Row, row, row your boat, merrily along the canals of Bruges

What are a pink-sneaker clad Auntie and a Kid to do whilst traipsing along cute as a postcard Brugge, but jump feet first into one of those picturesque canals and see what all of the hoopla is about?  Not about to get our tootsies soaked, nor swim with the dolphins, the ever so clever ingenious worldwide hopper (moi, who else?) lined up with the best and rest of them and paid her 7 Euros for a 30 minute boat ride along the endless miles of waterways that classified this Belgian hamlet as the Venice of the North.  And so it was on a bright and sunny July morning, that Miss Perfect Niece (sporting an unusually rare good mood) and I set out and about, craftily pretending to be locals out for an oh so boring afternoon cruise (who were we kidding?) and queue in a snaking line so that we could hop on a boat with 12 other day-trippers who were just as anxious as us to live out that picture perfect postcard fantasy moment.  That is, if your idea of fun is being squished in like a sardine with a cast of malcontents not even worthy of their own reality television program – such as (listed in order of annoyance, ranging from somewhat mildly irritating to downright over the top aggravating):

I need all of the space that I can get, foul-mouthed self absorbed big-wig, his imposing presence a huge pain in the you know what, garnering attention for all of the wrong reasons, an elbow shoving undignified foreigner unable to appreciate the quaint charm of a medieval Belgian town, focused solely on obtaining that once in a lifetime National Geographic moment in time, oblivious as to how many people he takes out along the way.  Adding insult to injury, this type of self absorbed jerk is the one in a thousand of buffoons, who, unfortunately, taints the stellar reputations of truly appreciative visitors who’ve jetted thousands of miles from across the pond for a glimpse into the past of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Then, coming in at second place, is the Illusion of a Perfect Family, with Mrs Mom and Pop lining up their four not so adorable darlings, all under the age of 8, who have their own agendas on how to effectively disrupt a pleasant afternoon canal cruise, a mini cyclonic force of uncontrollable temper tantrum rants of the Academy Award runner up kind.  From dribbling spit to escalating wails, their screeching crescendos deafening even the hard of hearing, one can only hope and pray for a massive tidal wave to at least momentarily startle the irritating little brats into quieted submission.  Not an actual tidal wave, of course, but you get my drift.

And then, la piece de la resistance, or the icing on the cake, and number three on my list of fellow travellers I never ever want to share even a smidgen of boat space with, lest be exposed to pathogens of the germinating kind, the get a hotel room newly met or newly-wed tonsil hockey gropers who truly have no desire to see the sights, focused exclusively on tearing the other’s garments off, misfits on a family oriented Disney waltz along the canal lined waterways.

And finally, number four on my list of tourists to stay clear off, the over cautious freak-a-zoid middle-aged Auntie who sports water wings and a life jacket, lest the vessel accidentally tip over and fling her into the not so deep canal, an annoyingly irritating passenger persistently questioning the abilities of the tenured captain, is someone you most definitely don’t want to sit beside on your next boating venture.  Quite the embarrassment to her 16 year old cooler than cool niece, this terrified and petrified scared of her own shadow day-tripper is quite the pathetic sight indeed, making a mountain out of a molehill on a routine half hour glide along the calmest of waterways in all of Europe.  Like seriously?  Who is that dingbat?

Yikes!!   Okay….I confess….that would be no-one else but you know who!   Double yikes!!  Okay then, on that note, time to sign off until the New Year, as the Kid and I continue to traipse around Bruges, our pink-sneakered feet jumping from one adventure to yet another. 

Come make friends with all sorts of personalities, squished in a tinier than tiny rowboat, sailing around the picturesque canals of medieval Bruges.  Come follow us on our escapades throughout Europe and our (mine, actually) uniquely fascinating perspective on life abroad.

Next blog – Stay tuned for the continuation of my adventures across the pond, as my next blog will be posted on Wednesday January 8th, 2014!!

Miss Pink Sneakers will be taking a bit of time out to rest, relax and enjoy the holiday season, indulge in some vino, do some of writing and, most importantly, start planning the next 2014 travel adventure!!

Wishing all of my faithful readers a wonderful holiday season and a very Happy New Year!!  Thank you all for reading, learning and laughing!!

Almost trapped in the Middle Ages

Ever wonder what it’s like to live in a postcard?  Well, come to canal lined medieval Bruges and find out. And this is exactly what the Kid and I did, as we meandered along this UNESCO World Heritage site, gawking in appreciative wonder at antiquated cathedrals and trodden passageways.  Ambling along the cobblestoned paths, each inquisitive step a stroll back in time, our pink sneakered feet rarely tired of aimless wandering, as we explored the hidden nooks and crannies of this Gothic town.  Even my reluctant walker niece enthusiastically traipsed for miles on end, mesmerized by the age old history and architecture of the Flemish capital.  Surrounded by miles upon miles of seemingly endless canals, Brugge is a magical fairy tale in the making, gifting visitors a wondrous glimpse into the past.  A land that time forgot, its cathedral spires forming an alluring back drop to imagined story book romances, this Belgian Venice of the North does not disappoint - a virtual history lesson in the making.

And then we stumbled upon the Historium.  Housed in a centuries old edifice, this interactive multi-media experience offers a unique perspective on what life would have been like in medieval Belgium.  A trail of illuminated footprints guides visitors from one elaborately themed set to another, as if magically transporting a 21st century globe-trotter smack dab in to the Middle Ages.  The tour lasts approximately 35 minutes and you are ushered through seven realistically themed sets, each thematic room depicting a scenario of a day in the life of Jacob and Anna.

 Part love story, part tale of a struggling apprentice to master painter Jan van Eyck, this historical journey through 15th century Brugge both educates and delights.  We follow Jacob on his determined quest to win the heart of Anna, as he chases both his muse as well as an annoyingly vocal parakeet, along the cobblestoned alleyways and canal lined waterways.

Quite the history buffs, both the Kid and I were giddy in anticipation of stepping back in time, anxious to be witness to a snippet of the past and traipse alongside Jacob and leap back into 1435 Bruges.  Paying our 11 Euro admittance fee, we eagerly crossed the threshold into the first of 7 lifelike sets, and found ourselves in a semi darkened room with a few props and a large movie screen.  And then the unthinkable happened.

 The main entranceway wall slid seamlessly shut, much like an elevator door closing, effectively “trapping” us in this enclosed space.  Now, for normal people like the Kid and 99.9% of the general populace, this would not pose any sort of an issue or nary a thought even worth considering, but for claustrophobic “you name it, I have it” phobic loony-tunes moi, this is somewhat of a seriously huge issue of gigantic proportions. My main focus of thought instantly shifted from being mesmerizingly seduced by the romanticism of an antiquated love story, to a now frantic attempt to figure out how to claw my way out of this confining enclosure, desperate to escape to the freedom of fresh air and outdoor green spaces.  With timed sensors dictating the opening and closing of each lifelike set, I had not an inkling of a clue as to when, or, most importantly, “if”, the doors would ever slide open again, frantically counting down the seconds until the audio clip and film ended, so that I would be able to bolt and escape.  Escape?  Escape to where?  The next room?  On to the next themed set?  There are only seven of them to get through, you know. 

Sweat cascading like rivers down my back, my breathing becoming more and more laboured, I honestly have to say all that I remember from my Historium interactive experience was scouting out the Exit signs and counting down the minutes until I was able to high tail it to freedom and park myself in the Historium’s 2nd floor Grand Beer Café’s panoramic terrace and swill back a few Belgian ales and calm my frayed nerves into a nirvana like comatose state.  A much needed beverage of the intoxicating kind, my Belgian Kriek worked its charm, as I spent the remainder of the day languishing in contended bliss.  No matter that it was only 11:00am in the morning, as neither a café au lait nor a double espresso would do the trick quite as well as a seductively soothing bubble bath for the mind.

It goes without saying that the Kid was appalled at her delusional Auntie’s undignified antics, rolling her eyes in disgust at the semi crazed escapades she once again was forced to endure - begging her mother never to let her travel with any one of her relatives, especially slightly lunatic, cuckoo, you know who, even if it did entail a barrel of laughs along the way – that is, until the next transatlantic journey.

Come traipse along with the Kid and I as we stumble into the past in medieval Bruges, where we literally came close to being trapped in the Middle Ages.  There’s always an adventure and a comical situation that we (me, actually) find ourselves in, rarely ever a dull moment….come discover travel from a uniquely different perspective…

Next week – where in Bruges do our pink-sneakered feet take us?  Stay tuned!!

You mean it's not free? Soda, vino or over-priced tap water?

Now that the Kid and I were comfortably settled into our Bruges hotel, our earlier setbacks virtually forgotten, it was time to lace up our sneakers and head out in search of fine Belgian cuisine and indulge in some moules, munch on a couple of frites and swill back a few bottles of cherry infused Kriek.  Luckily for us, our quaint hotel was located just a few metres off of the main square, an easy three minute traipse to cafés, shops and fine dining establishments catering to the indiscriminate tastes of tourist budget menus.  That is, if over-priced pizza, bread and tap water (huh?) qualify as fine gastronomic delicacies worthy of five-star glowing Michelin reviews.

Tummies grumbling, desperate to be fed anything that resembled food, be it stale crisps or unappealing rubber chicken, my niece and I would happily have been content to chow down on literally whatever at this point.  Reluctant to dine on plastic wrapped vending machine pre-packaged foodstuffs whilst miserably sequestered for hours upon end in a railway station, we had foolishly ignored our hunger pangs, instead envisioning a table laden with gourmet fare - a highly anticipated feast that we would treat ourselves to upon our arrival in medieval canal-lined Bruges.  What we hadn’t expected was to instead race into the very first restaurant that we stumbled across, regardless of the menu choices offered, anxious to sink our teeth into any type of grub.  And that is how we ended up in one of the denizens of random eateries that encircled the town’s main square, squished in like a sardine alongside the boatloads of other ravenous tourists. 

Quickly scanning the menu, I ordered a pizza Margherita, a ham and cheese stacked sandwich for the Kid and a lager for myself.  Mindful of the fact that soda costs an arm and a leg in Europe, more than double the price of vino at 5 Euro or more, I reminded Miss Niece that tap water is free, delicious and oh so yummy.  Too famished to protest the abject unfairness of her Coca-Cola-free lunch, le niece hungrily devoured her meal, washing it down with the free water. Oh, did I mention that tap water is free?  Well, apparently not, as this fine dining establishment had the audacity to charge us 2 Euro for the privilege of drinking regular water poured from a sputtering fawcett!  Had I been privy to the underhandedness of the shameless waiter who charged us for mere water, I would have gladly encouraged the Kid to order a Perrier or any other type of bubbling concoction, even le dreaded Cola at an exorbitant 5 Euros a pop, for that matter.

Leaving quite the unpleasant taste in our mouths, this initial welcome was not the most desirable of ways in which to acquaint ourselves with this quaint medieval town.  So, let this be a lesson to all of you would-be globe trotters.  Take the time to scout out prospective dining establishments and read the fine print on the menus, as in my haste to satiate our rumbling tummies, I perhaps had neglected to notice that even tap water was subject to a 2 Euro payment fee.  Nonetheless, I no longer objected to the Kid ordering the occasional Coca-Cola with her dinner, as hey, it could be worse, as she could instead be guzzling that oh so yummy over-priced common tap water by the truckloads, consequently breaking the bank and bankrupting me into a penniless existence. 

Come dine on gastronomic delicacies by washing it all down with some yummy, exorbitantly over-priced tap water, which costs a pretty penny or two, so why not indulge in some cheapo vino instead?  Come traipse around Europe with the Kid and I as we amble, meander and stumble on ahead in our quest to discover new found adventures.

Next week – where else in Bruges do our pink-sneakered feet take us?  Stay tuned!!

Stranded at the train station - languishing in Lille

The Kid was beside herself with glee, ecstatic that she wouldn’t have to endure le dreaded walking and aimless meandering around town for at least the next couple of hours, as we were instead scheduled to recline in comfortable leisure in a speeding train, heading to Bruges via Lille, France.  Little did we know then that our early morning departure was all in vain for we were destined to spend a good chunk of the day sequestered in a hustling and bustling train station, hapless prisoners subject to the whims of track breakdowns, repairs and cancelled trains.  Literally kicking our luggage along the curb, as we once again miserably schlepped our over-burdened bags to the station, Miss Spoiled Princess lamented her unfortunate predicament of having to trudge - one pink sneaker at a time - to the railway station. Why was her mean ol’ Auntie so damn frugal, unwilling to fork out a couple of Euro for the convenient luxury of a taxi ride?   Why couldn’t she instead be driving around Europe in chauffeured limos, jetting around in private jets and sailing the seas in luxurious yachts?  Like seriously, her cheapo Auntie has absolutely no qualms about dishing out several hundred of those colourful bills for the latest haute couture designer satchel, so why therefore scrimp on fast and efficient metered cabs?  Well, Kid, in my own defense….hey, hold on a minute here….who’s writing this post, you or I? 

Yikes!!  Now that I’m back on track here…I’ll just carry on with the rest of the story….

Even though we had to wake up at the crack of dawn in order to high tail it to the railway station, transfer trains in Lille for the short hour and a half long commute to Bruges, I was pleased as punch for having seamlessly plotted our journey, envisioning a noon-ish arrival in the medieval canal lined town.  What I hadn’t anticipated for, were the minor hiccups that every globe-trotter eventually encounters, the sort of roadblock that leaves one at the mercy of those mischievous gremlins of travel, delighted at being able to throw a wrench in your plans and trip you up a bit.  The travel gods must have been laughing it up at our expense, for today was our turn to miserably languish the day away, wasting endless hours sitting on the cold hard benches of Lille’s bustling railway station. 
It was too good to be true, the pair of us, effortlessly cruising into town, precisely on schedule, as per our meticulously detailed itinerary.  This was more our speed, luckless pawns in the untimely breakdown of a portion of this well-travelled corridor, the tracks requiring urgent repair, resulting in the cancellation of our 11:08am train.  With the next train departing at 1:08pm, we now had several hours to fritter the day away - not enough time in which to actually leave the railway station and explore this corner of France but way too much time in which to become expertly acquainted with the nooks and crannies of this transportation hub.  To be perfectly honest, I’d much rather be languishing in a quaint outdoor café, lunching on moule et frites and sampling the local brew in pretty as a postcard Bruges, than having to resort to mercilessly kicking the vending machines into spitting out a few cans of soda and a couple of packets of stale crisps in a gritty railway station.

And then, lo and behold, just when I thought that I’d heard it all, the Kid once again astounds and astonishes me, by uttering six words I never dreamed would effortlessly roll of her tongue by asking just one simple question – Auntie Nora, can we walk there?

Come travel with the Kid and I as we jump back into time to medieval Bruges, our arrival delayed due to the unforeseen complications of modern rail breakdowns.  Come hang out in railway stations, sit back, relax, read a magazine or two, as you wait for the next train to yet unexplored destinations en route to new adventures.

Next week – Still languishing in Lille?  Bruges?  Where do my pink-sneakered feet take me?  Stay tuned!!

Shops closed on Sunday? Looks like we're back to wandering, meandering and strolling!

Whether ambling, meandering, wandering or merely strolling, the Kid and I were doing what we do best, and that was walking.  Yes. Once again, our poor tuckered out tootsies were hoofing it across town, yet, this time, on the search for sustenance in a sleepy eyed French town, one, incidentally, that was locked and shuttered down on this Sunday evening.  Lacing up her sneakers, the reluctant niece hesitantly broached the prospect of perhaps hailing a taxi to whisk us to our destination, thus avoiding the dreaded aimless traipsing through yet another foreign ville.  In your dreams Kid, besides, how else is one to garner a sense for a not yet familiar location, randomly discovering pocketfuls of memories along the way?  So, it was on a late summer’s eve, that we schlepped (thankfully, sans le dreaded luggage!) up and down the deserted rues and avenues of this maritime port, not another soul or tourist in sight.  How could this be?  It was only 7:00pm, unquestionably early for hustling and bustling metropolises such as London and Barcelona, yet, eerily quiet on the desolately abandoned streets of Calais. 

So much for my long anticipated shopping excursion, constantly on the lookout for one of a kind European treasures, my purse strings itching to acquire whether a bauble, a trinket, a souvenir, or just about anything, actually.  Padlocked shops and locked doors instead greeted our inquisitive stares.  Disappointment mounting, anxious to indulge in a wee bit of retail therapy, we plodded on, hopeful that the next corner would lead to a welcoming storefront, eager to trade designer duds for hard-earned Canadian dollars.

And that is how we stumbled upon the Burghers of Calais.

Rodin’s Burghers, the six of them, their history dating back to 1347, proudly proclaimed their presence squarely in the center of the Ville, imposing bronze figures a testament to the perseverance of a town besieged under the brutality of Edward 111’s English army.  After more than a year long siege in which the townsfolk were literally starved into submission, six outstanding citizens of Calais chose to graciously offer their lives in exchange for the liberation of their fellow townsfolk, a selfless offer of hope that resonated with the British Queen, who miraculously, spared their lives.   

Quite the impressive history indeed, for this French shipping port, a parcel of land situated in a most desirable geographical location, a mere 26 miles across the Channel from Dover.  Even though Calais was completely re-built after having been virtually decimated during World War 11, it still retains a fragment of its ancient heritage, with its town hall Belfry considered to be an UNESCO World Heritage site.

With a little bit of knowledge gleaned and enough National Geographic digital moments to fill countless scrapbooks, the Kid and I trod on, tummies grumbling, in search of fabulously French gastronomic cuisine.  Trudging away from centre ville, we eventually stumbled across a row of assorted dining establishments, which, thankfully, were open for business, catering primarily to tourist menus and appetites.  Hopes dashed of savouring foie gras and other French delicacies, we eventually settled upon the classically Italian pizza Margherita, Coca Cola for the Kid and a pint of Guinness for myself. 

Note to self – Traditionally, shops remain closed on Sundays in the majority of French towns, except for certain designated tourist venues, so, if planning on spending a leisurely Sunday indulging to your heart’s content, do a bit of research beforehand, so as to avoid disappointment - a fact that I should have remembered and stored in the recesses of my mind, having traipsed through France countless times.  Once again, this seasoned globe-trotter seems to repeatedly delight in wandering the planet in a slightly clue-less manner, as if viewing the world for the very first time. Yikes!!

Come explore deserted rues and avenues as we discover the six Burghers of Calais and appreciate the stoic perseverance of the remarkable inhabitants of this French maritime port ….come stroll with us through history.

Next week – Bidding adieu to Calais en route to ventures unknown.

Sirens blaring, horns blasting.....our welcome to Hotel Meurice

Dejectedly plunking our burdensome baggage on the pavement, seconds away from unapologetically  kicking it to the curb and just walking away, le Kid and I were beyond fatigued, hopelessly lost somewhere amongst the criss-crossing rues and avenues of a sandy beached fishing port.  Mentally preparing ourselves for the not so remote possibilities of having to spend our first and only night in Calais sleeping on a park bench, fighting the squirrels for a couple of nuts and shuddering at the prospect of having to now scrap with the birds for lukewarm bath water, we were in quite the conundrum indeed.  It was le Kid who initially spotted the police cruiser parked at the far end of the deserted avenue, a beacon of hope to two stranded foreigners who were clearly incapable of getting from Point A to Point B without incurring some form of haphazard roadblock. 

Clearly convinced that we were beyond clued-out, the kind gendarmes pointed us in the correct direction, indicating that Hotel Meurice was located a mere hop, skip and a jump away, just around the corner from where we were currently standing.  Yikes!!  Who knew?  Note to self – try to remember to pack that “oh, so handy” map on future transatlantic sojourns.  After all, having to rely on pure instinct alone is not the most reliable or desirable method of arriving at your destination, that is, if you don’t mind spending the majority of your annual three week holiday traipsing around foreign lands in a discombobulated state of aimless wandering. 

Hopes dashed that she wouldn’t be escorted to the hotel in a fleet of “sirens blaring and horns blasting totally cool” (her words, not mine) patrol cars, my niece was on the verge of tears, crest-fallen that her “once in a lifetime chance” of joy-riding in such a vehicle had been quickly squashed by an “unbelievably mean ol’ Auntie”.  Like seriously? Just wait Miss Kid, you’re still young, plenty of time in which to possibly finagle a way in which to accomplish said goal.

Stepping foot in resplendently charming Hotel Meurice (5 & 7 rue Edmond Roche) the exterior façade of this three star guest house does not do justice to the quaint and homey warmth emanating from the interior of this gem of a find.  Located virtually in the centre of town, the hotel is an affordable luxury in the middle of a nondescript ville.  Greeted by the welcoming bienvenues of the hotel staff and a leashed rescue dog, our Calais digs were one of the unexpected highlights of our one night stay.  The grand old sweeping staircase invoked memories of the old-fashioned kind and was a comforting leap back into the tranquility of a by-gone era.

Checking into our upgraded suite (in retrospect, I believe that that the hotel staff took pity upon us, two weary sweat drenched wanderers in dire need of a hot bath and a warm bed), both the Kid and I gawked in disbelief at the luxuriousness of our palatial French salon, grateful to finally stretch out our limbs and dreamily languish – that is, at least until supper time and our frenzied search for dinner on a Sunday evening in a town with early closing hours.

Who says that meandering aimlessly for hours on end doesn’t have its perks?

Next week – Discovering Calais – Come traipse with us on adventures unknown as we amble up and down the avenues (yes, once again!) in quest of sustenance and National Geographic digital moments.

There's a shuttle bus? Who knew? Our marathon trek to Calais centre ville

Schlepping (yes, once again!) our over burdened baggage along the narrow walkway, confident that “le centre ville” is just a hop, skip and a jump down the road, Le Kid and I dutifully trudged along the barely trodden path, hoping beyond hope that the next step would finally lead towards civilization.   After all, we were merely following the arrows that pointed “vers le direction de ville”, guiding us to accompany their trail as indicated on “les tres helpful” signs plastered about the exit doors of the Calais Maritime ferry terminal.   So, who were we to question said signage?  Mind you, our first clue should have been that the directions didn’t list exactly HOW many kilometres town was situated from the ferry terminal or perhaps we merely failed to notice the distance indicated.  Details, actually, whatever, surely it couldn’t be “that” far now, could it?

The term “kicking your luggage to the curb” took on larger than life magnitude as we blindly stumbled along the walkway, suitcases in tow, two clueless Canucks - a slightly scatter-brained Auntie and a “know it all Kid”, plodding along a now busy motorway.  Yikes!!  Le walkway had somehow transformed itself into Le drag race, with speeding cars whizzing along the thoroughfare, an unsettling welcome to the outskirts of Calais, kilometres away from our desired destination.

You would think that I (yes, me), a seasoned traveller of more than 30 years of traipsing the globe and then some, would have figured out a quicker route from ferry terminal to town.  But then, the best of us inevitably trip up and either neglect to read signs properly or completely miss viewing the tell-tale indicators of easy transport, via the conveniently located shuttle-bus into town, situated a mere footsteps away from the Calais Maritime terminal.

Perhaps I’ll just chalk that momentary lapse in judgement to having imbibed in one too many flutes of bubbly on the ferry crossing across the channel.  Yes, a perfectly plausible and highly believable excuse, n’est-ce pas?  Yikes!!

Fatigued, cranky beyond belief, having now traipsed hundreds of footsteps along the concrete pavement into a mirage of a town, Le Kid close to bawling uncontrollably that her delusional pink-sneakered Auntie had led her down a path of “no return” to routes unknown, miles from the comfy hominess of Hotel Meurice, a destination we were unsure of ever hoping to reach anytime soon.

Hopping in a cab was no longer an option as it would be foolhardy for such a vehicle to abruptly screech to a halt and pick up two stranded passengers without incurring a multi-car pile-up in the process.  Definitely not the desired welcome to the sandy beached fishing port, a stay in the local hospital not our first choice of five star accommodation.  No, just best to trudge on and hope for the best.

Placing one pink sneaker ahead of the other, we finally made our way towards the outskirts of town, where we happened to spy a police cruiser snaking its way along the deserted avenues, perhaps on the lookout for morons like us, traipsing into Calais on foot, unaware that shuttle buses and taxis were a quicker form of transport into le centre ville. 

This is primarily one of the motivating factors of why I write this blog, in order to give other slightly clue-less globe-trotters a few helpful tidbits of information in the hope of enlightening them to not make the same unbelievably moronic choices on their travel sojourns as I have.

And, on that note, today’s Wednesday “helpful advice column for clue-less wanderers” signs off, as I dig in the archives for even more examples of aimless meandering, which I will certainly share with you in next week’s blog post.

Come travel with the Kid and I as we forgo the comfort and convenience of air-conditioned buses, choosing instead to hike along the edge of the motorway, cumbersome baggage in tow…..come travel with us to adventures unknown…

Next week – Leaving my pink-sneakered footprints all over Calais.  Stay tuned!!