Thursday, 16 November 2017

EUROPE – PART 5 – RIVER CRUISE AND BUDAPEST

We’d wanted to do a river cruise for some time, if for no other reason than to compare it to the ocean cruises we’ve done over the past four years.  We lucked out with an eight-day Uniworld cruise on the Danube, from Prague to Budapest.  I happened to find the deal at half-price on the Travelzoo website and booked it through my trusty travel agent.

Still mad at the greedy Prague taxi drivers, we walked from our first hotel to join the Uniworld tour group at the luxurious Art Deco Imperial, one of those hotels with a bidet in the bathroom and a tub you need a stepladder to climb into.  The room was beautiful and the food delicious; a good first impression.  Having seen much of Prague on our own, we opted for a back-stage tour of Prague’s historic Estates Theatre and the premier art nouveau building in Prague, the Municipal House. 
We learned that Prague adored Mozart, and Mozart adored Prague.  His opera, Don Giovani, premiered at the Estates Theatre in 1787.  We were treated to a concert featuring music by Wolfgang Amadeus and his contemporaries in the salon that bears his name and later got a bird’s-eye view of the jewel-box theatre.  As I looked down from a loge in the opera house, I could imagine our son, Jacques, on stage.  Next, we moved on to the Municipal House and listened as our excellent guide, Veronica, explained the significance of various rooms in the building, still today the pride of Prague.

At our next stop, Nürnberg, we were exposed to the history of the infamous Third Reich and the megalomaniac, Adolf Hitler.  For historical reasons, he had a thing for Nürnberg and spent quite a bit of time there during his brutal regime.  We toured the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and the massive but unfinished Congress Hall, intended to outdo and outlast Rome’s Colosseum.  It was a cold, damp day when we visited, perfect for capturing the mood.


The River Beatrice docked next in Regensburg, a city we’d visited the week before.  Having seen enough historic buildings for awhile, we opted for a tour of the nearby BMW factory.  It was absolutely mind-blowing.  The plant employs over 8,000 people and produces 1,400 cars a day — that’s one every 57 seconds.  As you watch the production line go by, you realize that no two are the same; every car different from the last.  At least 90% of assembly functions are carried out by robots.  The BMW factory turned out to be one of the highlights of my European visit.

After an overnight stay in Passau, we woke to bright sunshine, perfect weather for a bike ride along the Danube.  Our excellent ride leaders kept us safe and we moved along at a brisk pace on a paved path.  It was a cool 3 degrees C but the scenery and fresh air were invigorating; the perfect tonic.  We caught up to the River Beatrice in one of the many locks she had to navigate during our voyage.

At our next stop, the tiny town of Spitz, we spent the morning visiting Melk Abbey, founded by the Benedictine order in 1089.  It sits in the beautiful Wachau Valley, a top Austrian tourist destination famed for high-quality wines of the Vinae Wachau appellation.  In the afternoon, we walked to the top of the village and were treated to beautiful views of the vineyards and the Danube far below.
Then it was on to Vienna, the grande dame of the Danube.  Uncharacteristically for us, we opted for the arts tour, starting with the Upper Belvedere, home of the largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt, as well as paintings by Egon Schiele, Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir.  Next, our guide led us through the collection housed in the massive Kuntshistorisches Museum, much of it assembled by the Habsburg family which ruled Austria for 500 years or so until 1918.  The Saliera one of the museum’s better known pieces, sometimes known as the “Mona Lisa of Sculpture”, was completed in 1540 for Francis I, King of France.  Made from solid gold, it is insured for a cool $70 million US!  Before we headed back to the ship, I couldn't resist sipping a $9 coffee at Café Mozart, a Viennese fixture since 1794.
 
The River Beatrice sailed into Budapest late morning on our last full day aboard.  We took a guided walking tour, using public transit to get from place to place and got a quick view of the city: Buda on the west side and Pest on the opposite bank of the Danube.  That evening, we sailed past the Hungarian Parliament and under the Chain Bridge, with Buda Castle on the starboard side.  It was chilly on the so-called “sun deck”, but the views were worth it.
We shlepped our luggage up the gangplank under the curious gazes of fellow passengers, most of them waiting for porters and taxis to take them to various destinations.  We’d explained to others that Acadians didn’t like to be waited on and were too poor for taxis anyway.  Besides, the ten-minute walk to our hotel was good for the digestion.  After dumping our bags, we walked across the Danube and up the hill to Buda Castle.  The expansive Castle area includes a magnificent church and the Fishermen’s Bastion, a section of the original castle fortification defended by Danube River fishermen during one of the city’s innumerable battles.

The Hungarian Parliament rivals the US Capitol, the UK Parliament, and the German Bundestag in size.  In sheer grandeur, it outclasses them all.  We took a guided tour of the interior and were most impressed.

Next morning, we walked up to the Liberty Statue, perched high on a hill on the Buda side of the river.  The statue was completed in 1947 as a symbol of gratitude to the Soviets for “liberating” Hungary from the Nazis near the end of World War II.  Liberty holds a palm leaf and faces due east toward Mother Russia.  When the Communist regime came to an end in 1989, there was talk of tearing her down.  Instead, the locals decided to keep her, reasoning, according to the urban legend, that she was sending a very different message to Russia: “Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out!”
Hungary paid dearly for its decision to join the Axis powers near the end of World War II, believing Hitler’s promise that he’d regain for Hungarians the territory they’d lost after World War I.  Heavy fighting took place between Nazi and Hungarian defenders as they attempted to hold off the approaching Soviet Army.  Much of the city was destroyed in the ensuing four-month battle.

But, as we learned during our visit to the Great Synagogue, said to be the second-largest in the world, Jews suffered most of all.  Our excellent guide told us the terrible story of the extermination of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, rounded up and murdered by Hungarian Fascists and their Nazi masters in the brief span of ten months.  To this day, Hungary struggles to come to terms with its participation in World War II.
We’ve now visited two former Communist countries in Europe: the Czech Republic and Hungary.  It amazes me how quickly a country can respond after the straightjacket of Communism is removed, and democracy and a free-market economy are established.  In just 28 years, Hungary’s economy has moved into the top third of all countries.  As for Budapest, it’s a blossoming metropolis of some 3 million, roughly 30% of the country’s population.  We loved strolling its friendly downtown pedestrian malls and parks, visiting the Christmas market, and walking along the peaceful Danube.  It’s a city we’ll want to visit again.
A final word about the river cruise.  On balance, it was a very positive experience: excellent food, good service, and the best guided tours we’ve had to date on any organized trip.  Compared to ocean cruise liners, the River Beatrice feels a bit cramped: no library, no cinema, no theatre, no pool, a pitiful fitness room, and limited onboard recreational opportunities.  As budget travellers who like to make our money go as far as possible, we found it very expensive.  The cost per day was twice the $300 average we use as a guide.  And we’d gotten the cruise for half price.  It doesn’t mean we won’t take another river cruise, but it will have to be on sale!


Monday, 6 November 2017

EUROPE – PART 4 – BAVARIA, SALZBURG AND PRAGUE

After luxuriating in the warmth of shorts weather in the Black Forest and Liechtenstein, the cold rain hit us hard in Bavaria.  In fact, Day 32 of our European adventure proved to be the wettest yet.  Castles were on the agenda for our stay in Füssen.  Google “Bavaria” and, invariably, an image of Neuschwanstein Castle will appear.  I can’t pronounce the name, but at least I can spell it; same with its sister castle, Hohenschwangau.

Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone) was commissioned by Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, as a retreat and as a homage to his musical idol, the composer Richard Wagner.  Several of the theme rooms were inspired by Wagner operas.  Ludwig paid for the palace out of his personal fortune and by means of extensive borrowing, rather than Bavarian public funds.  Unfortunately, he died in 1886, aged 40, before the castle was finished, having spent only 177 days there.  As I gawked at Ludwig’s clifftop aerie (photo below), I wondered where the King of Acadia might have built his castle, maybe on Euclide à Zénon’s farm, the highest point in Urbainville!
Ludwig’s father, King Maximillian II, built Hohenschwangau (first photo) as a summer residence and the boy spent much of his childhood there.  Ludwig dreamed of building his own castle on a hill overlooking Hohenschwangau, atop the ruins of two older castles.  The final result is highly stylistic, quite unlike the fortified castles we’d visited before.  While the old family castle, still owned by the Duke of Bavaria, feels rather homey, Neuschwanstein is over the top.  The throne room (second photo) is but one example of the King’s expensive tastes.  

Only two people have been able to capture my attention on the subjects of art and architecture, particularly the religious kind: Reg Porter and the late Fr. Adrien Arsenault.  I think of them every time we visit a church.  On our way to Salzburg, Austria, we drove in to Oberammergau, a small town in the south of Germany renowned for its tradition of staging of the Passion Play, the result of a vow made by the inhabitants of the village in 1634 that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague then sweeping the region, they would perform a passion play every ten years.  The play has become world- famous.

Oberammergau is also known for the colourful frescoes that decorate its buildings and for its talented woodcarvers.  I’d read that the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul was worth a visit.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when we walked across the threshold.  It’s not a large church by European standards, but the walls and ceiling are covered by frescoes and paintings as beautiful as I’ve seen anywhere.  The first of the two photos below shows the choir and the second a view of the church taken from the back.  Of course, the ends of the pews are carved.



Our visit to Salzburg was characterized by bad weather; not unexpected given the time of year.  We visited the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and wandered the narrow streets with hundreds of curious visitors taking in the the sights.  On Sunday, we’d hoped to visit Hohensalzburg Castle, a massive medieval fortress that sits high above the city.  Unfortunately, 50 kph winds forced its closure.  Worse yet, stores in Austria close on Sunday — torture for the shopper in our party.

So, we attended Mass at the massive cathedral of Saints Rupert and Vergilius that dominates the old town landscape.  Mozart was baptized in the church, served as organist there for a time, and composed several symphonies for the cathedral.  The interior is stunning, and I couldn’t help but imagine that Reg and Fr. Adrien would be as impressed as we were.  Four pipe organs occupied balconies hanging from the massive octagonal central dome.  The choir stood on one of the balconies, the choir director on the opposite balcony, and the organist on a third.  It was quite a performance, proving once again that unplanned, spontaneous activities often turn out to be the most enjoyable.


Since discovering how to use our iPhone as a GPS — offline — we’ve alternated between two apps, Google Maps and Apple Maps, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both.  We baptized the Google Maps app “Agnès” and the iPhone version “Hortense”.  Between Salzburg and Munich, it was Hortense’s turn.  She started out OK, getting us out of Salzburg and onto the autobahn in jig time.  Next thing we knew, we were rattling along backroads tailor-made for a car rally.  The day before, Agnès had gotten us thoroughly lost in Salzburg.  I’ve concluded that Agnès has ADHD and Hortense has an undiagnosed cognitive deficiency.  Neither is ideal but they’re a hell of a lot better than trying to read a map in a moving car.

Munich is the capital of the State of Bavaria, a city of 6 million, about the same size as Toronto.  We checked in to our hotel, about 10 km from city center, and took the subway to the old town.  Our routine when arriving at a new destination is to head to the tourist information office to get a map and inquire into must-sees, special events, guided tours, etc.  Turns out our second day in Munich was to be a national holiday, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation orchestrated by Martin Luther; all stores closed, and reduced public transit schedule.  So, we made the best of our first day, joining hundreds at Marienplatz to listen to the noontime carillon and watch animated figures dance around the city hall tower.
On Day 2 in Munich, we took a guided walking tour and learned a great deal about this interesting city.  Like many in Germany, it was heavily damaged by Allied bombs, and much of it has been restored and repaired.  We much preferred Munich to Frankfurt.  The highlight of our day was supper at Hofbrauhaus München, a beer hall like no other; a place where real men wear lederhosen, you’re entertained by a talented Bavarian band, and the toilet has more urinals than a NASCAR track.  Standard fare, roast pork hock ("pig's trotters") with lots of gravy, was delicious and filling.
Estelle Melinda Arsenault, daughter of Julia and Clément, was born as we drove from Munich to Regensburg.  Tears were shed.  Her mother is a strong, courageous woman and Estelle is truly a miracle baby.  We’re very fortunate to have her in our family.
The well-preserved medieval centre of Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes many structures dating back to the period between 1150 and 1550.  The city has done an excellent job of preserving the central core, making it a major tourist attraction.  Unlike many German cities, Regensburg was spared by Allied bombers during World War II.  Ironically, the city’s slow economic recovery after the War meant that old buildings were kept and repaired, rather than being torn down and replaced.  I even did time in the city jail!
The next two days of our journey were turnaround days.  On the first, we drove from Regensburg to Frankfurt, a drive that should have taken no more than three hours.  My, how the Germans love their autobahns.  No matter how fast you’re driving — the speed limit is 120 kph — cars whiz past you.  Some must be doing 200!  But, half the 300-km route from Regensburg to Frankfurt was under construction.  Three lanes squeezed into two, with an unbroken line of transport trucks on the inside lane, the outside lane barely wide enough to pass.  I was damn glad to surrender the Hertz rental and get back on foot.

After getting some badly-needed laundry done, we left Frankfurt, bound for Prague.  In our quest to learn to travel, we’d decided to take the bus, one-third the price of a train ticket and only marginally slower.  We boarded the FlixBus at 9:15 am sharp and enjoyed the scenery from our very comfortable seats.  After several stops, we crossed the former Iron Curtain about mid-afternoon, the border between Germany and Czechia (Czech Republic).  The extensive and rather intimidating border control buildings are empty now, no longer needed since the fall of the USSR and Czechia’s adoption of the Schengen Agreement in 2007.

So many changes since US President Ronald Reagan uttered his famous line in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.  In 1989, the Communist regime collapsed in Czechoslovakia and a market economy was established.  Czechia and Slovakia split peacefully in 1993.  The contrast between the wealthier Germany and the less-developed Czechia is evident as soon as one crosses the border.  On the Czech side, roads are rougher; farm fields look poorer; there’s more graffiti; more houses are abandoned; and rural areas are in definite decline.  Still, the numbers are encouraging: per capita GDP stands at $33,000 (compared to $46,000 for Canada, $48,000 for Germany and $57,000 for the US), and the country is well governed.

We arrived in downtown Prague, capital of Czechia (population 2 million) early in the evening.  Our bus driver, an asshole of the first order, dumped us on a dark and busy street in front of the train station, and would have sped off with our luggage if we hadn’t yelled at him to smarten up!  We walked to the taxi stand and asked for the fare to our hotel which I knew to be close by: “20 Euros”, the guy says ($30 Canadian).  “It’s very close to here”, I said.  The taxi driver just shrugged his shoulders, figuring two heavily-laden seniors to be an easy mark.  I mumbled a four-letter rejoinder as I walked away, iPhone in my palm, trusting Agnès to direct us to the Hotel Majestic Plaza, which she did.

I don’t mind spending money; I just don’t like to waste it.  And, most of all, I hate getting ripped off.  On this trip, we’d already paid far too much for laundry service in Ypres, so I wasn’t about to let a greedy, smart-assed taxi driver do it to me in Prague.

Prague greeted us the next morning in all her splendour.  What a magnificent city!  Armed with a map and guidance from the tourist information bureau, we walked to the main square, crossed the Vitava River, and climbed up to Prague Castle, the massive fortification overlooking the city.  We soon learned why Prague is the fifth most visited European city (after London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome) and its centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Saturday crowds reminded us of an Asian metropolis; we could barely move while crossing the fourteenth-century Charles Bridge.
Elva was determined to try one of the local delicacies, trdelnik, rolled dough wrapped around a spindle, then grilled and topped with a sugar, cinnamon, and walnut mix.  And, of course, she had to have soft ice cream to top off her warm trdelnik.  The results were entirely predictable.  Her face and hands smeared with melting ice cream, she looked like a three-year old by the time she'd gotten half-way through.  I didn’t have the heart to take her picture but did the honourable thing and cleaned her up as best I could with Wet Wipes.
On Sunday morning, we attended Mass at St. Vitus Cathedral, located within the walls of the massive Prague Castle complex.  It had been an eventful week for our family and we had much to be thankful for.  A prominent example of Gothic architecture, the church is the largest in the country.  Construction began in 1344 and continued on and off until the church was finally finished in 1929, almost 600 years later!  It’s a long story…  For travellers like us who aren’t particularly fond of art galeries and museums, medieval churches have much to offer: architecture, sculpture, paintings, a history lesson, and music.
There’s always something going on in and around Prague’s Old Town Square.  On one of our evenings there, we attended a concert in St. Nicholas Church by a seven-piece chamber orchestra with organ.  It featured works by Bach, Händel, Vivaldi, and Mozart and was a delight to the ear.


If Prague isn’t on your bucket list, it should be!

Tomorrow, the next phase of our journey begins: a Danube River cruise to Budapest aboard the River Beatrice.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

EUROPE – PART 3 – LUXEMBOURG, GERMANY, LIECHTENSTEIN

Less than half the land area of Prince Edward Island, Luxembourg is roughly triangular in shape, boxed in by Belgium, France, and Germany.  This small country is the birthplace of the idea of a unified Europe and the headquarters of several European institutions.  It’s also very wealthy, with a long-held reputation as a tax haven for the rich, thanks to its airtight banking secrecy laws.  One could reasonably skip Luxembourg on a northern European trip, but that would be a mistake.  There's much to see and do, the people are friendly, and the abundance of French-speakers made it easier for us to communicate.

After a leisurely six-hour train trip from Ypres to Luxembourg City, we settled into our modest hotel near the station.  What a pleasure is train travel: downtown stations easy to get to and from; no security ordeal; always on time; quick transfers; and lots of room onboard for luggage, sitting, and reading.  We had time on our first afternoon to walk to the center of the old city, get our bearings, and visit the Tourism Office where we got all the information we needed for our two-day stay.

On our first full day, we took a couple of walking tours of the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We strolled along the valley park in the Basse-Ville, crunching fallen leaves and soaking in the dappled sunlight of a beautiful fall day.  

In the Haute-Ville, we particularly enjoyed the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Bock Casemate, a vast defensive complex of underground tunnels and galleries begun in 1644 and used for military purposes until 1867.  Several times, we found ourselves coming back to Place d’Armes, a central square where residents and tourists gather to people-watch.

On Day 2 in Luxembourg, we opted for a self-guided day trip.  As we continue to learn how to travel, one important lesson is how to use public transit, and 2017 has been our year.  Our five-year-old granddaughter, Lucie, understands bus schedules better than I do!  I wish we’d learned forty years ago, but I suppose you’re never too old.  Now, it might make sense to rent a car for a day trip into the Luxembourg countryside.  That is, until you discover how much a public transit day pass costs, about the same as a good cup of coffee: $6!  For $6, you can ride the trains and buses all day, anywhere in the country.  So, we did!

The Luxembourg countryside is a mix of farmland and forest, a dead ringer for the Bonshaw Hills on our Island.  Our first stop was the pretty little town of Vianden in the Ardennes region, home of Château Vianden.  The Château, one of the more interesting ones we’ve seen in our travels, was rebuilt by the government after falling into ruins in the mid-nineteenth century.
From Vianden, it took a couple of buses to get us to Echternach by early afternoon.  This town of 4,000 lies on the west bank of the Sûre (Sauer) River, the border between Luxembourg and Germany in the region called La petite Suisse.  Echternach bills itself as the oldest town in the country.  The tranquil pedestrian mall that runs between the bus station and the main square made for a lovely walk.  We visited Saint Willibrod Cathedral, founded in 698 by the English monk of the same name.  Just a couple of blocks away stands the church of Saints Peter and Paul, the oldest part of which dates from the second century AD during the time of Roman occupation.

After two full days in Luxembourg, it was time to pack the tent again and travel to Frankfurt, Germany, next stop on our European itinerary.  We crossed the border and entered the Saar Valley, a heavily-industrialized area marked by gigantic steel mills; quite a contrast from the tranquil countryside we’d seen since Ireland.  As the bus approached Saarbrücken, it dawned on me that the city’s name must mean “bridge over the Saar”.  I was close, “brücken” means ‘bridges”.  We boarded the TGV and, two hours later, walked through the very crowded Frankfurt Hauptbanhof (my other new German word for the day) and took a cab to our hotel, the Alexander am Zoo.

Frankfurt, the business and financial center of Germany, straddles the Main River, hence the oft-used name “Frankfurt am Main”.  We walked to the center of the city along the pedestrian Zeil Mall, said to be one of the most frequented shopping districts of Europe.  We then made our way to the old centre of Frankfurt, the Römerberg.  The city is in the process of rebuilding this historic quarter after it was completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.  To get a better view, we climbed the corkscrew stairway to the top of the 95-metre Saint Bartholomeus Church tower.
Frankfurt is a walkers’ paradise.  There are beautiful parks in the city and along the Main River.  We took a sightseeing cruise along the river and learned about the importance of river transportation in Europe.  Frankfort’s river port handles 2,500 ships per year, not including the cruise ships that call here transiting from the Rhine to the Danube.  In fact, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal provides a navigable artery from the North Sea all the way to the Black Sea.
At 10:00 on Saturday morning, things were relatively quiet in central Frankfurt.  That soon changed!  By the time we arrived at the Kleinmarkthalle, the place was abuzz.  Though not the biggest, it's one of the most attractive markets we've seen.  We’d been told that to sample the best sausage in Frankfort, one had to stand in line at Schrieber’s, a hole-in-the-wall run by two seventy-something sisters.  After twenty minutes or so, it was finally my turn.  This special treat was well worth the wait!
Frankfurt stays home on Sunday; everything was closed and downtown was deserted as we strolled through city parks, past the financial district, down to the river, and back along the Zeil pedestrian mall.  The only people around were tourists and a few locals out for a stroll on a cool, misty day.  Frankfurt is a nice city, but not one we’re likely to visit again.  It lacks the charm of Bruges and the sophistication of Luxembourg.


We picked up our rental from a cranky Hertz employee — clearly more interested in talking on her cell phone than serving us — and headed south toward Baden-Baden.  The city’s name evokes the natural springs and adjoining spas, defining features since Roman times.  We spent an enjoyable afternoon there, wandering through cobbled streets in the old town, and along the magnificent riverside park, the Lichtentaller Allée.  Baden-Baden is a popular tourist destination, summer and winter, and is the home of an impressive casino.  And it doesn’t take long to figure out that there’s big money there; Bentleys and Maseratis galore!

In nearby Bühl, site of our hotel for the night, I got my hair cut by Abdul the Turkish barber.  Watching him work on the guy before me, I could see this barber was an artiste, like a butcher with a sharp cleaver.  When my turn came and the job was nearly done, he pulled out a fresh blade for his straight razor.  I didn’t flinch when he tidied up the sides and back and shaved my neck with it.  But when he proceeded to singe the hair in my ears with a Bic lighter, it was all I could do to stay in the freaking chair!  There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.

We arrived at our next stop, Frieburg, mid-morning, found our hotel and walked to the old town.  Like Baden-Baden, the city features a historic core, a nice riverside park, and a panoramic viewpoint from the hilltop called Schlossberg.

We’ve observed that graffiti seems to be considered an art form in this part of the world, with the notable exception of Luxembourg.  I HATE GRAFFITI.  I can understand devoting a wall or two to budding artists but Freiburg, an otherwise lovely city, is plastered with the most tasteless crap imaginable.  It’s everywhere.  It must be very discouraging for civic officials and residents alike.


Freiburg is the gateway to the Black Forest, an area of mixed forest and agriculture located in the southwest corner of Germany.  It's a land of cuckoo clocks, stunning scenery and lovely towns right out of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale.  Ten minutes outside Freiburg, we found ourselves in the heart of the Black Forest.  Around every turn, we were treated to postcard-pretty scenery.  I’d have loved to have a bike to ride the winding, hilly roads, and the old forester in me drooled over the quality of the timber growing on steep hillsides.

At our first stop, Furtwangen, we visited the Clock Museum and learned about the interesting history of this craft, a hallmark of the Black Forest.  In Triberg, we parked the car and walked down a steep path to see the highest waterfall in Germany, a cascade ending in a series of pools just above the town.

On our way to Gutach, we stopped at the iconic House of 1000 Clocks and were serenaded by dozens of locally-made cuckoos.  On a stroll through the village, we walked around the tiny churchyard and watched several people tend gravesites, each one a pocket garden, a unique manifestation of a relative’s tender love and care.  It’s the little things that make a day interesting.
I’d read about the Black Forest Open Air Museum and wanted to learn about the distinctive architecture of the region.  The museum features a dozen or so traditional Black Forest farmsteads, as well as mills of different types.  All except one were moved from their original locations and reassembled at the museum site.  The oldest dates from 1599.  One was occupied by 16 generations of the same family over a period of almost 400 years!  What makes the homesteads unique is that they housed farm animals and people in the same building.  Some still do!
With a land area of 160 square kilometres and a population of only 37,000, you’d think tiny Liechtenstein would be the smallest country in Europe.  It isn’t.  Vatican City (0.44 sq. km.), Monaco (2 sq. km.), and San Marino (61 sq. km.) are smaller.  Surrounded by Switzerland and Austria, the tiny perfect state thrives on a strong financial sector, manufacturing, small-scale agriculture, and winter ski tourism.  There are more registered companies than citizens in Liechtenstein!  On a per-capita GDP basis, it's among the richest countries in the world, maintains no military force, is officially neutral, and boasts one of the world’s lowest crime rates.

We parked the car in the center of the capital, Vaduz (population 5,500), visited the local tourist office and hoofed it to Vaduz Castle, high above the town.  The castle is the official residence of Hans-Adam II, reigning Prince of Liechtenstein.  I knocked on the door and asked if he could receive our official delegation, saying I’d been sent by the Prince de l’Acadie himself, Cayouche.  Avez-vous rendezvous avec Son Altesse?”, I was asked.  “Chez-nous, on a point besoin de rendezvous pour visiter d’la parenté”, I replied.  The guard slammed the door in my face!

I’d booked a hotel in the nearby village of Malbun, thinking it would be nice to spend a night in the countryside.  The GPS on my iPhone sent us straight up a wall, climbing almost 1,200 metres in 18 km. or so; one hairpin turn after another.  The alpine scenery was stunning.  Turns out Malbun is the country’s ski resort, sitting in a high meadow surrounded on three sides by snow-capped Alps.  Except for a few red-cheeked hikers, it was pretty quiet while we were there, but Malbun must be a happening place during the height of the ski season.  Sitting on a bench in front of the village chapel, we watched the sun dip below the mountain, thankful that we’d discovered tiny Liechtenstein, yet another pleasant surprise on our European adventure.

Monday, 16 October 2017

EUROPE – PART 2 – BELGIUM

From the window of my hotel room, I watch as cyclists — from 8 to 80 — pedal past on their way to the Saturday morning market.  Others walk.  There are very few cars.  The pace is slow.  I can’t help but wonder what the center of Charlottetown would look like were we so fortunate as the citizens of downtown Bruges.  I wonder how many of our decision-makers — planners, politicians, and business leaders — have ever visited a place like this on their own dime to see what a real city should look and feel like.

We flew from Dublin to Brussels and took the train from the airport to Bruges Station, a ten-minute walk from our hotel, the Salvators.  While many things are more expensive in Europe, travel is not one of them.  The flight and train cost a mere fraction of what it would have set us back in Canada: $260 for the two of us!

The Lonely Planet Guide says of the city: “If you set out to design a fairy-tale medieval town, it would be hard to improve on central Bruges.  Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals link photogenic market squares lined with soaring towers, historic churches and old whitewashed almshouses.” 

The city center, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s almost too beautiful to be real.  The clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets added to the ambiance as we sat in the central square on a cool Saturday evening and people-watched.  We spent two enjoyable days wandering around, sampling the famous Belgian chocolate and waffles, and taking in the atmosphere of this special place.

We arrived in Ghent just before noon and walked 30 minutes or so to our hotel using a feature I discovered on my iPhone: Google maps without WiFi, on airplane mode!  Although Ghent lacks the charm and intimacy of Bruges, it proved a very nice place to spend a couple of days.  It’s a port and university city of some 250,000, about twice the size of Bruges.

On our first afternoon there, we took a boat tour on the central canal and learned about the history of the city.  We also visited the Gravensteen, a twelfth-century castle built for the Counts of Flanders.  It is much better preserved than the castles we visited in Ireland and has a great display of instruments of torture, much enjoyed by Elva, I might add.
The centers of both cities are dominated by bicycles and public transit.  It’s fascinating to watch people come and go, riding casually to work or to shop; mothers and fathers cycling to and from school with their children.  There is little evidence of obesity here.  Everyone seems relaxed and healthy.  As for parking, this is what an underground lot looks like in downtown Bruges.
Belgium has a population of 11 million and covers an area about half the size of Nova Scotia.  The country’s capital and largest city, Brussels, is home to the European Parliament, NATO, and international agencies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Trade Organization.  The northern part of the country is Flemish and the southern part, closest to France, is Waloon.

We had to change our travel plans because of a national rail and bus strike.  Fortunately, our friends, Liz and Ira, were able to pick us up in Ghent and drive us to Ypres.  We settled in to our comfortable apartment in downtown Ypres, ready for a seven-day stay.

Next morning, we headed straight for Vimy, with the young couple in the front and the old people in the back.  It sure was nice to get a break from driving.  The Vimy monument was easy to spot, dominating the landscape as we approached from the north.  Driving through the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, we noted many Canadian flags flying in people’s yards.  The names of the 3,598 Canadian soldiers killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge are inscribed on the magnificent Vimy Memorial.
Our victory at Vimy Ridge, the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together in a coordinated effort, became an important national symbol of achievement and sacrifice.  Canada entered World War I when Britain declared war on Germany; as a member of the Empire, we had no choice.  But things changed after Vimy.  Many historians claim that Canada took a first step toward true independence on April 9, 1917.

Wherever I go, I look for the Island connection.  One room of the brand-new interpretive centre features the stories of veterans who survived the battle.  Alfred McKenna made it back to Prince Edward Island; he and his wife raised a family of 13 children. 
A small plaque leaned against the tomb at the foot of the Vimy Memorial.  Something drew me to it and helped me discover the story of Patrick Raymond Arsenault who fought and died on April 9, 1917.  I shed a few tears when I read the words: “May this fine Island boy rest in peace”.  Georges Arsenault, good friend and eminent Island historian, helped me fill in the blanks.  Private Arsenault, son of Joseph and Isabelle of Seven Mile Bay was a machine-gunner.  But, he wasnt supposed to be at Vimy.  The person who should have been there was Benjamin Arsenault of Summerside who sailed to England on the same day, on the same ship.  Their names were reversed due to a clerical error.  Benjamin Arsenault survived the war.
The city of Ypres lies at the center of the World War I battles of the same name.  The third and last battle resulted in an Allied victory over the German army, but at great cost to both sides: close to half a million casualties and the obliteration of the old town.  The photo below was taken in early 1919 before reconstruction started.
In the early 1920s, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission built the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing.  On its walls are engraved the names of more than 54,000 officers and men who died in and near Ypres but have no known grave.  Every evening at 8:00, 365 days a year, hundreds gather for a remembrance ceremony at the Menin Gate.  We attended several of these and found them deeply moving.
Cycling was the second main theme of our visit to Ypres.  On our second full day there, we drove across the border to Roubaix, France, to see the finish line of the famous Paris-Roubaix bike race.  The race, a one-day, 260-km torture test, is run on a course that includes long stretches of cobbles, slick as ice when wet.  I saw my first indoor velodrome and we walked over to the outdoor velodrome where the annual race finishes.

The four of us set out on a sunny Saturday morning to ride the Peace Cycle Route, stopping at a couple of war cemeteries.  We’d ordered “racing bikes” from a local tour guide.  Danny of MacQueen’s Bike Shop wouldn’t be caught dead renting the clunkers Kurt from Biking Box showed up with.  One was a 25-year-old street bike with a suicide shift.  Two of the others were very low-end Scatto, a brand we’d never heard of, and the fourth was a beat-up Scott.  But the ride was glorious and the Belgian countryside looked lovely in the bright sunshine and 20-degree temperature.

We rode to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world, and the final resting place of almost 12,000 servicemen killed on the Passchendaele battlefields during the First World War.  We were there to attend a special ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the final battle.
My mother’s first cousin, Ulric J. “Spud” Arsenault, enlisted in the Army on April 29, 1916, on his 18th birthday.  At least that’s what the recruiters thought.  Spud was actually 17, stood all of 5-foot-3 and weighed 130 pounds.  He fought with the 26th New Brunswick Batallion and was wounded at Amiens and Passchendaele.  I thought of him as I watched the sun go down over Tyne Cot Cemetery and remembered the child soldier depicted in this photo.

The ceremony was called “Silent City Meets Living City”.  I don’t know how many thousands attended, but it seemed that someone stood behind each one of the graves, holding a candle as night fell.  Letters from the battlefield and soldiers’ diaries were read, a pipe band played, and the choir sang On the Road to Passchendaele.  It was a low-key affair and demonstrated yet again that Belgians are experts at veneration and tribute.  There were no patriotic speeches by politicians feigning knowledge, glorifying war and sacrifice, and pretending to be sincere.  We rode the 10 kilometres back to Ypres in the darkness, trusting feeble lights to show us the way.

We hopped in the car next morning and drove to Zonnebeke where we visited the Passchendaele Museum, followed by the Canadian Memorial, a German cemetery, and Essex Farm, where Canadian John McCrea wrote the definitive World War I poem, In Flanders Fields.  The German cemetery holds the remains of 44,000 soldiers, 25,000 of them in a mass grave.  The contrast between this one and Allied cemeteries is glaring: black stones bearing several names lie on the unkempt ground.  In the Allied cemeteries, the lawn is immaculate, there are flowers everywhere, and the plain white tombstones stand arrow-straight.  Relatives and schoolchildren leave wreaths and notes.  The one that read “Dear Grandad” brought a tear to my eye.
Ira and I saddled up one last time after our tour and rode to the small town of Kemmel, about 10 kilometres from Ypres.  The town centre marks the start of the 3-kilometre climb up Kemmelberg, averaging 4% and topping out at 22%.  That’s bad enough, but half the climb is over cobbles!  Not my favourite way to travel.  But we made it up and back down safely and, after a detour to Zonnebeke, rode triumphantly into Ypres, through the Lille Gate.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War I, but these few words I read on a plaque in an Ypres park sum it up best for me:


“Here for all of a couple of years
it’s the second before you die.
Little things are all there is.”
(Herman De Coninck)

On our last full day in Ypres, we reluctantly said goodbye to Liz and Ira, our sterling travel companions for the six days we spent together.  Then, we took one last walk along the Ypres rampart and through the main square.  It was time to pack and prepare for the next phase of our European adventure.