Belgium and Paris for Christmas

  12/21-12/31 2014

The "tour Eiffel" was adorned with over 150,000 lights for the season so it was something not to be missed.  Brian hooked us up with buddy passes and we concocted a plan to holiday on the continent.  We decided to go over early and fly into Brussels since the flights looked wide open.  We didn't get on a flight the first day so we holed up in Atlanta until Sunday then got the last two seats on the plane. 

  I have an app on my phone that shows speed.  As we were travelling from Brussels to Paris, the Thalys high speed train was our only viable option. We topped out at 176 mph.  That is my fastest land speed record to date.  My girlfriend contracted the flu immediately upon disembarkation so she allowed no pics of her snotty self.  At this point she was not happy and my goal was to get to our destination and, 1.19 minutes later, we pulled up into Gare du Nord in Paris.  From there it was a 30 minute ride on the metro to the Villa Beaumarchais.  I have had the good fortune to visit Paris many times, approximately 7 as of this counting.  So the metro is a very comfortable experience, except when one is sick.  And it is cold.  But the weather in that part of Europe approximates our own this time of year so transition was not such the issue as the flu.

The view along the Tuileries and out towards the tower were typical winter with a flash of holiday festivities.  The Place de la Concorde was filled with a Christmas market and great sights and smells.   As my girlfriend recovered, we did light sightseeing and I developed a small cough.

Notre Dame was crowded as was the entire city.  We are apparently not the only folks to think Paris is a great holiday destination.  This is the line into Notre Dame.

From inside the Cathedral.

This is the Arc de Triomph, from a tour bus.  By now we were both sick and I tried to avoid the cold whenever possible.  It was at that point we went to the Musee d'Orsay, my favorite because it houses the work of my favorite painter, Monet.  I have no pics from inside because they are discouraged and I didn't wish to be that tourist.

This was Napoleon's sitting room inside the Louvre.  I ended up getting the full blown flu and Christmas Day found me bedridden in the city of Love.  The following day I forced myself to do the Louvre, knowing I would be inside most of the time.

  We had some grand meals in France but none this ornate.  This was also in the Royal Palace at the Louvre.

She is referred to as La Jaconde by the French.  What is remarkable about the Mona Lisa to me is that her eyes seem to follow you throughout the room.  But man, what crowds in the museums.

The Venus de Milo.

  This is Sacre Coeur atop Montmartre.  I love the top of the city.  In cold weather and sick, it is a chore to get there.  We climbed all the steps and did not opt for the funicular.

Next day we departed early from Paris and caught the Thalys back to Brussels where Brian and Ashley awaited at the airport and we also caught up with our errant bag that didn't make it with us to Paris.  In Bruges, a medieval city, we toured the ramparts and took in the sights.

Bruges was a place I had visited in 1988.  It has become quite the tourist destination now with the decline of the Euro and rise in the US dollar.  In fact the dollar was super strong against the Euro which made this trip possible.

This part of Belgium is like Holland.  Both low countries below sea level.

This is the happy group in the town center of Bruges.  Bruges was a one hour train ride from Brussels.  And speaking of the Belgian trains, I would like to mention how much I enjoy riding them.  The trains are cheap, efficient and comfortable.  And the small trains go up to 100 mph themselves.  And they are electric.  I fantasize about having them in the US but realize it will never occur because of our addiction to automobiles and fossil fuels. I wish most US citizens could travel to Europe and experience the efficiency of their rail travel network.  I commute to Maryville daily.  A train from downtown Knoxville to Maryville could get thousands of cars off the road.  But Americans cannot relinquish their cars so it doesn't happen.  How about a high speed train to Atlanta or Nashville?  Other cities embrace trains but in the South it is a cultural phenomena that escapes me.

The crowds were quite impressive. A weakened Euro means increased foreign tourism.

If you have seen the movie, "The Monuments Men" then you are familiar with this sculpture of the Madonna and child.  It was figural to the movie.  It is found in the Cathedral at Bruges.

Bruges dates back to the early 1100s.  And it shows in the architecture and iconography.

Soon we were off to Ghent, also figural in the movie, "Monuments Men".  Ghent is another medieval city with lots of sightseeing and nightlife.  They had their own version of Christmas market and bier garden outside of our hotel in the center of town.  Ghent was a 30 minute train ride from Bruges.

Finally feeling fully recovered, my girlfriend and I left Ghent and purchased a round trip ticket to the village of Ypres.  If that sounds familiar, it should.  Ypres was the center of action during World War 1 and I was anxious to see the museum and trench history.  Ypres was one of the highlights of the trip.  As you can see it is a quaint little European town with lots of architecture and scenery.  We got off the train and began walking through the city.  Within one half mile we were at the Cathedral that housed the WW1 museum.

(shrine to war dead in Ypres)

This is a view of the town of Ypres from atop the Cathedral.  We climbed many stairs to reach this area that overlooked the countryside which was the scene of hundreds of thousands of deaths during both World Wars.

This grand arch in Ypres is called  the Menin Gate,  famous for commemorating the war dead.  We were able to walk from one end of the city to the other with relative ease now that the flu was mostly behind us.  I have always been a student of the first World War since taking a class in college on Modern British history.  It has fascinated me for many reasons, not the least of which is the clash of cultures and economics that drove the conflict.  There were old regimes and modes of thinking that brought the world to its knees.  In the museums there are descriptions of several hundreds of the thousands of artists, writers and royalty that fell in this great human tragedy.  Men went up against machine guns and in one instance, at the first battle of the Somme, over 60,000 men fell victim to the new form of mechanized killing embodied by this relatively new device of mass extinction.  Armies went into war with horses and leather helmets only to die in droves before modernizing their respective armies for the most devastating of devices,  short range artillery shelling.  It was artillery which came to be know as the howitzers that reigned the most destruction upon armies in this conflict.  It was also there that the term "shell shock" came into being.

Probably the most poignant memory for me in the war department was an exhibit we saw in Bruges that showcased that city's participation in the war.  Bruges was occupied by the Germans for the majority of the war.  At the beginning, when the Germans were advancing on the periphery of the town, many local boys went out the meet the threat.  I am sure that in their minds, they would show those German boys what to expect and come home heroes after sending the hun packing.  One exhibit was photography of fourteen of those boys taken by a local after their deaths for identification purposes.  Many had their faces blown off by artillery shelling as the local doctor held their head by the hair.  Little did the Belgians know that war would last for five long and bloody years.  In the Somme, over 1 million men would die on both sides.  Most European countries involved lost 10 percent of their populace.  We can only imagine the long term cost of that war which, arguably, set the stage for the Second Conflict in 1941.

We caught the afternoon train back to Ghent and spend our final night with Brian And Ashley with a farewell dinner at Amadeus in Ghent. 

This is Brian getting part of his "Husband of the Year" award.  He is a good guy and it was nice to be vacationing with him and Ashley outside of the mountains.  Brian hooked us up with buddy passes which enabled us to do this trip and we are most appreciative.  Regarding his leg, it still swells up some and he isn't able to do a lot of walking but he can fly and improves monthly.   We were going to extend our vacation into Germany but the standby status flights were not looking promising so we left out of Brussels with these two and arrived New Years day in Atlanta.

In all it was a grand experience outside of the flu.  I haven't had the flu in decades so I suppose I was due.  They say it is particularly nasty this year and I believe it.  If something is going to happen, you know it will happen with me on a trip.  So goes the nature of travel with JQ.  Happy New year everyone.

           Follow @SouthHighlander