Thursday, March 22, 2012

Europe Part 1

We started our trip in Belgium, landing in Brussels, one of our must-see places. We would rent a car in Brussels, spend a couple of days sight seeing around town, then drive north-east to Bruges to visit the historic sites there.

The first day was pretty much a zero in terms of of sight seeing, but we had a few good laughs at ourselves as the dumb tourists in town. First of all, we picked up the rental car at the airport, it was supposed to be a Ford Mondero, which is something like a Mazda 3 in North America. Instead, they were pushing Mercedes that day, so we ended up with a diesel A320 model...kinda like a large version of the new Fiat.

No problem, a car is a if Ed can only figure out how to get it in reverse so he can back out of the parking spot. The car was a six-speed, and I think it took me that many times to figure out the trick for engaging the gateway on the stick shift that let it go into reverse.

Yay, we're moving backwards! OK, out of the spot and out of the narrow exit that I at first thought was a pedestrian walkway...although I thought I was safe going down it as I watched someone else drive out first  :)

Off we go out of the airport grounds and onto the main road that goes into Brussels. Annette had the map, and she is a pretty good navigator, so no worries about going astray. Besides, it was 7.30 AM on a Saturday morning and the town was pretty dead so far.

We found the turn off for the city centre, the sign with the arrow pointing "this way" and the sign text saying "Brussels City Centre" was helpful. We quickly got on the ring road that took us around the outskirts of town; what we didn't realize is that every couple of blocks the road went underground to bypass major streets and avoid congestion. So here we are, feeling like gophers, on this 4 lane road popping out of a tunnel, trying to get our bearings, then suddenly diving back down into another tunnel.

I kept driving while Annette tried to get her bearings on the map...we were pretty sure at one point that we were now on the far side of town, although we don't know how we got there. We figured, if nothing else, we'd have a nice drive in a circle for a time or two until we got the lay of the land. At one point Annette said "I recognize this road number"...I said "yeah, it's because we're heading back to the airport." Annette says "nawwww", I say "yeah-huh"...just as I said that we both said "I can see the planes sitting on the runway"!

OK, we have this town mastered, we've figured out how to go around in a circle......lets see if we can find our hotel. Half way around the town again, I get off of the up and down circus, and take a surface road. A couple of minutes later we go past the European Nations building and Annette says "I think our hotel is around here somewhere"....."and there it is"!

YAY us....first task down...pick up car and drive to hotel, with out major incident.....

After getting to the hotel, they were good enough to let us check in a few hours early, so we went upstairs and crashed for a while....actually, we pretty much spent the whole day just crashing in the room!

Next day, we were up early and ready to go...somewhere....Annette says "I want to go to's about 25 miles south of the city". Ed says "Okayyyyy...maybe a bit of a challenge as I have only mastered going in circles around the city, but I'm game".

We make our way partially out of the city, till we kinda got lost a funky part of town with no straight Ed says " no worries, we'll stop at a gas station and with my limited French should be able to get a map". Well, the guy at the gas station spoke English, but he couldn't help us much as he didn't know his way around the city either as he's only come from Africa a few months ago....I say "buddy, you gotta know more than me, I've only been here a few hours"!

So, he manages to point out a route out of town, and it works...we're now heading south on the freeway. Pretty soon we see a sign for Waterloo so we take the exit and end up in a rural area with tiny villages of 10-12 houses every couple of miles. Well, we figure out pretty quick we've taken the wrong exit, but as we are enjoying the sight seeing we'll just stumble around for a while to see were we end up.

Annette gets her eye on a sign that points down another road to "But de Lion" which Annette knows is "Lions Mound", the man made hill built at the Waterloo battle sight to commemorate the falling soldiers. So we toddle off down the road, following the signs and having a great drive through tiny villages where the towns folk live in what look like 200 hundred year old brick and stone this point we didn't care how long it took us to get to Waterloo, we were thoroughly enjoying the tour!

We zip around a corner in another village and suddenly we're there! In front of us is the But de Lion, and the museum and the round building that houses a diorama of the battle. We're really here! At!

We got out and did the tourist thing wandering around the museum and climbing the But de Lion..yeah it was a lot of stairs for us both, but we were determined to go up there, we just had to take it slow....
We spent a few hours here, in no rush at all, just soaking up the history of the area and the significance of what the outcome of the battle meant. If Napoleon Bonaparte had won, he would have had a clear shot at advancing into Prussia, Poland, Russia, etc. If Napoleon had won, most of Europe would have been under French rule.

I'll hand off the story telling to the video now......if for some reason the video does not display wide enough to see the whole screen, click on this link to go to my YouTube channel were you can see it in full display! Enjoy................

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ed & Annette in Europe - By Car and By Boat

In the past few years Annette and I have taken a couple of soft trips to Europe, I call them soft as they were pre-packaged tours which included airfare, a week at a hotel, and a one hour boat ride in the destination city. The first year we went to London, the second year to Paris; those trips were wonderful and so memorable that they seem like just last week we were there.

We enjoyed them immensely and they were a way for us to get our feet wet on a continent that we had not visited before. North America is pretty well all the same, no mater were you go, but Europe has a different feel altogether and we wanted to feel comfortable before we struck out on our own doing our own thing.

Fast forward a couple or three years, and we found ourselves looking at the travel guides searching out our next European destination. Annette had her heart set on seeing St. Petersburg in Russia, along with the world famous Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace of the Russian Emperors; Annette found a great week long boat cruise that started in Copenhagen, Denmark and had St. Petersburg as one of it's ports of call.

I said to Annette, if we are going to be in Denmark, then we have to do the "roots" thing and visit some of the places we know the Pedersen clan originate from. Add to the complexity of the agenda, Annette had also wanted to visit Brussels and Bruges in Belgium on a previous planned trip but an illness she experienced a couple of years ago put that dream on the back burner.

So, we have three weeks of holiday time to pull together an agenda that allows us to see as much of Europe as we can, and still hit our highlights - a tall order for sure. Add to the problem, at this time Annette is walking around with the aid of a cane while she is on a waiting list for a hip replacement.

We started out with the premise that the only hard dates we had was to be in Copenhagen on a certain Sunday to catch the boat, and that we would be back in town a week later. Other than that, we had free range over what we did. That also included where we landed in Europe - if we flew into Frankfurt we would have to plan our trip to start there; if we flew into London or Paris, that brought other considerations into play. As it was, we were able to get a flight into Brussels were we wanted to be for our first leg of the journey - now we just had to figure out how to get to Copenhagen in a week to catch the boat.

This quickly turned into a game of planes, trains, and automobiles - it became apparent that renting a car to get around Belgium was ideal, but the next section of the trip was awkward. We wanted to stop off on the way at the small island of Aeros in Denmark, which is on the way to Copenhagen - problem was, you couldn't get there from here! Every thing we could figure out was an awkward combination of trains that didn't go all the way, or a ferry to catch midway, or fly to Copenhagen and back track for day....all the while we had to cart around our suitcases and assorted bags we had on our trip. On top of that, Annette is walking with a sore hip and a cane in one hand....that seemed like it really limited our movability. And to be honest, I didn't relish the idea of carting our luggage on and off trains, buses, cabs, and ferries either.

The solution was simple - we would rent a car in Brussels and drive to Copennhagen - defintely not cheaper, as renting a car in Europe is very expensive, the car drop off price in Copenhagen alone was 700.00 euros! But, it seemed like the only answer with Annette's limited mobility, my lack of youthful strength, and the iternary we had for the first week. Keeping the car allowed us to be truly flexible and put us back in the driver's seat (pun intended) of our trip.

It also gave us some trepidation, as we would now be totally on our own for that week passing through several countries were we did not speak the language(s) and had to hope we could find a hotel at night where ever we ended up. Driving trips like this are nothing new for Annette and I, we enjoy the freedom and spontaniety that these trips bring - difference is, in North America, we always knew where we were and at least the natives spoke English.

Over the next few days I'll be posting more day by day accounts of the trip, plus a series of videos covering our week of driving through four countries in northern Europe, as well as a week of cruising visiting another four countries. Stay tuned, lots more to come on the "Ed and Annette Do Europe" tour!