France & the Benelux

    This was another of our compressed trips — an attempt to accomplish a lot in a fairly short amount of time. The length of this trip to Europe was only about nine days.
    We flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport, outside of Paris, and immediately headed for Chartres to tour the very famous Chartres Cathedral, one of the most important Gothic cathedrals in Europe and a model for many churches built after it. We stopped first at an overlook, which offered a stunning view of the Cathedral (Photo #1) perched on a hill above the town. We then admired the interior of the cathedral with its beautiful stained glass, especially the distinctive "Chartres blue" color.
    From Chartres, we headed southwest into the Loire Valley, to our next stop, Chambord (Photo #2), a huge and extremely unusual chateau with many turrets and towers. In the interest of time, we decided not to tour the interior of the mansion, but to move further down the valley to Chenonceau, another of the premier, luxurious palaces in this part of France.
    Chenonceau (Photos 3 & 4) was truly elegant, not garish like Chambord, with beautiful gardens and a lovely setting along and over the river Cher. The interior was not as lavish as some other palaces we have visited, but the fireplaces were particularly impressive and the Gallery, an additiion built by Catherine de Medici, is a nice touch. We spent the night in the city of Tours, crashing early because of jet lag and our long sightseeing day.
    Rain greeted us the next morning and it managed to rain all day long. This was, unfortunately, our drive to Mont-St-Michel (Photos 5 & 6). We did manage to see the impressive cathedral rising dramatically like a mountain from the misty ocean — what a breathtaking sight! This setting is truly unique — a church perched on the top of an offshore rocky crag, towering over the village below. We were mesmerized by the scene and were extremely excited to get closer.
    We parked in a large lot along the causeway which connects the island to the shore and then walked through the gates of the walled, Medieval village. We joined the hordes of people walking up the narrow, cobblestone, pedestrian-only street (very steep and including 300 stairs) toward the Abbey, the church which dates to 708 AD. We opted for a guided tour and were very pleased because of the wealth of information provided by Alain, our guide. The construction of the complex took many years and was extremely complicated, but the result was extraordinary. We even saw the "crypts" beneath the Abbey which are not tombs, but hidden areas supporting the sections of the church. We loved the Cloister (Photo #7), a place designed for solitude and pondering.
    After our tour, we strolled back down into the village, browsed in numerous shops, and had dinner. Then we continued on to Caen, our stop for the night. The next morning we headed for the Normandy Beaches, our destination for the day. Along the way, we stopped for several hours in the town of Bayeaux to view the famous Bayeaux Tapestry, an artistic chronicle of the events leading up to and in the Battle of Hastings, that monumental conflict, on October 14, 1066, in which William the Conqueror defeated the British and forever changed the history of Western Civilization. The tapestry is about 70 yards long and provides a detailed, unparalleled history of this cataclysmic event. The Audioguide was excellent but it was unnecessary to start on the second floor with the copy. Save time by just doing the original. While in town we also checked out the impressive cathedral and stopped for a coffee where we met an interesting family from Michigan. The conversation led us to believe that they might even be related to me, although, sadly, we forgot to exchange address and contact information.
    We then drove to the Normandy Beaches, driving through a number of small towns along the shoreline, such as, Arromanches, Port du Bessin, Colleville, etc. Our most important stop was at Omaha Beach (Photo #9), the primary American embarkation point and the place where so many US soldiers lost their lives. The beach was innocuous, just a strip of sand which belies the carnage that took place here. We could, however, see the gun emplacements on the ridge above the beach which were so difficult to assault.
    Next we headed a bit inland to the American Cemetery (Photo #10) with its beautiful memorial and its rows and rows of simple crosses which mark the final resting place of so many young men. The experience was extremely moving and somber. Imagine 9,387 graves (which only represent 39% of the actual casualties). We walked among the gravestones for a while, trying to appreciate the magnitude.
    We returned to Caen and took a walk around town, stopping at Le Chateau (Photo #11) the castle of William the Conqueror. Further into our walk, we found an excellent restaurant, Alcide where I began with Normandy’s famous mussels (moules) and Lee had snails. I followed this with lamb chops while Lee had the duck. The enitre meal was great!
    Next stop — Brussels, Belgium. We had difficulty finding our hotel, because it was in a strange place, on a one-way street, and our map was very poor (Oh, the value of good maps!!). After a brief rest, we walked (briskly for over 20 minutes) to the Grand Place (Photos 12 & 14), Brussel’s premier attraction, and, perhaps, the most elegant square in all of Europe, certainly one of the grandest. The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) (Photo #13) is positively magnificent, with a 300 foot tower and adorned with numerous statues, spires, and gargoyles. The other buildings are also beautiful, many gilded, many with great detail, and decorated with sculptures. Most of them were former Guild Houses and their occupants were obviously trying to outdo one another.
    Our walking tour from the square took us first by Manneken Pis (Photo #15), a small sculpture of a little boy peeing, which has become a symbol of the city. Then we headed uphill to the Place du Sablon, where we had a snack of Belgium beer (fantastic!), wine and cheese and crackers.
    Fortified, we continued uphill to the Place du Petit Sablon, an adorable little courtyard, surrounded by wrought-iron, topped with numerous statues. Within the courtyard were additional sculptures and lots of greenery. Nearby was the beautiful Church of the Notre Dame au Sablon, a flamboyant Gothic edifice. The stained glass behind the altar is stunning!
    Beyond the church we passed the Royal Palace (Photo #16) and then made our way back down to the main square for dinner and then finally back to the hotel to crash after another long, long day.
    The following day was our eagerly awaited excursion to Bruges, one of the best-preserved, Medieval towns in all of Europe. It is often referred to as a "time capsule" of life in the Middle Ages, since the city was abandoned for 500 years, then resurrected as a tourist destination. Bruges is close to Brussels (about 60 miles away) and a great walking city. Our first destination in the city was the Markt (Photos 17, 18 & 19), Bruges’ glorious market square, surrounded by interesting buildings with characteristically Low Country architecture.
    Nearby is another wonderful square, known as the Burg (Photo #20), where we found the Town Hall and the beautiful Basilica of the Holy Blood (Photo #21), which reputedly contains a relic of the blood of Jesus Christ.
    Next we took a relaxing boat ride through the canals of Bruges, sometimes known as the "Venice of the North". Lastly, we went to the Church of Our Lady, the tallest building in the city, which, surprisingly, contains one of the few Michelangelo sculptures found outside of Italy. We did a bit of shopping, then headed back to Brussels, where we purchased some sweets (to take home) from Mary Chocolatier, an enterprise which supplies some of the European monarchs with fine chocolate.
   We left Brussels the next morning and headed into the Netherlands. Our first stop there was at Kinderdijk, where UNESCO has recognized a cluster of windmills to be preserved for all time. Then it was onward to Delft, another adorable European village. We strolled the main square and several side streets, managed to buy some Delftware, blue and white porcelain which is the area’s specialty and had a great lunch at Stads, right near the Tourist Office.  We also checked out the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and the Niewe Kerk (New Church) before leaving for Lisse.
    Here we visited the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens (Photos 24 & 25), without question one of the world’s best flower gardens. Because it was spring, it was the perfect time for blooming tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, etc. The grounds were absolutely beautiful, with myriad paths through the flower gardens, as well as streams and ponds to add ambience. There were also indoor pavilions which housed more tender botanical specimens, such as begonias, orchids and bromeliads. It was a definite highlight of our trip!
   We arrived in Amsterdam at about 6:30 PM, exhausted from our full day of sightseeing. Early the next morning, we set our for the Anne Frank House, the number one tourist attraction in the city, and rightly so. We were extremely moved by the entire experience and feel like we better understand the ordeal of Anne and other Jews during the scary time of Nazi rule.
    We then walked through Dam Square (not very attractive and extremely busy with traffic).  Later we found a much more welcoming square (the Niewe Market), the Old Church (Oude Kerk), and also the Red Light District, which we found fascinating. Down near the docks we visited the gorgeous St Nicholas Church and then embarked on our Canal Boat Cruise (Photo #26) which was both relaxing and informative. Our last stop of the day was at the world-famous Rijksmuseum, where we were especially impressed with Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
   We left Amsterdam the next morning and headed for our final destination, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. We took an abbreviated walking tour of the Old Town (shortened mainly because the ramparts and walls were essentially closed down for construction). We had a beer on the Place d’Armes, a cute little square which is the major gathering place here, and then strolled to the Place d’Constitution which provides a view of the fortifications (Photo #28) and the casemates (storage caves in the cliffs). We managed to sneak into the Notre Dame Cathedral just as it was closing, and then walked further to the Palace of the Grand Dukes (Photo #27), a very elegant building and through several other interesting squares.
    In the morning we headed for the airport in Paris and then home.
       Lessons learned:  A big factor in this trip turned out to be weather. We had rain and/or cloudy-cool for almost the entire trip. The weather can have a serious impact, and, unfortunately, nothing can be done about it. Our trip to Mont-St-Michel (to me the most important destination of the entire trip) was almost ruined because of the heavy rain — we were constantly wet and uncomfortable for most of our visit there, yet we still managed to see the place and still came away with a positive experience. Thus, attitude is probably the most important aspect of dealing with bad weather — if you are determined to continue despite the weather, there is a reasonable chance of success. Another important consideration is dress — travelers should always be prepared for bad weather. The other aspect is flexibility — perhaps, an excursion can be postponed or substituted if the itinerary permits. Sometimes, a particular might have to be sacrificed entirely, especially if it’s not an important site or something you can do at another time. Thus, there is no true solution for this potential problem, but there are attitudes and behaviors which can minimize the overall effect.


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