Thursday August 8th – Tuesday August 13th

Thursday was a long day of travel, having woken at 2:30am to be at the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan for a 6:30am flight. What a treat it was, though, to spend time at the new international terminal in Baku! The stylish design and modern architecture made me feel as if I were in a museum for modern art and technology. I recall seeing a sign of where I needed to go, and yet I stood there facing a blank wall; a moment later, that “wall” swished open Star Trek-style to reveal the desired destination. Now if only I could take a transporter rather than these long flights!

Six hours later I was in Paris for lunch with Patricia, followed by an all-too-brief hourlong ride on the TGV to the eastern border with Belgium, and finally a 15-minute drive with my friends to their home. What a treat to be welcomed with a home-cooked meal and a selection of all of my favorite Belgian beers! I slept well…

Friday, August 9th: Home Away From Home

I came to Belgium in order to visit my penpal of forty years, Nadine, and her family. Over four decades, I have visited several times and seen quite a lot of the country: from the beaches along the north coast (Nieuwpoort, Ostend, De Haan), to world war historical sites (Ypres, Tyne Cot), big cities and university towns (Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent), and the home of Westvleteren, Belgium’s best beer (St Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren). My favorite memories, though, are from the times spent with family, cycling along the rivers or visiting in their homes. Belgium is a welcoming place.

With the best chocolate, the best beer, and such a great variety of places to see, Belgium is the best kept secret in terms of vacation spots. Why take the chunnel, when you can leave England from the white cliffs of Dover and enjoy a ferry crossing to Ostend? And if it’s a warm summer’s day, don’t rush off to Brugge for your chocolate just yet; instead, take time to rent a bike and cycle along the piers of Ostend to the old casino and back (link to VisitFlanders site).

On this trip, though, we kept the sightseeing to a minimum in order to enjoy friends and family time together. On this Friday, we spent the morning with Nadine’s parents, Annie and Urbain, an afternoon at the home of her brother-in-law Mark and his wife Mieke (who provided the most delicious profiterols, eclairs, mousse and coffee), and the evening with Nadine’s son Tom, his wife Janneke, and children Brent and Fran. Tom is working in consulting, but could easily have been a chef, given the creative and delicious meals he prepares.

All of the homes that I visited were built or modified by the families together, and these are the best kind of homes — you can feel the love and effort from everyone working together. How wonderful to see the changes over time, and more wonderful to experience the constancy of it all.

(PS: Full disclosure — it was the wrong ball!!)

Saturday, August 10th

Ah, at long last — our pilgrimage to St Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren, for their delicious Westvleteren beer (12deg). I believe you can order it online now, as they need to keep up with the times, but there is nothing like making the effort to go to the abbey directly. It is very much a worthwhile experience.

We managed to squeeze in a lovely visit at the home of friends Dorine and Patrick… I need to get our group photo from the person who took it, and will update the site as soon as I can. In the meantime, thanks to Dorine and Patrick for their hospitality and gracious listening to my first recount of this trip-around-the-world. And PS for Patrick – next time I will include more photos of Fiji for you (lots of rugby there!).

Belgium is a delight for foodies, and dinner was no exception with our visit to O’Hazar in Menen (link to their website). Delicious food and a lovely presentation, with a wonderful surprise at the end (waffles with ice cream and caramel sauce)..oh yum! The name of the restaurant, by the way, is derived from “au hazard”, meaning “by chance, the good fortune of finding this place”… How true!

Sunday, August 11th

In response to all of the wonderful meals that I have been given so far, I requested a heavier diet of exercise on the daily menu… and what better place than Ghent, a university town that is wonderful to stroll through.

Ghent Cathedral, by the way, bears a striking resemblance to Notre Dame of Paris. The Cathedral plans to contribute and is offering its support in the reconstruction of Notre Dame (article link).

Time for a rest and a lesson in Belgian… One (just one) successfully repeated phrase apparently caught Nadine by surprise and touched a funnybone:

In the evening, Nadine and I took our bicycles and went for a ride along the river in search of a place for tea. These ordinary moments are what I enjoy most when travelling:

Monday, August 12th

I was treated to a tour of Brussels with three generations: Nadine’s husband Rik, her son Tom, and her grandson Brent. We began at the Brussels Flea Market (missing photo), toured the Ministry of Justice, visited a memorial to World Wars I & II, and took a photo outside the King’s Palace…

With time to spare before touring the Belgian Federal Parliament building, we found the freshest sandwiches in Brussels at a place called Le Bar à Pan. Sometimes using Google to search on “lunch nearby” is the best solution! We then stumbled upon Paul’s for coffee and dessert on our way back to the parliament building.

I’m grateful that it happened to be a quiet day for tours at the Belgian Federal Parliament building; since we were a small group, we received an in-depth walking tour of the building, its history and artwork — in particular the tapestry (see the Blog page for more).

Brussels is an amazing city… Thank you for the tour! And thanks especially to Nadine for my last dinner in Belgium, mussels and frittes:

Tuesday, August 13th

We drove back to Lille in the morning, where I caught the TGV direct to London. I’m so glad that Nadine suggested this, because it had never occurred to me to take the “Chunnel” (car / rail tunnel under the English Channel). When you have 80 pounds of baggage to haul, avoiding flights is a wonderful thing.

From Belgium to England via:

  • Drive to Lille, France
  • TGV high speed train from Lille to London’s St Pancras station. Here, I picked up my National Rail tickets (you can avoid lines by ordering online and heading straight to the ticket dispenser) and exchanged money (both stops being quite far from the Underground station, fyi).
  • Underground train from St Pancras to Paddington station. This is a very large station with plenty of shops and restaurants for anything you need while waiting. A commuter recommended that I download the Great Western Railway app (“GWR”), for more detailed train status and platform information — handy, since the platform announcements tend to be last minute… unless, of course, you enjoy being part of the Mad Dash. Almost beats the running of the bulls.
  • National Rail’s Great Western Railway from Paddington station to Taunton, England. Beautiful views, but don’t try to blog online — many interruptions to service throughout the ride.