Brussels—A Grand Place

Brussels has been getting a lot of bad press in recent months. There is no denying that a shadow of sadness has been cast over this beautiful metropolis. However, Brussels and its people seem stronger than ever and they are open for business as usual. So if you are planning a trip that includes Belgium’s capital, here are some of our tips to make your visit not only memorable, but economical as well.

The Grand Place
The Grand Place

Brussels is a beautiful and expensive place to visit, unless you come on a weekend. Yes, you read that right. Since it’s the capital of the European Union and Headquarters for NATO, it’s filled with politicians, diplomats, and civil servants. They all head for their respective homes and countries starting on Friday. As a result, many expensive hotels drop their prices drastically for the weekends. We took advantage by booking a lovely room in the historic 5-star Hotel Metropole in the heart of the city. Its location was perfect and an easy walk to the majestic Grand Place (the unofficial city center). This was probably one of the few times in our lives we were able to actually afford a 5-star hotel. We’ve stayed there a couple of times and we got great deals each time.

Hotel Metropole 01
The Hotel Metropole

The Metropole was built in 1895 and is considered a historic landmark; it didn’t disappoint. Our room was lovely and the crest-emblazoned robes and slippers that were left folded on the bed were luxuries we could get very used to! But the real glory of the Metropole is its historic lobby. It seemed a bit like we had stepped into a time machine that swept us a century or so back in time. Even if you don’t stay here, the lobby is worth a stop. We parked the car at a convenient underground garage across the street since we wouldn’t need it the entire time we were in the city.

Brussels Grand Place at NIght 01
The Grand Place at Night

We always start our explorations at the Grand Place, and it never fails to take our breath away. It’s majestic during the day, but at night it’s really unbelievable. The buildings and towers are lit up and people are everywhere taking pictures of the incredible spectacle. Brussels is also known for the famous fountain the Manneken Pis (Little Peeing Boy). It’s a small bronze sculpture of a (you guessed it!) little boy peeing into the fountain. It’s rather small and tucked away on a side street, but it sort of

Shop Babies 01
Get yours today!

represents a tradition and people from all over just have to get a photo of the fountain. And of course the souvenir shops overflowed with Manneken Pis bottle openers, key chains, corkscrews (my personal favorite), molded chocolates, and full-sized garden statues for the really classy tourist that wants to bring a little bit of Belgian charm to their backyards.

Brussels is also the European home for comics. Sides of buildings throughout the city have painted murals of famous comic scenes and characters. The city is the birthplace of Tintin. I’ve been a fan of his since childhood, long before Steven Spielberg ever turned him into a CG

Tintin Mural 01
Tintin and Captain Haddock

animated movie. I raced home from school when I was little to see Tintin cartoons on TV. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of books, miniatures, and just about anything Tintin that I could get my grubby little hands on. Between visits to the Belgian Comic Strip Center Museum and various shops—including one completely devoted to all things Tintin—I have added substantially to my collection of goodies.

Beer 01

Speaking of goodies, you can’t go to Belgium without some culinary indulgence. There are four things in particular that you must try. First, Belgian waffles. They come out of the waffle iron with a caramelized sugar coating. You can get them plain or with different toppings, like whipped cream or Nutella. We opted for the whipped cream and never looked back. Inexpensive and easy to eat while walking. Second are the fries (Pommes Frites). They are everywhere! Belgium as a country is famous for their frites. Do what the locals do. Dive into your frites served up with a big dollop of mayonnaise or any one of the countless exotic sauce choices they offer. To American ears, mayonnaise on French fries sounds a bit weird. But we’re not talking about the garden-variety off-the-shelf stuff from Safeway. It’s really tasty. Third, Belgian beer! They brew many varieties and all of them are great. My favorite is Kriek, which uses sour cherries in the fermenting process, making a delicious and refreshing beer that’s a perfect cooler on a hot summer day.

Those Wonderful Frites 01
I’ll take mine with mayo, S’il vous plait…

Finally, you really must treat yourself to liberal doses of CHOCOLATE. Belgian chocolates look a lot like the ones that come in those boxes you see around Valentine’s day. But they’re in a whole different class. We’ve had world-class chocolates from France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and Austria, but Belgium always seems to come in at the top of this class. You’ll do your waistline no favors, but you will have plenty of time to pay for your sins when you get home. In Brussels, we stopped at a wonderful little chocolate shop called—of all things—Mary,  and indulged in some of the loveliest chocolates we’ve ever eaten. The woman who served us especially recommended a variety with a filling made from the tropical tonka bean. Of course, they were delicious. Mary is the chocolatier to the Belgian Royal Family and many of the beautifully decorated treats are named after members of that dynasty.

As a parting note, be aware that in August the EU and NATO offices close for a month, so it may be possible to find some great hotel deals during that time. We are thinking that we might make a return visit next year. We’ll see!

Anytime is a good time for a wine fest!

2016 was a good year…

We’ve lived in Germany for about 3½ years now, nearly twelve years in total. And one thing we’ve learned is that Germans do fests really well. We used to joke about what happens when you get more than 5 Germans together–a fest. These celebrations happen all year long but more often in the summer and for a whole host of reasons. Back in the 1700s there might have been an awesome garlic crop, and so presto! a garlic fest! Many of these events commemorate a particular saint, a town, a village’s founder, a specific fruit (such as cherry or strawberry fest), or possibly the time when more than 5 locals got together 300 years ago.

A lot of people think that fests are all about beer but Germany also produces wonderful wines and so we have the inevitable wine fests to celebrate. Our city of Wiesbaden has an annual one called the ‘Rheingauer Weinwoche Wiesbaden’ (or Rheingau Wine Week Wiesbaden). Even though it’s called wine week, the fest actually runs for 10 days. This year heralded the 41st annual Weinwoche which ran from 12–21 August with offerings from over 100 vintners from the Rheingau district which surrounds the city. This is no small affair. Tens of thousands of thirsty fest-goers attend where an estimated 300,000 bottles of wine and sekt (sparkling wines) are

Our first glass of the evening

consumed. And since that is quite a number of people imbibing, the city offers special discounted bus tickets. Present your validated ticket at the city-sponsored booth and you receive a card for a free glass of wine to start off the festivities. This is also the place where you can pick up your custom wine glasses that are created each year by the city of Wiesbaden. They are inexpensive souvenirs (2 Euros a piece) which are not only decorative, but awfully handy while you try out the various wines.


Dinner is served!

There are always bands performing all types of music on three different stages and you are sure to find something wonderful to eat at one of the many food vendors. In addition to the noble bratwurst, you can find wonderful selections that pair perfectly with whatever wine you like. You’ll find merchants preparing platters of antipasti with a selections of cheeses, meats, fruit, and breads. Or giant soft baked pretzels with a side of Spundekäse which is a mixture of cream cheese, quark (a German spreadable cheese), onions, garlic, and sweet paprika. There are lots of other tasty delicacies that are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say, you will not go hungry.

Festive indeed.

Germans always seem to have a great time at fests, whatever the theme or reason. We have noticed at these types of events, alcohol—whether beer or wine—sometimes flows at an alarming rate. If this were in the States, I’m sure I’d see news reports the next day of drunken brawls with arrests being made. But here? To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, Germans “just want to have fun.” You’ll see them sitting at fest tables, engaged in conversation and enjoying life along with their wine and Spundekäse. A few break into unusual forms of interpretive dance while a local cover band plays hits of the ‘80s. The Germans are often thought of as a very staunch and practical people. But give them a fest and they can have fun with the best of them.

Next year’s Weinwoche is scheduled for 11–20 August. You should consider giving it a try for your next holiday. You won’t be sorry, except perhaps for that slight headache you might experience the morning after—but it’s well worth it!

Bad Ems—Really Not Bad After All

Bad Ems, situated on the banks of the River Lahn, dates back to Roman times and historically was the place for a rest cure for the rich, the famous, and the royal. This beautiful town has also been known as the “Emperor’s Spa,” due to the fact that the Emperor Wilhelm I visited Bad Ems regularly for almost twenty years in the 19th century. The list of dignitaries who visited the town was a long one. From royalty such as King George IV of England to the some of the legends of the arts community, everyone who was anyone came to this lavish spa town for recuperation as well as recreation.

The Kur and Therapy Center

Today Bad Ems is still a place of relaxation and healing. In Germany, many citizens can go to their doctor and be prescribed a “kur.” This is basically an all-expense paid trip to a spa town where you can rest, partake in various therapies, soak in the mineral-rich waters, and restore yourself to health. Nice work (or rest) if you can get it! Kurs are becoming less of a regular part of German life nowadays. The younger generation tends to feel they are not needed or are more for the elderly.

A lovely town

But Bad Ems is a lovely place to wander. The architecture is lavishly Baroque and Rococo in style. The pastel shades of the buildings are cheerful, yet restful. The town has an abundance of parks and green spaces to walk in. Or you can just to sit on one of the many benches along the River Lahn and watch the people stroll past. There didn’t seem to be that many people on the day we were there. This was a little surprising since this was high season, but it was the middle of the week. Sadly, we have noticed a major drop in tourism of late, probably due to the unrest that has hit Europe. We detest crowds and love not having to search for an available table for lunch, so there is an upside for us. But it is a major blow for the local economy. I must admit that it felt rather odd to see so few people enjoying the beautiful day.

The town is not huge and makes a lovely day-trip. Besides all the natural and architectural eye-candy, Bad Ems has a few pleasant diversions for your day. There are some wonderful shops including a few of the antique variety that are really enjoyable to poke around in. There are plenty of places to sit outside and have a typical German lunch without breaking the bank. A hearty and delicious meal of a schnitzel with mushrooms, French fries, and a salad that tasted fresh from the garden was only 10.50 Euros. You can also take a 1-hour boat cruise down the Lahn that allows you to enjoy the scenery while an explanation of the sights and buildings is broadcast over a loud speaker as you

Taking the waters

pass. And you’ll want to stop at the Roman Spring for a taste of the mineral water out of the faucet. It is said to cure digestive problems but be sure and bring your own cup. Supposedly the Romans relied upon these waters to ease their tummy troubles after enjoying one feast too many!

St. Martin’s Church

There are two lovely churches that deserve special attention. One is the gleaming, golden onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel dedicated to St. Alexandra. It is only open a few hours in the afternoons. For the entrance fee of 1 Euro you can go inside and see a profusion of Russian icons, paintings, and gold encrusted creations all set inside a surprisingly small space. Saint Martin’s Catholic Church is also worth a stop. With its William Morris-styled frescos painted on the walls, and its distinctive altar decorated with a pelican’s nest and forest animals, this church is truly unique.

A fresco in St. Martin’s

Finally, there is a cable railway called the Kurwaldbahn that climbs a very steep 220 meters to a breathtaking view of the Lahn valley every 10 minutes starting around 6:00 a.m. and running until 10:00 at night. At the top, you can grab a bite at a café with panoramic views from the terrace or take a hike on one of the numerous walking paths at your disposal.

There is more to see and do in this enchanting town, but that will have to wait for another day and another visit. Above everything else, the best thing to do in Bad Ems is just relax.

[Note: for those who are not familiar with Germany, “Bad” denotes a spa town, with mineral springs. It translates literally as “Bath.” It is often used as a prefix, as in Bad Homburg or Bad Kissingen, but is also often incorporated into place names, such as Wiesbaden or Karlsbad.]

Goodnight, Vienna…

Just another bakery—with amazing architecture!

We are at our last post about our trip to Vienna. So far we have covered staying in a Tyrolean cottage, musical restrooms, our search for the ultimate Sacher Torte, and the sad tale of the Empress Sisi. But now we want to share just a few more sights we enjoyed and we also want to show one way to save a small bundle on attractions if you decide to visit this historic city.

One of our most memorable visits in the city was to the Kunsthistorisch (Art History) Museum in the Neue Burg (New Palace). The inside of the

The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

building was a marvel in itself before we ever saw any of the exhibits. Emperor Franz Joseph had this museum built to house the imperial collections and he spared no expense. If you spend much time in Europe, you inevitably see a lot of the great works of western art. These collections

A stairway in the Museum
A stairway in the Museum

were among the very best we’ve seen. We saw masterpieces by Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer, as well as the world’s largest collection of works by Bruegel. I saw a lot of works that I could remember seeing in textbooks when I was a child. It was quite an experience for us to wander gallery after gallery and gaze in person upon these incredible pieces that show up regularly as illustrations in books and magazines.

The baby was irresistible.
The baby was irresistible.
A harpsichord
Harpsichord, Joseph Salodiensis, 1559

The museum also housed a wonderful collection of Historic Musical Instruments. This was a real treat for us. Vienna is known for its legacy of magnificent composers. Gazing upon some of the actual instruments used in their day was quite inspiring. Many of these not only played melodies but were also beautiful works of art.

In addition to art and music we visited the huge exhibit of medieval arms and armor. We walked through room after room filled with some of the most spectacular and elaborately adorned full-sized suits of armor, as well as hunting and ceremonial weapons. There was even a collection of magnificent saddles for the well-dressed steed of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. We ended up our day viewing the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection, where we entered an Egyptian burial chamber and saw an incredible assortment of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

Armed to the teeth
Armed to the teeth

Vienna is filled with a multitude of things to see and of course we couldn’t manage them all. But if you ever do plan to visit this incredible city, be sure to take advantage of the Vienna Pass. This little card gave us free entry into over 60 of Vienna’s most popular attractions and museums for one price. It not only saved us a bundle but it also in many cases allowed us to skip the long lines of people waiting for tickets. We were able to show our cards at various attractions and get waved through, to the consternation and somewhat irritated looks from those stuck in the line. For a brief, shining moment we knew what it must feel like to be a celebrity. If you ever plan a trip to Vienna, this is a must. For more information you can check out their website at: Highly recommended.

Vienna is truly a magical place and we want to visit there again. But there are so many places we still want to see before it’s time to go home. Keep checking back here and see where we go next!