffic and you can easily get run over. I saw several near misses with pedestrians and cyclists.
The first day of walking on this trip, I had blisters on both feet. I bought a pair of sandals to wear that would let my blisters heal and they started falling apart after two weeks of walking. My feet have never been so achy and tired, but it's worth it!
One of the biggest attractions in Paris is the Louvre. It was originally built as a royal palace. Mr. Pin Junkie and I walked through the gardens and admired it from the outside, but the crowds were just too big to go in. We'd already admired beautiful art from the impressionists at the Musee d'Orsay and viewed Monet's water lilies at the Musee de l'Orangerie.
So instead of looking at another museum, we decided to get away from the crowds and took the metro to the Chateau de Vincennes. The chateau dates back to the 12th century and is one of the few castles in France that has consistently been in use from the middle ages to the present. The chateau is made up of several structures, each one added at different times in history.
The chapel's construction began in 1380 and was completed in 1552.
The keep is the highest fortified medieval building in Europe.
The pavilions were built in the 17th century. There are two - one for the queen and an identical one directly across the courtyard for the king.
The chateau also has a moat and drawbridge.
The woods surrounding the chateau were once used as royal hunting grounds. Now there's a park for the public to enjoy. It's a beautiful space filled with shady trees, manicured lawns, and a wide variety of flowers.
My favorites were the lotus flowers.
After only three short days in Paris, it was time to go back to Brussels. On the way back to the train station, we stopped at the Eiffel Tower again. It's beautiful from every angle and just as elegant at night when it's illuminated.
Mr. Pin Junkie and I had three days in Paris. Paris is a beautiful city layered with centuries of history and three days wasn't enough time to see and experience it all. Our trip started with an early train ride from Brussels to Paris. When we arrived, we checked into our hotel which was near the Arc de Triomphe and then walked over to the Eiffel Tower. It really is a beautiful, graceful structure.
Then we walked across the river to Notre Dame Cathedral. Along the way, we crossed a bridge where people have left their "love locks." When couples come to Paris, they leave these locks on the bridge to symbolize their love and leave a lasting reminder of their trip to Paris.
Notre Dame was beautiful from the outside . . .
. . . but my favorite was the stained glass windows from the inside.
After all that walking, it was back to the hotel for a rest and a dinner of the most delicious crepes I've ever had!
Belgium is a chocoholic's dream come true. There are over 2,000 chocolatiers in Belgium with most of them being small independent chocolate makers. Chocolate shops are common with gorgeous handmade chocolates on display in the shop windows that are small works of art and almost too pretty to eat.
In order for chocolate to be labeled "Belgian chocolate" it must be made in Belgium and chocolate making in Belgium is strictly regulated by law. The composition of chocolate must be 35% cocoa. Belgian chocolates are most known for their pralines which are like truffles. Belgian pralines are chocolates with a molded chocolate shell and a soft creamy ganache center.
Jean Neuhaus invented the praline in 1857 when he covered some of the medicines in his pharmacy with a thin chocolate coating to make them more palatable. Today Neuhaus is a premier chocolate maker. Godiva, another famous Belgian chocolate maker, is the official purveyor of chocolate to Belgium’s royal court.
Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate each year and Belgians have the highest chocolate consumption rate in the world. The average Belgian consumes over fifteen pounds of chocolate each year. I think I've certainly done my part to contribute to that statistic during my visit!
Eating in Brussels has been much different than what I expected. Brussels is home to the European Union and there are many nationalities and cultures represented here which is certainly evident in the diverse menu options that are available. There is such a wide variety of food here! So far I've eaten a chicken wrap sandwich from a mid-eastern deli as well as Jamaican jerk chicken and fried plantains at a street fair just down the street from our apartment. I've also enjoyed carbonnades flamandes which is Flemish beef stew and the national dish of Belgium. Its absolutely delicious and I'm determined to try to make it when I get home.
I've also tried the Belgian fries which are thick cut fries and usually served with generous helpings of mayonnaise and tiny forks so that you can eat them without getting your fingers messy. Belgian waffles are served everywhere. I can smell their sweet aroma at every train station, street fair and street corner I've been to. They're delicious plain, but they're also served with powdered sugar or melted chocolate.
Sometimes I feel like I'm already in France. Not only do I hear French spoken just about everywhere, but French
bakeries and pastry shops are very common and I've eaten pains au chocolat
and croissants almost every morning for breakfast. Ordering has been a bit tricky since I don't speak
French and there's a lot of trying to decipher the menu and just plain guessing. So far everyone has
been very patient and kind. When going to a restaurant or street cafe, I'm not used to just sitting at a table instead of waiting to be seating, but I'm beginning to get the hang of it.
Mr. Pin Junkie and I have also been eating some meals in our apartment. I've been to the local grocery store just down the street and that was interesting. You have to pay to use the grocery carts so many people just bring their own bags or shopping trolleys. You also have to provide your own bags and do your own bagging. The store is certainly smaller than what I'm used to at home. It has a smaller selection, but certainly has every thing you need. Presentation of items on the shelves doesn't seem to be as important as it is at home, but definitely the fruits and vegetables are fresher and less expensive. Not a lot of pre-packed or convenience food or anything sold in bulk sizes. It has been a bit frustrating for me not being able to communicate well with people (I really wish I knew more French!) but I have to say that tasting all these new yummy foods has certainly been one of the high points of the trip so far!
Just an hour away by train from where I'm staying in Brussels, Bruges is a perfectly preserved medieval town in northwest Belgium and a UNESCO world heritage site. Bruges is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North because of its
canals. The canals connect the city to the North Sea and trade
routes. These trade opportunities made Bruges a prosperous city in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries until the
canals became filled with silt which made it difficult for ships to travel through.
The tower of the Church of Our Lady is the tallest structure in the city.
With its narrow cobblestone streets, bell towers, bridges and swans, Bruges looks like something right out of a fairy tale!
Bruges is certainly popular with tourists, but it's more than just a tourist destination. It's still inhabited by about 20,000 people and many of the buildings now house modern day shops and hotels.
We took a boat tour through the canals which was a great way to view the
city. I was really surprised at how big the city is.
So many of the doors and windows were decorated with pretty window boxes and I couldn't help taking pictures of a few of them. There were flowers everywhere!
Belgium's National Day is celebrated onJuly 21. Its a holiday that commemorates the signing of the Belgian constitution and the beginning of the Belgian constitutional monarchy. It's a day of national pride much like our July 4th. Mr. Pin Junkie and I had no idea about any of this and just got really lucky. We popped out of a metro station and there was the royal procession . . .
and King Philippe of Belgium!
We went over to the park right next to the royal palace where there were many groups that were performing re-enactments and demonstrations like these soldiers representing the Napoleonic wars.
This group representing soldiers from World War I were great at posing for the cameras!
Then it was time for the parade. The king made an appearance again to review the troops.
All the troops passed by in their parade best and really looked great!
There was a lot of military equipment on display too. These tanks were a crowd favorite and were really loud!
We didn't stay for the fireworks show because by the end of the parade, we were tired of the crowds and needed something to eat. We did get a quick look at the royal palace though.