Thursday, December 15, 2016

Martin's 10 Useful Christmas Gifts/Stocking Stuffers for the Traveler

1.     Packing Cubes (pack-it Cubes)
Organize, and fold clothes in separate coloured cubes which pack together conveniently and are easy to identify when needed.  An essential travel item for my trips whether short or long.  The original ones were Eagle Creek, but now there are many brands. 

2.     Multi-plug with USB
Pretty much all of us travel with a phone, computer, or other devices that require charging or power.  The travel adaptor plug is a necessity, and a plug like this covers all continents and countries.  Most ideal is one with a USB plug-in like this

3.     Sarong
A sarong has so many uses.  It can be used as a towel for the beach, a sheet, a wet blanket to cool down on the hot nights, a skirt for the ladies, a cover-up for changing, a headdress to protect from sand.  Very lightweight and versatile, it can cut down on requiring too many other items.

4.     Money Belt/Body Wallet
I find that a money belt is a necessity for keeping passport/credit cards/cash safe while traveling.  One of the best I have found is the Lifeventure Dristore Body wallet because it has a waterproof section.

5.     Saxx Underwear
Underwear for him.  The most comfortable underwear I have found for traveling.  It is quick drying, so can hand wash easily, and has flaps to keep all the man bits in place and as a bonus, they don’t ride up.   Comfort is very important.

6.     Quick Dry Pack Towel
Regular towels take up a huge amount of space in a backpack, and when they get wet, take a long time to dry.  A good option is a thin, lighter weight towel that dries fast and packs very small.  I can’t say it’s as soft and absorbent as a regular towel, but a very good option based on size and weight. They come in all different sizes.

7.     Dry Bag
A decent, light-weight dry bag can protect your electronics or clothes from major downpours in rainy season, gives security when traveling on boats, or protection when taking part in other water activities.  Give the traveler piece of mind.  This is a good brand, but there are many.

8.     7 Wonders Duel or Carcassonne Games
The standard game people take on travels is a deck of cards, but why not step it up a notch.  A great strategy game is this amazing 2-player game called 7 Wonders Duel.  It can be packed down to a small little bag, and can pass many hours while waiting for buses or trains. 
Another great option for a multi-player game is Carcassonne, which also packs quite small. Can be played by 2 to 6 players.

9.     Lonely Planet eBook
A travel guide is important for any traveler, and having it at the touch of your fingertips sure helps.  Buying a Lonely Planet book online will make a great gift.  While it recommends hotels and restaurants in many locations, I find it ideal for things to see and do, but most important, provides maps of important locations when the traveler arrives somewhere unknown.

10.  Battery for Recharging
Battery packs are getting smaller and smaller, and more powerful.  A cell phone should never run out of juice with one of these.  They come in many different sizes.  Usually a bigger one is more powerful, but when traveling, weight and size is definitely something you need to be aware of, so there is a balance of power vs. size/weight.
  Best Portable Battery Chargers

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mozambique Reunion, Chiswick, England

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Jennie, Jenny, Andy, Sean and Michelle on dessert
We met the MegaBus just after midnight in downtown Brussels in the dark and rain.  I think we both slept most of the way through Belgium and France, but our bus almost missed the booked ferry back to the UK.   Greeted by the white cliffs of Dover, we promptly fell back to sleep for the final leg back in to London.  It was quick Tube ride to Chiswick Park and we knocked on Jennie and Sean's door around 8AM.  Jennie and Sean were the couple we met getting on a minibus in Swaziland bound for Maputo, Mozambique.  It was a chance meeting, but we got along so well that we spent the better part of the next two weeks together before parting ways.  We had been in touch for some time about getting together back in London, and all of us were excited to see the others.

It's always very interesting seeing people whom you've met in one traveling location and then seeing them in their normal lives.  Lots had changed for them, as they've since been married, found a lovely home, and were now expecting their first child. 

Sean tasting some Belgian Trappistes
Their hospitality was second to none, and since they really understood what it is like traveling, they knew what we needed in a home atmosphere.  We had plenty to talk about, and really enjoyed a day catching up around the Chiswick area.  Their generosity was spectacular and we hope to return the favour in Canada one day soon.

But, the Mozambique reunion was not complete.  That night we were expecting a visit from Jenny and Andy.  Another couple the four of us met on a minibus heading up to Vilanculos.  Jenny and Andy were a real scream, and we were all anticipating a night full of belly laughs!!  And so it was.  A delicious lamb curry meal, with a selection of cakes.  Complete with plenty of wine with dinner, and a Belgian beer tasting for dessert.  I had brought a selection of my favourites back for everyone to try (not knowing that Jennie was pregnant - sorry).

Biscuit, J-Lo and Martin at the pub
What a fun night we all had.  It's good to laugh so hard like that every so often, but I must say that the next day wasn't too pleasant for most (except maybe Jennie).  It was a quick visit, but we hoped to see them all again during our time in England.

While in London, we also caught up with old friends Biscuit, and Bartlett (J-Lo).  These guys had been working hard on various jobs to do with setting up the Olympics.  The time was now coming close and we were happy they could spare a little time.  Michelle's school friend Steve Downes also made a trip to Balham.  All pub meetings over some beers as it goes, but really great to catch up.   We even managed a curry with Steve which was oooohhhhh so good.  These are all friends we knew we would see again on our planned visits to London, but there's never enough time as you would like!   *Stub

Friday, July 13, 2012

Brussels Sprout, Belgium

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Michelle at the Shiny Atomium
In true Thomas fashion, he rearranged his work slightly so that he would be able to drive us back to Brussels in the morning of our departure, allowing us the full day to tour around the city before our midnight bus back across the Channel.  We will miss spending time with them!!

It was a rainy day, and he felt bad dropping us out in the rain, but we've lived through all kinds of inclement weather, that this storm didn't phase us.  Our chosen drop-off point was at the Atomium, a very cool looking 102m high building that was built for the 1958 World Fair.  It is built in the shape of a iron atom, but enlarged about 165 billion times, and looks very space age in it's surroundings.  We were too early to get inside, so tackled our way into town after looking around the massive atom.  I say tackled, because usually these things are easy in a modern town, but sometimes modern machines and computer ticket counters really fail you.  We put our money in the machine, and it didn't spit out a ticket, even with the help of a tram driver.  It had taken all of our change, and no one around to give us more change.  Even though the driver had seen us failing at this approach, there was nothing he could do to help, so we were left pleading with another driver of the correct tram to help us out.  We did eventually get in to town, and went to track
Guild Halls in the Grand Place
Flower stalls in the Grand Place
down the office to get our money back, not out of need, but out of principle.  What a farce!!

It didn't put a damper on Brussels though, and after dropping our luggage in a locker at the train station, we were ready to tackle 15 hours in Brussels.

As per our usual, we did our own walking tour of the old town.  Some of the early highlights were the covered shopping streets and arcades, the busy restaurant street with plenty of tables out into the pedestrian area, and the Tintin mural (as the Tintin writer/artist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name of Hergé was Belgian). 
Drinking from Manneken Pis
Along our walk we rounded the corner in to the Grand Place, our jaws dropped to the floor.  After seeing so many beautiful and stunning buildings all around Belgium, this square seemed to be even more spectacular, and on a grander scale.  There was a flower market in the centre, which brought a lovely splash of colour to it all. There was the 96m tall Hotel de Ville (city hall),  Maison du Roi (King's House) which now houses the museum, on either side, and all the guildhalls filling in the rest.  Very impressive sight to say the least!  We enjoyed just sitting in the square and watching the world go by!

But, our walking tour would continue, fueled by some more delicious Belgian Fries with mayonnaise - double fried of course.  It was the tiny little statue called Manneken Pis at only 61cm tall, that drew the biggest crowd around it.  This statue of a little boy urinating was created in 1618, and is the most famous in the country.  It was funny watching the large crowds jockey for position to take a photo in front of him.  Apparently, his costume is changed a few times a week, and he has a few hundred different
Scaffolded Palace of Justice - see the graffiti?
outfits.  Funny stuff, and of course, I had to get the obligatory picture under the 'pee'!

Up on a plateau above the old town sits the palace, book-ending the Brussels Park with the Parliament.  A stately building for sure, but apparently not used by the Belgian royal family as a residence - just a spare home I guess.   Walking along the Regentschapsstraat through the museum district, you have some great views over the old town.  The Mont des Arts creates a perfect foreground for a photo of the old town.  At the end of the street is the huge Palace of Justice.  This massive place was almost completely covered in scaffolding on the front side right up to the dome.  I don't know if I've ever seen a building completely covered in the ugly scaffold quite like this.  One thing that stumped me though was above the scaffolding and high up on the dome.  Somehow, someone had climbed up there and done some huge street art/graffiti on the beautiful dome.  Shocking for sure, but how on earth did they get up there??  Take a look at the picture!!

The daylight was coming to an end, but our bus was not until midnight.  We decided to plant our
Mont des Arts in front of old town Brussels
selves in the Grand Place and watch dusk approach and the lights come on around the square.  We sat on the steps of the beautiful King's House (Maison du Roi), with some delicious Belgian Trappiste beers from the supermarket.  Many others seemed to have the same idea, as there were groups of people having a few drinks all around the square, and some sitting in the middle.  There was, however, enough space in the middle for some brave soul to get down on his knee and propose to his unsuspecting girlfriend.  Of course, many people quickly noticed and cheered once he announced her positive answer!  As they enjoyed an embrace in the square, a direct beam of sunlight shone right on them.  Somebody was watching!!

Beers on the steps of Maison du Ro
A nice way to finish our day, but what did we need to take back from our fabulous trip to Belgium......  well, chocolate and beer of course!!!  But, thankfully, no sprouts from Brussels!  *Stub
Grand Place at dusk

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Belgium's Fourth City 'Ghent', A Hidden Gem

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The main canal in Ghent towards Sint Micheilbrug
Ghent seems to be the forgotten Belgian city, sandwiched between Brugges, Brussels and Antwerp, but I think it is a little hidden gem.  We hopped on a train, and were planning a single day trip to Ghent, trying to hurriedly see all the sights.  Looks like we picked one of the worst days possible to see the city, as they were setting up for the biggest festival of Belgium, to take place in the next week.  So, we saw some fabulous architecture, and wonderful churches, but all blocked by scaffolding, stage construction, and big trucks unloading and the building blocks.  But, we were able to see past the construction zone and visualize how beautiful the city would be on a normal day.  And possibly how much fun it would be during the festival when hundreds of thousands of people descend upon the city for open air concerts. 

The Gravensteen Castle
The city is based upon some canal networks that head out to sea.  The Gravensteen, a 12th century medieval castle is right in the heart of town, standing dominantly!  It has been restored and is an impressive sight.  Among the beauty of the other ancient buildings in town, you can't help but notice that there are 4 massive church/cathedrals within a short two block section in the market area of town.  It is a row of huge towers and striking religious structures.  The amount of time and money that must have been spent to build this little stretch of religion would be astronomical.

St Baafskathedraal, the cathedral contains "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb".  Painted in 1432 is
Three of the Big Towers
the most famous piece of Flemish art in Belgium and is on display in the cathedral (for an entrance fee).  Too high of a price for me to see a single piece of art, no matter how famous.

The 14th century Belfort, one of the group of Belfries that are all Unesco World Heritage Sites, would offer a commanding view from the tower, but too high of a price once again.

St Niklaaskerk, and Sint Michielsplein, are just plain big churches, and surround a few of the market squares.  All making for quite the view.  Sint Michielspein is actually across the ancient bridge, and from the bridge you can see the waterfront views of Graslei and Korenlei, names for the waterfront on each side of the canal.  These are some of the best buildings in town, but also where all the stages were being set up.
Korenlei waterfront

Our day consisted of plenty of walking, an unhealthy lunch of 'Oh so good' Beglian fries with mayonaisse, buying some lovely chocolates from the myriad of chocolate shops around town, and seeing a massive cannon.  A strange site in town, but the cannon nicknamed Dulle Greit, was a 5m long gun, that was built to fire 250kg cannonballs.  Luckily, this gun was never put to the test.

Ghent is a hidden gem indeed, and a must see on the tour of Belgium's Big Three Cities, which we figure should be The Big Four!!  *Stub
Dulle Greit - 5m long cannon

Michelle at Korenmarkt

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Amsterdam and Other Dams, Holland

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Stiffler and Martin in Amsterdam
Borrowing a car from Kim, we hit the road in search of Amsterdam.  We have visited Amsterdam before, but on this return, we were strictly going to visit our friend Steef Fleur (or Stiffler), whom we met in Vietnam, then traveled with in China, Tibet and Hong Kong.  Stiffler had spent some time in Brazil, but we were happy to find her home in Amsterdam.

We arrived in the afternoon, and basically just had enough time to walk through town, before meeting Stiffler.  I do love the feel of it, love the look of it, and it's just nice walking through the city.  It has a relaxed atmosphere, and doesn't feel like a big city.

It was great to meet up with Stiffler - it's been about 6 years since we saw her last.  We caught up of course, and made a lovely dinner at her place, and met her boyfriend.  A funny part of the night was when we couldn't find a pump for the air mattress, and each had to take turns blowing it up manually.

A nice breakfast, and that was it.  A short visit, but well worth the drive.  We decided to take a scenic route home, and after The Hague and Rotterdam, we turned towards the coastline, and followed the
water down to Zealand.  In this area, there are huge dam and dike structures to control against
Protective Coastal Dams in Zealand
flooding in the lowlands of the Netherlands (which is pretty much all of it!.  They control the amount of water that is let in, and out of the delta.  I think one of the dams was actually about 8km long, which you can drive across.   There are also plenty of modern wind farms along the coast, along with a few remaining  traditional style windmills.

Down on Zealand, there were a couple of very picturesque little towns.  Middelburg and Vlissingen had a lot of character, with old style architecture built around clean canals.  There were some large sailboats in Middelburg, parked outside people's houses.  A nice lifestyle considering they are inland from the coast, but still have access to get their sailboats out on the ocean!!  A great drive, but a quick trip to Holland.  Back to Belgium!!   *Stub
Sailboats in the Canal in Middelburg

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Parties and Ships, Antwerp, Belgium

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Riya and Frans, at birthday party
We hurried back from the Ardennes on the Saturday afternoon, as there was a big occasion to attend.  Thomas' father, Frans, was turning 60, so there was a party for him that night.  I helped Thomas with others to set up in the afternoon, but I had no idea what to expect for the evening.

Michelle and Kim dressed up in style and looked gorgeous.  We arrived to find family and friends of about 60 or 70 strong gathering for champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the garden of Thomas' mother Riya's school.  Live music and meeting the family, we were then whisked in for dinner.  Now, we were expecting a smallish group party, maybe a BBQ or something, but what we got was a fabulous 3 course meal with amazing sea food, meats and delicious desserts.  It was pretty much like a wedding feast, and it was wonderful. 

Thomas climbing down into the hold
After dinner, there were some speeches, dancing to a live DJ, and plenty of wine and Belgian Beers.  Michelle and Kim even took a turn bar-tending, and dancing a waltz in the kitchen.  It was a fun night meeting a lot of the family, and we were so grateful to be included in the celebrations.
Michelle and Thomas on Bright Ocean

The following day, Thomas was excited because his brother-in-law Gunther, had finally invited him aboard a cargo ship for a tour.  Turns out that Antwerp has one of the largest inland harbours in the world, and massive ships load and unload their cargo here daily.  We boarded the steel ship Bright Ocean, and turns out to be a Burmese ship.  The Burmese crew were ever so nice and friendly, which is true to form from our experience in Burma.  We were able to climb into the hold, which was a rather scary 10m ladder down through a hole.  It is a massive space down there, and can hold hundreds of tons of steel.

We were able to tour around the whole ship including down into the engine room, control room and bridge.  The engine was massive and interesting, and the first officer actually gave us a good explanation of things on the bridge.  Really interesting time on the boat, and possibly a chance we won't have again.

After a couple of nights of more fabulous dinners, we went to watch Thomas' band practice.  Translated to English, the band's name is "Tight Pants", and they play just to have some fun with friends.  Thomas plays lead guitar and we enjoyed watching the practice in their fancy practice room, while having a couple of drinks on the couches!  A good second best to not actually being able to see a real gig with them!!   *Stub
Thomas and the massive engine
Thomas at the engine room controls - Bright Ocean

Friday, July 06, 2012

Relaxing at the "Cabin", Baraque de Fraiture, Ardennes, Belgium and Luxembourg

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Kim and Thomas at the Stone Cabin in Baraque de Fraiture
Kim's parents own a beautiful, old stone house in the Ardennes, Southeastern Belgium.  Thomas and Kim fancied a couple of days away at the 'cabin' on the weekend, so we packed some groceries, beer and wine, and cruised to Baraque de Fraiture, settling in nicely to the cosy cabin.  It was a beautiful old stone house, and quite large for a 'cabin'.

The weather forecast was poor, with high chances of rain, but somehow, we missed it all.  We were able to eat our breakfasts and dinners out in the garden with views over the largest of Belgium's hills (not really that big actually),  and do some walking.  The four of us went out for a few hours of fresh air and enjoyed some of the lovely countryside with fresh smelling wildflowers and horses with some pretty shaggy manes covering their eyes!  We had views back over our little village, and also of the local ski hill,
With Thomas inside the cabin
which I must say wasn't that impressive - I think I learned on hills bigger in Canada!!

In the afternoon, we went on a a small road trip.  As with everything in Belgium, it was only 30 minutes to the Luxembourg border and then on to the picturesque town of Clerveaux.  Built on a bend in the river, the town is situated beautifully in the valley, with the castle and church holding a dominant position in the centre of town.  For me, it was exciting to add another country to my 'visited' list.  It was pleasant afternoon walking around, and even up to the huge monastery at the top of the valley.  Luxembourg was how I pictured it….  rolling hills of green, animals, and interesting architecture.

We bought some delicious meats that night, and had a large BBQ.  We also managed to try some
The Church at Clervaux
horse meat, that is quite common in Belgium, and pretty tasty to say the least!  Fire, games and beers finished out a relaxing night.

In the morning, we were on our way back to Antwerp, but had to stop along the way at what is billed as the "smallest city in the world" - Durbuy, Belgium.  Again, a fleeting visit, but what could you expect from a town so small!!  I guess back in 1331, the village had all the makings of a city - a castle, a police station, and a courthouse, so it was granted the status.  I don't think it's grown much since then, and probably never will because the locals want to stay the smallest!!  Just a cluster of cobblestone streets and quaint houses, but tons of tourists and activities around.  We saw plenty of people canoeing down the river, past the Tourelles castle.  Most getting stuck on the rocks in front, and trying to figure out what to do next!!   *Stub

Thursday, July 05, 2012

In Brugges (not quite like the movie), Belgium

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View from the Belfry
A day in Brugges, and hopefully it doesn't turn out like the movie!!!  We borrowed a car and drove down to the outskirts of Brugges, as with everything in Belgium, it was only an hour away.  Finding free parking for the day, we walked into the old town area across the drawbridge, and through what seemed like old city wall battlements.  Greeted by a row of old style windmills, mounted on the top of small hills.  Walking up to the base of the windmills, you get a view over the old town, and a little taste of what our day will be like.
The entire town of Brugge is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, basically a living museum.  From the small hills, we could see all the interesting towers, belfry, church spires, etc that are buried in the centre of the old city.  The old town is really stunning, and we enjoyed walking
A view down to Markt, from the Belfry tower
along the canals, and seeing the architecture.  Lunch was a of the picnic variety, and we enjoyed on the edge of the canal.
Making our way in to the main square - Markt square, we were disappointed as there was big market going on, and all kinds of trucks were parked in the square, with fast foods and such.  You couldn't really get nice photos with all these ugly trucks around.   Turns out, this market is only on once a week, and by the time I had waited in line, then climbed the 366 steps up the 83m tall Belfry tower, the trucks were pulling away, clearing out the Markt square.  I'm pretty sure this tower is the one where (in the movie "In Brugge") the guy jumps out of the tower to warn his friend about the boss' arrival in Brugge.  It's pretty high, so I could imagine this making quite an impact!!  You get views 360deg
Stadhuis in the Berg
around Brugge, seeing all the orange roofs, stepped gables, and canals around town.  You can even see the modern style wind farms in the distance, compared with the old style windmills in town.  Once again, I was a bit disappointed in Brugges. You climb all the way to the top of the wonderful tower, and all around the window area, they've installed a new, but tight meshed cable system for protection.  I can understand that they need protection for people and objects, but having a nice big camera, I wasn't really able to take any decent photos without getting cable close up in my photos.  People with small point and shoots were fine, as their camera lens would fit through the holes!!  Also, just from a visual standpoint, you cannot really see the scenery clearly, as there is all this cable.  There must be a better way!!
Painting Brugge
But I digress......   Another beautiful square is the Berg.  This is where Belgium's oldest Stadhuis (city hall) is located, and it is an immaculate, intricate building.  It's been added on to many, many times, but is very impressive and takes a commanding stance in the square.  We treated ourselves a little and took a boat trip around the canals!!  Under the old bridges, behind the buildings, seeing little nooks and restaurants tucked along the canal, you really get a different perspective of the town.  Then we walked to some of the more picturesque places along the route.
We finished our day in Brugge in an absolute monsoon.  The heavens opened as we hustled back to our free parking spot.  We didn't make it, and followed the rivers of water, a bit soggy, to the car.  After all these wonderful shops, we couldn't find one open to hide from the rain.
MMMmmmmm...... Chocoholic
But, it's amazing really how many chocolate shops, and chocolatiers that are actually in Brugges.  Pretty much every street had a chocolate shop, or multiple ones next to each other - how do you possibly choose.  With pralines, marzipan, cuberdons, sweets, you name it, they had it!  We especially liked the one called Chocoholic!!  And next to those were Belgian waffle stands!  It's a very gastronomic country - we have no idea how all the locals stay slim!!  *Stub

Brugge streets from the Belfry tower

Michelle in the Markt square

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Throwing Hands and Tasting Beers in Antwerp, Belgium

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Antwerp Train Station
Now based in England, we had planned to do a few trips around Europe, hopefully meeting some old friends, and also catching up again with friends that we met in Africa.  We had thrown around ideas of going to Frankfurt, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Barcelona, Sweden, Munich, Belgium, Amsterdam, as we had met some great people who live in those locations.  Well, we didn't have time for all of them which is a real shame.

In Namibia, when we boarded the second half of our overland truck trip from Cape Town to Livingstone, Zambia, we met a great Belgian couple named Thomas and Kim.  We really got on well together, and enjoyed many good chats late into the evenings over some drinks.  We had kept in touch, and made a plan to head to Antwerp, Belgium to stay with them.  We couldn't believe our luck, finding that a cheapo bus company called
Dinner with Kim and Thomas in their garden
Megabus actually now traveled all the way to Brussels, using the ferry.  We got a good price for one way (25 pounds), but the return trip was only a staggering 4 UK pounds!!  How can they possibly do that, as it includes the ferry.  We jumped at the bus tickets, figuring that we had been on so many buses in Africa, how could this be any worse than that.  And, our usual motto is "we have more time than money"!!!   Well, the bus ride was seamless, pleasant and comfortable.  We didn't have to share our seats with any others, there were no chickens or goats on the bus, and the bus was modern and new.  And, most importantly, the driver drove safely and carefully!!  Such a difference from our cramped, hair raising journeys in Africa!!!
The boat ride was great too, as we left with a nice view of the white cliffs of Dover, and seagulls hovering, and stunt flying along beside us, hoping for some treats!!

Michelle in Grote Markt, with Stadhuis and Throwing Hand Statue
Arriving in to Brussels, it was actually an hour early, so it gave us a chance to look around briefly before meeting Thomas.  He was stunned to see us sitting, waiting for his arrival at the planned meeting spot, even though he was early!!!  And we drove back the 45 minutes to their home of Antwerp, where we met up with Kim and saw their beautiful home.  They had been working on renovating this four storey house on their own and had done a spectacular job.  Still more work to do, but what they had done so far was beautiful.  We were so lucky to be welcome to such a place!!

Our first of many delicious meals with Kim and Thomas in their back garden, was enjoyed with some Belgian beers.  Belgium is famous for it's Tripel and Trappiste style beers that are brewed by the monks.  They are very strong beers 8, 9, even 11%, and oh soooooo tasty!!
Hmmmmm...... which Belgian beer to choose?
The best way to get around Antwerp is by bike, and we were able to borrow a couple for touring around the town and gothic architecture.  The train station is stunning both inside and out, and had a massive underground 'bike' parking lot.  Michelle also liked the fact that in the train station, all she could smell was chocolate.  Looking down, she noticed a chocolate fountain below for a snack stand.  In the area near the train station, you notice a large community of Jews.  With the black coats and hats, and the beards an/or two long locks of hair.  It turns out that in this area, is the largest diamond cutting industry in the world, with 80% of the world's uncut diamonds passing through here.

We continued down along the pedestrianized shopping street, checking out the buzz of the city, and the hordes of shoppers.  Then to the Grote Markt, which is the main square of town.  On one side is the Renaissance style Stadhuis (city hall) built in 1565.  The picturesque guildhalls line the rest of the square.  Also, Belgium's largest cathedral is just off the side of the square.

Biking the St. Annatunnel with perspective
Antwerp's name stems from a legend.  A giant named Druon Antigoon lived at the bend in the river and forced passing ships to pay a toll.  Those who did not pay would lose their hand.  Along came a Roman warrior named Silvius Brabo who killed the giant, chopped off the giant's hand and threw it in the river.  The Flemish term for hand throwing is Hand werpen, and therefore, the name Antwerpen morphed from this.  The statue in the centre of the Grote Markt is of a man throwing a hand.

Through tons of other wonderful buildings we also crossed under the river in the 572m long St. Annatunnel.  A pedestrian and biking tunnel built in the 1930's, that seems to disappear into a pinpoint in the centre in a long perspective.  It is flanked on each end by old wooden escalators, that you flip your front wheel sideways, and bring your bike up or down each end.
MAS museum
We also managed to visit the modern styled MAS museum.  Not in the mood to cruise around the museum, we just made our way to the top floor for views over the old city, and docklands to the North.  The museum had interesting curvy windows on all side, giving an interesting effect.  The museum was just past the sailor's quarter and the red light district.  Although similar to Amsterdam's red light district with girls sitting in windows, it is far smaller, but does have a legalized large brothel in the centre that apparently has a police station in it!!

In our evenings, we spent some quality time with Kim and Thomas.  We had fabulous meals, and I made it my mission to try as many of the tripels and trappiste beers that I could.  We had such a nice time just hanging out with them.  On one evening we went for a ride with them to a run-down commercial site which is now used as a 'summer' pub.  On the way there, they showed us Cogels-Osylei, a street where there was an architectural competition many years ago, and it is full of interesting and sometimes strange tall mansions.  Might be too many sculptures for my liking, but the houses were massive!  The pub was basically a warehouse, but it was busy and we enjoyed some time with their friends.  It's always good to hang out with locals at their local establishments!!  *Stub

Martin biking near Antwerp Cathedral
At the summer pub with friends

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Seeing a Torch and a Biscuit, Solihull, England

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England has been all about catching up. Hamish was someone we popped in on on our way back from the north. He was the organiser of the "Kayak the Zambezi" Festival we happened upon in Livingstone, Zambia, last October. Starting at the amazing Victoria Falls we rafted the river on the 
With Sally, ..., ..., Andrea, Tamsin, and Ruben
safety raft for the kayakers for a whole week and had the best, best time. To check out our blog of the festival click here. Anyway, Hamish was in good spirits in spite of being crazy busy planning this year's festival which sounded even bigger and better than before (hard to beat).  It was great to see another friendly face from our travels who could relate to our experiences!

Back in Worcestershire it was more visiting with friends: this time Andrea and Sally who I did my PhD with years ago at Warwick University. Great to see them with their lovely, obedient kids and watch their developing personalities. Andrea and Sally were on form and I was pleased that they haven't changed a bit.

Crowd waiting to see the Olympic Torch in Solihull
That same day we continued on to Katie and Simon's in Solihull.  Katie is/was my best and longest-standing friend. I've known her since I was 5 years old - a long time ago now!   **Mush

After a brief discussion, it was evident that Michelle fancied some wine with her good friends, and that we were going to spend the night.  It was a fun evening for sure, and quite late, as we were catching up until about 2AM.  We made a brash decision to all wake up early and go to watch the Olympic Torch relay as it was passing through Solihull about 7AM on the Sunday morning.  Waking each other up, we wondered why we had made this choice, as we were all on about 4 hours sleep and quite hungover!

Walking to the relay location, we seemed like we were the only ones, and we made jokes about the 'hordes' of people that we would have to push through.  Well, as we turned onto the main road, there
The Olympic Torch - not sure of the runner!
were actually hordes of people, all here at 7AM on a Sunday.  What great spirit from everyone, and gives us a good feeling about the upcoming Olympics.

We were in for a big surprise though, as while we were waiting, Michelle turned around to stroke a dog behind us, looked up and saw that it was my good friend Matt (Biscuit) from London, standing there behind us with his parents.  We had no idea he was in Solihull, no idea his parents happened to live a block from Katie and Simon, and as it turns out, they were out partying until 2AM at a wedding the night before also, and also hungover!  The stars really had to align for this chance meeting to take place, and what a great surprise it was!

Well, the torch did pass us eventually, and it was a bit of a blur.  The initial party vehicles passed, and then probably only about 10 seconds of viewing, but everyone was in such good spirits, cheering, high-fiving, etc.  But, we were still in shock about meeting Biscuit; it was a bit surreal.  We had breakfast at Biscuit's parents place, and it was great to meet them for the first time.

Simon, Michelle, Biscuit, Katie, Dad and Mum Biscuit in Solihull
After a bit of rest on the Sunday, we were off to Ledbury.  Snaking our way through some beautiful countryside, and past the Malvern Hills.  We managed to find our way close to Catriona's house.  Catriona is a friend that Michelle lived with in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, while she was doing here PhD.   Catriona now lives in a beautiful converted barn that is so her style.  We had a lovely afternoon walking in the woods, eating a fabulous lunch she prepared, and mainly just catching up with her. 

Back to the chance meeting - this is such a small world,  I love when stuff like this happens!!!   *Stub

With Catriona and her barn conversion