Day 23: La rue est une musée pour tous

This is one of the longer trips we’ve taken, and as such, we’re starting to get tired. Not just physically tired, but tired of seeing things and going places. This morning we were slow to get up and hemmed and hawed about our plans to go to Brussels for the day. We finally decided that we should go, as we did want to at least the Grand-Place.

We walked from our apartment to the Antwerpen-Centraal train station and noticed a lot of diversity on our walk – Muslim women in hijabs, Hasidic Jewish men in rekelech, hip young people and elegant older people.

When we reached the train station we grabbed some breakfast and admired the beautiful station.

We bought our train tickets (the ticket for seniors is literally twice the size of an adult ticket. Like large print), cuddled a cute dog, then hopped on a train for the 50 minute trip south. My cousin Dominique had said that in Brussels they tend to speak French rather than Flemish, so I mentally prepared to re-dust off my already dusty French lexicon.

The Brussels-Central station drops you off pretty much in the middle of the old town, so we walked through the train station, by the art nouveau Belgian Comic Book Station to our first stop, Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.

The Galeries is a long glass-covered arcade, lines with fancy jewellery shops and chocolatiers. We walked up and down, sampled some chocolates and picked out which watch costing tens of thousands of Euros we would choose.

We then headed to the Grand-Place. Full of tour groups and school groups, gilded with gold ornamentation and quite literally smelling of waffles, we walked around the square and decided which sunny patio we wanted to occupy for lunch.

We found a Rick Steves recommended restaurant, squeezed into the patio and enjoyed some beer, pizza, and Ma tried a Brussels waffle, which she said was markedly different from the sweeter Liège waffle.

We finished up our lunch and I wanted to see Mannekin Pis, the statue of the little boy peeing. On the way we noticed the Tintin Boutique. For those of you who don’t know, Tintin is the comic book character created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. I picked up some Tintin postcards and a Tintin planner and we went back to the streets. All along the street was waffle shops, beer stores, chocolatiers, and souvenir hawkers.

We reached the Mannekin Pis, underwhelming as he was, dressed in a jaunty outfit.

Our final stop, which I almost forgot about, was the Delirium Café. We walked through the Grand Place, again through les Galeries, turned off and down what was more than a café, but a Delirium block.

Pa and I decided on the Beer Cave, which boats over 2004 different beers available. I had a Delirium Red on tap and hiked along to Free Bird, which started playing on the sound system.

Pa and I could have stayed down there forever, but Ma wasn’t quite as keen as we were, so we headed back into the real world and the sunshine, and back to Antwerp for dinner and bed.

Day 21: We Built This City

Today was a special day for me so forgive me while I self-indulge.

A few years ago Pa was contacted on Facebook by a man from Belgium named Dominique who had the same last name as us. He asked if we were possibly related, so Pa responded with the ancestry that we were aware of, and discovered that Pa’s great-grandfather Ivo was brothers with Dominique’s great grandfather (making Pa and Dominique second cousins). Dominique was working on the family history and trying to trace not only the DeCaigny diaspora, but the DeCaigny ancestry as far back as he could. We kept in touch with Dominique on Facebook and Instagram and this year when we decided to visit Belgium, we were excited that we could meet him in person. And that was today.

We met Dominique hiding from the rain under the Belfry of the tiny West Flanders town of Tielt. We hugged and started chatting right away. Dominique had made some pretty special plans for the day, but we wanted to start by getting better acquainted, so we headed towards a coffee shop that was sadly closed, but it was the original house in Tielt that our ancestor Romain bought in the 1600s. Apparently Romain was quite adept at buying and flipping houses. He also built the top of the Belfry (UNESCO World Heritage Site).

We tucked into an open cafe, drank coffee, got to know each other and exchange gifts (Dominique made us beautiful books detailing the family history along with photos and documents).

Our next stop was the City Hall of Tielt, where our last name was immortalized in stained glass. There was also a painting of an ancestor who had fought in a few wars and lost his left hand (visible in the painting).

Next, Dominique managed to secure viewing some documents with the city archivist Hannes. Hannes has pulled a few books and papers to show us and also had encyclopedic knowledge of the entire history of the town. Hannes showed us a land book from the 1600s written by an ancestor, Romain DeCaigny’s death announcement, and my great grandfather Jules’ birth registry (which also mentioned my great great grandfather Ivo). Jules moved to Canada with his wife Léontine in 1913 and settled in St. Boniface, Manitoba.

Hannes was clearly very passionate and loved his job as the archivist. For fun, he showed us one of the archives, then put on white gloves to show us the oldest document they have there, a testimony by an spinster, written on animal-skin parchment in the 1300s. The whole thing was like my very own episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”.

We had a break for lunch where me, Pa and Dominique clinked beer glasses together for the first time. One of the many things that I learned from Dominique is that although the last name is French and probably came from France originally, the DeCaigny’s are Flemish (Dutch-speaking).

After lunch we hit the streets of Tielt, with Dominique giving us some WWI history in the city. During the War, Tielt was occupied by the Germans, who turned Tielt into their Flanders headquarters. Homeowners were kicked out to make way for soldiers and commanders, and it was in Tielt where the decision was made to use chlorine gas.

We then went to the local church, Saint Peter’s, where my great grandfather Jules married Léontine, and where many DeCaigny’s were baptized and/or buried.

The weather has cleared up and Dominique had one more surprise for us before we parted ways – he secured himself some of what was voted the best beer in the world 3 years in a row – Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij Van Westvleteren 12. We found a picnic table in a leafy park and sat down while Dominique poured the beer into the appropriate bar ware and told us the story of how you buy the notoriously difficult to acquire beer.

You can’t buy the beer just anywhere, you can only buy it from the brewery at the Monastery, and the monks only brew enough per month to support themselves and no more. If you’re interested in buying the beer, you go on the website, and they tell you what time you can call to order. They only have 1 phone line, so Dominique had 2 cell phones with him and would alternate calling over and over for an hour. When you get through you say how many cases you want and you give your license plate number and they tell you the time frame that you can come and pick it up. When you pick it up, they know your order from you license plate, you pay and load up your car.

I was a little concerned about drinking in the park, so this is how the conversation went with Dominique:

Me: are we allowed to drink in the park?

Dominique: allowed?

Me: won’t we get in trouble?

Dominique: in trouble from who?

Me: the police.

Dominique: what would the police do?

Me: in Canada you can’t drink in public. You could get a ticket.

Dominique: really? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

The beer was really delicious, smooth and rich, and definitely worth the kerfuffle that Dominique had to go through to get it. We finished our beers and made plans to see Dominique with the rest of his family on Friday in Antwerp, said our goodbyes, and headed back to Poelkapelle for one last sleep at the Farm.

Day 9: Nothing Compares 2 U

Today was our last full day in Ghent and our last day in Belgium for a little over a week, as tomorrow we’ll be heading into the Normandy area of France. I’m really excited to see Normandy but I’m very sad to be leaving Ghent, it has left quite the impression on me.

We were all feeling lazy this morning, so we slowly got ready, and Ma and Pa headed to the post office to mail back some gifts we have accumulated. I headed to this great little cafe called Wasbar for a bizarro breakfast – speculoos latte, orange juice, pain au chocolate, one egg, cheese, 3 pieces of toast, butter, jam and chocolate spread. It was a weird combo, but also delicious.

One of Pa’s travel traditions is that he likes to collect Harley Davidson t-shirts from where ever we visit, so while he grabbed a cab and headed to the shop, Ma and I wandered and chatted about travel to come. We met Pa an hour later, now getting close to lunch time and headed to our new favourite haunt, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a last hurrah there (this included a few beers). After the beers we headed back into one of the many great squares, and Pa and I had some frites from Peter’s and Ma had a waffle with caramel.

Ma had decided that she wanted to head back to St Bavo’s Cathedral to get some photos of the dramatic alter piece (Catholics, am I right?) so we all went, the cool Cathedral a welcome respite from the increasingly aggressive afternoon sun.

We decided for old time’s sake to get a few chocolates from the gourmet chocolatery (I got whipped coffee cream and creme brûlée), grabbed a bench in St Bavo’s square and watched the bubble man delight the children.

I decided that this guy has a great job. He doesn’t really have to talk to anyone, I’ll be let no one calls him an asshole, he doesn’t have coworkers who conspire against him. He just grabs his bucket of suds, his homemade bubble wand, sets out his hat and stands in the square, entertaining eager children. Benefits are probably shit, though.

Ma wanted some introvert recharge time, so while she went back to the hotel, Pa and I went to this other bar we had been eyeing, the outdoor portion wedged between 2 buildings and quite literally right on the canal. Had a taken one step to the left, I would have been wet.

While Pa and I were imbibing away the afternoon, a husband and wife in a kayak paddled up to the bar, right at our feet. The husband got out of the kayak (with Pa’s help), went in to the bar and came out with 2 bottles of kriek beer, 2 glasses and a role of duct tape. With his wife still in the kayak, he took out the duct tape, wrapped it around his wife’s sleeve and then to the brick ground. He literally taped his wife to the ground. He then poured their beers, they enjoyed them, and he was back in the kayak, un-taping his wife, then paddling on their merry way. It was one of the weirdest and most hilarious things I’ve seen in a while. I’d tried to stealthily grab some snaps on my phone:

After finishing off a second round, it was time to meet Ma at the Castle of the Counts for some more photos, followed by a traditional Flemish dinner of frites, waterzooi stew and meatballs.

We wandered back to our hotel, drinking in this wonderful city for the last time.

Day 8: I Know I’m Awake But I feel like I’m in a Dream

This morning we got up at a decent time and hit up an adorable little bakery around the corner for breakfast. At Julie’s we had iced lattes, cuberdon steamed milk, cinnamon buns and scones with jam and cream. Feeling satisfied we hopped a train northbound to the fairytale town of Bruges (or Brugge). Bruges was a sleepier town until the 2008 hit movie “In Bruges” (highly recommend, unless you’re offended by the word “fuck”) came out and tourism has skyrocketed. Apparently Ghent and Bruges are bitter rivals.

We walked the kilometre from the train station to the main market square – along with gobs of other tourists and travelers, some stopping right in front of you and blocking the entire narrow sidewalk to get the perfect shot.

We got to the busy market square and things were hoppin’ – tourists, waiters, horse drawn buggies and food carts crammed every corner. We were feeling a little overwhelmed and a little disoriented, so we stopped for a beer.

After some beers in some pretty ridiculous bar ware, we started our Rick Steves walking tour, starting at the belfry (as seen in In Bruges).

They’ve boarded up some of the viewing points on the upper part of the Belfry, thanks to a particular scene from the movie. Bruges is capital of West Flanders and is encircled and connected by waterways, where swans and tour boats are king.

Ma didn’t get a waffle the last time she and Pa were in Bruges, so we stopped by Fred’s and each had a delicious Liege-style waffle.

After our sweet treats, we wandered around the old squares, ancient houses, former markets, breweries and abbeys.

Everywhere we turned there were people. And not just people, but tourists (like us). We decided that we wanted to do my favourite thing – boat tour!

Our boat captain/tour guide was hilarious, with a dry sense of humour and cracking wise in 3 different languages (I’m assuming he was funny in Dutch, I can only vouch for English and French).

After 30 minutes of putting around the moat, Pa and I decided we were thirsty and had noticed a neat looking brewery on our boat trip – Bourgogne de Flanders – so we tracked it down, each got a flight of 6 beers and grabbed a table at the hip brewery (some hits, some weird misses).

We were almost Bruges’d out, but Pa had something to show me – the Bottle Shop.

This shop is like Mecca for good beer fans – ceiling to floor, wall to wall of brews, including a whole section of krieks. Truly breath taking!

We headed back to the square and grabbed a cab back to the train station and trained back to Ghent, where we had some delicious pizza and pasta for dinner and headed back to the hotel.

There are quite a few articles on the internet about Bruges vs Ghent and here is my opinion – Bruges is beautiful and cute and it is a fairytale town for a lot to see and a fun boat tour, but I got the sense that the town itself is disingenuous – like it existed solely as a tourist town. I don’t know how many Belgians actually live there. Ghent is also beautiful and interesting, but it just seems like it’s more of an authentic Belgian experience, because so many of the people there are native Gentenaars and the town doesn’t feel like it exists for tourism, which is how I felt about Bruges. Bruges is not a fucking shit hole, but if it came down to the 2 towns, I’m on team Ghent.

Germany, Day 18: And She Shows You Where To Look

Today is our last full day in Dresden before we leave tomorrow morning for our final leg on this German Odyssey – Berlin.  We’re pretty sad to say goodbye to Dresden because it’s a beautiful, vibrant and sumptuous city, perfect for exploring, relaxing and people watching.

I love all the different spires of the city, so on our way to Dresden’s “Green Vault”, I decided to indulge myself:

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We entered the palatial complex called the Zwinger that houses the Green Vault – a series of rooms that their 18th century Prince Elector, Augustus the Strong filled with different treasures and delights.

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There is only a certain amount of people allowed inside the Green Vault at the same time, so you have to buy a ticket for a certain time.  Security was the tightest I’ve ever experienced at a museum as we had to lock up ALL bags (including Ma’s tiny purse), cameras and phones.  You then line up at two sets of doors that a guard lets you in, two at a time, you wait, then the doors on the other side open.  Everything is alarmed and behind glass, but it is easy to see why – all the rooms are different themes (amber, ivory, jewels, sculptures, bronze, coat of arms, silver) and contain many priceless treasures, big and small – ornate crystal drinking vessels, paintings, amber chess sets, diamond-hilted swords, etc.  After an excellent hour-long audio tour, we decided to embark on one of our favourite travel events, the self guided Rick Steves walking tour.

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Before we started the tour we had to get to the starting point, and that meant cutting through the Zwinger’s stately gardens.

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The tour started at Dresden’s Opera House, known as the Semperoper as Semper built it.  It burned down twice – once in the 19th century and then again, sadly, in 1945 as did many many other of the fine structures and treasures in the city.

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The last opera performed at the Semperoper in 1945 was Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber and the first opera performed when it was rebuilt almost 40 years later, so they honoured Weber with a statue in front of a cafe.

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We crossed back into the Zwinger’s gardens and marvelled at the beautiful fountains and stonework.

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Part of our instructions were to cross from the fountains into the main garden through an orangery, but we noticed that this glassy atrium sold beer and pretzels and it was lunch time, so we stopped and had a beer overlooking the gardens before moving on.

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The Zwinger gardens are also home to this beautiful glockenspiel, outfitted with porcelain chimes that emit a much sweeter sound that the usual brass bells.

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We left the Zwinger and headed north towards the river Elbe, reading stories of Augustus the strong and some of the pre and post war history of the city.

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One of our favourite pieces was this 250 foot long porcelain-tiled mural showing a parade of the rulers of Dresden.  This piece miraculously survived the 1945 firebombing.

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Our walking tour ended along the river on a balcony walk that overlooks the Elbe.  We decided to have a sit and watch all the activity at the other side of the river.

It turns out Dresden is setting up a huge party – it’s the anniversary of Germany’s reunification and every year a different state’s capital hosts the bash – this year it’s Dresden’s turn as the capital of Saxony.  Huge white tents are set up everywhere as well as sound and lighting systems.  The festival starts this weekend, in time for us to just miss it.

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We found a beautiful river-side cafe where we treated ourselves to ice cream confections and fizzy water, ambling back into town where we bought our mandatory post cards and fridge magnets, grabbed some coffees, relaxed in the old market square before headed to dinner.  Again, Dresden spoiled us as we ate a delicious dinner on a beautiful sunlit square in the shadow of the majestic Frauenkirche while the local busker serenaded us with Leonard Cohen classics.

Germany, Day 13/14: Taking Care of Business/You Are So Beautiful

Day 13 was more of administrative day.  We left Augsburg for our next home base in Nuremberg and had a huge bundle of laundry to be done and also needed a break from sightseeing.

This morning we filled up on delicious hotel breakfast and hit the train station for a day trip to the beer capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bamberg.  Bamberg isn’t a super well known city and we decided we wanted to go because it looked cute and Pa and I were interested in trying some of their 9 breweries.  They are also home to ‘Rauchbier’, which is a smoked beer.  We grabbed a cab and got dropped off in the middle of the old town.

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It happens every now and again that I visit a new place and get a good feeling about it.  A really good feeling.  A ‘I could probably just sit in this spot for the rest of my life’ kind of feeling.  I felt that way at the Marine Organ in Zadar and at Big Beach in Ucluelet.  I felt this way about Bamberg.  Bamberg is charming but not just in a ‘this place is so cute!’ kind of way.  It had a movement to it with the river flowing through the centre and the medieval breweries dotting the cityscape.

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We ambled around and gawked at all the beauty and character, significant lack of tour groups and half timbered buildings seemingly floating on the river.

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We decided that we wanted to get some beer in our bellies before we tackled some of the interesting churches in the city, so we grabbed a riverside table at the Klosterbrauerei and slowly sipped from the ceramic mugs.

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After settling the bill we hiked up to the Church of Our Lady, a gothic structure with an incredible organ.  I always hope that when I’m visiting old churches and cathedrals the local organist will bust out some Bach fugues while I’m there, but so far no luck.

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We then moved to the adjacent Dom, another gothic behemoth but we found it significantly underwhelming compared to the previous Frauenkirche.

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After our fill of Catholicism, we felt it was time for lunch and time for smoked beer.  We hit up the Schlenkerla brewery as they still use their original oak casks to smoke their beer.  We shared a long table with a quiet Japanese twosome and ordered our meals and drinks.  The Rauchbier was interesting – not smokey like a peaty scotch, but like bacon.  It was like drinking liquid bacon.  Sadly, our meals were not up to par and came with pickled everything, not mentioned on the menu.  We decided that in order to get the taste of pickled things out of our mouth, we would need dessert and more beer.

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The town started to get busier and busier and hotter and hotter, so we found a sunny square with a pretty patio.  Pa and I ordered a flight of beer each as well as a dish of vanilla ice cream and Ma had to test the town’s apple strudel offering – all was delicious and a welcome palette cleanser from lunch.

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As our energy started to wane, we headed back over one of the many bridges, drank in the beautiful scenery and landscape and got back to the train station, again cursing the fact we didn’t spend a few days there.  Anyone thinking about going to Germany, I highly recommend Bamberg.  It shall hold a special place in my heart.

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