The Striding Edge

The Striding Edge

The guidebook warned – “not for people who suffer vertigo”. I’ll say!

Our first hike in the Lakes District was a trek to the peak of Helvellyn. A beauty of a mountain, distinguished as being the favorite hike of William Woodsworth, the romantic poet. Two days before our hike we sat at Adam’s sun room table, fresh pints of English ale within arms reach, carefully studying trail maps. We had 2 full days to explore the wonders of the Lakes and Adam recommended that we make two hikes: Helvellyn and Great Gables. The hikes were expected to take between 4 and 6 hours each. We checked the forecast and the weather promised to be beautiful during our visit. It’s not advised to hike during inclement weather, which I completely understood after we were on the trail!

On the day of our ascent, we started our hike around 9 am, half expecting to get in another hike in the afternoon, on the advisement of Adam who indicated we could cover the trail in a few hours…. 7 hours later, as we hobbled down giant stone steps, our only destination was a shop to acquire a few hard-earned cold British beers and meat pies. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s the rest of the story.

We parked in the lovely village of Penrith and asked a local where we could locate the trail head. This is much easier, by the way, in England, where everyone speaks (some version of) English. A brief instruction, “walk up that road, look for the sign” and we were on our way.

Our first encounter was with a friendly couple who spend all their vacations hiking in the Lakes and sleeping in their caravan – the British term for a camper. Genuinely friendly and upbeat people, we had a nice chat as we began our hike and they reconfirmed our path to the peak. They reassured us that we could certainly make it up the striding edge. As we walked, the terrain almost immediately was nearly completely vertical, or at least that’s how it felt to me, and I silently thanked my lucky stars for my months of stair climber training over the winter. We shed our outer layer as our body temperature climbed with the elevation.

Half-way up the first hill, we reached a livestock gate and they split left as we continued up, now moving slightly laterally and a little less steeply up the mountain.

Our first destination was “the hole in the wall”. A curious name, I thought, “why do they call it that?”. Well, actually, because it is, literally, a hole in the stone wall! 

The area is crisscrossed with beautiful hand-built stone walls used to separate pastures which are grazed by sheep. Luckily we arrived on the tail-end of lambing season and our soundtrack for the duration of our visit was the bleats of sheep. Such a lovely sound!

After we climbed across the “hole in the wall”, we marveled at our first views of the peak of Helvellyn – hugging a lake called Red Tarn. 

We paused for a bit to ask a chap to snap a photo of us. 

Then we reciprocated by taking a photo of him for his wife. He had lived in the area for over a decade and was hiking the infamous mountain for his first time. We talked about our impending encounter with the striding edge, and he expressed he was also a bit worried… this did not help!
After a stroll across a high mountain meadow, we were suddenly on the striding edge. Which is basically, a ridge ascent where you climb across rocks with, ocassionally, nearly shear drops that it is best to avoid looking at, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, it was easy going. 

Then, the path narrowed and we began hand-over-hand bouldering, if you will, at great height. 

The most challenging part came when we came down the backside of a rocky ridge requiring quite a bit of triceps and careful foot placement. This is where we met a chap in his 50s who was on his last nerve. We helped him down and he decided he would not continue. It was sad, because we’d met him on our way up the first mountain ascent and he was excited to be finally hiking the mountain after considering it for years. But, as he made the decision to bail out and literally slide down the gravely backside of the mountain mere feet from the summit, my husband and I reflected on the power of intention. When we first met him, he said that he was going to “try” to make it but he wasn’t sure he’d be successful. We, on the other hand, perhaps foolishly, certainly boldly, never doubted our ability to make the ascent. And, you know what, we did!

But first, after we completed the rocky ridge grappling, we needed to make one final push. I’ll admit, seeing a grown man bail out, got to me a bit, so I focused my attention on quickly pushing up the ridge to the peak. Here the trail became more vertical and more of a scramble with lose rocks and not as much solid footing. We charged up quickly, and suddenly we reached the peak.

It was time for lunch and some fellows were rising to continue their hike. We grabbed their spot on the rim to savor the view as we refueled with salami and blue cheese sandwiches. Yes, an admittedly strange combination, which turned out to be delicious! 

After our lunch we spent a bit of time on the peak taking in the views of Ulswater in the distance.

We read a monument to a hiker who died on the mountain and his skeleton was later found because his dog stayed by his side for 3 months! Quite a tale of loyalty, or desperation (she allegedly consumed his flesh), you take your pick.

Fortunately, this was not our day to die, but we weren’t quite certain of this yet. We had ahead of us the descent down the Swiral Edge. Not quite as steep as the striding edge, but challenging, nonetheless. A group of college kids skipped across the rocks and we watched in wonder at their nimble steps.

We found ourselves wondering, where is the trail? Seriously, y’all, I have never encountered such trails in America! It was rather invigorating and felt like a real adventure!

Clouds passed overhead, altering the colors of the landscape moment by moment. As we descended, I snapped photos of the changing scenery. 

We paused for a moment on the banks of the tarn to admire the reflection of the mountain in the water. Then we continued our descent.

For a bit, we climbed out and back, basically up to the hole in the wall. This is where we needed to make a decision – go back the way we came, or take a looping path back to Glenridding. Of course, we went for the loop, we always go for the loop option. The first portion followed the rock wall along the ridge, then made a descent down what could best be described as steps for giants. Huge rocks which basically formed a stairway. By this point we were a bit tired and our feet began to complain about the pounding on the rocks. 

We persisted, occasionally stopping to admire the views and say hello to the sheep. 

After what felt like a very long time of walking down giant steps, we re-entered the valley. The first person we met was a boy and we asked him the way to Penrith. In the most delightful Lakes District accent, he informed us we could either walk up the hill (my legs cried: “please, no more hills”) or along the beck (the local word for river or creek) in to town where we would find a store and then turn right and follow the road to Penrith. We opted for the Beck path and happily soaked in more scenery.

A stop at the market to assess supplies confirmed they had a good selection of beer so we pushed on to our car and then drove back to stock up. We ended the day with beer and reheated meat pies as we soaked up the sunset over Ulswater.

Such a lovely day! We were filled with a sense of accomplishment and a bit of worry about the chap who bailed and went down the side of the hill. We wondered if we should have taken his number to call and make sure he was ok. We also wondered how he felt after bailing halfway and were grateful for our convinction and ability to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

As often happens on a hike in the woods. Once again, the mountain was our teacher and reminded us that a prepared body, supported by a sound mind, can accomplish any challenge.

It was one he** of a day on Helvellyn!

A Blooming Good Time

A Blooming Good Time

March rolled around and I noticed flowers were blooming in Düsseldorf. Not just any flowers, these were the ones that sprout from bulbs, which come from Holland. Got me to thinking that I should try to find a weekend to swing up to Keukenhof to visit the flower gardens. It’s been on my list since I started my expat and it slipped away last year, so this spring it was do or die, with respect to, I could possibly die without seeing the flowers at Keukenhof. Which got me to thinking, how badly did I want to see the flowers…? It’s a 2.5 hour drive after all. I decided I did want to see them, bad enough to make the trek.

Then life started to happen, road blocks built themselves and I was forced to set priorities. A trip home, a small head cold, an expat farewell party, a general state of travel exhaustion from constant suitcase loading and unloading… everything seemed to stand in the way of this particular adventure. I decided that if this was going to happen it was going to be a long day trip – not one more night in a hotel for me!

I opened up Viber and shot a message to my travel buddy Tilghman to see if she’d be up for a trip. My compelling pitch consisted of two main points: 1. I’ll drive and 2. I have some podcasts (and I finally figured out how to stream them through my car stereo via Bluetooth…) we can listen to on the way.

She bit, we made a plan, then I woke up super-early (ok, not really true, my cat wakes me up at 5:30 nearly every day, 6 is sleeping-in around here) and I still managed to arrived 10 minutes after our agreed upon 6:30 departure time. Just ask Tilghman, this is my pattern. I predict that she now just waits until 10 minutes after the appointed time to head to our meeting point.

6:30 you say! Yes, 6:30, a time when most Europeans are just entering the REM stage of sleep. We had one goal – beat the crowds. Even at this early hour, we didn’t beat the crowds completely, but a bit, and besides I was awake at 6 (like every other day of my life, just as cat people you know), so no reason to dily daly.

When we arrived we made our first sound decision of the day (right before I decided I was carb loading and bought a waffle with cream). We decided that we would freely and proudly behave like American tourists. What does this mean you ask, no, actually if you are an American living in Europe you know exactly what I mean. At the core of this behavior is being loud, really loud. And, you know what, it felt amazing! Our excuse for being loud was that the hoards of people from all over the world including loads of American tourists, so why not, this was not our moment to follow our usually MO and float around quietly disguising ourselves as polite, unassuming (although still bold in ques) German tourist. We went full-bore American. I discovered Keukenhof had free wifi so we even did a Facebook live session, out-loud, loudly. It was awesome!

But enough intro, on to the important stuff, the blooms! Here’s my first proclamation about Keukenhof – it is everything you have heard and then some! All the rumors are true. It is beautiful. It is a once-in-a-lifetime. It is crowded. It is worth going even though it’s crowded. Yes, the food in the park is overpriced, but you won’t care because you’ll be high on flower blossom perfume. You will not be able to stop compulsively snapping photos. You will wonder how it is that all these people are just casually laying on the hills relaxing, yes relaxing(!), when there are a thousand, no make that at least 100,000 more flowers to photograph. Then you will find yourself laying on the side of a hill, basking in the sun and photographing your feet (basically a foot selfie) with flowers in the background.

What I’m saying is that if Life ever hands you roses, hand them back and say I want tulips. No, in fact, I want to go to the home of the tulips and gaze deeply into their beauty from behind my fancy schmanzy digital camera for hours on end. If there is nothing else you take from this blog, I will feel fulfilled if you ever have a chance to go to Keukenhoff, and you decide to go. It should be on your bucket list and you need to check this one off!

Now, I present to you the evidence. In photographic form of course. What I cannot share through this medium is the smell of the flowers. I have never experienced such a strong aroma of flowers. I truly began to suspect that they piped it in somehow under an imaginary Dutch bubble that surrounds the park. Alas, our canal boat tour guide informed us that locals are so sick and tired of the smell that he can’t wait for it to be over every season. Too much of anything can get old I suppose. Also, I cannot share the taste of the sweet, crunchy, but not too hard, waffles slathered in cream that are so much better than you can ever imagine.

So, get yourself to Keukenhof. If you’re lucky the flowers will all be in bloom and the crowds will be light. Scratch that – this combination will never happen! Just go and accept it for what it is – a huge flower park chock a block full of people from around the world- some friendly, many annoying, but you won’t notice because you’ll be too busy snapping photos to take in anything but the flowers anyhow!

Peace before the storm 

Peace before the storm 

Bathed in warm sunlight, the crunching of carpenter bee mandibles tickles my ear drum. A slight tip of my right ankle forward and backward slowly moves the rocker beneath me. My dog rests her head on the bottom porch rail.

I breathe deep, embracing the peace and admiring the warm blue sky.

The wind picks up, the stir of new green leaves brushing against each other obscurs the bee whispers in my ear. Temperature drops swiftly as the sky shifts from blue to gray. Clouds block the warm sun. No longer squinting, my eyes relax and my breath lightens.

A spring thunderstorm is blowing in, taking her time to arrive. 

I eagerly await the first drops. Anticipating the scent of fresh rain on warm stones accompanied by the chatter of drops falling upon leaves, saturating the parched earth, before accumulating in rivulets on saturated soil and running into creeks, rivers, and lakes.

The tapping of a woodpecker is replaced by the rhythmic creaking of wood crickets. My gentle revery is broken by a mosquitoe lighting on my leg for a bite, prompting a quick slap.

Wind picks up again – the American flag begins to wave. This is my home, this is my land, this is my place of contentment and peace.

I find myself ruminating on a yoga mantra my uncle left with me during his recent visit to Germany.

“I am safe. I am sound. All good things come to me. They bring me peace”.


Surprising Slovenia

Surprising Slovenia

This post is the first in a small series about my long-weekend trip to Slovenia. I visited Ljubljana, Bled, Planica and Podkoren. It’s a beautiful country, the people are friendly, the food is good, castles and dragon stories are found in every little valley and mountain region. I highly recommend it for a holiday in the mountains.

Four days ago I landed in Ljubljana, Slovenia to attend the FIS ski-jumping world championship event held at the famous Ski-Flying hill called Planica (here’s the song – more about it later). 

Ski-jumping…. I think I’ve watched it on TV a couple of times. So, why did I travel to Slovenia to watch the final championship event of the year? Well, one day, after moving to Germany I took a long bike ride with a friend I had met years ago on a field trip in California. After riding for a few hours, we stopped for a coffee break at a restaurant next to the trail. As we rested and chatted, she mentioned how much she loved watching ski jumping. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I asked if I could possibly accompany her sometime on a weekend excursion. She said we could discuss it over the coming months, and here we are! Sometimes you just need to jump at life. Why not jump off a high hill with only a pair of skis strapped to your feet?! 

The funniest thing about planning this trip was the reaction I received when I told folks my plans for the weekend. So many people asked if I was going to jump myself! What, are you kidding???!!! I laughed. Then I felt a little bit of pride that people who know me actually thought this was a possibility. Or maybe they were just pointing out the apparent oddness of just spontaneously deciding to head off to Slovenia to watch a ski jumping event. Whatever it was, it made me smile and laugh. So, it was good.

We made our plans, the months passed on the calendar and, finally, last Thursday was the day. We arrived in Ljubljana around noon and headed into the city center to explore.

I hadn’t done any research for this trip – I booked a flight and my friend helped with buying my entry tickets to the ski-jumping event. I had no idea what to expect in the city. As we drove from the airport to the city, I took in the beautiful mountain scenery bordering the valley. After about 20 minutes, we turned off the highway and entered the outskirts of the city. The buildings lacked decoration – a reminder of the stark communist era. Maybe for this reason the city seemed even more magical when we turned a corner and found a bridge guarded by a pair of dragons on each bank of the river.

This was the first of many dragon sightings on this trip. They form a strong theme in Slovenian lore and culture. We roamed around the bridge snapping pictures. Then headed toward an outdoor market to search for some local treasures to remember the trip. The offerings were clothing and fresh produce. Slovenia borders Italy and the market stalls were stocked with tomatoes, strawberries, clementines, carrots, lettuce, and every other vegetable and fruit you could imagine. We decided to stop by on our way out of town and buy some produce for dinner and snacks during our trip.

We noticed a castle on a hill loomed over the city and decided this would be our destination. It was easy to find signs pointing to the castle and we began the long walk up to the top, pausing to admire the unfolding city views and decipher the graffiti lining the walls. The hills were dotted with wildflowers and trees were breaking bud. The sun shone over head and bird song filled the air.

As we reached the top of the hill we looked up at the castle – a quite impressive and well-preserved structure. When we entered inside, we were surprised to find a variety of museums, shops and a restaurant and cafe. We decided to sit outside in the square and take in the warm sun while enjoying a local bier with a super-cool label. You guessed it, more dragons! 

To mix things up, we walked back down the opposite side of the hill and then popped in to town for some shopping along the river banks. 

As afternoon approached evening, the tables outside the cafes began to fill with people. Music flowed through the air. Some bouncinf out of the turn-table of a DJ dressed in a black suit jacket and hip clothes. I was mesmerized by the city scenery and architecture. The colors contrasted with the river and the streets were filled with young people. Energy oozed from the place. At the same time it felt peaceful and calm. An interesting paradox of emotions.

As evening approached, I was sad we needed to leave the city, but it was time to go on to our next destination. We drove through the countryside toward Kranska Gora and our hotel room in a neighboring town. The scenery was beautiful – fields and farm houses. One interesting feature was wooden panels in the fields. My friend told me they’re used to dry the hay after harvest. Apparently, a similar structure is found in Japan’s rice country. That was just the beginning of geologic and natural similarities between this landscape and Japan. It was intriguing to learn how two places so far away could be so alike.

As we neared our hotel, the country roads were lined with billboards promoting the ski-jumping event. 

Anticipation was building, but fortunately the day had been long enough, and our home-made dinner filling enough, that I had no trouble to fall asleep. 

Up next: first day at a ski-jumping event. It was off the rails!

Swamp thangs

Swamp thangs

“A beaver skull. Oh my gosh, it’s a beaver skull!”

I yelled to my husband half-way through our bush-whacking hike through the Jordan lake and panther creek swamp-land behind our house.

It was a journey we’d been talking about and pondering and halfway planning for three years. One of the big draws of our property was the direct access it has to the American tobacco trail and a large swath of protected fish and wildlife land that surrounds panther creek and runs all the way up to Jordan Lake. We regularly walk out the back door and down a well-beaten path to a fork. Right takes you to the tobacco trail. Left takes you into the woods. With options to roam freely or follow a trail that borders the wildlife land and is marked by trees banded in three stripes of orange paint. Both are great options.

Speaking of trails, have I mentioned that my husband is trained as a civil engineer which means he LOVES maps. I mean LOVES them! His love of maps is one of the reasons why it wasn’t until I moved to Europe and, finally, had to navigate on my own, that I discovered I have a sense of direction. I was so used to following him around, happily mind you, on our rambling adventures. Well, one day as we were studying our property on google earth, because who doesn’t do that nowadays? We began to speculate that the path that runs to the left and into the woods, might just take you all the way to Jordan lake. We promised ourselves that one day we’d drop some bikes down at the local gas station and then make the hike and bike back. But, the problem with this planning is, well, it required planning…. something we aren’t always keen to do on the weekends. 

So it happened that a day after I landed at home, we woke up to a surprisingly sunny and warm day, and decided that today was the day. We were hiking to Jordan lake on the path. No bikes for drop off, we were going all the way there and we’d figure out how to get back. We loaded up a back pack with snacks: oranges, cheese sandwiches, Belgian chocolates (because why not?) dog food for Desi, and a couple of bottles of water. Snapped a leash onto Desi, laced up our boots and took off.

At the fork, we turned left and descended down along Panther Creek. This time of year is great for hiking along the creek bank because these crazy thorny vines (maybe they’re called brambles) are just coming out of their winter sleep. The trees are pushing out helicopter seeds in brilliant shades of orange and red. The sun, perched above in the Carolina blue sky, was shining down warmth. Birds were singing and frogs chirping. The spider webs were not yet stretching between the trees at just the right height to smack you in the face. Basically, it was perfect and then it got better, when we made our great discovery.

“Check this out, there’s a lot of beaver activity”. I hollered to my husband. He’s, he’s always telling me to talk more quietly in the woods. 

We had turned to follow along a creek spur that feeds into Jordan lake and found many stumps with fresh beaver teeth marks. We also noticed that the grassy terrain was now interrupted by large stones and big boulders were supporting the soil and trees along the ridge. I climbed up on to a boulder, because it’s fun, and Chas snapped a picture of Desi and me to remember the day. Have I mentioned, Desi is a grand hiking companion.

We continued walking and discovered more evidence of recent beaver activity and I even began to understand how they managed to take down a tree and break it into movable chunks! It was like being in a nature film, which is a very strange thing to think, right? Why do we always compare real life to the movies? I snapped some photos to share with my nieces and nephews for a science lesson later.

We proceeded down to the water, around a slight ridge, and discovered the beaver dam. A large one at that!

Then I backtracked a bit and that’s when I made the amazing discovery of a beaver skull! Which now has a home on our fireplace mantel. Yes, this is how we decorate our house (no shopping at the pottery barn for me) – shells, feathers, stones, bits of branches, the occasional fungal specimen, old bottles, the interesting bits that we find on our journey of life. I do believe this will be one of our most treasured hiking momentos for years to come.

We noticed that the sun was beginning to sink low and we had about 1/3 of our route to go, so we safely stowed the beaver skull and continued our journey along the banks. The vegetation changed from pines and schrubs to bottomland hardwoods and back to pines. It was amazing to find all that was hidden just off the road and behind our country neighborhood. 

After another hour or so, we popped out along the country highway and turned left to the gas station then walked along the roads for another hour to our house. Traveling our familiar driving or biking path on foot completely transformed the experience. We found details we had never noticed before and even paused for a bit in a patch of grass to soak up the later afternoon sun before our last push to home. Now that I think of it, maybe that’s where I picked up these danged chiggers in my right arm…

As we turned up our street, our feet were aching, our bellies were hungry, and our souls were completely happy and glowing from our spontaneous adventure. 

Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

As demanded…. umm… requested by my buddy Mike, here’s part 2 of our Tenerife island adventure. This installment will focus on the variety of hiking adventure we enjoyed.

Our last episode ended when we arrived at our apartment rental for the week and admired a gorgeous sunset. My memory gets a little hazy here, but I think we were pretty lazy for a good day, or so, as we got our bearings in our new town: Adeje. Conveniently located on the southwest coast of the island. We picked this town because it was near enough to the tourist areas to have (we thought) lots of restaurant options and such. But, far enough away from Los Americanos to be not so touristy. Apparently the tourism barrons have also located this town because directly across from our apartment a Hard Rock casino was under construction. At first I thought it would be loud and annoying, but actually it was pretty interesting since both my husband and I enjoy construction work. Besides, our apartment faced the sea and was in the direction away from the construction and overlooking a small black lava rock bay which we were told was sometimes visited by sea turtles! 

The first couple of days at the apartment the weather was stormy and this caused the water to be cloudy – not ideal for snorkeling. We followed natures lead and relaxed. Soon, the weather cycle broke and we were greeted by sunny days, perfect for hiking. In the morning and evening we often walked on the path shown in the picture above which was also popular for dog walkers and runners. One day we met a cute dog, and his owner, who happened to be German. I asked for recommendations on a good beach to visit, preferably with a fun beach bar and cafe. He said (in German -my translation skills were becoming increasingly more valuable every day) that the best secret beach was in nearby Puertito with a fabulous Bodegon called Pepe y Lola. 

We noted this down as a destination of choice and that evening I began to research securing a permit to go to the top of El Tiede. As it turns out these are not easy to come by. Something like 50 people are allowed to the top each day to decrease the environmental impact of all the tourists. Passes were booked up for at least a month. So, that was out. We figured, well, so, we can’t go to the top, but I bet we can have some spectacular hiking in the park, and that we did!

We drove slightly south and then headed east climbing up the mountain roads to the volcano. I noticed that on this side of the island appeared to have a dryer climate and in the place of banana plantations the roads were bordered by tiered vineyards.

 As we entered the strange landscape of the volcano another rainstorm rolled in revealing other-worldly landscapes shrouded in clouds. 

We stopped to take a picture at the viewing spot for Roques de Garcia. A friendly German tourist snapped a shot for us and unfortunately our heads are completely blocking the rocks… 🙂 We popped back into the car and headed toward the visitor center to grab a map and figure out a good hike for the afternoon. Along the way we saw some incredible green rocks!

The park ranger recommended that we hike a trail called “Arenas Negras” which looped around a small peak. As we started off I noticed a big cloud bank approaching from the south and I fully anticipated we might get socked in my the storm which could likely bring visibility to a minimum as it passed over. This gave some urgency to our hike and we completed the trail much quicker than anticipated. The scenery was spectacular and, expect for passing a couple other hikers, we had the entire trail to ourselves. Quite different than our experience in the touristy valley we had left behind. My kind of hiking! Here’s some of what we saw.

On our way back to the hotel, we looped up for a quick visit to the spectacular rock formation called Los Gigantes – the giants. And giants they are! The cliffs soar over the ocean forming a fierce and unforgiving fortress.

We went to bed craving more time at the volcano, but we clearly wanted to stay away from the crowds, so the next day we headed to a region called Samara. The scenery was incredible – like walking on the moon! It was super cold, probably in the thirties, but the sun shined above us and again we had the trails nearly exclusively to ourselves. A day I will never forget as we crossed the everchanging terrain of volcanic rocks. We saw no less than Six different types of formations. One thing I particular enjoyed was admiring the sharp contrast between the pine trees and the black rocks. As we hiked, El Tiede loomed above us showing off her snowy cap.

I’m off to the gym for my morning workout. Next installment will include our beach hikes and our quick adventure in the Anaga mountains cloud forest.

Here’s a preview…

The next morning we popped into the Dino market and bought a cooler backup, loaded it up with bier and hiked off to the secret beach. The path was surprisingly easy to follow and after about an hour we found ourselves at the beach. Along the way we passed through some small camps. Crumbling brick walls marked the perimeters of old plantations…

Belgian Bridge City

Belgian Bridge City

As I approach my last 6 months as an expat, I’ve started to plan my weekend trips more deliberately so as to have no regrets. I’ve struggled to balance between the places I want to go and the places I think everyone expects me to go. That might sound odd at first, but I think other expats might understand what I’m feeling. When a person has a chance to live in Europe the first thing they usually do is build a bucket list of the places they’ve heard of, or that a friend visited. As such, the list usually contains primarily typical tourist towns. Some of these are amazing, some are disappointing. Either way, they are often over-run by hoards of tourists. After a couple of trips where I found myself wondering what additional value I was bringing to my life by embarking upon yet another typical American tourists weekend, I started to assess my bucket list through local eyes.

As 2016 turned to 2017, I reflected upon the memeories I had made on my own and with my husband, my parents and fellow expat travelers. Which places were remarkable, which were slightly disappointing? Which places surprised me and which were predictable? Sometimes predictability is good, by the way. How did I want to spend my time in 2017? Did I want to be inside or outside? Did I want to return to places I knew or focus on new adventures? Did I (finally) want to see some good art? After this reflection I started to plan my year.

I decided to visit a different country every month – at first I wanted it to be a completely new country, but the trouble is I’ve visited most of the countries that border Germany. This means it requires more time to travel to a new country – more than I can spare in a weekend trip. Instead I compromised with myself and decided to see a different country every month. In January, I visited the Netherlands – you read about this in my art post. This past weekend I visited Belgium. Actually, I went to Belgium twice in one week. I chock this up to bad planning, but in the end it turned out to be all right. Turns out I really like Belgium!

When I moved to Germany I had planned to spend a weekend in Brussels. The weekend I planned to go fell right before a big work meeting, so I delayed my trip. Then the Paris attacks happened, followed by the attack on the Brussels airport and I did not go to Belgium. I focused my energy elsewhere. Last week I traveled to Gent for a work trip and was so delighted that I planned a weekend in Brügge and Neuiwpoort with my friend Tilghman. 

If you ask a random handful of tourists what the most popular city is for tourism in mainland Europe, I think Paris might be the answer (especially if they’re from America), but Brügge will certainly be coming up in the conversation very soon after. If they’re British, it might be first. Add on top of that visiting on Valentine’s weekend. And, as we discovered when we arrived, the city was hosting an “Urban Trails” night race through the city. Let’s just say there were plenty of people enjoying Brügge with us. 

In spite of the crowds, I can still say I found it to be one of the most charming places I have visited in Europe. What makes it so charming? Well preserved churches, old building in abundance, and the city layout is fascinating with all the buildings constructed continuously, making the entire place feel like a maze where you’re the mouse leisurely racing for the prize of (pick your poison) Trappist bier in a cellar, Belgian chocolate from one of a multitude of shops (seriously there were dozens in this tiny city), or, and this should not be neglected a warm Belgian waffle with cream. Because I’m an equal opportunity kind of a person, I tried out the Trappist bier, chocolate and waffles, and it did not disappoint. I was tempted to sign up for the urban trails race, but it was already fully-booked. Instead I took a morning run through the city, but I’ll get to that later.

As I planned my trip, many people told me it’s no trouble to see all of Brügge in a day, or a few hours, and this is certainly true. We left Dusseldorf at 8:30 – super-early for us – and arrived in town around 11:30, then the fun task of locating parking began. I usually prefer to drive in Europe in order to have flexibility with my travel plans, but parking, parking can sometimes take as long as another train connection! Alas, after about an hour, we finally located parking and could sniff out our first Belgian bier.

We stopped in a place called Cambrius cellars and sat down at a tiny round table next to a young British couple. I remarked at how it was such a mistake to come to Brügge on Valentine’s Day with the hordes of romantics in town. My friend Tilghman said I was being quite a cynic and that’s when I realized they were probably valentines romantics. Oops! Never fear – bier saved my mood. At one point I looked up and was delighted to find lights made out of bier glasses – very clever!

The bier is offered in a larger volume glass – not too much though these Belgian beers are high in alcohol – or a common offer was a paddle of 5 tasters: .15 ml each bier. We ordered a paddle to share. My favorite bier on this weekend adventure was the Timmermans Lambic Faro. Delicious! I also fell in love with sour biers on this trip. The biers were complimented with an assortment of meats, cheese and fruit. A great way to sink ourselves into the city.

Warmed up by our first biers we struck out to accomplish our priorities sight seeing friend Tilghman and I travel together often and one of the keys to our success is that on the way we decide which 3 to 5 things we must do. It’s impossible to see everything in these towns so it helps us to focus our time and leave time for leisurely photo snapping strolls. 

First stop was at the church of the holy blood. This church houses one of the most important relics held by the Catholic Church. A vial that is said to contain the blood of Christ. I’ll be honest here, I had never even heard of a relic until I started traveling with Tilghman. My first experience with a relic was to see the actual mummified foot of John the Baptist at a church in Budapest. Very strange and thrilling at the same time. Who decided it was important to preserve these bodily items, and then to protect them over the centuries with high levels of devotion? This is very intriguing to me. We were prepared to be disappointed on this Saturday afternoon because the tour book said the relic was on display only on Fridays. We entered the cathedral, admired the stained glass and art work and then noticed a priest standing up on a platform in chapel to the side and a line of people. We realized that the relic was on display. So, of course, we got in line. I will say that it really did look like some sort of coagulated fluids, maybe marrow. But, the most important thing that struck me was the devotion of the people kneeling before the alter and the priest standing there for the day with the sole purpose of protecting the relic.

 We left the church humbled and quiet as we began our walk to see one of the only Michael Angelo pieces outside of Italy: the Madonna and Child. The set up for the art is a bit odd. It’s housed in a cathedral behind what appear to be temporary white wooden walls. The closest you can get to the art piece is about 5 yards. It is protected by a thick piece of plastic. In spite of this, it was a remarkable piece of art and worth the price of admission. Again, it’s amazing that we have been able to preserve this art piece for more than 500 years!

Next stop was chocolate shopping. For this important mission, I had consulted some traveling buddies who always know the best places for things like chocolate, wine and bier. Her advice was to go to “The Chocolate Line“. We stepped in to this decadent den of chocolate, took it in for a bit, then I packed a box for my next trip home and bought a couple to enjoy on the spot. 

As the light began to fade in the city, it seemed like the perfect moment for a canal tour. Surprisingly, the lines were low, which struck me as a bit odd considering that the light was now perfect for reflections on the water. We paid the fare, a reasonable 8 euros, and boarded the boat. The boat driver appeared fluent in about every language he encountered. Since just about everyone on the boat spoke English he narrated our 30 minute tour through the city canal network in Flemish and English. Brügge is known as the Venice of the north due to the extensive canal network that weaves through the city. Definitely a big contributor to the romance and charm. It’s worth taking a canal boat tour.

The oldest bridge in the city dating back to the 14th century.

We left the boat in search of more bier and to scope out a place for dinner. As it turned out, we found them both on the same street: Kuipersstraat. We were warned it could be easy to walk by Le Trappiste – a bier cave serving a variety of Belgian biers. Luckily the sign was well-lit and we descended into the belly of the city. 

The architecture was fabulous, reminding me a bit of the vaulted ceilings of the city churches. And, of course, the bier was great! The bartenders were friendlyand the prices surosignky reasonable. We ordered a paddle of 5 bier tastings and paid 12 euros. Not bad, not bad at all. I’d definitely recommend taking a bit of time to visit this unique bar. 

As you recall the city was full of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, so it was impossible to get a reservation for dinner. I had popped in to a restaurant on the way to Le Trappiste and booked a table, but I really had my heart set on going a place my friend Katie V recommended – she knows good food! Luckily, as we walked from Le Trappiste to the restaurant, I looked up and saw the sign for ‘t Zwart Huis. I popped in to see if we could get a table. The kind manager seated us at the bar and we enjoyed a delicious local meal of female codfish – apparently a regional specialty only available during the month of February. 

After the long day we headed back to our hotel and found the final groups of Urban Trail racers crossing the finish line. We roamed the streets a bit burning off dinner and snapping pictures of the beautiful nighttime scenery.

One habit I picked up years ago, is to always throw some running shoes and an outfit in my travel bag. I love to strike out on a tourist a run through a new city and take it in. I can cover more ground and I give myself the option to stop whenever I want to take a picture or just admire the scenery, or a bird, or whatever strikes my fancy. On Sunday morning, I woke up to my alarm at 7, pulled on my running clothes, and stumbled downstairs to find a cup of coffee. Fortunately, a pot had been brewed. I threw back a cup, started up map my run, and struck out in a circle around the city. I was thrilled to explore the city at sunrise. The streets were empty of people, giving me a chance to quietly absorb the architectural beauty of the buildings and canals and admire the ducks. Bonus: I burned off the bier and chocolate from the day before and could start with a blank slate.

My goal was to go as far as I could, creating a circle, without consulting a map. My sense of direction has drastically improved living in Europe and it mostly worked out today, until I consulted my map at the end and saw I’d overshot my turn by about a kilometer. Never mind, I retraced my steps and made it back in time to get ready for our next stop at the beach. 

We drove about 30 minutes to Nieuwpoort on the North Sea. Our goal was to find a big breakfast (I’m not sure why we were hungry after all the food the day before…), but it was before 11 am and so it could not be found. An early big breakfast is just not a thing in Europe! We settled for a quick bakery breakfast which turned out to be great because we discovered a delicious fish soup a few hours later for lunch.

I have this running bucket list of places where I’ve stood in the ocean in my bare feet on a new shoreline. Actually, now that I think of it, I haven’t tracked it very well. So, let’s see what I can remember: California, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, Oregon, Georgia, Virginia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, I feel like I’m missing some but that’s good for now. The weather was cold on Sunday, probably around 30 F on the beach. But, I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t let myself down. So I pulled off my shoes and tights, awkwardly, fortunately I had a long coat on… (yes, I picked the wrong day to wear a dress and tights) and ran in to the ocean. Tilghman, of course had to follow my lead. We’re both ocean people. And we laughed as we froze our toes in the North Sea. Now I can add Belgium to my list.

After freezing our toes we rambled along the beach searching for shells en route to a pier. As we walked, the sun came and went, occasionally peeking between the clouds and lighting up the drifts of broken razor clam shells on the beach. A couple of guys were kite-skating (I guess that’s what it was) on the beach riding on modified skate boards. Wow that looked fun! 

As we walked along the pier we observed the gulls and shore birds below hunting for food and when I reached the end a gull visited me for a science lesson. He bounced along the railing and after a few minutes made a funny movement of his head, stretching out his neck before promptly regurgitating a pile of shells. So, that explained the strange clumps of broken shells along the railing. It appears that the birds would harvest shells off the rocks. Grind down the shells in their crop to harvest the meat and then regurgitate the remains. Pretty cool!

After the lovely science lesson my bird friend flew away, and we realized we were COLD! Time for soup and shopping. Then the drive back to Dusseldorf.

I returned home satisfied with the weekend and reflecting on the friendly people I met in Belgium during my two visits last week. A lovely country, worth a visit.