Walking Brugge, Belgium Without Regrets

Brugge is the perfect Medieval European town says the travel literature. The streets are not to be missed. The buildings are remarkable. The shops are a buyers paradise. I suppose all that is true. Unfortunately, we passed through Blankenberge first, and saw a glimpse of something I really did want to see that day. Blankenberge seemed to me to be where Europeans go for fun, Brugge where all the rest of us congregate. Neither was a disappointment, but Blankenberge called to me as I passed through.

 

IMG_3332The port where our cruise ship anchored was not an easy walk-off location, so we took a bus to the town center of Blankenberge. Through the rain, we ran to the train station, bought our tickets to Brugge and waited. It was during the waiting that I noticed some of what Blankenberge had to offer. The rain passed quickly and I noticed modern shopping streets, clean walkways, sea-side fun, a pretty town center. But we had already bought our tickets, so when the train to Brugge came along, we got on.

A short ride later, we stopped at the wonderful train station of Brugge. I wanted to take my time here, but the medieval Brugge with its travel brochure appeal lay ahead. We followed the crowds. Once inside the tangle of cobbled pavement, a waffle aroma wound around the entire street and convinced me to try this delicacy: a Belgium waffle in Belgium. It was the best part of my visit to Brugge. Sweet, crisp and – oh-that fragrant whiff.

Fabric shops, trinket stores, all the things tourists expect were there. It was all delightful, and a bit fairy-landish, like a caricature of the medieval town it really is.

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delightful

It was delightful, and we even got a bit lost – something that always makes a place more memorable. Most importantly, we walked. Soon enough, we walked back to the train station, where I had just enough time to explore a bit before the return trip to Blankenberge. For many Californians, transit stations are a bit of a curiosity, and ones that are built underground are even more so. There is so much life in these beautiful underbellies – out of sight, almost secret. I found excellent coffee underground at the back entrance. I window-shopped regular neighborhood storefronts and wondered at the rates of all those currencies at the exchange. I heard a sudden rain storm from above, and felt the good fortune of being dry. Then we stepped on to the train back to Blankenberge.

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We walked up the broad shopping avenue, passing the many fine clothing stores and stopping in at the neighborhood market. I looked at all the manner of coffee there was to purchase, at the pastries, the cleaning supplies, the style of the shopping baskets. We walked the entire distance to the seaside and then walked along a magnificent shoreline. Nearly deserted in early May, it was the perfect setting for simply viewing a lovely coastline and appreciating the elegant design of a boardwalk. Sometimes it’s not what you planned to do that becomes memorable, but what you do without the planning. I walked back to the train station glad that Brugge, a perfectly fine stop along the way, wasn’t all there was to my visit there.

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From Brugge (and Blankenberge) to Rotterdam, The Netherlands next stop
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Walking Cherbourg, France

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Cherbourg, France

Old town, new town, harbour, shopping mall. Everything in Cherbourg, France had one thing in common: charm. We walked right off the ship and found it everywhere.

Sometimes visits just work out. There are so many things that can work against a short stop along the way: weather can be unpredictable, moods can swing, travel ills can cause discomfort. But this day in Cherbourg, all the magic worked.

True to my travel style, I had done little research. I was asked by my history-buff friends: would we be visiting the sites of the Battle of Normandy? set foot on Omaha Beach? tour the medieval compounds? But, in a short morning and afternoon visit, I would have to spend 3 hours on a bus to get to those historical places. These are the compromises of travel, right? In this port, I had the opportunity to just step off the ship and walk. I took it.

We wound right around the harbour area, heading toward the darkened roofline of the medieval section of town.  Buildings defined the different areas: sparkling white stone and clean windows lined the harbour. Sharp-angled rooflines, so greyed that I was certain the soot from last century still lay upon the tiles, called to us to walk farther into the town and further back into this area’s past. History lay all around me. I listened for and heard the beautiful whirr of the French language.

 

The charm of the old town, with its twisting streets – narrow and lined with tall buildings – pulled us into the maze and immediately lost us. The only thing to do was to pick a direction and continue, relishing in the adventure of being lost in a safe place. Along the way, we strolled through a beautiful garden, the product of centuries of careful planning and tending. We strayed up a dead-end alleyway, then retraced our steps to find ourselves suddenly un-lost and at the door of the ancient sea-side church Basilique Sainte-Trinite. From this vantage, I looked back to the harbour, and once again found my bearings. We headed back into the old town, searching for the fountain, wandering along and enjoying the flow of other tourists and many residents.

The charm of the alleyways called my attention. Such a variety of narrow spits of passageways. Alleys were everywhere, laid out to connect walkers to different areas of town. Even in the residential sections, the narrow but open-topped tunnels cut a route from here to there. I couldn’t follow them all, but wanted to.

Through the neighborhoods we walked, and there we found residential charm. Attached to the apartment complexes were small plots of garden land, with pint-sized potting sheds sitting on each section. What would these city farmers plant in their gardens? As I walked, I saw rowcrops of vegetables, and many, many flowers. But mostly, I saw green. Green everything: grass, budding trees, leafing flowers and bushes.  We walked up the hills to the larger houses and back down into town, wanting to stretch our legs and our time.

Our return trip took us again through the old town.  A cafe owner was attending to patrons sitting at his sidewalk tables. He answered a remark by one of the customers. I didn’t hear the question, but the answer charmed me as much as the town itself had. “Stay as long as you want, we love your company.”

And that’s how I left our short visit to Cherbourg: relishing the welcome and feeling like I wanted to come back, explore the small inviting pathways, listen longer to the language, and enjoy the hospitality.

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Next stop, Brugge, Belgium

Stop by Restless Jo’s Monday Walks for more…

Walking and Walking and Walking in Ponta Delgada, Portugal

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Land!

When you’ve been on a ship for 6 days, even a nice ship, it’s no surprise that stepping on to firm land is a pretty big deal. Our first stop of the transatlantic journey was in Ponta Delgada, Portugal. Maybe it sounds like it’s close to Europe, being a part of Portugal, but it’s really not as close as one might think. Facing another couple days on board after the brief stop in Ponta Delagada, I was determined to set my feet on ground as early as possible and stay there as long as I could.

Ponta Delgada is an island way, way off the coast of Portugal. I figured that there were adventures to be had there, and lovely places to see. But our time was limited, so what interested me most was a nice, long walk. Why not? My plan was to walk enough so that I would be content on board the ship for another two days. Would the town be big enough? Was the port area close enough to walk to town? Would there be guidebooks or maps? I had many confounding questions, all pointing to the fact that I really should have done more research ahead of time. As it turned out, my research – which consisted of looking at the location of the island on Google maps – was sufficient.

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Sunday morning Harley Club

We got off the ship, set our feet to the ground and strolled. The weather began cool and got steadily warmer and warmer, the streets appeared wondrously cobbled and tiled, and the people, what few were out on this early Sunday morning, were mostly a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. Why would this surprise me? I have no idea. But their presence sold me on Ponta Delgada, a place where you can walk along the harbour, watch waves crash against an ancient stone wall, admire the beautiful tile work on the sidewalks, and march right up to a group of shiny Harleys.

Then we walked and walked and walked. We visited the glorious gardens at Jardim Antonio Borges. This free city park is like no other I’ve ever seen, filled with glorious plants, enormous trees and grottos with sunken gardens.

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Antonio’s Garden

 

At the Governor’s Residence, we paid a small entrance fee, and were delighted by the gardens surrounding the house. Colorful and nicely planned, we even got to see the potting shed and seedlings on display. What a lot of work these gardens are. So, it was nice to find a lovely spot to sit.

Afterward, we walked the pedestrian-only streets with their elaborately-designed stonework. We climbed up the aged stairway of the old harbour walls. We walked neighborhoods of tightly-spaced homes trailing wrought-iron balconies from their upstairs rooms.IMG_3095

The weather was temperate and pleasant on this island, and locals said that was common. But after a while, the sun took its toll. When I needed a break, there appeared before us a modern shopping mall. An air-conditioned store? Yes, please. There was even a fabulous public restroom, with the most amusing wash basin I have ever seen.

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Real or not real?

Before the visit, I felt confident that knowing Spanish, I would be able to handle Portuguese. No doubt others have made this mistake. Even the written words tempted me into believing more of my language skills than I should have. It was not the writing that tripped me up, it was the spoken word. Sign posts and street signs presented no problem. But I could not understand one single spoken word, no matter how slowly spoken or oft-repeated.

Luckily, the people of Ponta Delgada understood me. They provided a marvelous day-long walking path with wonderful weather. Obrigado – it means thank you, I think 😉

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Next up, Cherbourg, France

Stop by Restless Jo’s Monday Walks for more…

Walking the Cruise Ship

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No place to walk?

It was an enormous cruise ship. There should have been plenty of walking places built into the design. There weren’t. The Promenade, that ever-present feature of cruise ship fame had been cut down to a single-lane path that wove in, out and around small launches and electrical fittings. It didn’t circumnavigate the ship.

Who’s complaining? Me. I know that being able to travel to many of the world’s note-worthy places is a wild piece of luck, and I shouldn’t complain about any part of it. We plan our travel carefully, weighing cost versus comfort. And when we search for good deals, taking a cruise keeps popping its head up as the most economical way to get from point A to many many other points around the world. I am a reluctant cruiser, but as long as I can tolerate the short visits to interesting places, we will probably continue to book our interior rooms occasionally on these enormous floating hotels. It’s just not a perfect situation. What is?

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Lots of fun

We had signed up for a trans-Atlantic cruise that included a route into the Baltic region. It allowed for 11 different stops in 26 days. It’s a bit of ‘if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium’, but when the price is right, I can adjust to almost any travel style. And when we get to those points along the way, I can walk my heart out for a good morning and afternoon in each port, which is really what I like to do when I travel, so that’s all good. But what about those ‘at-sea’ days? On this ship, a big, beautiful new one, there was the down-sized promenade and a small running track on one of the top decks. So, looking for a better stroll, I took to the stairs.

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The running track was nice, just short and often crowded.

From our pleasant small cabin on deck 11, I could climb the stairs to deck 15, loop around from the retreat pool to outside the always-crowded fitness room, up one deck to the surprisingly small running track, down again to the deck 15 loop, descend the stairs to the tiny little promenade on deck 7, up again to deck 14 where I could grab a cup of tea and find a solitary spot on one of the exterior lounge areas. It turned out to be an invigorating walk, and there were always plenty of places on the ship where I could find privacy afterwards for some reading or relaxing.

It was interesting to me that as I walked, and as I lounged, I noticed that many other passengers were finding their own ways to get in their exercise. As I looked for books in the library, I noticed a couple walked by four times. They had devised an indoor walking route around the many interior lounges. Then, in my ‘secret’ spot at the very back of the ship where there was a lovely dead end and few people, one man walked rapidly past me, where there was no more ship, turned around and walked just as rapidly away. He came back about 15 minutes later, with the same routine and again 15 minutes after that. On another day, it was a woman doing the same walk. On the days when I sat away from the crowd in my corner at the retreat pool, I noticed an intermittent stream of walkers, one or two or three at a time, looping through the area, returning about every 20 minutes.

I was stuck on the ship for 26 days. Six of those days were traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to the Azore Islands of Portugal. I knew I had to figure some outdoor routine for exercise and escape. Even though the routine did not include the usual promenade walk, as things turned out, it did include great exertion and lots of pleasant relaxation. I even found empty hot tubs for a satisfying rest after my walk if I went early enough (so I did.)

Taking a cruise has an odd reputation that I find doesn’t have much to do with the way we experience it. We have been able to bend the cruise experience to our own idea of travel – economical and comfortable sojourns to interesting locations. A nice walk and a hot tub waiting when I’m done is nothing to complain about.

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Next stop: Ponta Delgada, Portugal

 

 

Stop by Restless Jo’s Monday Walks for more…