EuroTrip2010: Don’t Forget the Little Countries

Don’t Forget the Little Countries

From  10 August 2010

The train enters Luxembourg City on this stone brick overpass. The capital is so small, everything is within walking distance making any automobiles other than city buses largely unnecessary.

After Berlin, I reunited with Jacky (the only skilled manual driver from my rent-a-car travels in Portugal).  When Jacky and I found out we were in the same country, we worked out a short travel together.  The location?  Luxembourg.  I know what you’re thinking.  Luxem-huh?  Is that some sort of disease?  In fact, it is a teeny French-speaking country bordering Germany, Belgium and France.  I emailed Jacky saying, “Hey, wanna go to Luxembourg, because nobody goes there?” and she responded with an emphatic “yes.”  We met up at a hostel in Cologne for the night, playing cards with a German gal. (Along with water and nail clippers, I always carry a deck of cards.)

I reunited with Jacky, a fellow solo traveler, in Luxembourg. The capital city is built into a mountainside with the fortress at the highest elevation.

Then, we took a train along the Rhine River to Luxembourg.  We stayed at one of four hostels in the country and the only one in the capital, Luxembourg City.  Looking out the window as we crossed the border, I was already ecstatic that we decided to go here.  Before we were even off the train, I’d picked out sights to see.  At the bus stop, we chatted with a British couple who we ended up joining for lunch.  I realize now that we never even introduced ourselves; it just didn’t seem important.

Upon checking into the hostel, one of the first things I did was look for a book exchange.  Most hostels have them.  In fact, all but two hostels that I’ve been to didn’t.  Of course, those happened to be the most recent hostels I’d stayed at when my need for a book was almost as urgent as my need to interact with an animal.  Filling the length of the wall in the common room were shelves of books.  Eager to pick one, I ran over to skim the titles.  That one’s in French.  That one, too.  French… French.  Are you serious?  Are these all in French?  No, there were about three German books in there.  Just when I was about to throw in the towel, two of the last five books in the final shelf jumped out at me.  I had one of those movie moments where the sky opens up and a bright light shines down, illuminating the object of your desire, in this case, two English books.  Finally!

One of many signs sharing my family’s nickname of “Wenzel.” We never did find out where the arrows led.

The view from the fortress included a river, lots and lots of hills and greenery, and old buildings comfortably situated side-by-side.  I discovered a sign that said “Wenzel,” which just-so-happens to be a shared nickname of the Venzel sisters.  So began the Wenzel photo shoot.  The sign had an arrow, so we expected it would take us somewhere.  After a good fifteen poses with different Wenzel signs, I gave Jacky a rest from the role of photographer.  We never did find out to what “Wenzel” the signs were referring.

It quickly became apparent that the only life in Luxembourg is in the small city center, covering only about 4 blocks.  Over dinner, Jacky shared a lot about her family, focusing on the Egyptian customs.  Both of her parents emigrated to Australia from Egypt.  I was also surprised to see the Serbian folks I met in Berlin walk by while we were dining.  Small country, small world.  After dinner, I needed to fill a week-long void of ice cream and Jacky needed coffee.  We walked with the cold and hot goods to a ledge overlooking the city, waiting for the sun to set.  We told stories about our love life, because that’s what girls do.  Jacky told me about a Swiss boy she met in Germany.  I told her about the guy I met in Scotland.  And… you’re either bored or awwing, so I’ll move on.

The moon that night was a magnificent orange, and I mean orange when I say orange.  Not a burnt sienna or golden yellow.  Take an orange fruit and toss it in the sky tonight.  There’s the moon we were looking at.  I always enjoy seeing a city during the night and day.  Watching the transformation take place can be quite rewarding.  I equate it to watching the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.  You’re waiting, you’re waiting…still waiting and then BAM!  Something completely different.

It rained hard the next day.  That didn’t keep us from walking around town, but it did end with us drenched.  I traded in my three Euro bright yellow “hi, I’m a tourist” poncho for a too-short-in-the-arms-supposedly-waterproof jacket at a Berlin hostel clothing exchange.  Note the supposed water resistancy.  We stumbled, literally, upon a documentary in a room that likely used to be a guard tower.  Due to its hidden location, the documentary probably only gets a viewing once every month.  Though we learned nothing, it was a strange discovery.  As soon as we pressed the play button, the lights dimmed, automatic shades rolled down and aisle lights came on.

It turned out Jacky and I both had the same destination in mind after Luxembourg–Bruges, Belgium.  I stayed at a hostel while Jacky stayed with her cousin who she’d never met.  We did our own thing until my last day in Bruges when we met up once more.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bruges’s main plaza has a circular stone walkway around a statue, lined by expensive local restaurants. Horse-drawn carriage rides are a popular tourist attraction, loading and unloading customers here.

First things first, I had language barrier overload going from German to French to Dutch in a span of three days.  The waiter at a cafe on the main plaza in Bruges gave me a lesson on please and thank you in Dutch.  “Please” was too much to handle, so I gave up trying to store that one in long term memory.  (French is spoken in the south of Belgium, Dutch in the north–in Flemish dialect which basically consists of eliminating every other letter of a word until you end up with incoherent verbal diarrhea.)  I learned that the waiter’s dog and identical twin are extras in the first thirty minutes of the movie In Bruges.  I of course was more interested in his handicapped dog than the twin.

I learned why Bruges is called “Little Venice.”  The name primarily stems from the canals gondola-esque tourist boat rides throughout the town.  Additionally, Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child is located here, one of few of his works outside of Italy.  I’d say Bruges has a taste of Rome, too, as I went to the veneration of the Holy Blood while I was there, which some believe is the preserved blood of Christ.

Belgium is famous for many food items: fries (originated here), chocolate (they say it’s better than Swiss), waffles (go big or go home), and beer (indulge with caution).  I passed on the fry museum, so I am unable to impress you with potato facts.  I passed on the chocolate museum, although it would have been neat to see the life-sized chocolate Obama.  When my friends from university drank Belgian beer, it only led to the expulsion of a suffocating aroma, unbearable for both parties.  I opted for the waffle.  I held out until my last day in Belgium so that Jacky and I could partake in the Belgian Waffle Experience together.  An experience indeed.  At first I just ordered mine with powdered sugar.  Then I found out I could get strawberries.  A minute later, I added vanilla ice cream.  Maybe it really was just a regular waffle, one that happened to have the perfect crispness, the perfect toppings (I usually eat my waffles with syrup and peanut butter; ridiculous, I know).  Perhaps I subconsciously overlysatisfied my sweet tooth by reminding myself I was in Belgium, eating the infamous Belgian waffle.  Either way, I don’t care.  Never in my life have I made such inappropriate noises with every bite.  I’ll go back to Belgium just for the waffles.

“Little Venice” is an accurate nickname for the city of Bruges, Belgium. Canals wind throughout the city, and boat rides are a common attraction for tourists.

Jacky convinced me to go on a boat ride through the canals.  You’re not going to be surprised when I tell you what made the too short, overly priced boat ride worthwhile.  It was that doggy in the window, the most photographed dog in Bruges, according to the boat driver.  He’s there every day, head resting on a pillow sticking just outside an open bay window that hangs over the canal.

I said goodbye to Jacky that evening, with plans to head back to Cologne, Germany to meet up with my sister.  I’ve got so many friends in Australia now, I think I’m going to have to pay the country a visit.

Buena Vista Social Club performed a free concert in one of the plazas in Bruges. A former band member, pictured in the middle, came on-stage for one of the songs; he still had moves at 83!

To top off my trip to Bruges, I went to an outdoor concert with my bunkmate, Elise from Canada.  Buena Vista Social Club performed!  They must have made their way from Hamburg to Bruges.  You’ve probably heard a song or two of theirs before, “Candela” being a popular one for movie soundtracks.  The group not only plays great music, but they’re entertaining to watch because the singers dance and really involve the audience.  I caught the gray-haired, dreadlocked group leader’s eye while I was salsa dancing with a huge smile on my face, and he winked at me.  I took some videos of the percussionists for my daddy.  He’ll be elated, watching how fast the drummers’ hands move on the bongos and congas.  In the middle of the concert, an 83-year-old man was called on-stage.  He used to be a member of the group back in the day.  The crowd cheered for the five minutes that he was up there singing off-key and dancing as much as his joints allowed.  It was one of the highlights of my time in Bruges.

My trip was coming to an end soon, but I wanted to make the most of it.  It was back to Germany for a few days to practice, um, butcher, my German.


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