Thursday, March 30, 2023

At the Hilton Antwerp Old Town

As we arrived at Antwerp’s Central Station, we realized that Belgians can also build impressive edifices, this one with trains on more than one level.

Our €10 Uber ride became €20 as the driver’s GPS took us to a street blocked by a crane and a construction site, eventually leading to a u-turn and retreat.There are cyclists and scooters all over the place.

Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, after Brussels, and sits only 9 miles (15 Kms.) south of the Dutch border.

The Hilton is an elegant property. A few complain that it’s somewhat worn and tired, but count us among those who like it as is.

On top of that, Kathy’s Hilton Diamond status resulted in an upgrade to a junior suite, about as large as our previous two hotel rooms combined.

There’s a welcoming bottle of Australian Shiraz and some chocolates on the coffee table. 

Kathy will make good use of the soaker tub.

The views from our fourth-floor windows are pleasing.

We visited the Executive Lounge on the fifth (and top) floor for a cup of coffee.

We then went for a walk, spotting in front of the cathedral a prominent statue of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the great Flemish painter who spent most of his life here.

We returned to the Executive Lounge for Happy Hour. The young employee in charge, wearing an “in training” badge, seemed more interested in her phone than in replenishing the food or clearing the tables. Things improved after two or three customers accosted a supervisor who appeared, but we lost interest and went for a light dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant.

The cathedral’s nighttime lighting is impressive.

Thursday will be a day to explore the Old Town, no doubt  dodging cyclists as we wander around. We’re clearly in the Flemish region of Belgium, and will probably encounter the same when we visit Bruges in a couple of days.

Brian can finally lay off his fractured French, and Kathy can brush up on German interpretation of Dutch 

We also learn at the Hilton’s generous buffet breakfast this morning that true Belgian Waffles are sweet; ours were a little crunchy.with sugar. Who’d have known? Travel is broadening, but please no more waffles to further broaden our waistlines.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A France to Belgium Train Day

The French certainly liked to build impressive train stations like La Gare de Metz below. The walk from the Mercure to the station seems shorter than the reverse trip Monday. Isn’t that always the way when you know where you’re going? Still, rollaboards and cobbled sidewalks don’t mix well. We persevere.

Our train arrives on time, and we’re off to Luxembourg punctually at 9:52AM, where we will transfer trains.

It’s a TGV and the countryside whizzes by. After the first one-hour ride, we are transferring to a three-hour ride to Brussels North, where we transfer to our third train of the day, a 33-minute trip to Antwerp, due to arrive just after 3PM.

Our transfer at Luxembourg is easy, but wouldn’t you know it? Our three-hour ride to Brussels North is on an IC (inter-city) train, a step down from the TGV we rode in on from Metz.

No WiFi and apparently no food for sale. Oh well… whining does not become us. It’s a fast, quiet, smooth-riding and comfortable train. We don’t seem to have seats reserved but the first class car is virtually empty and the friendly employee who validates our tickets doesn’t say a word about our choice of seats. We survive on a few hotel cookies and airline chocolates found in Kathy’s day bag.

Our transfer at Brussels North is also painless with escalators at both platforms. The only first class car is out of reach and we board a second class car as the whistle blows. It’s uncrowded and quite comfortable for a short trip.
In fact, our rollaboards tuck neatly under the little table.

It’s interesting to hear some Flemish. Kathy has more success with Flemish announcements than Brian does with French. Antwerp Central is the third stop, and then it’s onward to the Hilton Antwerp Old Town, our home for the next three nights.

So far, so good.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Dropping in on Metz, France

We arrived at the Metz (pronounced mess in French) train station one day earlier than originally planned and on time. The half kilometer walk to the Hotel Mercure felt more like a half mile, but we found it without difficulty and a room was ready for us.

Our room is a little run down but perfectly adequate. Once checked in, we went for a walk. On our way back the weather changed and we actually encountered some sleet.

Feeling lazy, we decided to eat dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, Émile & Lola, which is reasonably well reviewed. It was fine. Kathy enjoyed her pâté.

Brian’s vegetable tartellette was tasty, although the crust could have been flakier.

For our mains, Kathy selected lamb, which tasted as good as it looked.

Brian’s hamburger was livened up with a dollop of Bernaise Sauce.

All in all, it was a successful dining experience.

Tuesday morning we both slept in. The dire weather forecast (snow!) did not come to pass, nor did the general strike, at least in Metz. We celebrated with a three-mile walk. We confirm with the postman’s arrival at the hotel as we leave that there’s no general strike today.

Metz is a city of about 100,00 in northeast France, situated at the confluence of the Seille and Moselle Rivers.

So many beautiful sights…

Here’s a tower without a church.

This was a Lutheran church built by German soldiers in the late 1800s, annoying the locals because it was one meter taller than the next tallest church tower. It was bombed in WW II, and then burned in 1946. This 90-meter tower of the Garrison Temple is all that remains.

Eventually we walk our way to the lunch hour. The first restaurant we try is full, but we’re more successful at L’Aloyau, a venerable establishment not far from our hotel.

The interior is pleasant and they had a table for us.

This butcher-based restaurant provides sausage as well as bread for the table.

To celebrate our final meal in France of this trip, and in memory of Kathy’s older brother (Bentley loved long French lunches), we ordered a bottle of Médoc.

We ascertained that today’s soupe du moment was onion, so we eagerly (and we think for the first time) ordered Soupe à l’Oignon in France. It was a beef base and it was delicious.

For our plats, Kathy, never one to give up, ordered a steak. It was thin and a little tough, like every other steak we’ve eaten in France. Brian argued without success that it must be the way the French like their meat, especially since this very restaurant displays large cuts of dry-aged un-marbled beef in the front window. As the very same French put it, À chacun son goût. Kathy did love the cheesy potatoes, and also the mashed potatoes on which the vegetables rested.

Brian hit the jackpot with a rich Beef Bourguignon.

Un très bon repas!

Wednesday morning we’re scheduled to board a Belgian train and ride the rails to Antwerp, changing trains at Luxembourg. We’re looking forward to sampling Belgium’s waffles, chocolate, and beer. Oh, and Belgium invented pommes frites, didn’t they?

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Touring the Alsace Wine Country

Alsace consists of rolling countryside, much of it covered by vineyards, dotted by breathtakingly picturesque villages and towns. We’d enjoyed touring here with friends in 2014, and wanted to see more.

After some research, we found our guide, Cédric Schuhler, the young owner of Detour Alsace.

He was only available Sunday, which proved fortunate, due to our departing Colmar a day early in hope of missing the major strike projected for Tuesday.

Cédric spent several months in Chicago as a Marriott intern, so we already shared a liking for deep-dish pizza. We criss-crossed the area, visited one charming village after another, and engaged in some serious wine tasting at two locations with the owners - there are over 300 wineries in Alsace.

This is a white wine region that highlights Crémant d’Alsace, Riesling, and Muscat, among others.

We visited Domaine Edelweiss in the morning. Sylvie, who with her sister has taken over the winery from their father, poured a tasty selection of Crémants and Rieslings for us.

This Riesling is named in honor of her young son, Olivier.

This winery is organic and female-run. Most important, the wine is excellent, and we bought a bottle to enjoy later.

We visited the second winery later in the afternoon and enjoyed chatting with the owners, with a little translation assistance from Cédric.

Winemakers are invariably nice people. That’s a rule of the universe.

We had to buy another bottle to take along. Before, in between, and after, we wandered through some of the most beautiful little villages we’ve ever seen.

Colmar itself is the birthplace of  Fréderic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor behind the Statue of Liberty, so we drive by the second foreign duplicate of Lady Liberty that we’ve encountered within the past two weeks (the first being in Japan). Now that is a coincidence of sorts.

We also saw Colmar’s Little Venice.

Despite some rain later in the afternoon, the weather was generally good and there weren’t the throngs of other tourists we would have seen later in the season.

It was a terrific day, and we thank Cédric for showing us around.

There are few restaurants near our hotel, but we found a cute little order-at-the-counter pizza joint next to the train station, where we shared a pizza and an Alsatian Tarte Flambée, featuring mild white cheese and onions.

And early Monday morning we were awakened by a large police-escorted  military convoy passing below our window.

Let’s hope that’s of no particular significance. Cédric tells us there’s a large military base in Colmar, so it was probably just a coincidence.

Several hours later, and our train is about to arrive at Metz.