Monday, November 29, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving -- Visit to Bruge, Belgium

We had a great Thanksgiving week.  Grant attends an American School, so he had Thursday & Friday off.  Vanderbilt had the week off, so Kate came home.  And due to some technical difficulties, Lori's planned business trip to South Africa didn't happen so she was home as well.  We took advantage of the break to spend some time in Bruge, Belgium. 

Bruge has a beautiful old city center with an abundance of Medieval Gothic architecture.  The town has avoided major war activity so everything is intact and original.  Its biggest threats now are the swarms of tourists who come to enjoy the beauty.  But you can avoid the throngs if you visit in late November on an evening when the temperature is near freezing and it's hailing.

Great tourist weather

The Town Hall.  Note the many statues on the wall
 We managed to take a break from historic architecture to visit the French Fry museum.  It was a real gem.  The story started with the history of the potato, which originated in Peru.  How the potato got from South America to Europe is a "hotly debated topic" according to the museum.  Some claim they came from Peru, while others believe that Argentina should receive the credit.  While they are called French Fries, the cooking technique actually originated in Belgium (I wonder if the French would also call this a hotly debated topic?).  It seems that US soldiers in WWI enjoyed the fries served by French speaking Belgium folks.  The soldiers mistakedly assumed the cooks were French, called the hot, crispy potatoes "French Fries" and Belgium lost out on a huge advertising opportunity forever. 

One final potato fact --- in Belgium they cook French Fries twice.  First, they are fried at 130 degrees C for 6-7 minutes.  The fries then sit for 10-15 minutes before the final frying at 180 degrees C for 1-3 minutes.  We have had fries cooked this way before and they are quite tasty.  We are so European that we eat them with mayonnaise now, too.   
Enjoying Double Cooked French Fries at the Museum

We concluded the weekend with a stopover in Antwerp to visit the Sechlers.  Ben was home from college as well, so it was the first time all 8 of us had been together since we travelled to Egypt two years ago.  Carol prepared a great turkey dinner and we toasted Lori & I's 27th wedding anniversary.

Even the basements are interesting.  This Christmas shop was in a 600 year old building named the "Pelican Building".  It had a Pelican Statue on it's facade. 
Town Hall in the evening

An example of a building with religous symbols built into the corner.  One belief is that in the olden times this would qualify the building as a religous structure, thereby providing a tax break.  Sounds similar to some current day strategies.
Roof detail

The anniversary couple

One of Bruge's many canals.  Grant and Mark climbed the 380 stairs of the Belfry that you see in the background. 

Even medieval towns have a sense of humor. 

Another version of the portable sign

A beautiful canal.  In the fall and spring these scenes are stunning.

The Market Square

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Happy Birthday Grant

Friday was Grant's 13th birthday; he's officially a teenager now.  His favorite present was his sister, Kate, coming home this weekend -- and bringing his XBox back from the repair shop!  Lori and Kate made him a Tuxedo Cake and homemade marshmallows.  But we didn't spend the entire day playing FIFA World Cup Soccer on XBox or baking in the kitchen.  We also rode our bikes to the Pannekeuken Restaurant for lunch.  . 

As usual, we forgot to buy candles.  We could only find 4 in the house.

Homemade marshmallows

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


 We finished out French vacation with a short drive to the Brittany Coast to see Mont-St-Michel.  It's the third most visited spot in France after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  Luckily most of those visits occur in the summer so our trip was not crowded at all.  The Mont is an island that is about 2 km off shore.  When the tide is out, the area around the Mont is dry.  A causeway was built in modern times to allow more predictable travel.  The area has extreme tides -- up to 40 feet -- and supposedly several people drown each year when they get caught as the tide comes in.  I don't know if I believe that, but there were signs in the parking lots "This lot floods at high tide.  Do not park here if the high tide sign is out".  Seems like a pretty effective "No Parking" strategy. 

A copy of the statue of St. Michael that is atop the Abbey

The real statue

The abbey on the Mont, Eglise Abbatiale, was built from 1017 to 1521 and rises to a height of over 400 feet.  As you drive into the region you can see it from 20 km away.  It's a pretty steep climb to the abbey and it's made even more difficult by having to pass the many souvenier shops selling the usual collection of junk.  Once you arrive at the abbey, it is worth it.  Touring the massive building you continually wonder "how on earth did they build this on an island?".  Services are still held there, although frankly I don't think they have much of a local congregation given the location. 

Although there are hotels on the island, we stayed at a small inn on shore where --- Grant and I were the only customers again.

The alley leading to the abbey

Old meets new

The surrounding land at low tide.

One of the "small" side areas in the Abbey

You can pay to take a tour of the mud flats around the castle at low tide.  I'm not sure why one would do this, but it did seem to be quite popular. 

View of Mont-St-Michel from our Inn in the morning

It takes columns like these to hold up the huge Abbey

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WWI Beaches....Finally

We return to our trip to France, picking up in the region of the WWII D-Day landings.  We started in Caen at the Memorial Museum which provided a comprehensive overview of the European Theater of WWII. From there we drove to the beaches. 

We stayed at the Hotel Casino on Omaha Beach.  It was an interesting name for a hotel considering that there was no casino in or anywhere near the property.  Other things that this hotel didn't have were heat in the rooms, other customers (Grant & I were the only customers for two nights) and English speaking staff members.  But what it did have was a fantastic location -- right on Omaha Beach.  Grant and I were on the third floor and we probably had a better view of the beach from our room than the Nazi's did in June 1944.

Casino Hotel.  Note the lack of cars. 
Over the next day and a half we toured beaches, cemeteries and German gun batteries.  Grant & I had watched Saving Private Ryan and read Band of Brothers recently so it helped us begin to imagine what happened there 66 years ago.  Pointe du Hoc was interesting -- the craters caused by bombs, etc. have been left as they were.  Your immediate impression is that there are a lot of craters and they're all pretty big.  The gun batteries  and the hills behind the beaches give you an idea of how formidable the German position must have seemed.  

Pt du Hoc.  Battlefield left as it was. 

The hills behind Omaha Beach

The view of Omaha Beach from the top of the hills.  This picture was at low tide, so the Allies probably didn't have this much unprotected beach to cross...but it probably still seemed like miles to them. 

German Gun Battery
Like we did in Ypres, we also visited cemeteries.  The German cemetery was similar to the WWI sites, subdued, brown simple buildings, no raised headstones and a beautiful design.  Although I recognize that I am biased by my heritage, the American cemetery was beautifully done.  I don't know if it was the beauty of the site or the recognition of the sacrifices made by those buried there, but it was an emotional visit. We walked through the crosses and with our Band of Brothers background we started to write down names of men from the 101st Airborne so that we could look them up in the book or DVD later.  It didn't take much time to get a long list of names just walking through one section of the cemetery.  It was interesting to see the diversity of where the men were from...almost all areas of the States.  It was telling to see their dates of death....almost all within June 6 to June 12 for that group.  Although there have been complaints (primarily from other bloggers living in Antwerp) about the amount of numbers I use in my postings, I will share one interesting, albeit sad, fact.  The American cemetery has 41 sets of brothers buried there.  How devastating for the parents. 

One final comment on the American Cemetery.  While the English Cemetery in Ypres is supposed to have the greenest grass in Europe, the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer has the best kept grass.  It was immaculate.  There were two or three men using push mowers that day (John Deere, of course).  If there is such a thing as mowing with reverence, they were doing it.  Heads bowed, solemn expressions as they went back and forth across the lawn,  no iPod in their ears.  In addition, they must use special mufflers to keep the noise levels down.  It sent a high benchmark for Pleasant Point to try and match. 

Visiting these sites was the primary reason for the trip and we weren't disappointed.

American Cemetery

Finding members of the 101st Airborne

Official lawn equipment of the American Cemetery

German Cemetery