Why would anybody leave Flagstaff in June, and go to Belgium, France and Spain for 30 days? That's easy. We really wanted to go, and we're glad we did. All in all, it was a great trip, one whose memories will last forever.
A BLAST IN BELGIUM
The first leg of our trip was to Brussels, the capital city of the European Union (EU). Its one million inhabitants appeared to be much less to us as its efficient metro system, trams and buses avoided the congestion and traffic found in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid.
Brussels' primary language is French, which left Molly and me getting rather fluent in sign language. Seriously, communicating here and the other countries was really no problem.
We stayed at the Hotel St. Michel, overlooking the Grand Place, with its Gothic town hall in the city's old center. A more than lively meeting place, sometimes hearing revelers in the early morning hours. We wanted to join 'em, but it was way past our bedtime.
Particularly impressive was seeing and visiting the Atomium, a 335-foot structure built for the 1958 World's Fair. It consists of nine steel spheres connected by tubes and forms a model of an iron crystal. Views of the city from its upper floor were breathtaking.
Dining in the city was an excellent gourmet experience, particularly enjoying the mussels. Belgium beer has no peer -- Budweiser, you ain't no "king of beer." And speaking of waffles, there is no reason to save those for a rainy day. Enjoy them. Simply delicious and non-caloric.
While staying in Brussels, we took an hour's train ride to Bruges and its approximately 200,000 inhabitants. At one time, it was the "chief commercial city" of the world. It still has a significant economic importance thanks to its port.
Most of its medieval architecture is intact; its historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Bruges' most famous landmark is its 13th century belfry, housing a municipal carillon comprising 48 bells, which when ringing made you stop and gaze at its sound.
Bruges is a delightful place to visit with its touring barge trips through the canals, an extensive web of bus lines and town shops, especially known for its lace.
Our next day's train travel from Brussels was to Ghent, only a 30-minute ride. It has more than 635,000 inhabitants and has become one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe, today a busy place with a port and a university.
Much of the city's medieval architecture remains intact, is remarkably well preserved and restored.
A tour of Ghent's canals was our favorite, and the frites (French fries to us Americans) are to die for.
For what it's worth, for us, Ghent was preferable to visit over Bruges, but only by a hair.
LA VIE EN ROSE
Speaking of contrasts, comparing Brussels to Paris in size and vitality makes Brussels appear to be in the 18th century. The difference is astounding.
We had visited Paris three other times in our travels, so in our Thalys train ride (a bullet-ride, no less) there, we were fairly well prepared to appreciate the difference, but this time in return, we must say, "There's no place like Paris!"
We rented an apartment near St. Germaine Boulevard, on the Left Bank, and with all of the necessary amenities, we were in an excellent location to see and visit everything we had planned. Paris's subway system is easy to navigate and purchasing a five-day pass was economical and convenient.
We focused on returning to the Louvre, Muse de l'Orangerie des Tuileries, Musee d'Orsay and St. Chapelle. We reinforced our previous impressions these were world-class in every respect.
We took two "Paris Walks," one focused on Notre Dame Cathedral and its environs and the other on the Latin Quarter, named for its location in the vicinity of the Sorbonne, one of the world's great universities, and its early focus on the Latin language.
In Paris, there is no such thing as a bad meal. The often-held idea that the French are rude, hate Americans and so on holds no weight in our experiences. We encountered waiters, guides and people on the street helping two lost and confused Americans.
OFF TO BURGUNDY
Trying to leave Paris had us encountering one of the continuing "one-day-only" strikes the unions periodically place on the transportation system.
After a delay of about six hours, we finally made our next destination: Beaune, France, a small town located southeast of Paris and noted for its chocolate and fine Burgundy wines. Yes, we enjoyed both immensely. Accommodations at the Hotel Le Cep were excellent.
Particularly outstanding was Beaune's "open market" on Saturday morning, containing everything from meats, cheeses, clothes and so on. It made a Super Walmart look lacking.
The area around Beaune is filled with vineyards and Charolais cattle grazing. It is an area that is calm, cultivated and represents the epitome in French culture.
After a couple of days in this idyllic town, we trained to Dijon, about 30 miles west, where we met up with our fellow travelers for the next six days. We bused to the barge, the Lorraine, where we and 20 other passengers enjoyed the "good life" for six days traveling Burgundy canals and rivers with suitable lodging, outstanding meals with extraordinary wine and cheese for six days. Service from the staff was outstanding. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.
Traveling through many locks, we were able to leave the barge and either walk or bicycle to the next. My experience on a bicycle reminded me of the Spanish Inquisition. A bicycle and its "hard seat?" No thank you.
My 76th birthday was celebrated with a surprise party given by the passengers and crew. May we all continue to have them; this one was very special.
We took a few off-barge visits to chateaus (with wine tasting, of course), Burgundy's second largest city, Chalone-sur-Saaone, and finally to Dijon, a city of about 150,000 inhabitants, located in eastern France and the capital of the Burgundy region.
Molly purchased many jars of the local mustard, which in no way compares with the Dijon brand, famous in the USA. No comparison.
PICASSO AND GAUDI
We flew to Barcelona, the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya.
The city, with its 1,600,000 inhabitants, and port is more than a place to think about visiting. To us, it is high on our list of places we would go back to, don't do it in a day, take at least three days.
Our hotel, the Pulitzer, a more modern contrast to our accommodations on the barge, was conveniently located just off the Placa Catalunya, which made it particularly easy to avail ourselves with its modern transportation system.
For the four days we were there, we took two open air bus tours throughout the city which gave us a bird's eye view of so many parks, Olympic village, Gothic buildings and the harbor.
Once there, one has to stroll the Ramblas, one of Europe's, (probably anywhere in the world) best people-watching streets, running from the Placa Catalunya down to the harbor. It makes little difference what time of day you're there; it's crowded with hordes of people and unusual entertainers.
We took a "walking tour" in the old city, Learning about the city's early beginnings, of course stopping afterwards for a lunch offering tapas and excellent house wine.
After the tour, we strolled over to the Picasso museum, a "must see" for all art lovers. Seeing how his early work painting landscapes and portraits to his cubism in later life was intriguing.
Touring the world-famous Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) is another "must see," started in 1883 with the able assistance of the world-famous architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-19260 and it still is being finished and funded exclusively with private donations. As to when it will be completely finished, estimates are at least another quarter century.
Today's Barcelona is a charming and impressive city, easy to navigate and much to see.
After four days there, we took the three-hour train ride to Madrid, the capital of Spain, its largest city containing about 3,200,000 inhabitants.
Our hotel, the Hotel Liabeny, was conveniently located to subway and bus connections in the old city. Traveling in Madrid, even walking to restaurants, is easy and trouble-free.
Madrid wanted to host the 2012 Olympics and made enormous infrastructure improvements to "make it happen," but alas, it was not selected. It looks to 2016 to host the Olympics.
We thoroughly enjoyed touring Madrid's world-class Prado Museum; it features the famous Spanish artist, Goya. Another museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and within easy walking distance from the Prado certainly deserves a visit.
Touring the Royal Palace is well worth-while. It is still King Carlos's residence, although he does not live there and is used only for formal events, visiting dignitaries, etc. Its rooms are breathtaking.
The weather in Spain was hovering around 100 degrees which made our travels, at times, somewhat exhausting, but afternoon naps in between our sightseeing ventures mostly overcame the heat.
Like Barcelona, Spain's inhabitants were in a complete frenzy anticipating their football team's place in the finals of the World Cup. Regrettably, we left Madrid on a Sunday morning which caused us to miss the final game that evening when Spain beat the Netherlands. We can't imagine the celebration of the Spaniards watching their team win!