Archives for February 2015

Travelly Picture: Lantau Island, Hong Kong

So, it turns out that Hong Kong is more than just skyscrapers. After we got the word, we decided to get out to Lantau Island as soon as we possibly could to visit some Buddhist monastery. While there, this crazy storm just blew in from out of nowhere, and I took this image with my digital camera of the clouds as they were just about to overtake this orange-roofed building.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Lantau Island Hong Kong

An Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 3: French Fried Farewell

Among other things, like being located in between Luxembourg and our home in Amsterdam, Belgium is known for being the home of a handful of the world’s tastiest treats.

Waffles, beer, mussels, chocolate, chocolate mussels, beer waffles, to name just a few. I have actually even heard tales of waffles being sold with chocolate on them if you ask the right person. The other snack that they are really famous for in Belgium is their french fries, or as they are known all over the country and on the new menu at your local casual chain restaurant: frites.

belgian frites

It’s hard to articulate or exaggerate the position in the national consciousness that frites hold in Belgium. From what I can tell based on my trips and our short stint living in Brussels, frites in Belgium are equal parts quick and convenient comfort food, bonding ritual, and source of local pride. A trip to your favorite friterie or fritkot as they are known is akin to going to your favorite ice cream stand in the summer. They are a spot to gather, relax, and chomp down with reckless abandon.

Okay, okay, I hear you saying “Seriously, what’s the big deal with these things, Scott? You’re always banging on about them, I mean they’re just fries, after all, aren’t they?”

Well, when done right, they are so much more than just fries. I’m telling you, a proper batch of Belgian frites are a steaming collection of crisp and crunchy pylons with a warm and pillowy stuffing that tastes like a tiny, albeit slightly greasy, slice of heaven.

Heaven with your choice of sauce splattered on top.

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Frites play such a big role in Belgium that some people even say that the bold yellow stripe on the Belgian flag is an homage to the golden hue of a fresh batch of frites. Of course, some people being me, and me being the type of person who likes to make things up.

So, where were we? Oh yes, all three of us were piling into the car saying our fond farewells to the lovely Chateau Urspelt. It’s such a lovely place, that one of us began carrying on like they didn’t want to leave and started whimpering, whining, and barking, making a big scene and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Julia and Holly for embarrassing them like that. We then slowly scaled the snowy roads of Luxembourg back into Belgian territory and directly into a frantic search for just the right frites pit stop.

While careening through the side roads of Belgium, we saw friteries almost everywhere. I mean, we knew they loved their frites, but this was just silly. Every few miles we would come around a bend in the road or spin off a roundabout to see a homemade sign showing frites hammered to a pole in an attempt to lure customers to pull over and eat at their shop.

Sometimes, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. “Only in Belgium” we would say and shake our heads. Unfortunately, we always noticed the signs a bit too late to stop and as a result rolled into the spa town of Spa still hungry.

Yes, that Spa town. Renowned for being home to healing thermal waters and the place to made the word Spa famous the world over, I thought it would be fun to stop in Spa, because it was supposed to be pretty. It wasn’t really that pretty.

I guess we can say that we saw the place that started it all though, and that is worth something I suppose. And think of this for a second, if this Belgian town that became fashionable among Europe’s elite for its healing waters would have been called Dorf or something else goofy, groups of ladies would be spoiling themselves with a day at the Dorf today.

We drove off dejected and were just about to get back on the highway and end up rolling all the way back to Amsterdam hungry when we saw it.

belgian frites

In a little wooden shack on the side of the road that resembled a concession stand at the local little league park, there stood Friterie Claudy. We pulled up, I went in, fumbled my way through some French and came out the victor with a steaming batch of fried potatoes. We devoured them in the front seat and luckily they turned out to be one of those heavenly batches that I was banging on about before.

belgian frites

Scarfing down those belgian frites in the sunlight was the last official act of the Ardennes Road Trip. I have to say that we definitely went out on top, splattered in a sauce of our choice.

Travelly Picture: Blue Mosque, Istanbul

We stayed in Istanbul for five weeks, and of course put off seeing the big tourist sights until the very last day. One of those sights was the Blue Mosque, and in this image I captured with my digital camera, you get a bit of insight into how the Blue Mosque got its name.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

blue mosque

An Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 2: Luxembourg

chateau urspelt

Post riverfront pastry fest, we pulled back into the budget hotel’s parking lot around 11:58, just in time for a noon checkout.

“No big deal, we’ve got this. Done it a million times.” I told Julia.

We ran into a teeny-tiny problem as we tried to walk back in to the hotel, though. The security code we had been using for entry to both the hotel and our room was no longer working and the front desk was shuttered. And when I say shuttered, I mean the serious kind of shuttered where there is a medieval-looking metal gate thingy pulled down over the front desk and all the lights in the vicinity have been long extinguished.

This was going to be a problem, as all of our stuff and all of Holly’s worldly possessions (comfy bed and stuffed sheep) were in that budget hotel room. We managed to sneak in when someone behind us entered their code triggering the sliding doors, but upon arrival at our room, we found our code expired there too and ourselves locked out.

Just wonderful.

I tracked down a housekeeper, who, believe it or not, only spoke French (the nerve) and tried to convey our issue to her using charades, advanced miming techniques, and sad dog noises. She had me follow her to the front lobby and logged on to Google Translate to inform me that since we hadn’t paid for our second night yet, we were blocked out of our room. I explained that we were actually only staying one night, and then awkward jokes were made in French, order was restored, and we were let back in our room to hurriedly look under the bed, check the bathroom, and try not to leave a charger behind.

The ensuing drive to Luxembourg went really well, if you don’t count the part when we entered the country and then mistakenly waved farewell a mere thirty minutes later perplexingly reentering France from the far side of Luxembourg. There was even a fun part of the day when we frantically blew through Luxembourg City and did our best Clark Griswold impression by pointing out potential points of interest at the precise moment we sped by them.

Yep, it was that kind of travel day.

Luxembourg

One of the main reasons we came to the Ardennes in the first place was the promise of seeing some snow as we hadn’t seen any all season in Amsterdam and were definitely overdue for some frosty frolicking. To this point, except for a few of the highest rolling hills in Belgium, we had struck out seeing any white stuff until we approached the slopes of northern Luxembourg. Snow started to appear with more and more frequency on the ground and gradually managed to dust and then entirely take over the landscape.

chateau urspelt

We weaved up, down, and around the powdery hills, descending towards and staring at the town of Clervaux, then scaled another steep incline to arrive at the village of Urspelt. The village was accessed down a charming country lane lined by what I can only describe as the type of trees you tend to see around chateaus. Which made sense, since we were approaching the Château d’Urspelt, a hotel that I had only just discovered online that morning in between checking hockey scores and “important” news sites.

chateau urspelt

Seeing the Chateau Urspelt in person made us sure glad I did.

It was in an entirely different league from the budget hotel of the night before, a league that includes castles. Yes, my friends, the Chateau Urspelt is a real live castle. My favorite type of castle too, one that has been recently renovated to include a really nice hotel! Sure, the Chateau Urspelt is only a few hundred years old and it may not have ever been defended by knights, but hey, let’s not get bogged down with details. Chateau Urspelt is beautiful and dare I say romantic, and that’s all that really matters when talking about castles.

chateau urspelt

Staying at the Chateau Urspelt absolutely made the Ardennes road trip for me. Julia and I spent our time there enjoying the scenery of the surrounding village, the cozy and warm atmosphere of the hotel, which included a roaring fireplace, and just generally pretending we stay at these type of places all the time. The whole area it was located in was spectacular, and was especially enchanting in the evening when we went out for dinner in a neighboring village and caught glimpses of the moon shining bright on the snowy scenery. When taking Holly outside when we got home, I even got treated to a brief concert of chiming bells from the village chapel and that pretty much sealed the deal.

chateau urspelt

The Chateau Urspelt was definitely hard to leave behind, but the car rental company wanted their vehicle back, so it was time to start the drive back to Amsterdam.

Travelly Picture: Marlborough, New Zealand Winery

After consuming copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand over the years, I figured it would be fun for us to volunteer on a winery in Marlborough when we were in New Zealand a couple years back. You see those nets on the grapes? It was our job to put those on using these little plastic bread bag tie things.

It wasn’t really all that fun in the end, but we did get some free wine and I also managed to take this picture with my digital camera while walking around the winery one day. You can see some mountains off in the distance and I have a sneaking suspicion that they probably play a role in making the wine from this region so special.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Marlborough New Zealand

An Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 1: Givet, France

One of the caveats of the super cheap car rental deal we found was that the pick-up location was on the outskirts of Amsterdam. As a result, the Ardennes road trip began in a town called Hoofddorp, Holland.

We actually spent our first week on Dutch soil last year in Hoofddorp, so it was nice to see it again, as Hoofddorp is a peaceful little place home to a windmill with a cute little goat and cow living under it. Despite having that going for it, Hoofddorp’s two main claims to fame are that it’s home to the world’s biggest structure, um, built entirely from synthetic materials, and the fact that it’s right next to the airport.

I called the super cheap rental car agency ahead of time and asked all the pertinent questions about our upcoming car rental. Will the fact that I only have an American license and no insurance to speak of present a problem? Am I allowed to drive a canine across international borders? The final question, “you’re close to the Hoofddorp train station, right?” was met with a brief bit of silence before being affirmed, so I guess I should have seen what happened next coming.

Oblivious to the impending doom, I exited the train station and set off in the direction of the super cheap rental car agency for 10 minutes, and then proceeded to get completely turned around and utterly lost. The compass on my phone wasn’t working, so I had to resort to being that weirdo who approaches random people at stop lights asking for directions. After being told by a couple people crossing intersections that they “don’t live there”, which really is the pedestrian’s equivalent of saying “I gave at the office”, I was forced to trudge into a L’Oréal corporate office and bother the poor receptionist.

The good thing about receptionists is that they have to greet everyone with a smile and offer help. After all, for all she knew, I could have been a beauty products magnate coming in to meet with her bosses upstairs about that big upcoming make-up merger (what? haven’t you heard?). After getting some directions, and being assured I was only about 15 minutes away, I set off on a leisurely stroll that eventually led me to the super cheap car rental agency.

45 minutes later.

The world’s largest structure made entirely from from synthetic materials. Allegedly.

 

Luckily, it was all uphill from there as in no time at all I was behind the wheel of a little red rental for the 15 minute journey back to Amsterdam. We loaded the car up, tossed the Basset in the back seat, and were off to Belgium. We stopped a couple times for some snacks, and a couple hours later we sailed across the border and then followed the highway sign breadcrumbs to Dinant.

Arriving in Dinant somewhere between dusk and dark, we both got a slightly weird feeling about the place. We knew it was low season and all, but it somehow felt even darker and lower than that. Dinant is beautiful, and it is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, who in turn gave birth to the saxophone, and they have these cute little saxophone-shaped lights strung over the streets, but they hadn’t even bothered to turn them on for us. So just like that, we were off them.

Givet france

Givet, France

 

We went into a chain hotel and asked about a room, but it was a little more expensive than we wanted for a town we weren’t currently being blown away by. It was then suggested to try the chain hotel’s sister location in the nearby town of Givet, France. “They’ve had a run on rooms over there because a bunch of workers have been called in to the local nuclear power plant, so they’re sold out now, but if you show up around 7, a room may come available” we were told. And just like that we were off to Givet, France, because when you get the opportunity to stay in a town near a nuclear power plant who is currently importing workers for something pressing, you really have to have pounce on it.

Givet France

The directions from Dinant were simple as this: cross the bridge, turn left, and then follow the Meuse River all the way to Givet. This jaunt was our first true hint of something travelly, as the last traces of daylight were glancing and dancing off the Meuse as we coasted along her banks for 20 minutes until we were in France and weaseling ourselves into the last open room of the night. After settling the Basset Hound in the room we set off for a dinner you would only expect to find on the Belgian/French border: Frites, beer, and an entree of shrimp in a creamy cholesterolaise sauce.

In the morning, we made the most of Givet by strolling with Holly along the riverbanks under a bright sun and raiding the local Patisserie, making off with beignets, eclairs, quiche, and some sort of apple pastry thing. We also saw a beaver, well, what we think was a beaver, swimming in the river there. Givet is a pleasant town for sure, and while I can’t say if I will ever be back, I can definitely say I enjoyed my stay, and that’s all you can really ask for.

givet france

It was time for us to move on to a mysterious land known only to the most dedicated of high school geography students and creative accountants everywhere:

Luxembourg.

 

 

Photo Credit

Travelly Picture: Clervaux, Luxembourg

This week’s travelly picture of the week was actually taken, um, today, as during our Ardennes road trip, we came across this cool looking little town called Clervaux. We were driving down this steep hill and then all of the sudden there she was. Clervaux reminded me of a real life Christmas village or something and I just had to stop and take a picture with my digital camera.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Clervaux Luxembourg

Pregame Report: Ardennes Road Trip

 

ardennes road trip

Kickoff: Febraury 3-5, 2015.

Site: The Ardennes

How We Got Here:

Remember when I said we were 99% sure we were going to Normandy during the first week of February?

Well, um, yeah.

I will spare you the goriest of the details, but let’s just say they involve an ugly incident with a car rental agency, a train mishap, and a little bit of hysteria thrown in for good measure.

As a result, the Normandy trip has been postponed until further notice, and I am hoping that further notice will be this Fall, when I have been assured, Normandy will still be there.

So, what’s a couple who promised their Basset Hound a trip to France supposed to do? Look up last minute car rental deals from Amsterdam, that’s what. One frantic web search lead to another, and now we are taking a road trip through the Ardennes.

ardennes road trip

The Ardennes? What is it? Well, it’s a hilly, wooded area in Belgium, but that’s not important right now.
What is important is that we were supposed to go to the Ardennes last fall for a few days, but the trip got cancelled,  so, it’s fitting that are we are going to take an Ardennes road trip now.

The Ardennes are known for forested rolling hills, the meandering Muese River and her voluptuous valleys, and according to credible sources on the internet, pretty towns. Most of the Ardennes is in Belgium, but the Ardennes also covers parts of France, Luxembourg, and Germany as well. The whole area has been hit with a fresh blanket of snow in recent days too, so it should be really pretty to look at and maybe even take some pictures of this week.

ardennes road trip

Gameplan: The general plan is to leave Amsterdam and make our way to Luxembourg and spend some time experiencing one of Europe’s least talked about corners. The next day, we plan to double back into Belgium or France, admiring the riverside towns along the way, while stopping for lunches at brasseries stuffing our faces with some frites, beer, and whatever else they have down there. On the last day of our Ardennes road trip, we will either come back home to Amsterdam or spend a night in a Dutch town we haven’t seen yet. Along the way, it would sure be nice to visit a Belgian Trappist brewery or see some history about the Ardennes’ vital role in both World War I & II as well.

This is all assuming the deal we got from the rental car agency that seemed way too good to be true isn’t.

Gulp.

Tuning In: Follow @WorldwideScott on Twitter and my Facebook page for live game updates and if you aren’t on those sites, and you still want to follow the action, click here and here and then just sit there hitting reload over and over on your browser all day.

If you’re curious to see how this trip actually turned out when our wheels hit the road, check out the following posts:

Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 1:  Amsterdam to Givet, France

Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 2: Givet, France to Chateau Urspelt, Luxembourg

Ardennes Road Trip Chapter 3: Luxembourg to Amsterdam

 

Photo Credits: 1,2,3,