Thursday, September 05, 2013

Summer Holiday 2013 - Belgium, Luxembourg, and Paris

This past week we finally took a long holiday, but had a lot planned for the week. We first started out in Brussels for 2 days. The only non-stop was the 6:40am Aer Lingus flight. We were up pretty early on Saturday!


It was a pretty easy train ride in to Centrale from the airport, but most machines at the station would not take US credit cards. It was causing quite a lot of confusion with passengers, but luckily we had our european chip card. We stayed at the Ibis hotel, a couple minutes from Centrale, and a couple minutes to Grand Place. We had a very nice view of a little square and our triple worked well for us.

After unloading, we walked out toward Grand Place. It was lightly sprinkling, but we came prepared for that. We walked around, gawking at all the chocolate shops, trying to learn the right way to order waffles. We walked in the very old St. Nicholas church for a few minutes. We headed toward Manneken Pis. It gets crowded in waves as tours come through. It is also much smaller than I expected.

After this we finally sat down for some waffles. They were decent, but we were still learning and ordered a different kind from what we wanted (there are many kinds). We headed back to Grand Place since the rain had stopped. We learned that tours in english are Sundays mornings and Wednesday mornings, so we learned about how to get tickets the next morning. We continued walking around shops and then walked through the St. Hubert Galleries. It was just more chocolate!

We decided to go back to the hotel for a little rest before dinner. It was good timing as a huge storm rolled in right as we got back. The kids played and we napped (I think). We went to a place from the Lonely Planet book (and learned throughout the trip that this book series is bad at that) called Chez Leon, or something like that. Not great, but had a good brown beer called Grimbergen. After dinner we walked around and found some more delicious treats. We stopped at Rose de Damas; this place was amazing and beautiful and tasty!

The next morning we had our tour of Hotel de Ville (town hall); it was pretty cool. Afterwards we walked up toward the Royal Palace. We first walked down toward the Sablon area to see Notre Dame and look for food. The church was having mass, so we walked around, looked at more chocolate, and came back a little later. After the church, we hung out in the gardens across the street for a few minutes. On our way to the palace, we walked in the Church of Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg. We grabbed some food at the Belvue Musem cafe and then walked to the Royal Palace. The palace is free, so it was pretty full, but there wasn't really a line to get in. It was a typical palace, lots of big chandeliers. There was also a kid exploration room toward the end, kind of neat.

Next we strolled toward the St. Michael's Cathedral. There was a nice crypt and it was a nice church. We walked around a bit for dinner and found Les Chapeliers. The rabbit stew was good, Mort Subite Gueuze beer was good; it was a good find! After a few treats that night, and taking a few pictures of Grand Place at night, we got to bed in preparation for the next city.

Pictures from Brussels can be found here.


On Monday morning we took the hour long train ride from Brussels to Bruges (after some more waffles of course!). It was pretty full on the train, but we got there. We bought our bus tickets and headed in to the Markt. This is the big town square, and our hotel was just a block away. The Crowne Plaza on the Burg had a good rate on a family room. We dropped off our bags and started walking around Markt. Kacey got some pommes frites with andalouse, while I grabbed a bratwurst to snack on. The line was long for the belfort, so we figured we would come back later. We walked down the street toward St. Salvator's Cathedral. The door we tried to go in said closed, but the door on the other side was still open, but closing. So I took a few pictures from the back and we headed on.

We walked along the back streets toward the Church of Our Lady. We walked by the St. Jans Hospital Museum and determined if we had time, we would visit. The church was nice, and contains a marble statue of Madonna and child by Michaelangelo, quite rare outside of Italy. We strolled along the street over the canal, stopping in shops to see chocolate and other things (and bought Nolan's Bruges flag).

Next we walked back to the Markt to go up the Belfort. The line wasn't too bad (down the steps took about 20 min) and the climb wasn't too bad. It was tight, and they didn't really want me to backpack Liana up, but I told them I was experienced and they let it go. The bells sound quite often, and it is really cool. There are 47 bells, and on the way up they describe how the system works. It is hard to get good pictures from the top due to the fencing installed, but it was a nice view of the Markt and the whole city.

We bummed around the Markt for a little afterward and then walked over to the Burg to see the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Supposedly, this church contains a relic of blood from Christ, gathered by Joseph of Arimathea. Next we bummed around the Markt some more, stopping in to shops along the way as we kind of accidentally walked out to 't zand square. There is a big water feature here and we hung around for a few pictures here. We started walking back toward the Markt to find some dinner.

After walking around some back streets for a while, we found an area behind the Burg with some restaurants. I had some yummy stew and a couple different beers, including Brugse Zot. We headed back toward the Markt to take a horse and carriage ride around town! This is big here, and was a nice treat. Afterward, we went out in search of ice cream. There isn't much super close to the Markt, which surprised me, but we found one a couple blocks away.

The next morning we changed our plans a little. Originally, we were going to pack up early and head to Ghent for a few hours to check it out. But, this was going to be stressful and hard with the kids. So we decided to skip Ghent and stay in Bruges a little longer, letting us relax and see a museum. We visited the St. Jans Hospital Museum and Pharmacy (Apotheek). It wasn't quite what we expected, but still neat. We found some sandwiches and pasta for lunch and got ready to head on the long trip to Luxembourg City, via Brussels.

Pictures from Bruges can be found here.


We had train issues along the way to Luxembourg, requiring a few train changes. The instructions were only in french, but when you hear an announcement, and then everyone gets off the train and walks to another train, you follow. Also, I always kind of loudly ask in english what is going on in hopes a bi-lingual person will confirm our suspicions, and this usually works out well, especially when they see you struggling with kids and lots of luggage. We got in to Luxembourg about an hour late, and we were tired, so we hustled in to city centre to find some food.

We found an area with a couple options and actually stumbled in to an authentic Luxembourgish restaurant. Restaurant Kniddelkinnek served up yummy Kniddelen. It is like potato dumplings, and mine with served with bacon and cream. I had some Battin beer, but it was nothing special. We walked by Notre Dame on the way back to the hotel to see it lit at night.

The next morning we set out toward the city centre again. We randomly found the big market that was set up (which is next to the Town Hall and TI) at Place Guillaume II (William Square). We ate some fruit and pastries for breakfast and grabbed a walking tour guide. It is hard not to notice the large equestrian statue of William II. We started to notice these colorful elephants everywhere; it is part of the Elephant Parade. It was also at this time I was getting very curious about the languages being spoken in Luxembourg. I usually do a decent amount of research about the culture we visit, but this time, I just wasn't quite sure about something. I assumed they spoke french here, but I kept hearing german-sounding words. It turns out they speak Luxembourgish, a mix of german and french; but, most people understand english and french very well.

As the city centre is not very big, in a couple minutes we were outside the royal palace. This palace is not very big and tucked right in amongst other buildings. It was closed to the public on the day we were there, but we probably didn't miss too much. Next we strolled around Place d'Armes. This is the place with the Chi-Chi's restaurant; we had quite a laugh at this!

Next we walked out toward the Place de la Constitution. This is a war memorial with great views of the valley below. There were some friendly "Ask Me" folks here so we asked about the casemates. There are two in the Old Town; Petrusse Casemates has guided tours below the Place de la Constitution, and the other is the self-guided Bock Casemates on the other end of Chemin de la Corniche. We decided to do the self-guided Bock Casemates later in the day when we got there.

Next we checked out the Notre Dame church. Nothing big stood out here, but the downstairs had a blocked off chapel that looked interesting. Next we passed through Clairefontaine Square on our way to Chemin de la Corniche. Chemin de la Corniche, known as the most beautiful balcony in europe, is quite beautiful. I just couldn't stop taking it in and taking photos of the area; the little river passing by the church below in the Grund is quite picturesque.

We walked a few blocks in to find some food to eat. Along the way we briefly stepped in St. Michael's Church. We grabbed our take-away and walked out near the Bock Casemates to eat. We headed in to the Casemates next, and walking through the tunnels was fun for Nolan. There was a very deep well to look down, and lots of little nooks and crannies to check out. We got pretty far down a tunnel with no outlet, along with another family, and had to backtrack a ways out.

Kacey identified an area to visit called Fort Thüngen. She thought there was a carnival in the area, but we spotted it in the distance as we neared, realizing it was clearly in another part of town. There isn't much left of this fort, and it doesn't look like it is visited much, but we walked around for a few minutes, contemplated the museum, found some water, and started walking back toward the Grund.

We were going to finish our walking tour through the Grund, walking through the area that was so picturesque from above. By this time we were all getting tired, but we made it back to the area below the Place de la Constitution. We hiked up the steps for one last view of the valley below. We stopped in the TI to enquire about dinner, but they are not allowed to give recommendations. They could answer questions about possibilities of Luxembourgish food, and that led us to a brasserie on Place d'Armes. We had some decent food (pork neck with tasty beans), and they had pizza for Nolan. Also, the Ourdaller beer was pretty good. We were tired, but never too tired for some ice cream, so I got some yummy dark chocolate gelato on our walk back to the hotel.

On our way back, we decided to detour to the station to pre-purchase our train tickets. This way if there was a line or any issue in the morning, we would be set, as there are not a lot of trains to Paris from there. The next morning, we caught our 10am train to Paris!

Pictures from Luxembourg can be found here.


We arrived to Paris Est a little after noon. I already knew what route we would take to the hotel, we just had to buy metro tickets. After some frustration with the machine, we learned that you can not buy discounted childrens tickets one at a time, only in packs of ten. Still, a great deal! We made our way to Maubert - Mutualité square and walked a block up to California Hotel. We were able to secure a family room for less than €200/night, pretty close to the metro and in a nice area. The hotel wasn't that great, but it worked. We dumped our things and headed out. We had roughly planned our few days there, and Thursday was reserved for the Rodin Museum and Arc de Triomphe.

We took the metro to the Rodin Museum. The family rate was unreal; one euro more than a single adult! We walked in and first stopped in the gardens. Casts of his works are outside in the gardens, while his small originals are kept inside. The weather was great and there were some nice views of The Thinker with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

Next we walked by the Musee de l'Armee, as it has a large gold dome visible all around the area. The tomb of Napoleon I is here, but we didn't really have a desire to go in. We hit the metro out toward Arc de Triomphe. While about what I expected, it is nice to see how much they guard and protect this, and admire it is a real memorial. We just happened to show up right before the weekly lighting ceremony of the flame, so we stayed for that. Next we strolled down Avenue des Champs-Élysées and stopped for some snacks, and to check out a few stores. While the Sephora was crazy, I think Laduree was the favorite (the creator of the macaroon). It was dinner time, and while french food is supposed to be great, we were not looking forward to finding decent places here. You have to just walk the backstreets and hope you find something decent. Thursday night we found Le President not too far from where we were. The food was ok but forgettable. After dinner, we wanted to catch the Eiffel Tower at night, as well as the 5 minute light show at the top of every hour. Also, this would be a test to see how to get in and out of the area on transit. We got to the Trocadéro stop to change lines, but Kacey realized we may be in a better position at this point, and she was correct. We had the best seats in the city for the light show, right across the river. Although late, we stayed for a while to just enjoy being where we were.

The next morning we had reservations for the Eiffel Tower at 11am. We got there about 15 minutes early in hopes to find some quick food, but surprisingly there wasn't much there for breakfast. Even with tickets to cut the queue, it still took about 10 minutes to get to the first level, and then another 35 minutes to get to the top (you don't cut that line). The weather was great, but still the haze limits your view; it was hard to make out Notre Dame from the tower. We had a nice time walking around, then coming down to the second level to walk around some more, enjoy the view, and eat some snacks. It was a great visit.

We headed over to the river to find some food, but we found a merry-go-round. So Nolan took a ride, then we looked for food to enjoy in the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower. It took a while to find some food, but we found some on a side street to the south of the tower. We enjoyed playing in the grass and eating some food. Our second activity for the day was the Louvre, so we hit the metro and arrived around 3:45.

We had tickets already, but the lines were not bad at all. Also on Fridays (when we were there), the museum is open later in to the evening. We were going to use the free map, along with our Lonely Planet guide, to get through the museum by dinner. It was a little slow to start (tricky with a stroller, areas don't connect as you would expect), but we saw everything we wanted to see by dinner. Having a 3rd party guide book can really help you see everything you should see. Pictures are allowed almost everywhere (surprising), including at Mona Lisa (even more surprising).

We thought it would be a little more easy to find food in this area, but we still had to walk around for 20 minutes or so before finding a side street with some real options. We found Bistrot Richelieu and liked the menu. I was able to try escargots and we all enjoyed some delicious food. We decided to walk to the hotel and stop at Notre Dame along the way (and find some dessert). Notre Dame at night was busy! Lots of people, entertainers, and the church is open late.

The next day we started off at Notre Dame after eating breakfast at the market next to our hotel. Pretty typical church, just large, crowded, and displaying some very large, beautiful Rose windows. For our next stop, we took the RER to the Orsay museum. No photo here, but I was able to step outside for a few pictures of Sacre Coeur in the distance. A lot of the art here is really up Kacey's alley, so we enjoyed a long visit here. After grabbing some sandwiches, we took the metro up to Sacre Coeur.

We wondered why everyone was queued up to take the lift in this station; it was a long hike out! Along the way, the signs indicated which way to go to take the funicular up to the church. Well, despite our best efforts, we hiked all the way up; quite tiring! There was a concert going on outside the church that we later learned was Christian music. The young people of Sacre Coeur seem to be having some sort of revival to reach out to young people in the community; it was nice! No photo inside, but it had a more warm feeling inside, probably due to the young people walking around encouraging prayer and singing. Kacey stayed down with the kids while I went up the dome for views of the city. The views were nice, but with the haze, it was hard to see things by the river. We took the funicular down the hill and learned it really didn't help out much. Kacey did some shopping while I watched Nolan play at the bottom of the hill (playground!).

We took the metro down to Odeon to walk around looking for food. We didn't really find something we liked for about 30 minutes, but eventually found Les Gourmands de Notre Dame. This place was nice and close to Notre Dame. On our way to the hotel, I was looking for some dessert. We walked by Raimo, and I was treated to some of the best ice cream in my life. The two flavours I had were lemon-basil and strawberry-mint leaves. It was just outstanding!

Our final morning, we decided to visit the Pantheon (since we had been staring at it's dome from our hotel room) and the Luxembourg Gardens before heading to the airport. The Pantheon wasn't too crowded (or super interesting), but it did contain the tombs of Marie Curie and Louis Braille. After eating some crepes for early lunch, we only had 5 minutes to see the gardens, but oh well, it was still a very nice day.

I think we did Paris is a reasonable way. It is impossible to see everything, and you just have to take it slow sometimes (I forget this easily).

Pictures from Paris can be found here.

It was a great trip in all! We saw lots of things, had a lot of great food, and except for just the first day, had great weather. We had no real issues, except for train problems on the way to Luxembourg. If we had been kidless, we could have maybe fit in Ghent, Belgium, but we were pleased to have spent more time in Bruges.

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