Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bike Racing & Palaces

On Saturday 26th April we headed to Belgium to spend the day watching the oldest professional bike race, the Liege – Bastogne – Liege.  We spent the night in Spa, close to the Belgium Formula One race track.  We did notice a lot of really nice fast cars in the town, must have been full of race drivers!  Spa is a cool town, and we found a very helpful person at the visitor center who gave us plenty of details about the race route for the next day. 

We got up early on Sunday and before heading out bought enough baguette sandwiches to get us through a long day.  From our previous trips to watch the Tour de France we were not sure how busy the crowds would be, and even if the roads would be open to cars.  We got to the first location in plenty of time, and chatted to a Belgium guy who used to be a professional bike racer.  As usual there was a lot of waiting around, watching first the police cars drive by clearing the road, then followed by the publicity “caravan” providing advertisement for the race promoters.  Finally the racers flew by in about 5 minutes, and it was over for that segment! 

Next we moved to beautiful hills area in the Ardennes regions, where the Battle of the Bulge occurred, where we staked out a spot on the climb ‘Cote de Wayne’.  The advice from the Spa info center and a detailed map really helped, as it is tough to know the race route exactly.  Sara did manage to persuade someone to give her an official race route sign, which will join our Tour de France souvenir sign.   It was a beautiful day, and we had a pleasant time waiting for the racers, who flew by again just as quickly as before, even though they were now going uphill!  Check out this short video of the racers.  

With just a few more days to enjoy of our trip we headed back to France, spending the night in Reims.  On Monday 28th we spent a few hours checking out the impressive Notre Dame cathedral in the Reims city center.  Most places are closed on Mondays so the crowds were very minimal which is always pleasant.  The downside was we couldn’t climb up the cathedral to check out the architecture, but will add that to a future wish list.  In the afternoon we headed to Versailles, and realized we had booked the same hotel we stayed in 10 years ago, a great location, and luckily it had been renovated, so was much improved.

We spent a delightful afternoon wandering the Versailles Palace gardens, even venturing to the extensive park area.  The palace is normally packed with people, but being a Monday was empty and we mostly had the place to ourselves!

The next day we had an easy morning, and then drove 20 minutes to the Paris- Orly airport for our flight to London.  Orly is a great airport, easier than the busier Charles de Gaulle airport and closer to Paris.  A quick flight and trip on the Heathrow Express train and we were in London, enjoying a fabulous evening with Sara’s Mum and sister.

Finally on Wednesday 30th April we headed home, having walked over 90 miles and consuming goodness knows how many baguettes and crepes.  We always enjoy our vacations, and look forward to planning many more.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Windmills and Tulips

On Tuesday 22nd April we headed to the Netherlands.  Our first stop was Kinderdijk, an area close to Rotterdam with 19 preserved windmills. We spent an enjoyable few hours walking around the area and taking photos before heading to Amsterdam.

The next day we visited the Keukenhof gardens which was totally amazing.   We spent five hours exploring the 79 acres, containing around 7 million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths which are planted each year.  The garden is only open for 2 months, and is designed to be a living exhibit for the major growers in the country.

On Thursday 24th we spent the day exploring Amsterdam. We wandered around the streets and canals checking out the sights and watching the crowds.   A shower of rain had us sheltering outside a shop trying to decide our dinner options when John noticed a Tibetan restaurant.  Perfect, so we hurried in for an excellent meal, including some more great local beer.

The next day we headed to the tiny harbor town of Marken, and spent a delightful few hours there, including another great meal.  It seems our vacation was mostly walking a lot, taking photos and stopping to eat!  We next stopped at another site full of windmills, which was interesting, but very busy. 

To finish the day we returned to what is now our happy place – a second visit to the Keukenhof gardens.  A perfect way to relax after the crowds.  We stayed there again until closing enjoying the flowers, the scents of hyacinths and the sounds of the birds.  A tip for future visitors, the crowds start to leave the gardens after 4pm, leaving you three hours to enjoy the place almost alone! 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

2014 European Flower Tour - France & Belgium

On April 16th we left for a much needed break, and began our European Spring Flower Tour.  We had so much fun traveling and staying up late we didn't manage to update the blog, so for those of you who didn't see the Facebook photos we have put together this update.

We kicked off the trip in style, using miles to upgrade to first class for the night flight over.  What a treat to lie flat at night, and to be given pajamas!  Needless to say the return flight in economy did not include PJ’s or warm nuts!

Our first stop was Paris, the city of Love as we now refer to it.  Ok, it is really the city of lights, but we prefer the name for our favorite city.   Our first stop was the Pére Lachaise Cemetery, which contains the graves of many famous people, including Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison.   It was a little surreal to be in a cemetery and hear someone playing Doors music on their iPhone!

We stayed out late wandering the streets and stopped to photograph the Eiffel Tower at night, thoroughly enjoying the light show.  Click here for a short video of the light show.

On Saturday 19th we visited the Muse l’Orangerie which contains Monet’s massive paintings of water lilies, very impressive.   We made it another late night by wandering around the Moulin Rouge area which was very lively and colorful.  As an added treat we had a great blues’ singer on the metro ride back to our hotel.

The next day we continued the Monet theme and visited Monet’s house and garden in Giverny, which is about 1 ½ hours outside of Paris.  (We will spare you the trials and tribulations of actually driving out of the city!)  Monet lived and painted in this house, and created the water lily pond and flower gardens so he would have plenty to paint.  The gardens were beautiful, and it was fascinating to tour the house and imagine the painters spending time together there.

Unusual for us we had a bit of a miss-communication at the end of the day, and spent several hours trying to find each other.  I put it down to sleep deprivation, and there are now a new set of Stanford procedures for such situations!   We drove on to Ghent in Belgium, arriving rather late and getting lost once again in the city; one way systems and road work diversions do not help.   (Seems all travel blogs mention trouble finding hotels in cities.)

Monday 21st was Sara’s birthday and we had a wonderful slow start to the day wandering around Ghent, which includes many historic churches and buildings with a river running through the middle of the city.  We made the quick drive to Bruges and spend the afternoon and evening wandering the historic city center.  We had a fantastic meal at a small family run restaurant, which included a great vegetarian meal and several glasses of local Belgium beer!

The next day we spend a few more hours walking around town, checking out the small canals and historic buildings.  Stopping of course for some excellent Belgium waffles to keep up our strength.  Later that day we headed to Amsterdam for the second phase of the trip – Windmills and Tulips.

Check out the slideshows using the links below