A Day in Hindeloopen

Following on from last week’s post, we’re going to stay in Friesland in the tiny village of Hindeloopen. It almost sounds like the something the doctor would conclude after he looks inside your mouth and asks you to say, “Ahh!”

Main Street
Main Street

Hindeloopen is actually an often overlooked fishing village of about 800 residents on the IJsselmeer in the Netherlands. In former times, the IJsselmeer (pronounced approximately Ice-ul-mair) was the Zuiderzee, a shallow bay of the North Sea, teeming with fish and providing a nice living for this picturesque little village. Then in 1932, an 18-mile wide dam was built across the mouth of the bay, creating the largest freshwater lake in western Europe. In the warmer months the breezy lake is filled with parasailers and sailboats. Sheep appear to be the next largest group of inhabitants. They can be seen laying on the dykes watching all the water sports and happily munching on huge swaths of what looked like the

Sun and fun on the IJsselmeer

perfect shade of green grass. Wool seems to be a major industry here, along with black and white dairy cows that dot the landscape everywhere. In the winter, ice skating is a popular activity and the locals use the many canals that crisscross the village to skate on when it’s cold enough. This has been such way of life that there is a small museum dedicated to the town’s ice skating legacy and it’s well worth a visit.

There was a special art and culture day happening on one of the days we visited. Vendors were set up throughout the streets spinning and dying wool and demonstrating various traditional crafts. The merchants sold everything from hand-knitted sweaters and scarves to hand-carved wooden items and jewelry. Many locals were decked out in their traditional folk costumes. It was a rare treat for us.

The whole family out on the town

Speaking of traditional crafts, Hindeloopen is also known for its distinctive style of furniture painting. Its colorful and intricate designs are

The Zweeds

among my favorites. I was able to renew an old acquaintance with Harman Zweed, a local painter who has since retired. I have purchased several of Mr. Zweed’s painted items on past visits. He and his wife are lovely people and they posed for some photos in their shop dressed in their traditional finery.

Pannekoeken is a wonderful restaurant where you can grab a table outside and sit along the canal. They specialize in sweet and savory paper thin pancakes (crepes) served up in a large skillet. It makes for a delightful lunch. We were entertained by a few of the local sparrows that perched on our hands when tempted with a bit of pancake. The restaurant and ice skating museum are owned by the Bootsma family which includes Gauke and Gretha Bootsma along with their three grown children Pieter, Gretel, and Hendrika. Attached to the restaurant is a magnificent store filled with furniture painted by Gauke and Pieter in the workshop in the attic. I defy anyone to go through the store without purchasing some treasure to take home. This particular style of painting is unique to Hindeloopen. Many of the traditional local artists are gone or have retired, so it’s wonderful to see the next generation keep this cherished legacy going.

Whenever we’re in town, there’s one place we try not to miss. It’s an antique barn which is always filled to the rafters with tons of neat stuff. We LOVE this place and always make a stop. It has a little bit of everything and there’s no way to see it all. There’s a very steep staircase (these seem to be a specialty in the Netherlands) that you must climb to see all the other bits and pieces on the upper floor. This is done at your own risk but it’s worth it to see all the treasures. When it’s time to descend the stairs you have to walk down as if you are a ballerina in first position with each foot pointing as far out as possible on each narrow tread. We scored an 86” wide vintage hanging schoolhouse map of Europe in Dutch that was dangling from the attic beams (our bravery climbing those stairs paid off). We were able to buy it for a paltry 50 Euros. Now it hangs in our bedroom on the one wall in our house that’s tall and wide enough. We got an added bonus on one visit to the barn. When we asked the proprietor if he spoke English, he told us “of course!” Then he gave us a lesson on the close connection between English and Frisian, pointing out a number of words that are either very similar or exactly the same in the two tongues. A little research after the fact revealed that Frisian actually is the most closely related language to English and that linguists group the two together in the Anglo-Frisian language group. So the next time that comes up when you’re playing Trivial Pursuit, you can thank us.

There's treaure buried in here
There’s treasure buried in here

Hindeloopen may have an odd sounding name but you will not be sorry to visit this charming fishing village. Enjoy the scenery, the people, the history, and you just might get invited to have lunch with some of the local birds.

A Different Bit of The Netherlands

Many people tend to use Holland and The Netherlands interchangeably, even some people who live there. But North Holland and South Holland are just two of the twelve provinces that make up The Netherlands. We have traveled pretty widely from one end of the country to the other but the province that keeps drawing us back doesn’t seem to be on most peoples’ itineraries. When we point the car north, it seems like more often than not, we wind up in Friesland (or Fryslân in the local West Frisian dialect). I think it’s because more than any other province, Friesland seems to capture for us the essence of Dutch life. It’s a little more relaxed than its southerly neighbors and it really allows us to leave the outside world behind, in a way that very few places do.

Evening in Bolsward

Friesland really lends itself to touring by car, provided you are not in a rush. The roads are very well maintained and it’s easy to get nearly anywhere quickly. But the entire region is crisscrossed with canals, and they aren’t just for decoration. It’s not at all unusual to wait for several minutes as a drawbridge is raised to allow a boat (or two, or three) to pass. But the scenery is uniformly pleasant and if you’re in a hurry, you would probably be more inclined to a weekend in Amsterdam anyway.

For our last couple of visits, we have chosen the charming town of Bolsward as our base of operations. It’s central and very accommodating to visitors. We stay at Het Weeshuis (http://hotelhetweeshuis.nl/), a very

The town hall at dusk

pleasant hotel located in the Kerkstraat in a historic orphanage dating back to 1553. The rooms are large and comfortable, and it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the beautiful, friendly town center. The proprietors, Mylan and Manon Lin, are a young couple and he is a talented chef, always taking advantage of local produce at the peak of freshness. It is worth your while to book a table for dinner for at least one evening of your stay. The menu is fixed for each evening and it’s a very nice dining experience indeed.

A five-minute stroll will take you to the heart of the old town, where the impressive city hall (completed 1617) stands at one end of the town square with the Hotel/Restaurant De Wijnberg at the other. A canal bisects the square, with shops and restaurants lining either side. The railings next to the canal were festooned with flower boxes overflowing with colorful cascades of blooms. The emphasis here is on relaxed. Local families looking like they just stepped out of a tourism brochure, can be seen enjoying the evening air. Norman Rockwell would be hard pressed to portray a more idealized looking family group. Several times we noticed that shopkeepers would sometimes step out for a quick bite without bothering to lock up or even move their wares in from the sidewalk. It was a very nice change.

A stroll into town

One experience really underlined the relaxing, low-pressure nature of the place. We set out early one morning in our Honda Odyssey to explore some of the nearby sights. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and found myself driving the wrong way down a one-way street. But this wasn’t just any one-way street. To my left was a canal, with tiny little parking spaces for local residents. To my right, pretty gabled brick houses left no room at all. Of course, someone turned into the street coming in the other direction. I was clearly in the wrong here. I couldn’t go forward and I wasn’t sure I could back up without smashing something. I had visions of the other driver jumping out of his car and yelling at me for being the goof-up that I very clearly was. Instead, without missing a beat, he whipped into one of the impossibly small parking spaces that I had assumed was not big enough to accommodate a Smart Car. Then he smiled broadly and signaled me to proceed, waving as I went by as if he was expecting us to stop by for a beer later. What had looked like a very stressful start to the day turned out to be one more exercise in slowing down and relaxing. It set just the right tone for a pleasant day in this least stressful part of The Netherlands.

The “Kerk” in Kerkstraat

I had intended to cover more ground in this post but I’m afraid I got pleasantly lost in Bolsward. In a future post (or posts), we’ll look at a few other places, such as Sneek and Hindeloopen.

Die Wasp, Die!

Well, it finally happened. After all these years—59 to be exact—I was stung by a wasp. Not just any wasp, but a house guest. Air conditioning is just about nonexistent here in Europe and another rarity is the window screen. In the summertime we find ourselves, swatters in hand, doing our best to escort flying insects across the “rainbow bridge.” This is clearly also a problem for the Germans, who have come up with a very handy little gadget to address the issue. It looks kind of like a badminton racket, only the strings have been replaced with a metal mesh. Pop in a couple of AA batteries, and presto! You become a human bug zapper. The brief flash followed by a faint whiff of smoke gives me a certain feeling of vengeance that I never knew I was capable of. Trust me, I’m bringing a couple of these babies back to the States with me.

They rolled out the yellow carpet for us

We noticed several weeks back that along with the hot summer weather, we seemed to have a lot of wasps in the house. Not just flying around, but actual carcasses on the floor. We were even more perplexed when we returned from four days away in France recently. We had closed up all the windows before we left but as we walked up the stairs, it looked like the remnants of a terrible wasp battle that both sides had lost. There in front of us were 50 or so dead wasps. We found out from our landlord that there might have been a slight problem a while back with wasps entering in the house through a small access point on the top floor. Well, the cooler temperatures are now arriving, and this pesky little problem is more or less behind us. But it did not happen soon enough for me and one of the little buggers hid inside a nightgown. OUCH! I found out rather quickly that yes, wasp stings really do hurt. Luckily, I don’t need an Epi-Pen fix since I’m not allergic. But the whole affair certainly made me happy to see Fall arrive. Nevertheless, I have my handy-dandy zapper at the ready if I need it.

A sampling of the local wildlife

We celebrated the arrival of autumn by going downtown to shop on a Sunday. Traditionally, you can only do this twice a year, as the stores are all closed. However, with the arrival of Spring and once again at the

Shells and spices to bring in the Fall
Shells and spices to bring in the Fall

beginning of Fall, the doors are flung open on Sunday so that people can better prepare for the coming cold (or warm) weather. Not to waste a wonderful opportunity, they also used that weekend for a city fest and craft market. Everywhere were artisans selling their handmade wares such as squirrels and hedgehogs made of straw, dried floral arrangements, honey and beeswax candles, and all manner of baked goods. Street performers were out in droves and the crowds were large. Normally, the downtown area is quite empty on Sunday, so this was rare opportunity to see everyone enjoying the extra day of retail therapy.


Now Honey, that’s good coffee…

The city laid out yellow carpeted runners in many of the smaller pedestrian streets and alleys downtown to direct crowds to some of the less frequented areas. The smaller shops get a little extra attention as locals meander down streets they might normally miss. One such path took us down into a small courtyard where we found the Hepa Kaffee Café. Their logo always reminds me of the old Lucky Strike cigarettes but the similarity ends there, because Hepa Coffee is really wonderful. The local radio classical music station was remotely broadcasting their afternoon

Enjoying some java and some Puccini

show in the courtyard in front of the café. We found ourselves a small bistro table in the sunshine. We enjoyed a lovely (and very large) cappuccino while the lilting strains of Italian opera floated through the courtyard. I only vaguely remembered the sting from the morning as I rubbed the affected spot. But it faded as I realized that life just doesn’t get much better than this. Sitting in the European sunshine with a great cup of coffee while being serenaded by Madame Butterfly takes a lot of sting out of life.


Somebody else heading for the fest

Wiesbaden is a lovely city that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the travel press. Because we live here, we often tend to overlook it ourselves. But since we started writing about our travels, I think we’ve gained a greater appreciation of our current adopted hometown. While our blog posts will be mostly about places farther afield, we will occasionally drop in a quick note about some of our favorite local events and attractions. Stay tuned.

Cruising Along the Rhine

We recently attended Bill’s annual organization day, an opportunity for the staff and their families to enjoy a day away from the office and engage in some social time. This often takes the form of a cook-out, or some pastime like bowling. Ah! But this is Europe, and so we took advantage of one of the opportunities that living and working here makes possible. The event? A round-trip river cruise from the lovely town of Rüdesheim (sort of pronounced “rude-es-heim”) down the Rhine to the charming village of St. Goar. We stopped there for several hours to see the sights and enjoy lunch at a sidewalk café.

Getting started at Rüdesheim

The weather Deities smiled on us that day; we had sunshine and blue skies, with a slight breeze to make the journey pleasant. If you ever plan to visit Germany, a Rhine cruise is a really nice way to spend a day. They are relatively inexpensive—roughly $25 round-trip per adult for a trip similar to ours. And you have a wide variety of origins and destinations to choose from. You could even ride the boat one way and take a train back. All the towns along the river (in this area, at least) are well served by Deutsche Bahn, or German Rail. Enjoying the views of the many vineyards and castles that have made the Rhine Valley famous is a memorable experience.

Castles, castles everywhere!

As I noted, our day began in the picturesque town of Rüdesheim. Germany has a number of places that attract a lot of tourists but are always fun to visit anyway. This popular destination is famous for its Riesling wines (and brandy) as well as the historic Drosselgasse, a very narrow street lined with shops, taverns, and restaurants. There is plenty to see and do but we will cover that in another post later. For this day, Rüdesheim was our jumping off point for a voyage down the Rhein!

And another…

The ride was smooth and even though there were three decks on the boat, most of us enjoyed the outside top deck. There were plenty of tables and chairs to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of champagne. We expected the prices for beverages and snacks to be steep but we were pleasantly surprised to find they were about the same as we would find at a typical restaurant in our own neighborhood. We drifted past charming villages, each one sporting onion-domed churches, half-timbered buildings, and of course, vineyards hanging from the steep slopes. And oh, The castles! After about the first five we cruised by we lost count.

In the middle ages, the Rhine was the primary transportation route from south to north. If you had goods to transport, this was pretty much your only option, if you were going any distance at all. Every baron with the power and money to do it took advantage of the outstanding vantage points along the Rhine gorge to erect a castle so he could levy tolls on vessels using the river. Today, there is hardly a spot between Rüdesheim and Koblenz where you can’t see at least a couple of castles. Most are ruins but several have been well preserved and you can even book a stay in a few. Anyway, it’s all a feast for the eyes.

One of many riverside villages

We also cruised past the famous Lorelei, a 433-foot-high rock on the right bank of the river. Legend has it that a golden-haired siren would perch atop the rock and enchant the passing sailors, who would be lured to their deaths on the craggy rocks below. Not exactly a happy thought, but an interesting bit of history nonetheless. Today, it often serves as a venue for outdoor concerts.

We docked at Saint Goar for a few hours to explore and have lunch. We decided to take a walk up to Castle Rheinfels which was built in 1245. There is a tram of sorts that can also take you up, but its schedule seemed a bit erratic to us. We made the journey on foot, to ensure we would have time for lunch before getting back on the boat. It was a steep path with quite a few uneven stone steps, but it wasn’t overly taxing. With our stomachs rumbling, we elected not to take a tour of the castle once we reached it but the views of the valley and the river were well worth the hike.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle on an island in the river

After the trek back down the mountain, we stopped on the main street and enjoyed a wonderful lunch al fresco. Finally, we got back on the boat. The return trip to Rüdesheim was a bit slower than the morning’s cruise, since we were going against the current. But it was no less pleasant for that. The open top deck of a boat on a warm summer day with just enough of a breeze to make it comfortable is a recipe for a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon. We will certainly be doing this again.

Automat Memories and One Very Tasty Meal

Good things await inside.

Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.

This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”

A meal to savor

Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.

Heaven on a plate

We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites.  We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.

roppenheim-8aWe went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.

New potatoes

Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.

“Plan B” Travel and Really, Really Good Chocolate!

It’s safe to say that Bill and I LOVE chocolate! We’ll admit it, we’re chocolate snobs, although sometimes it’s hard to beat the perfection of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Living overseas has allowed us to try some of the best that Europe has to offer. Up until now, Belgium reigned supreme when it came to the smack-down competition for the best confections. But–we might have a new champion!

Heaven waits within.

We just returned from a glorious three days in Troyes, France. We had planned on going to Lille, France for the annual flea market. This historic event runs for 33-hours straight and has taken place each year for the last couple of centuries (except during wartime). It’s a lollapalooza spanning the city’s streets with millions of visitors in attendance each year, except this one. Unfortunately, the city mayor canceled this year’s bacchanalia of bric-a-brac due to security concerns.

Where to begin?

Disappointed–but not dejected–we came up with a Plan B; Troyes. We will go into much greater detail in a later post about this wonderful city. But remember, I started with the subject of chocolate and that is our topic for today’s dispatch.

We have a knack for spotting chocolate shops wherever we go and this time was no different. We seem to have an inner GPS pegged on “search for chocolate” and our internal compasses did not fail us. The shop was called “Pascal-Caffet” and they sold some of the most delicious artisan chocolates we had ever tasted. They utilize only the finest chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Madagascar, and many other exotic locales for their sweets.

The lovely lady behind the counter greeted us in English and began singing her siren song. “Would Monsieur or Madame like a sample?” She slid the clear acrylic cover to the side and the luscious aroma of the confections hit us like chocolate pheromones. Her delicate gloved hand searched for just the right arrow that she knew would pierce any rational thought. “Does Monsieur or Madame like pistachio?” By this time a tiny trickle of drool was starting from the corner of my mouth. Grasping for words, all we could manage was an uncontrollable nodding of our heads. But inside we were screaming, “Yes! Yes! For God’s sake YES! Pistachio!!”

You must try one of these.

We were done for. She plopped the petite indulgences into our eager little palms and we popped them into our mouths. What happened next? It’s difficult to say since we were enraptured by one of the most delicious flavors we had ever experienced. “First you taste zee Venezuelan chocolate, zen, the pistache, zen you finish with zee chocolate last. Non?” We could hear her lilting French accent off in the distance, but the world melted away like the chocolate on our tongues. Forget Godiva, or Dutch, German, Swiss, or Belgian chocolate. This was a mind-blowing religious experience! I almost felt like I needed a cigarette. We left with a small bag of about 100 grams which was about 8 pieces for roughly 10 Euros (or $11.50) and worth every Euro cent.

We asked about their operating hours since we knew we’d make at least one more visit to buy a few treats for the road. We needed to get them while still in town. They have shops in France, Italy, the UK, and Japan and none of them ship outside those countries. Due to possible delivery delays or less than optimal temperatures while in transit, they cannot guarantee freshness on arrival. So being able to purchase a few more grams before our drive home was imperative. Needless to say, the chocolates never made it all the way back.

And it’s more than just chocolates…

Here is the link for the UK site in English. Even though you can only live vicariously, it’s worth a look to see what these tasty morsels look like. http://www.pascalcaffet.co.uk/


Who the Heck drives 2½ Hours for a Sandwich?

Okay, it wasn’t only for the sandwich, but that was the moving force behind the day’s journey a month or so back. The sandwich in question was in Strasbourg, France and it really was that good. Just before Christmas two years ago, we took a day trip to Strasbourg with our dear friends and former neighbors from Würzburg, David and Daniela. Strasbourg always has a really nice Christmas market and it was as good an excuse as any to re-visit this lovely (and conveniently nearby) Alsatian city. The drive was pretty uneventful but when we got there, our usual parking garage was full. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze our Honda Odyssey into a Smart-Car-sized space in another garage with a bit of backing and filling, and we set off to find Yuletide treasures.

Aladdin's Cave?
Aladdin’s Cave?

As morning turned to afternoon, David and I wanted to grab a bite. Daniela and Mary weren’t interested so we decided we would just grab a sandwich on the run. Luckily, we found ourselves in front of a very small and inconspicuous boulangerie called Panette in the city’s “Petite France” district. They had an assortment of freshly made sandwiches under the counter and David and I selected a couple that looked likely to keep body and soul together for the rest of the afternoon. The woman behind the counter popped them into a small oven for a couple of minutes (definitely not a microwave!), then handed them over, nicely toasted. Since there was no seating, we took them with us to enjoy as we walked. We both took a bite and immediately looked at each other wide-eyed to see if we were both having the same experience. This was the best sandwich I could remember eating in my life—and anyone who knows me knows I’ve had more than a few! David was apparently having the same reaction.

A Library of Bread

It’s hard to say what made it so special. As sandwiches go, it wasn’t elaborate and there were no exotic ingredients. It started with a small baguette, baked fresh and topped with sesame seeds. This was spread with butter (Breton, I suspect) but no mayonnaise or other spreads. To this was added ham (definitely not from the refrigerator section), some local Munster cheese, fresh leaf lettuce, and finally, a light sprinkling of fresh herbs. Nothing fancy and nothing odd—just the very best ingredients working in perfect combination. My taste buds danced a can-can in celebration! I made a mental note of the bakery’s location and we vowed we would come back to Strasbourg, if only to prove to ourselves we weren’t over-reacting.

Petite France

Fast forward to July of this year. We went to Würzburg for the opening day of the Kiliani Fest, an annual celebration to honor St. Kilian, an Irish monk who introduced Christianity to the city in A.D. 686. As we sat in the fest tent enjoying the fruits of the vintners’ art from the local Franconian wine district, I asked David if he would be interested in going to Strasbourg a couple of weeks hence to grab a sandwich. “Of course!” he replied, without hesitation. Our calendars were open so we set the date.

It really is this pretty…

I won’t go into most of the details of our visit, except to say that the sandwiches did not disappoint the second time. We found the boulangerie without incident and stood in the street under our umbrellas, savoring every bite in the pouring rain. Daniela and Mary had made sure they brought their appetites with them this time and were able to provide independent confirmation that these were something more than your typical run-of-the-mill ham and cheese. We did notice that the bakery had won several quality awards since our last visit. This is no small achievement in France; the competition is stiff. Just this morning, we drove home from our latest French adventure in Troyes. We picked up a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches for the road. They were on brioche rolls rather than baguettes, but still absolutely delicious. Were they as good as the ones we got in Strasbourg? I’m not sure. But I think I’ll probably need to make several more visits to Panette before I can be really certain.

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.]