Brussels and Tournai

Our last two days in Belgium were spent in Brussels and Tournai. We took the train from Bruges to Brussels and got a hotel near the train station. Since we had an early flight out we wanted to be closer to the airport. Once we arrived, we walked around the Grand Place, ate, and of course we had a beer.

There’s a place down one of the side alleys from Grand Place, called Plaka, that makes the BEST gyros.

The next morning, our final day in Belgium, we got up and took a train into Tournai, about an hour away. Tournai is in the region called Wallonia near the French border. Tournai was one of the main creators of tapestries during the Middle Ages and when I read that they had a tapestry museum I really wanted to visit. (Side note: I have been intrigued by the method of creating medieval tapestries since seeing The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris several years ago (amazing! Go see them if you have the chance) and reading The Lady and the Unicorn and The Seventh Unicorn)

We passed lots and lots of windmills. Amazingly, I didn’t see a single dead bird piled up beneath them. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Tournai’s belfry dates from the 12th century and is the oldest belfry in Belgium.

Tournai is the only Belgian city to have been controlled by the British throne (Henry VIII in 1513). It has changed hands several times; it was important in Roman times, then seized by the Franks in the 5th century (the birthplace of Frankish King Clovis) and was a Bishop’s see in the early 6th century, it was controlled by the counts of Flanders until it was recovered by France in 1188, then Henry VIII in 1513 and returned again to France in 1518, the Netherlands in 1521, then a Spanish Habsburg province, then the Austrian Habsburgs in the 18th century, and then back and forth between France and Austria.

We thought Tournai to be utterly charming. We might have been the only tourists in the town, which was so refreshing after the hordes of tourists in Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels. Everyone spoke French. No one spoke English, or very limited English. There weren’t English translations on the menus or street signs or museum displays. This might bother some, but we loved it. (Apparently I still retain enough of my high school French to be able to communicate (together with hand gestures, ha!) and decipher menus.)

We finally located the Tapestry Museum

I was disappointed in the Tapestry Museum. They had a few medieval tapestries and an old loom, which was interesting. None of the tapestries were as intricate and beautiful as The Lady and Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris, or even the Vatican Museum in Italy. I didn’t mind that the placards were just in French and Dutch. I was just disappointed at how limited the displays were. My favorite thing in the museum was a series of maps…

USA = BOUFFENT DES BURGERS 😂
FLORIDA = TOURISTES, GOLF, RETIREES, ALLIGATORS 😂
Hotel De Ville

In spite of the disappointment of the Tapestry Museum, we adored Tournai. Wandering around and exploring, enjoying the challenges of navigating with…language challenges. It was a fun and relaxing day. We were sorry not to have been able to see the inside of their Cathedral of Notre Dame (11-12th century basilica and UNESCO world heritage site) that was undergoing renovations, nor the Pont Des Trous, a medieval bridge on the outskirts of the town which was originally part of the city wall. It was blown up during World War II and reconstructed.

Brussels and Tournai

Our last two days in Belgium were spent in Brussels and Tournai. We took the train from Bruges to Brussels and got a hotel near the train station. Since we had an early flight out we wanted to be closer to the airport. Once we arrived, we walked around the Grand Place, ate, and of course we had a beer.

There’s a place down one of the side alleys from Grand Place, called Plaka, that makes the BEST gyros.

The next morning, our final day in Belgium, we got up and took a train into Tournai, about an hour away. Tournai is in the region called Wallonia near the French border. Tournai was one of the main creators of tapestries during the Middle Ages and when I read that they had a tapestry museum I really wanted to visit. (Side note: I have been intrigued by the method of creating medieval tapestries since seeing The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris several years ago (amazing! Go see them if you have the chance) and reading The Lady and the Unicorn and The Seventh Unicorn)

We passed lots and lots of windmills. Amazingly, I didn’t see a single dead bird piled up beneath them. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Tournai’s belfry dates from the 12th century and is the oldest belfry in Belgium.

Tournai is the only Belgian city to have been controlled by the British throne (Henry VIII in 1513). It has changed hands several times; it was important in Roman times, then seized by the Franks in the 5th century (the birthplace of Frankish King Clovis) and was a Bishop’s see in the early 6th century, it was controlled by the counts of Flanders until it was recovered by France in 1188, then Henry VIII in 1513 and returned again to France in 1518, the Netherlands in 1521, then a Spanish Habsburg province, then the Austrian Habsburgs in the 18th century, and then back and forth between France and Austria.

We thought Tournai to be utterly charming. We might have been the only tourists in the town, which was so refreshing after the hordes of tourists in Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels. Everyone spoke French. No one spoke English, or very limited English. There weren’t English translations on the menus or street signs or museum displays. This might bother some, but we loved it. (Apparently I still retain enough of my high school French to be able to communicate (together with hand gestures, ha!) and decipher menus.)

We finally located the Tapestry Museum

I was disappointed in the Tapestry Museum. They had a few medieval tapestries and an old loom, which was interesting. None of the tapestries were as intricate and beautiful as The Lady and Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris, or even the Vatican Museum in Italy. I didn’t mind that the placards were just in French and Dutch. I was just disappointed at how limited the displays were. My favorite thing in the museum was a series of maps…

USA = BOUFFENT DES BURGERS 😂
FLORIDA = TOURISTES, GOLF, RETIREES, ALLIGATORS 😂
Hotel De Ville

In spite of the disappointment of the Tapestry Museum, we adored Tournai. Wandering around and exploring, enjoying the challenges of navigating with…language challenges. It was a fun and relaxing day. We were sorry not to have been able to see the inside of their Cathedral of Notre Dame (11-12th century basilica and UNESCO world heritage site) that was undergoing renovations, nor the Pont Des Trous, a medieval bridge on the outskirts of the town which was originally part of the city wall. It was blown up during World War II and reconstructed.

Rainy Day

Today was another cold, rainy day which was spent doing laundry (the reality of traveling with just a carry on bag), and then wandering around the markt, shopping, eating, drinking, and enjoying people watching. We came across some street performers and lots and lots of adorable pets – even an Old English Sheepdog and a bunny!

Ghent

Today was cold and rainy, but nevertheless we decided to go explore Ghent (a short 20 minute train ride away).

We went straight to Gravensteen Castle…

Fun! (Okay, maybe not the many, many steep, narrow, old stone spiral stairs. Those were NOT fun. They were a bit scary.) But the rest of the castle was fun, especially the audio tour (hilarious, especially the sound effects).

The cross window signifies that Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders (who built Gravensteen) went on crusade to the Holy Land.

Gravensteen was built in 1180 by the Count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace. The audio tour did a wonderful job of relating the history of the castle and of Flanders, along with many anecdotes from Philip’s life.

After touring the castle, we walked around Ghent and had lunch. And then then it started pouring and we stopped and had frites and a Stella (as one does). Ghent is beautiful and I wish we’d had better weather and been able to see more. Still, we had a great day, loved Ghent and really loved visiting Gravensteen.

In Bruges

After (almost) 3 years of pent up wanderlust, Tim and I have finally hit the road again. We decided to do a quick trip to Belgium, mostly because there were seats available.

The flight over was fine. Okay, honestly, it was noisy (imagine crying babies, screaming children, and lots of yapping and whining from little dogs) and so we didn’t get much (much=any) sleep. Then the customs line was slooooowwwwww. But we finally got on the train to Bruges!

By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in Bruges it was noon local time and we’d been up for 24 hours. We were exhausted…so we crashed for about 4 hours. We got up and walked to the market square (markt), ate dinner, had a beer, and just marveled at the fact that we were finally traveling again. Europe, we’ve missed you!

The next day we did the touristy things – a canal boat tour, and city bus tour…and then just walked around and explored and ate and drank. We learned a lot about the history of Bruges and saw swans and beautiful buildings and the sun was out.

This was the old city hospital. The arrow is pointing to where “ambulances” would drop off patients (by boat). In the lower right corner you can see the edge of a door which is where the dead were picked up.

A Chilly Graduation Trip

Back at the end of January and beginning of February Paige and I took a quick trip over to Edinburgh for a few days. Paige has always wanted to go, particularly because of all the Harry Potter related landmarks around the city, and since we were able to get on the flights and found a wonderful, historical Airbnb right in the Grassmarket by the castle…it seemed like a great, albeit really, really cold, time to go!

After arriving, we bundled up and hiked up to check out Edinburgh Castle. Then we wandered around Victoria Street (which was literally only about a 5 minute walk from our flat). Victoria Street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books…and we look wandering around the cute shops.

We also found Elephant House, and Spoon, where J. K. Rowling wrote the first few Harry Potter books…

Right there by Elephant House, in the same neighborhood, is the George Herriot School and Greyfriars Kirkyard. J. K. Rowling could see the Herriot School from Elephant House as she was writing, and it was the inspiration for Hogwarts. She would frequently take breaks and walk through Greyfriars, which also provided inspiration in the form of some familiar names….

We took a day trip to Stirling one day, and wandered around the town and toured the castle…

We also did a history-comedy-walking tour of Edinburgh…which was fantastic!

And finally, we toured Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Abbey. We walked around the Scott Monument, we traversed the Royal Mile, and explored Mary Kings Close. We shivered a lot, it’s true (we’re Florida girls!) but we loved every minute of our chilly Scottish, Harry Potter adventure!

When in Rome (part 2)

In part 1 of our Rome adventures, I briefly mentioned the hordes of tourists. I’ll mention them again, here. There were hordes of tourists in Rome. We did our best to avoid them, but it was time to take a deep breath and dive into the hordes. Because, when in Rome you have to…

Do the Coliseum…

And Roman Forum…

Rome, where you don’t take breaks on benches…but on toppled marble columns.

Circus Maximus

And Palatine Hill. (Only 30% of visitors to Rome visit the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill!)

The next day we really jumped into it. We went here…

We saw these guys…

And toured the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel, where we were not allowed to take photos, but…😍)

(I must have a tiny bit of a “floor fetish” because every single place we went in Italy I was obsessed with the fabulous, amazing, mosaic tile floors!)

The mosaic tile floors were incredible

Those peacocks are 1,900 years old

Flemish tapestry showing the assassination of Julius Caesar

The giant pinecone is 2000 years old!

The crowds though, y’all. While the Sistine Chapel was absolutely breathtaking and astounding, the crowds and the body odor and the pushing and….ugh. We shuffled along in the mass exodus….shuffling…shuffling…and eventually made our way to St. Peter’s.

I’d love to show photos of the Pieta. I’m sure St. Peter’s is an amazing church.

But I’m sorry to say that we shuffled along in that huge body of odiferous tourists, and walked into St Peter’s…

I quickly snapped this photo, said, “yeah, yeah another church. This is freaking insane. Let’s get out of here.”

And we left.

And just like that, I was ALL OUT OF PATIENCE and I decided I DID NOT LIKE PEOPLE and OMG I HATE TOURISTS and WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS GET ME OUT OF HERE!

Then Tim fed me “lunch” (it was 4:30) and that helped, but I still am pretty much over tourists. I mean…really, y’all DON’T NEED TO PUSH!

Typical lunch for us- insalata!

On the way home that evening, we stopped off for a hot chocolate with a view!

Roman Holiday (part 1)

We arrived in Rome on a rainy, windy afternoon. After checking into our Airbnb apartment, we located the closest supermarket (right around the corner 😊) and stocked up on baguettes, coffee, and salami for the week. (Italian essentials!) And then we set out to explore…

Our apartment was only a block away from Piazza Navona, and a few minutes walk from Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon…

The next day the sun came back out and after a bit of investigation we realized that Largo di Torre Argentina was only 5 minutes away from our apartment. We had to go see where Julius Caesar was assassinated! (And also, we wanted to see “Caesar’s cats!” Torre Argentina)

We decided to adopt a cat!

This is Brutus (it seemed fitting- “et tu, Brute?”). He’s blind, and deaf…probably un-adoptable. 😢 We spent some time petting him (he purred and loved the attention, sweet boy) and then filled out the paperwork.

And we did a lot of walking. Just…walking. Exploring. We walked along the Tiber, and we found cute little alleyways to explore, and we just meandered and tried (as much as possible) to avoid to hordes of tourists…

Spoleto (1)

Walking the streets of Spoleto is a constant delight for a history lover such as myself. I drive Tim crazy by constantly stopping to take pictures of the lovely old doors…

…or the charming old fountains…

…or squeal when I see picturesque alleyways. And then we get distracted and wander down the alleyways, or stairways, just to see where they lead. (And often get lost!) That’s the charm of Spoleto.

But eventually you get where you’re heading…in our case, yesterday it was first to the Duomo.

I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t really excited about visiting another church. Let’s be real- we’ve seen a lot of churches at this point, right? But…holy cow. This church? Wow!

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, or the Duomo, is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. The Cathedral, which was apparently rebuilt at the end of the twelfth century, took the place of the ancient building of Santa Maria del Vescovato (8th-9th century), which had replaced a primitive Christian temple.

I don’t know how old the mosaic tile floors are…but they’re old. And they’re beautiful.

There is a magnificent fresco painted by Fillipo Lippi (he is also buried there.)

The Duomo also has a fragment of a letter written by St Francis of Assisi (!!!). It is kept in a reliquary of the church. It is actually only a fragment of a letter, written on goatskin, estimated to have been written around 1225 when St. Francis was nearly blind and suffering the effects of stigmata. It was written to Brother Leo, one of his earliest and closest followers. But STILL…Saint Francis!

Also, look at how the afternoon sunlight reflects the gold leaf on the fresco outside the church – isn’t that breathtaking?

We then took the amazing travelators to the top of the hill to see the Ponte delle Torri, an ancient Roman aqueduct which was rebuilt in the fourteenth century. It was a splendid day, with perfect weather and we enjoyed the walk immensely. The views were superb, and the leaves were just starting to turn…it was gorgeous.

We then climbed a bit further still to the Rocca Albornoziana or La Rocca, which was built in the fourteenth century as a residence of the Pope. It was designed as both a residence and a fortress. Lucrezia Borgia also apparently resided at La Rocca. From 1817-1962 it was used as a prison.

There are remnants of lovely frescoes remaining on the walls today.

Rocca Albornoziana

Arrived in Spoleto

When we arrived in Italy, we had only the vaguest of plans of where we would go and where we would stay (after Milan.) Our plan was, basically, to be vagabonds – albeit, middle-aged vagabonds. We had a loose plan of trying to fit in a few days in Venice, Florence, Rome…and maybe Siena in Tuscany.

Obviously, our plans have changed a bit. We decided on Spoleto in Umbria rather than Siena in Tuscany, for several reasons. First, haven’t you heard? “Umbria is the new Tuscany.” Or so they say. But seriously, Siena is supposed to be great, but I started researching Spoleto and fell a bit in love with it. And after the overload of tourists in Florence (we loved Florence, we did! But next time we go will be in the middle of winter, rainy season, with few tourists!) we decided to cut Venice out of our plans. We just couldn’t deal with yet another crazy, tourist laden, city where you can barely walk. So we’ll plan another trip in the off season to visit Venice.

But, in the meantime, here we are in Spoleto. Spoleta is an ancient city in Umbria in the Apennine foothills. The Roman name was Spoletium. The first historical mention of Spoletium is the notice of the foundation of a colony there in 241 BC. After the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC) Spoletium was attacked by Hannibal. The inhabitants fought back fiercely and sent Hannibal and his elephants packing! During the Second Punic War the city was a useful ally to Rome…and there are reminders of Rome everywhere.

Roman arch, first century BC

Column from old Roman temple, first century AD

Teatro Romano