By Dom Nozzi
It is Thursday, May 4, 2017. Maggie and I depart Boulder at 8:30 a.m. It is the start of a very long day of travel. First, we fly from Denver to Washington DC. It was not until 1 p.m. the next day that we arrived at our European gateway – Zurich Switzerland.
Our airline – IcelandAir – takes us to their home base in Reykjavik, Iceland. First time I have ever touched land in Iceland. The Iceland landscape from the airport looks barren, volcanic, and treeless.
Unfortunately, IcelandAir loses my luggage on our flight from Reykjavik to Zurich. Despite the fact that Maggie sees my bag being loaded onto the plane in Reykjavik. The consequence for me is that I have no change of clothes for three days. One benefit: It was lightning fast for me to get ready in the morning!
We train to Bern. Like all cities I have visited in Europe, Bern has an impressive, charming old town district. We enjoy strolling the city streets, and learn the old town can easily be seen in less than a day. Our fondness for Bern is tempered by the fact that the streets are relatively wide. Most of the streets we walk, therefore, lack the human scale I adore so much in Europe. Here are photos I shot while in Bern.
We are informed by a Geneva, Switzerland friend who has met up with us in Fribourg that Switzerland has suffered a long, terrible drought. That drought comes to an end on our arrival in Switzerland. Saturday morning greets us with a steady, cold rain, which starts before we wake up and ends up being continuous for over 50 hours.
As I often say, if a place is suffering from drought, the effective method for ending the drought is to have Dom Nozzi visit…
On this day, we enjoy touring Fribourg — a very lovely, charming town. We ride the only poop-powered funicular in the world while in Fribourg. Photos I shot in Fribourg can be found here.
We make a quick side trip to Medieval Morat down the road. I find it to be a very nice little town. Fortunately for us, we are mostly able to avoid the rain, as the ramparts we walk along the edge of the city are covered. These are the photos I shot while in Morat.
We then tour the town of Gruyere, famous for its cheese. Again, a quite pleasant little town. We are treated to a delicious fondue in the best place in the world to have a fondue. Here we start what will be several consecutive days of eating a lot of cheese. Photos I shot while in Gruyere can be found here.
Lodging for the night is in Chateau-D’Oex at Hotel de Ville. Our ride there by Michael Ronkin, our tour guide today, takes us through lovely, typical Swiss villages and mountain valleys. My Chateau-D’Oex photos are found here.
Our next stop is Montreux, home of the Montreux Rivieria on Lake Geneva and a striking Freddie Mercury statue. Our friend and guide that day – Michael Ronkin – tells us that in 1970, he played in a band that opened for Deep Purple just before that band wrote Smoke on the Water. “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline…” We walk by the new casino that has replaced the one burned down in the early ‘70s, and I start singing the lyrics I have not forgotten since first hearing the song in the early ‘70s, “…some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground. Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky. Smoke on the water. They burned down the gambling house. It died with an awful sound. Funky Claude was running in and out. Pulling kids out the ground. When it all was over, we had to find another place. But Swiss time was running out. It seemed that we would lose the race…We ended up at the Grand Hotel. It was empty, cold and bare…” You can see the photos I shot in Montreux here.
Michael drives us to the small lakeside town of Nyon, where we first walk a bit of the town (here are photos I shot), then board a historic steamboat to ride to Geneva on Lake Geneva. We spoil ourselves by ordering a delicious red wine on the boat, and marvel at the Swiss palaces along the shoreline. Upon arrival, we enjoy a quick walk through Geneva Old Town. These are the photos I shot.
In the early afternoon on Monday, after a brief walk and nice, affordable lunch at a popular Lake Geneva dock-based restaurant, we fly Geneva to Amsterdam on EasyJet. Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, we rent bikes and go for a fun ride on random streets. I love riding in large groups of cyclists. Safety in Numbers is palpable.
We arrive at our apartment, It is a fantastic, two-story abode featuring large, unfinished wood beams.
Tuesday morning finds me ordering goat cheese, spinach, garlic oil, and pine nuts pancakes. We top that off with mini-pancakes smothered in chocolate sauce.
Lunch today is fun and fantastic. Zeppo’s in Amsterdam. It is the first time I have ever sampled raw herring. I gobble down two of them without retching. My friend Michael Ronkin had informed us that he has lived in the region for 30 years but has never had the courage to sample the Dutch delicacy. It takes me less than a day to beat him to the punch.
This day also includes my first consumption of marijuana (an edible in a brownie) in 39 years, as we stop into an Amsterdam pot shop. I don’t opt to consume enough to get high, but since I last had pot in 1978 and experienced extreme paranoia and hallucinations, I have no idea if even a few crumbs would send me to a mental asylum.
We make the obligatory walk in the Red Light District, where many “ladies of the night” beckon me with winks and hand waves. We also decide to tour the very amusing Sex Museum.
Maggie has eaten too much of her pot brownie and ends up flat on her back on this night. This nixes her much-desired tour of the Anne Frank House. She is too knocked out to get out of bed for dinner, so I have to set out on my own at 10 p.m. for dinner (at a café bar). Latest time of evening I have ever gone to dinner. My photos of Amsterdam can be found here.
On Wednesday, we decide to make a day trip to Utrecht. We find Utrecht to be delightful. I revel in the vibrant atmosphere and the charming, lovable, human-scaled streets and canals.
Our favorite city so far on this trip. My photos of Utrecht are here.
We buy four different cheeses and a hearty bread for our train trip from Amsterdam to Delft.
We happily take advantage of a complimentary meal offered to us by our Delft apartment proprietor at a restaurant across from our apartment.
Thursday morning finds us grabbing breakfast and shopping at the big Thursday outdoor market at Markt Square in Delft (my pictures of Delft are here). We bike a bit in Delft and without more to see in Delft, we decide on biking the countryside to visit the beach and then The Hague.
Despite detailed advice from friend Michael Ronkin, we get lost several times, even though we use a numbered bike route map described to us by Michael. Our problem? A huge percentage of bike route numbers are missing. The missing numbers has us guessing several times and ending up biking much further than we need to.
Town center in The Hague is quite bustling, I grab a delicious Queen Bee Stout brewed by a British brewpub in the center. We end up much more quickly getting back to Delft as we mostly abandon the bike map and just follow the motorist street signs back to Delft.
Friday finds us hopping on a train with our bikes from Delft to Gouda. We spend a few hours enjoying Gouda and biking around the small, quaint town. I decide to order a fantastic quadrupel beir and a great carpaccio sandwich for lunch on the main piazza.
We then train to Leiden, which is another charming canal town FULL of cyclists. It warms my heart to see huge numbers of cyclists on major city roads. My Gouda and Leiden photos are here. We then bike 15 miles back to Delft in the late afternoon and early evening through a very stereotypical, delightful Dutch countryside. Our ride includes the stereotypical Dutch weather: on and off drizzle through much of the ride.
In general, in our time in The Netherlands, we notice that the Dutch start their mornings relatively late. Public outdoor markets and breakfast cafes don’t really open and get started until well after 9 am.
On Saturday, we train from Delft to the Belgian city of Antwerp. Antwerp turns out to be surprisingly impressive. We emerge from exiting the train to arrival in the main train terminal hall. The hall is spectacular. I quickly snap a large number of photos, as do many other arrivals at the hall. My Antwerp photos are here.
Our plan to rent “Blue Bikes,” which would allow us to conveniently use the same card to rent a bike in multiple Belgian cities at a relatively low cost is foiled as we are surprised to learn that the Blue Bikes office is closed on weekends (we arrived on Saturday). Instead, we opt to rent from another company for a few afternoon hours. We head straight for Old Town Center Antwerp and we are immediately immersed in a crowded flow of pedestrians on a large walking street. Our evasive and reflex bicycle skills are tested as we must constantly weave in and out of crowds of walkers.
After a few blocks, we arrive in an area of fantastically ornate medieval buildings and tiny walking streets. Both the large and small streets are full of high-end shopping (one comment I had spotted on the Internet before our arrival stated that this was a woman’s favorite shopping city in the world).
Maggie cannot resist buying a Belgian waffle, so we stop at an outdoor café where she enjoys a delicious version of one. We rush back to the train station where we quickly return our bikes, grab our luggage from the lockers, and arrive at our platform to board a train to the sightseeing powerhouse of Bruges, Belgian.
We walk Bruges at sunset. Over the top charming and huge wow factor. Overwhelmingly picturesque (my photos here). We enjoy dinner at a pleasant place along a canal. Then take a romantic evening horse-drawn carriage tour of the old town sights.
Finished the night at a very local beir joint that has a huge selection of beers. Sampled a lambic for the first time. AWFUL. Also tried a very nice Hawaiian stout. Ended up drinking a good Belgian local Hercule Stout.
We rent bikes in Sunday morning and have an enjoyable day bicycling around town and in the southern suburbs of the city. Belgian drivers seem to be more aggressive and faster near cyclists than in The Netherlands.
We treat ourselves to a pleasant, large lunch where I order a huge steaming pot of mussels (along with fries).
To our great fortune, as we start bicycling again, we stumble upon an ENORMOUS celebration by thousands and thousands of fans of the Bruges soccer team. The Bruges team is to face off, as the #2 team, against the #1 team. We were told by a fan that if the #1 team won, they would win the championship. But, he added, that won’t happen. The celebration is a near riot of yelling, singing, loud firecrackers, blue (the team color) smoke flares, and a sea of blue clothing. Shocking how rowdy the fans are in this spectacle of fan support for the team. And this BEFORE the match. Having played high school football, it is difficult for me to imagine the stirring joyfulness the team must experience when the team bus drives into this party.
We get so caught up in the hysteria that we end up watching some of the match later on a pub TV.
Dinner tonight is at The Flemish Pot in Burges. Delicious slow, fresh food. The Flemish eat a LOT of food, so our portions are HUGE.
As I sit at an outdoor café with another delicious Belgian beer and the convivial atmosphere of happy people all around me, I wonder: “Would I prefer living in a place of walkable, compact, convenient, charming, romantic urbanism where the weather tends to be cloudy and damp? Or would I prefer a more sterile, suburban, isolating, boring lifestyle that features sunny and dry weather?” I decide I would lean toward the former.
On Monday, we have a delicious breakfast at Julliette’s in Burges. After fueling up, we climb the 366-step Belfry at the Markt.
We learn to our great dismay – despite what we were told when we called in the US before the trip – that we cannot rent a “Blue Bike” unless we have a Belgian passport.
We train from Burges to Ghent, regretting that we have not lodged in Maastricht rather than Ghent. Rick Steves has given Ghent an average rating, noting that it is a working town without the charm of Burges. But we found many striking buildings and charming medieval buildings in Ghent (my photos of Ghent). We tour the castle (intended more to intimidate local citizens than to protect the city, according to Steves) and I am so impressed by the structure that I shoot quite a few photos.
We chance upon a restaurant which has a fun motto: “We love organic ingredients, local products, and f**king rock and roll. The pizza names are also hilarious. We cannot resist, so we have antipasta and a nice salmon pizza at the restaurant.
After dinner, we select an outdoor café for a Belgian beir. Oddly, we are unable to find a suitable outdoor cafes for beer along the Ghent canals.
I cannot resist the urge to sample Gruut Bruin, a local dark, sweet beir brewed a few blocks away in Ghent. Gruut is made without hops, but instead uses a medieval mix of herbs that brewers call “gruit.” I decide Gruut tastes much more like a beer than I expected. And tastes much better than I expected.
Overall, we find that foods such as yogurts are much less loaded with sugar than they are in the US.
We also discover that Belgians are beir connoisseurs, not tea connoisseurs, as we learn through the fact that all the restaurants and lodging have only Lipton tea.
Throughout Belgian we see a large number of severely pruned large trees. We also note that the great majority of homes and commercial buildings are brick rather than wood.
We start the day with a lovely breakfast at an outdoor café in Ghent. On the way to breakfast, we get lost along the way on our bikes – which just meant we got to see more of Ghent.
We drop off our bikes at the bike rental shop, walk home, collect our luggage, forget our bread and cheese in the fridge, and hop on a tram to the train station.
Our Rail Pass today is taking us to Brussels. This city has a very noticeable “big city” vibe compared to other cities we visit on our tour of Europe. Our apartment is on the third floor, which has us climbing a LONG and narrow wooden spiral staircase to the apartment.
Grand Place — said to be the most beautiful place on earth — is a block away and its tallest tower looms close by outside one of our windows. We stop at a café in the Grand Place to map out our city stroll this day. We don’t notice as many cyclists here in this city as we had in previous cities in Belgium and The Netherlands. It is only late in the day that we discover we could have cheaply rented Villo bikes without being local resident “members.”
In general, we find Brussels to be impressive, but too hostile to biking (at least compared to other cities we biked in The Netherlands and Belgium). We end up disliking the Villo bike share system, as the bikes are far too heavy and too commonly out of repair.
Brussels has an impressive number of pedestrians. The city seems very alive, electric and vibrant – particularly at night. We enjoy the many streets closed to bicycling. I personally find the city to be too “Big City” for my taste. That is, streets too big, and distances to destinations too large.
On our first night of sleeping in downtown Brussels, we learn what it is like to be in a “real” city – a city that is, in other words, a 24-hour city. From about 7 p.m. till about 6 a.m., we hear a continuous buzz of talking and socializing outside on the streets.
Looking outside our apartment window upon being awoken, I hear a lot of people talking. Since I could see street buildings, I assume this means it was the early morning breakfast crowds at outdoor cafes. Instead, it was about 2 or 3 in the morning, and the street buildings are visible not due to morning sun but because the streetlights are on. These are my Brussels photos.
On Wednesday, we train Brussels to Leige to Maastricht first thing in the morning. We rent bikes to ride around Maastricht on a very warm day (85 degrees). Maastricht turns out to be an impressive medieval city. Quiet and low-key – particularly compared to 24-hour Brussels. My Maastricht photos are here.
We have a delightful, festive final dinner at Arcadi Café, a 1900-era café in the heart of downtown Brussels (and across the street from a very loud, boisterous art opening). As a nightcap, we stumble upon “Delirium Tremens” Alley, which is lined with several connected Brussels bars full of great Belgian beer on tap. I have the infamous Delirium Tremens, and a taste of the black Delirium Nocturnum.
It is always a treat when I am able to freely and legally join wine and beer drinkers in a public street outside of a bar, and this is the scene here in the “Alley.” In nations where I have experienced this, which includes Belgium and Italy, adults are treated like adults and allowed to drink in public streets outside of the bar. By contrast, in America adults are treated like misbehaving children. A form of Nanny State.
Overall, streets are very difficult to navigate in downtown Brussels. As Andres Duany would say, the streets are very “cranky.” They are crooked and stubby and twisting every block. The French street names use what seems like 6 to 8 unpronounceable words, and the names seem to change every block. The street name signs, to compound the problem, are also hard to find, and often too far away to read.
I find myself enviously admiring the strong outdoor café culture in The Netherlands and Belgium. Over and over again we come upon large happy crowds of people enjoying this delightful, convivial, festive scene in the cities of those two nations.
On this trip, I must have drunk over 30 different Belgian beers. The Belgians certainly excel in making high quality beer. A delicious aspect of visiting Belgium.
Water quality in Belgium, as confirmed by how awful the water tasted to us — and what we were told by a waiter — is amongst the worst in the world.
It is no wonder that the Belgians are so avid about brewing beer.