Slovakia is yet another landlocked country in central Europe, with a population of over 5.4 million.
It is bordered by Poland (north), Ukraine (east), Hungary (south), Austria (southwest), and the Czech Republic (northwest). The country is mostly mountainous (Carpathian Mountains) offering views of wine-growing valleys, picturesque castles, and historical cities.
In 1536, Bratislava was declared the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Getting to Bratislava from Austria was a breeze, a tiny puddle jump of a bit more than an hour. We hopped off our train and did the 600m walk to our hotel, dropped our bags and hit the streets. Our day started and ended in a sunny manner, but at around 4pm all hell broke loose as rain tumbled from the skies and flooded the roads, for about an hour.
Bratislava sits on the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary. It is the capital of Slovakia and at its heart lies the pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town. This has all of the usual mix of old buildings and churches along with the tourist shops, cafes and bars.
As usual, the big show in town is Bratislava Castle. The first written reference to the city was in 907 but the castle hill was thought to be populated as early as the late Stone Age. The first known inhabitants were the Celts, who founded a fortified settlement here called ‘Oppidum’. In the 16th century, King Ferdinand ordered the rebuilding of the castle in the Renaissance style.
Michael’s Gate is the only preserved 14th century gate of the city fortification system.
The 51-metre-high tower provides a great view of the Castle and Old Town. The tower houses the Museum of Arms.
The SNP Bridge was built in 1967-1972 as a symbol of the Slovak National Uprising. It has a UFO restaurant on top of the 80 metre tall pylon.
The bridge is 432 m long and 21 m wide.
Old Town Hall is the oldest city hall in the country with the tower being built around 1370. It became the town hall in the 15th century when three townhouses were connected.
St. Martin’s Cathedral was the site that ten men were crowned king between 1563 and 1830.
The first reigning king was Maximilian from the Habsburg Dynasty, while the famous era of coronations came to an end for Bratislava with the crowning of Ferdinand V.
Primates Palace was built in the 18th century and today serves as the seat of the Mayor of Bratislava.
It also houses a gallery of 17th century English tapestries.
Grassalkovich Palace was built in 1760 and is now the official residence of the President of the Slovak Republic.
The Blue Church is officially known as the Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary.
The blurb tells me that “It is Bratislava’s most appealing art nouveau building”.
Not sure if I agree.
The Slavin is the largest war memorial in Central Europe. It is 52m tall.
It commemorates the 6845 soldiers who died during the liberation of Bratislava in World War II.
Sadly, due to a tight schedule we never got to Devin Castle. It is a castle ruin on the border with Austria, built on a high rock towering above the merging of the Danube and Morava rivers.
As our luck has been running, we jag being in town for the Bratislava Coronation Celebration, where ceremonies are reenacted by actors and enthusiasts wearing period costumes. It runs over multiple days with events such as jousting (featuring knights in armor), theater and music performances, lectures and exhibitions, and guided tours. We were sadly only in town for the procession.
Bratislava was great, however given its proximity to Vienna and the ease of access, we could easily have done this as a day trip. Hopping a train each way would give you plenty of time to see everything in Bratislava and get back to Vienna in the late afternoon/early evening thereby allowing you to spend more time in Vienna.
Luxembourg, officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is a tiny landlocked country of around 2500 square km and a population of under 650,000.
This makes it both one of the smallest and least populated countries in Europe.
It borders Belgium (west and north), Germany (east) and France (south).
Luxembourg’s recorded history dates back to Roman times but the modern day version is considered to begin in 963. The House of Luxembourg was a royal family that ruled in and around the region for centuries.
There is evidence of primitive inhabitants dating back to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age over 35,000 years ago. The first real evidence of civilisation is from the Neolithic or 5th millennium BC, from which evidence of houses has been found.
Originally, the City of Luxembourg was originally built in the mid 10th century as a small fort (the castle). It was built on a steep rocky outcrop at the junction of the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers. Due to it’s strategic position it has been occupied and controlled by the Italian, Spanish, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and Prussian. With each iteration and rule various engineers contributed to the fortifications stronghold. The fortress was so strong that at one point it earned the title of “Gibraltar of the North.”
Luxembourg was one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites between the 16th century until 1867, when its walls were dismantled. The fortifications and the old town have been classified as world heritage sites by UNESCO since 1994.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and in 1949 it also became a founding member of NATO.
This is a catch up as I published this one out of order, we were actually in Luxembourg, before Switzerland but I got the two L’s (Luxembourg and Lichtenstein) mixed up in my head and only just realised (3 countries later) that I had missed this one.
Luxembourg City is modern and the capital of Luxembourg it has done an excellent job of blending history and modern progress. The modern city is a highly efficient and functioning centre of commerce (particularly banking) while the Old Town area has kept the history and beauty of the city alive.
The first thing to know about Luxembourg is that all public transportation is free.
From our hotel (in the red light district near the train Station) we did the tourist walk towards the Old City to check out what Luxembourg had to offer.
The first thing that we aimed for was the Pont Adolphe Bridge. Originally built between 1900 and 1903 during the rule of Grand Duke Adolphe, the bridge had the biggest stone arch in the world at the time. The big double arch spans more than 85 metres across the Pétrusse valley at a height of 42 metres, and a total length of 153 metres.
Crossing the bridge you come to the Monument of Remembrance, officially known as Gëlle Fra. It is a war memorial dedicated to fallen Luxembourg soldiers.
At the top of the obelisk is a golden statue of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. She is holding a wreath and looking down on a fallen soldier laying at the base of the pillar.
Constitution Square, or Place De La Constitution is next.
This is a lovely garden built on the site of a former bastion or fortress wall.
At the center of the square the Luxembourg flag waves, towering over the green space.
Across the road is the Notre Dame Cathedral. It took more than 300 years to construct and is free to enter. Looking nothing like the more famous Cathedral with the same name, this one has three towers, stained glass windows, intricately carved pillars, and a vaulted nave.
Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City.
Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square.
Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City. Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square.
Place d’Armes is in the heart of the pedestrian zone of Luxembourg City. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. During the holidays, the square hosts a Christmas market and every other Saturday there is a flea market in this central square.
Grand Ducal Palace was originally Luxembourg City’s first town hall that was built in 1418.
It is the official residence of the grand ducal family.
During the summer months, the Luxembourg City Tourist Office runs exclusive guided tours of the Palace. These 75-minute tours are booked out months in advance. They allow visitors to take a look behind the scenes, including the Grand Duke’s office, the dining room and the “Salon des Rois”.
The money raised from ticket sales is used to support a foundation that supports humanitarian and solidarity initiatives to assist vulnerable people and those in distress, both in the Grand Duchy and in developing countries.
Luxembourg is lovely, there is plenty to see and do but in real terms, you can do the lap within half a day, perhaps a little longer if you do the palace tour. I feel this may be the case for many of the smaller European countries. The train in and out is a breeze, and the free transportation around town makes this place a dream for a quick pop-in and look around.
Luxembourg is a very international country, as over the years people have moved here from all areas of the world. Their food is a mix of French, German, and Belgian cuisines, but other countries also feature strongly in restaurants across the country.
This actually blew us away, Luxembourg has delivered the best food that we have eaten all trip. Strangely enough we did not eat traditional but rather we had Syrian and Italian and both were exceptional. We did not eat in flash hotels or restaurants, we picked the local small joints (as we usually do) and were totally blown away with the quality, taste and service that was on offer.
Traditional Luxembourgish cuisine however is deeply rooted in local farming and seasonal produce that include meats, sausages, cheeses, potatoes, cabbage, and beans. Wine, honey, and mustard are also traditionally made throughout the country.
The traditional stuff is a bit more basic and includes things like:
Bouneschlupp and Gromperenzopp (Green Bean and Potato Soup),
Gromperekichelcher (Potato Pancakes),
Bouchée à la Reine (vol-au-vent),
Letzeburger Kniddlelen (Luxembourg Dumplings),
Wäinzoossiss mat Moschterzooss (Sausage with Mustard and Wine Sauce)
Given that the local stuff was a bit stodgy, I had not planned to do a food section here. But the stuff we ate and the service that they gave was phenomenal. Having come out of North America where you are expected to pay a minimum of 18% extra for service as a tip, not one lot of service (that we paid for) came close to what we got here in Luxembourg as part of the experience.
There is real pride taken in both the service and the products that are brought to your table. In fact, even at our dodgy neighbourhood Italian joint, we were served with a porcini mushroom mousse as a free appetiser while we considered the menu. If there are any foodies reading along, put Luxembourg on your list.
Austria is a small landlocked country that is bordered by Germany (northwest), Czechia (north), Slovakia (northeast), Hungary (east), Slovenia and Italy (south), and Switzerland and Liechtenstein (west).
With a population of around 9 million the country has a history that dates back to pre-roman times.
Before I get into the post proper there are two points that have jumped to the surface virtually straight away. Number One. We have massively underdone our timing for this place and will absolutely need to come back at some point. Number Two. One post is not enough for this city. As soon as we got to town and took a look at St. Stephens Cathedral we quickly realised that to do it justice this church warranted a post all on its own. Same goes for the palaces.
The first thing that struck us was the price. We can live again. Having left Switzerland where everything was obscenely priced, Vienna was quite reasonable, cheap even. Our beer price was cut in 3 and the food prices were similarly reasonable. Don’t get me wrong, we still probably paid back home prices for our meals, but we weren’t being anally probed every time we left our room.
Vienna has been called the “City of Music” as many famous classical musicians such as Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart called Vienna home. It was also home to Sigmund Freud (the world’s first psychoanalyst).
Vienna’s history dates back to the Roman era but most of what is there today came about under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1740 – 1780) and later Franz Joseph (1848 – 1916), who was largely responsible for the monumental architecture in the city’s centre.
St. Stephens Cathedral
This was the first sight that we visited and quickly realised that we were going to undercook this post. Originally built in the 1100’s and then further added to in the 1300’s this cathedral is phenomenal. Every wall, every aspect, every angle has a different story to tell. Built right in the heart of town, to say this place is popular would be an understatement.
The Hofburg Palace was the one time principal palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Smack Bang in the middle of town it was built in the 13th century and has been expanded several times since. Since 1946, it has been the official residence and workplace of the president of Austria.
Within the Hofburg Palace you can see the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, Imperial Treasury (with the crown of the Holy Roman Empire), State Hall of the National Library, the Spanish Riding School and the World Museum.
In front of the palace is the Heldenplatz or heroes square.
Also in the middle of everything is the Museum Quarter. This is a huge area with massively impressive buildings on all sides.
The Schönbrunn Palace (meaning “beautiful spring”) was the summer residence of the Hapsburg dynasty. The palace has 1441 rooms and vast gardens and is the most visited tourist destination in Vienna, and once again we undercooked out time and this could have been an entire post on its own.
The Ringstraße is a 5.3 km ring road that was designed by Emperor Franz Joseph to replace the old city walls. It was built in between the 1860s and 1890s. Some of the main buildings that occupy space on the Ringstrasse include: The Vienna State Opera, Academy of Fine Arts, Palace of Justice, Austrian Parliament Building, Rathaus (Town Hall), Burgtheater, University of Vienna, and Wiener Börse (Stock Exchange).
The Rathaus (City Hall) of Vienna was built between 1872 and 1883 in the gothic style, with a tower similar to cathedrals.
The Votive Church is a neo-Gothic church that was built and consecrated in 1879, on the day of the Silver Wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.
It was apparently built as a token of gratitude after a failed attempt to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph.
The Liebenberg Monument was made in 1887 to honour a civil servant dating back to the 1600’s.
It is a nine-meter tall red granite obelisk with the goddess of victory on the top and a portrait of Liebenberg with two angels and a life-sized bronze lion on the base.
Austrian Parliament Building was completed in 1883. It has over one hundred rooms including the Chambers of the National Council and the Federal Council.
This one we were unable to get to as time saw us way too pushed. But the Belvedere Palace was built as a summer residence for the prince Eugene of Savoy. The complex actually contains two Baroque palaces (the Upper and Lower Belvedere), the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. It is now home to an art museum
Long story short, Vienna was amazing, but we did not heave enough time to see all of the things that were on offer. I guess the worst part of that scenario is that we will have to come back and spend some more time exploring, more fully.
And on a final note, Vienna really knows how to put on a horse statue.
Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a small country of 41,000 square km and a population of under 9 million.
It is bordered by Italy (south), France (west), Germany (north) and Austria and Liechtenstein (east). Once again I was here in 1996 but had a single stop in the Swiss Alps (with no real recollection of which mountain).
A Google search of similar trips to the one I took suggests that the mountain was most likely Jungfrau.
This was a quick stop off as we transited towards Liechtenstein. Sargens is a small village of a bit over 6,000 people that serves as a fairly major transportation hub.
Sargans is known for its castle, which dates from before 1291. Since 1899, it has been run by the local church and now houses the Sarganserland museum.
Zurich is at the northern tip of Lake Zurich on the Limmat River and is a global centre for banking and finance. And oh my god isn’t that obvious!
This place expensive.
Our first exposure to the city was an economic one. The prices charged here in Geneva are obscene at best and when you couple this with a rubbish exchange rate it makes Zurich almost out of reach for us poor Australians. One Swiss Franc will cost you $1.70 Australian and the prices that you pay back home are generally a lot lower than the ones charged here.
We checked into our hotel and did the usual search for nearby restaurants for dinner. This is where the wheels fell off. An entree soup was 15 francs ($25) and the cheapest steak was 56 francs ($95). Ok time to recalibrate our expectations here. How about a pizza – starts at 19.50 ($33), ok how about a burger – starts at 16.50 ($28), umm maybe a salad – starts at 26 ($44).
Oh, this is going to hurt. We found a kebab shop nearby, they’re cheap right. So we went and bought a (very ordinary) kebab and a soft drink each. The final bill came to 36 francs ($61.30). Anyway, we were fed and would be out in 2 days.
The next thing that we got to experience properly was the public transport system. As we were staying a few km from the centre we chose to tram it in and out of town to the train station and walk from there. This was both easy and efficient. The train station is truly something to behold. It is split over 3 levels with 15 train lines coming in and out of each level, 44 lines in total.
Zurich certainly has a stunning location on the shores of Lake Zurich and the historic old town with amazing buildings is right in its center.
There are about 50 museums and 100 art galleries within the city to keep you amused if your interests run that way. And if you’re after rest and relaxation, you can be in the Swiss mountains in less than an hour.
The twin towers of the Grossmünster are one of the most recognisable images of the city.
According to legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula and had a church built on the spot.
Construction started in around 1100 and it finished around 1220.
The Fraumünster church in Zürich which was built on the remains of a former abbey for aristocratic women which was founded in 853.
After the Reformation, the Fraumünster came into the possession of the city.
The Bahnhofstrasse is the main shopping street that connects Lake Zurich with the train station, Zurich Hardbrücke. It runs a distance of 1.4 kilometres with all of the usual high end boutiques, department stores and watch shops.
St. Peter’s church is the oldest parish church in Zurich.
The original foundation walls from the 9th century are still visible under the choir.
It also has the largest church clock face in Europe (measures 8.7meters in diameter). There are five bells in the tower, dating from 1880.
Beyond the big ticket items, there are lovely old buildings with amazing architecture and styling almost everywhere you look. The people tend to keep to themselves but are mostly friendly, if a little stand offish.
Our time in Zurich was really nice. Getting around was a breeze thanks to a super-efficient (if a little confusing at times) tram system. The old town was a great wander as was the newer section (although we had no interest in the high end shops). The only real detraction was the price. It quite literally costs about 3 times more for anything that you would get back home.
Our meal situation was overcome by going to Lidl and Co-op and buying groceries. The hotel gave us a well priced ($26 a head) continental breakfast which saw us set up for the day and the shopping run got us through the rest of the day reasonably painlessly. It is amazing how far cheese, tomato, avocado and some decent bread rolls will get you. On our last evening we did treat ourselves to some local beers, but I still ate a ($12) salad in my room.
Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest nation in the world. With a population of under 40,000 it is wedged between Austria and Switzerland with an area of just over 160 square kilometres and is only 25 km long.
In reality it is a narrow strip of land in the valley between mountains. It is little more than a suburb in an Australian context.
While tiny, Liechtenstein is one of the world’s richest country per capita. It got to this point historically by acting as a tax haven. International pressure has forced compliance to international standards and in recent years it has taken steps to shake off its image as a tax haven and to reposition itself as a legitimate financial centre.
Getting to Liechtenstein – as mentioned, Liechtenstein does not have an airport, nor does it have a railway station. So to get here we had to catch a train from Zurich to the small swiss town of Sargans where we hopped on a bus for the remaining 20 minute ride into the capital.
The bus ride to Vaduz took us through the small village of Balzers (under 5000 people). The main claim to fame of Balzers is that it is the home of the Gutenberg Castle. The castle was built in the 12th century on a rocky hill right in the centre of the village.
Gutenberg Castle one of the five castles of Liechtenstein and one of two that have survived intact.
Unlike Vaduz Castle it does not serve as a residence of the princely family and is open to the public as a museum.
In doing my research before coming here I came up with a bunch of things that I was not expecting. For example, there is only one listed billionaire in Liechtenstein, and his wealth is worth 50% of the country’s GDP. He became a billionaire by making dental products, because of this, Liechtenstein is the world’s largest manufacture of false teeth, making 20 per cent of sales worldwide.
Everyone gets to party in the big castle once a year.
Every year on Staatsfeiertag (Liechtenstein’s national holiday), the palace throws open its doors and invite all 39,000 residents (and anyone else willing to make the journey) to the Castle in Vaduz Castle.
Other weird things included:
According to stats by July 2022 there were 38,300 internet users , equal to 100% of the principality’s population.
It doesn’t have its own airport
It has an official 90-minute lunch break from noon until 1.30 pm.
The national anthem (Oben am jungen Rhein) is set to the same melody as the British anthem “God Save the Queen”.
Women only recently (1984) got the vote
Vaduz is the capital and is located along the Rhine River and has less than 6,000 residents. In reality the place is a main street with two others running parallel. For those in Australia the size of this Capital City is the equivalent of places like Cootamundra, Biloela or Nuriootpa and is a bit smaller than Beaudesert. The most prominent landmark is Vaduz Castle which is perched atop the hill overlooking the city. It is home to the reigning prince of Liechtenstein and at the time we visited, was covered in scaffolding.
Navigating the heart of Vaduz is akin to walking down the mall of a small town, but with better quality artwork.
Apart from the castle up the hill, the main show in town is the Cathedral of St. Florin. It is a neo-Gothic church that was built in 1874 and was upgraded to a cathedral in 1997.
Other than that there are some nice buildings (town hall, government house etc), some interesting gardens and some cool cafes and restaurants.
All things considered, Liechtenstein was quite nice. There was no massive drawcard to pull you here, but given its proximity and that it doesn’t take too long to see it was worth popping in to. It was a quick and simple way to add another country to our ever-growing list on our way to reach the magic 100.
Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a tiny country of 30,528 square km and a population of around 11.5 million.
It is bordered by the Netherlands (north), Germany (east), Luxembourg (southeast), France (southwest), and the North Sea (northwest). It is most known for itsbeers, waffles, and chocolates.
I came here on my first trip to Europe back in 1996. But as it was one of those whirlwind tours of Europe, my recollections of this and other places is quite low. While those tours show you a lot, they blur together quickly and short of a camera roll tick box there is very little that really sticks in your mind, other than you had been there.
The most recognisable thing to see in all of Belgium is a two foot tall, bronze statue of a boy taking a leak.
It is called the Manneken Pis and is about my only real recollection of coming here the first time around.
The tourist blurb even tells me that it has his own dresser and thousands of different costumes for any occasion imaginable. The chances of seeing him dressed in something eye-catching are quite high.
It is near the Grand Place (which I am sure I saw but don’t really recall) in Brussels. As we buzzed past this time, the Grand Palace was covered in scaffolding.
Antwerp is the largest city in Belgium by area and historical records show occupation since the 2nd century. For us though it was a series of flying visits (several visits all with little or no time) as many of our trains transited through the place. The station is amazing with multiple tiers of platforms all running on top of each other. Space is a premium and they have have responded accordingly.
Antwerp has been known as the diamond capital of the world for several centuries. The diamond trade in the port started nearly 500 years ago when the first rough stones were brought over from India. today 85% of the world’s rough diamonds, 50% of the polished diamonds, and 40% of industrial diamonds are passing through the diamond district — highlighting its status as the diamond capital of the world.
Ghent is the third largest city in Belgium and primarily functions as a port and university city. It dates back to the middle ages and was originally built at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie. Ghent is a compact city with all attractions within walking distance from one another.
there are Two tourist quarters – the Historical Centre which has the historical buildings and monuments and the Arts Quarter which has the main museums.
This place is amazing. We came on a day when there was two separate music festivals on and the next day was the Belgian National day. To say the place was hopping was an understatement. The town is full of stunning old buildings and castles, which (without a ton of temporary stages and bars set up around them) would have made for some fantastic photos.
We dodged the human traffic of the festivals and did our best to hit the big tourist spots. We managed to get near the old Fish Market, Kunsthal (13th century Monastery), Lievekaai St Antoniuskaai (a really funky bridge and canal) St Bavo’s Cathedral, Belfry, museum, Saint Nicholas Church, St James Church, and Town Hall.
Without a doubt the highlight for me was the temporary (or at least I hope that they were) urinals that were set up in the middle of the street.
No walls, no privacy just a 4 way trough plugged directly into the sewer system. How else do you deal with large numbers of people drinking and partying in the heart of town.
Not sure what the ladies were supposed to do. I didn’t see any alternative options.
Ok so the real top pick was probably the Castle of Counts. This is a medieval fortress, right in the heart of town, with its defence system virtually intact. Its history dates back to the Roman occupation. The coolest bit was that in 1949 it was occupied by students in a siege situation. They were protesting a rise in beer prices.
Graffiti Street is an area designated to street art, some of which is fantastic. Others however are just senseless defacement. And in a city where an area has been set aside for such pursuits, the senseless stuff still spills over into the surrounding streets, defacing an otherwise charming little town.
As Ghent was not very big, and Bruges was a short 30 minute train ride away, the next day we hopped the rattler and headed into Bruges. We got up early (on the Belgium National Day) and headed off to check the place out. The Belgian National day marks the anniversary of the investiture of Leopold I as the first King of the Belgians in 1831. It is a public holiday and saw masses of people flooding into Bruges.
Bruges is Belgium’s most preserved medieval town, and its beautiful architecture attracts more than two million visitors every year. From our perspective, this is the pick of all the places that we have seen so far. In every part of the old city and the path towards it, this is by far the prettiest city that we have seen since beginning our travels.
As we were there on the National Day and the day after the finishing of a major festival, we did not see Bruges at its best. There were temporary structures and scaffolding up around the main square (Jan van Eyck Square) and all of the catering elements were still in place or being pulled down. Despite all of this, we still thought it was the prettiest town that we had visited. We were able to see past the mess to the town underneath, and it was stunning.
Getting around Bruges is pretty easy.
The walking is calm, easy and flat and the Canal boats are simple to find and easy to ride.
But if you really want to get around the horse and cart options are a charming way clip clop along the cobblestoned streets.
The biggest issue you will face when visiting is that there are a number of towers and not a lot of room to photograph them. So you spend a lot of time taking upward photos that really do not do the target structures justice.
The Belfry of Bruges stands right in the heart of town and is 83 meters tall. Built in the 15th century there is a 366-step climb to the top that is usually available (but not on the day we were here. On the hour the tower rings out a peal from the bells.
As you can see from our photo trucks and scaffolding were ruining our photos, but not detracting from the charm and architecture.
Bruges Markt has been holding a weekly market since 1985. The guild houses have all been converted into restaurants around the outside.
The view of the main canal from the St Boniface Bridge.
While the bridge is fairly modest, its position along the canal makes it a favourite as it provides canal views as well as views of the Church of Our Lady.
It was built in the early-20th-century.
Basilica of the Holy Blood is home to a phial which is said to carry a cloth soaked in Jesus Christ’s blood.
The 112-meter-high spire of the Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) is the tallest in Belgium.
Work began on the nave and aisles around 1230, the outermost aisles and chapels were added in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Madonna of Bruges is a marble sculpture by Michelangelo of the Virgin and Child.
It now sits in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium.
Sadly this was not open due to the Denmark day festivities.
Bruges is lovely
The one thing that Bruges has a ton of is the high end chocolatiers, they are almost everywhere. The next most common stores are the tourist trinket shops and then the waffle houses.
And of course, who could leave Belgium without sampling one of their infamous Belgian Waffles.
When it comes to beer, Belgium is the king. The country counts more than 200 active breweries, including the world’s largest brewer (AB InBev) and dozens of small local breweries, some centuries old. This number then further increased since the recent specialty beer fad came to town.
The most known abbey beers are Trappist beers (which can only be brewed within the abbey walls). Trappists are one of the many religious orders in Belgium. Many beers can also be sold with different alcohol content, starting at 5-6% and going as high as 11-12%.
Like the Dutch, the Belgians have embraced the special glass for each beer (not sure which one actually came first). Whichever one of them started it, it is a fantastic way of taking the beer-drinking experience to another level.
There are over 1600 registered beers in Belgium. While we were able to dip our toe into this pool, that is about as good as we could get. A few days does not allow for two people to make a dent in a list of 1600+.
The right glass
The Belgian experience suggests that the glasses help bring out the best in your beer.
Different types of beer glasses help compliment different styles.
With the right combination of beer and glass, the aroma, taste and steady carbonation of the beer will be greatly complimented. The blurb suggest that you “Think of the glass as a suit or dress that fits you SO WELL and calls attention to all the right parts, showing no flaws”.
We arrived in Amsterdam (the first time) having left the Czech Republic, but were going to come back another few times more, so I held off doing this post to capture all of the bits that we ended up seeing. So when reading along the timeline will be a bit off in sections.
Depending upon your interests there is so much to see and do in Amsterdam, but we warned it is a very expensive city for virtually everything. The tourist sight map below has over 40 museums available to be seen within this small area of the central district. Add to that a further 25 places of interest and another dozen or so tour and canal boat launching sites.
The reality of Amsterdam is that virtually everything is old (400+ years old). And because of this, everything that you look at is old and impressive looking. The first time around we ended up staying at a little (400 yr old) hotel in Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square). It was in the centre of everything, surrounded by historical sights and restaurants, and was (almost) ideal.
I say almost because on Friday and Saturday evenings it gets taken over by “English Lager Louts” on football and bucks party weekends. All looking to get drunk and stoned and hit one or more of the live sex shows that are on offer in Amsterdam.
A quick wander up the road from our hotel and we were in the flower market area, along one of the famous Amsterdam canals. Needless to say there were tulips aplenty and bulbs galore.
We were met by Sonja and Michel (from Alkmaar) and were able to have a lovely late afternoon wander around the city, past the canals, looking at various sights. Not being from Amsterdam, I kept pointing at things and asking what they were, to which Michel replied, no idea. This is where we learnt about the festival in Alkmaar and totally messed up this timeline.
The Amsterdam buildings were the most amazing thing for us. Nothing is straight or square. The houses were built (hundreds of years ago on wooden piles that were driven into the ground. Over time these have either rotted or sunk causing the entire foundation of the city to move. Add to this that many of the houses have been given additional floors, which put extra pressure on their foundations. This added weight may have pushed formerly upright buildings slightly forward, creating a slanted facade. As you walk down the street the houses are, almost without exception, at weird angles.
With the timeline messed up, I will go through things alphabetically now. We did the obligatory trip past the Anne Frank House, but this is super popular, and super small so only a trickle of people can go through at a time. When you arrive you are met with about 300 people milling about in front of the building waiting to be called in for their turn. The Anne Frank House itself serves as a museum and awareness centre for those persecuted during the Second World War.
The Begijnhof lies within the Singel — the innermost canal of Amsterdam’s circular canal system. It is an inner court which was founded during the middle ages and lies a meter below the rest of the old city center.
Central Station is a seriously impressive building to look at in the heart of Amsterdam. Sadly it does not function anywhere near as impressively as it looks. We made many trips in and out of here over the period and, for the most part, it was highly complex and inefficient. But, it does look very pretty.
Dam Square lies in the heart of Amsterdam at the original location of the dam in the river Amstel to prevent the Zuiderzee sea from flooding the city. It was created in the 13th century and has been the centre of activity since those times. It is dominated by the jewel in the crown the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Palace). Opposite the palace is an obelisk that was built in memory of Dutch soldiers and members of the resistance who died in World War 2.
The De Gooyer windmill, is one of the most famous windmills in the Netherlands. It is octagonal in shape and dates back to the 16th century.
The Heineken Experience is a tour of Heineken’s oldest brewery, in the heart of Amsterdam. You can learn all about the brewing process, innovations, and even learn about the best way to taste and enjoy beer.
Interestingly, most Dutch people don’t drink the stuff, preferring some of the more interesting beers on offer. I must say that I agree with them.
Hortus Botanicus is a 375 year old tribute to all things botanical. More than just a pretty series of gardens the Hortus library has botanical descriptions from explorations going back to the 16th century.
Museum Our Lord in the Attic was built in 1663, when Catholics lost their right to worship.
So a Catholic church, known as Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) came into being in the attic of a large building. This has subsequently become a museum.
The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands. It tells the story of 800+ years of Dutch history, from 1200 to now.
Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has 200 paintings, 500 sketches and 750 documents and letters from Vincent Van Gogh. Within the museum are some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, including Sunflowers and The Bedroom.
Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s largest urban park and includes a famous open-air theatre, numerous children’s playgrounds and several cafés and restaurants.
And of course it is Amsterdam, so there are canals everywhere you look there is something very special and soothing about a city that is built around waterways. The canals were almost calming enough to make you forget that at any moment you could be run down by a cyclist with scant disregard for anyone else.
As a totally random coincidence, our brother-in-law (Jason) happened to be in town on business.
So we headed to his hotel and caught up for a coffee and a good chat before we headed off to Alkmaar.
Our second Foray into Amsterdam was after the Germany trip and at least on this occasion the train system and central railway station did not fail us. We had flight out the next day (to Canada for Claudia’s birthday cruise of Alaska – see what I mean about the timeline) so we decided to stay at one of the commuter hotels out near the airport.
What a delight this was, the train from central to the airport was simple, from here a free shuttle bus direct to the door, a nice tidy clean room with good internet and a warm shower and a bunch of reasonably priced dinner options.
A free breakfast the next day (starting at 4am for those on red-eye flights) and the same free shuttle back to the terminal. A very efficient and welcome transit.
A couple of weeks later, we were back from Canada and Alaska and in Amsterdam for a quick transit. This time we were taking the train out of town so we arrived at the airport and attempted to get the train to central. But alas for the second time in three trips central station was all messed up. We bought our ticket ($20 worth) and headed down to the train station. Once down there, we saw the sign on the board saying that due to a switching problem, all trains to central were cancelled.
So we headed back up the escalator, having kissed our fares away, and then (once again) made our way towards a bus (which we also had to pay for) and began the slow trudge to town. Once over the train debacle, the rest went pretty much according to plan.
We checked into our hotel which was on the third floor (and upwards) of an old building. Given that it was an old building, they were not allowed (by law) to change anything. This meant that there was no lift and that the staircase to reception was two flights high. The individual steps were half the width of a normal person’s foot, and they then turned a corner (making them about the width of my foot). And of course, once checked in, we were up another level again. And there was us, trying to lug two, 23kg bags plus day bags up these impossible stairs (after our 25ish-hour transit from Vancouver).
Anyway, we made it up, and back down the next day without too much incident (but with a healthy amount of huffing and puffing). We got a nap in had a nice meal and the world was all good again. The up side of all of this was that the continental breakfast the next morning was magnificent. After a couple of weeks of North American breakfasts, the continental offerings were a welcome sight and the coffee actually tasted nice.
On the whole, dutch beers are magnificent. They have not gone silly with the whole microbrewery and IPA thing and have stayed true to their roots. The lager, draught and Pilsner offerings are almost universally fantastic. The coolest thing that they do however, is match their glass shape to the particular beer. This means that each beer comes in a unique glass. Lets not be silly here, it is highly impractical for storage and washing, but a fantastic touch nonetheless.
Dutch food on the other hand is not as awesome. It is rich and hearty and filling enough, but does lack some of the variety and interest that other countries’ cuisines offer. There is a huge focus on sausages and stews accompanied with stodgy (but nice) mashed potatoes. Having said that, a regular beer snack (bitterballen) is one of the best things that we have ever eaten.
The Netherlands is a tough one to rate, bits of it are magnificent while other bits are a broken mess or are brutally expensive. There is certainly a lot of history and the architecture is interesting to say the least. There are museums and art galleries everywhere you look, just as there are knock shops and weed joints. The beer is (for the most part) pretty good, but a beer will sting you a lot of money to buy.
The people are friendly and welcoming, but the cyclists are terrorists wreaking havoc everywhere they go. I would certainly want to come back here but once again the logistics and ease of travel through the Netherlands means that it can be done simply and later on in life without needing much energy .
On our second foray into Vancouver, we stayed closer to Vancouver’s downtown. This gave us a shorter walk from the cruise terminal and we could have easy access to the city’s main attractions. Not to mention being able to get around on foot and have plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars at our doorstep.
Stanley Park is a 405-hectare (1,001-acre) public park near downtown. It was to be done on our first trip in but the sheer size of it was overwhelming, so we put it off.
We hooked up with Brad and Nora and walked the bayside until we got near the park and then hired some e-bikes to get around the mammoth area that is Stanley Park. According to the blurb there are 27 separate attractions within the park. Some of these we saw while others we entirely missed due to the sheer size of the place.
Some of these include:
Lumbermens’ Arch, three different boardwalks, Georgia Viaduct Lamp, Cob House, Vancouver Parks Board Office, Rose Cottage, Wishing Well, Salmon Display Pool, the old Polar Bear Compound, a couple of lighthouses (Prospect Point and Brockton Point).
Stanley Park Pavilion, the Nine O’Clock Gun, Susan Point Welcome Gateways, Nature house, Malkin Bowl, SS Empress of Japan Figurehead, Jubilee Fountain, Entrance bridge.
We visited Beaver lake that was was, ironically, totally beaver free for more than 60 years until 2008. Now, up to five beavers have been seen at once, working to plug up the flow of water.
Siwash Rock while not really a destination still makes for a great photo.
It is just off the seawall a bit north of Third Beach. You can’t actually get to the rock as it’s surrounded by water.
But without a doubt, the number one thing to do in Stanley Park is to visit the Vancouver Aquarium. It has 65,000 animals and 30 exhibits and galleries to explore. The aquarium has the usual suspects: sea lions, otters penguins, turtles, stingrays, fish, sea urchins, etc.