Sunday, January 29, 2012

And We're Off!

When we found out that 1) David got a lot of time off around Christmas and 2) Marie was coming to visit us for the holiday, we decided that we should go somewhere for a few days.  At first I wanted to go to Paris.  I have this idea in my head about Paris at Christmas..I think I watch too many movies!  We started to plan for it, but then Marie told us she was going to France in January, so we figured we should show her part of Europe that she may not go to on her own while she is living abroad this year.

David's favorite European city (so far?) is Brussels, Belgium.  When David and I went to Belgium in 2007 we also fell in love with Brugge, but since we were only there for a few hours during that trip, that is where we decided to go this time.  I thought it would be fun to surprise Marie with the trip.  Our plan was to say on Wednesday night, "Pack a bag for two days...we're taking you somewhere tomorrow."  And then just cousin-nap her away.  But when she first came to town she babysat for us and then she went to Bath and London with her Aunt Terri and cousin I started to feel guilty that she wasn't going to be able to explore Oxford much at all.  So I told her on Tuesday night that we were going somewhere so that she was at least forewarned a little bit, but our destination was still a surprise!

Thursday, December 22 started bright and early.  We had tickets on the 9:15 ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France so we had a two hour + drive ahead and had to get everyone up and out the door by 630am!  The kids were excited about the road trip with Cousin Marie in the backseat to play with them!

The ferry ride was cool, and it had a pretty amazing view of England as we sailed away!

The white cliffs of Dover, England
The ferry ride was a lot of fun for the kids, and the adults all enjoyed the views.

Once we landed in France, we had a quick hour or so drive to get to Brugge.  We all agreed that the countryside in France looked quite similar to Illinois!  Very flat, empty fields and plains.  It was strange for David to be driving our UK car (driver's side on the right) in France and Belgium.  They obviously drive on the right there, but they still have round-abouts.  Being on the right side of the car while also driving on the right was a challenge for him!

When we got to our hotel the room wasn't quite ready, so we stashed our things and parked the car in order to go for a walk and explore.  In the main square in Brugge, we found the usual European Christmas markets (mmm...waffles and mulled wine) and an ice rink!  We told Maxwell about ice skating and he said over and over that he wanted to go.  David and I know our kid well enough to know that it wasn't going to happen, but we went with it.  David bought two tickets and got this far with him before the freak out got too bad to continue:
Then since we had already paid for two, Marie stepped in while the kids and I watched!!  It was very warm out and the ice had a good 1/2 inch of water across the top of it, so David and Marie were very careful not to fall!  And they didn't!  Good job, guys!!!
David and Marie, trying hard not to fall!
Jen and kids, enjoying just watching!
 Brugge is such a beautiful city.  The buildings are like a fairy tale land, and with the bridges over the canals and the is just so magical.  It was wonderful to see it all done up for Christmas.  The markets are really cool.  There are stalls with food, crafts, clothing, beer, ornaments.  Anything and everything.  We even found a section of one that had some games, so we stopped for the kids to play!

We had a nice dinner out that first night and then walked around some more.  Once we got back to the hotel and got all settled in with kiddies in bed, David and I took advantage of our travelling companion (Marie!) being there to stay with the littles while we went out and got a drink.

Friday arrived with the wonderful news that the kids had slept in...late!  The hotel had awesome blackout windows (must buy those for this house) and we all got some much needed zzzz's.  After a quick breakfast we loaded up for the day and headed to the train station to Brussels.  It is really interesting trying to take public transportation in cities where you don't speak the language.  Interesting.  Luckily, we made it to our train and were ready to have an awesome day!
Our stops in Brussels before heading to the town centre were really, really cool!  David did a great job of planning our day.  First we went to the Atomium, a structure that was built in 1958 for the World's Fair.  Hard to describe, so here is a photo:
Crazy long escalator tube!
5 or 6 of the spheres are open, connected by ginormous staircases and escalators.  They have art exhibits, a restaurant, and one of them is dedicated to the construction of the structure in 1958.  We watched a video of these guys hanging from the thing, tightening nuts and bolts with their bare hands.  It blew my mind!  I couldn't believe this amazing piece of architechture was built in the 50s without scaffolding, cranes, etc., and then that made me think about ancient creations like the pyramids and from there I had to stop myself because no good can come of me letting my mind go like that!  (Dave, Mom and Shelly know what I am talking about!  Ha!)

Anyway, after the Atomium, we popped over to the rest of Europe to see some of the sights.  You know, the Eiffel Tower, Acropolis, leaning tower or Pisa, Big Ben, Stockholm Cathedral, Mount Vesuvius, Arc de Triomphe.  All the normal things that you would see in  a day, right?  :o)  We went to the coolest exhibit:  Mini Europe!  Set up almost like a mini-golf course, the path led us through more than 25 country's greatest architectural sites.  It was really amazing, and now after seeing the miniatures, my list of places to visit while we are here has grown even more.
Marie and Jen at the Eiffel Tower
The whole time we were at Mini-Europe it was drizzling and cold, so we decided to pack up and head somewhere warm.  We made our way back to the tube and took a train to the Grand Place, the main square in Brussels city centre.  In the center of the square there was a giant Christmas tree, and all the buildings were lit up and there was a light show set to music.  Not a great photo opportunity, but very cool to watch.  We had a not-very-Belgian dinner at an Italian place and then walked around the markets.  Marie and I had waffles for dessert and David and Marie enjoyed a hot mulled wine.  All in all it was a great day!

On Saturday morning (Christmas Eve!) we realized that a lot of things we could potentially do that were a bit touristy were closed.  We took our things to put them in the car and the car wouldn't open!  The ceiling light had been left on in the backseat (for TWO DAYS) and the car doors wouldn't even open.  We were able to open the driver's side door with the actual key, but the car was totally dead.  David was about to head back to the hotel to call someone, but I suggested seeing if there was anyone working in the garage.  There was, he was able to go pick up a portable battery and cables and give us a jump.  So I saved us a couple hundred Euro.  :o)  David stayed behind to take care of the car and Marie and the kids and I went for a walk around town.  We fed some ducks in the canal, got another waffle, did some shopping.  It was such a beautiful day, that we really just took advantage of our surroundings and really soaked it all up.

When we parked the car on the ferry for the ride home, we pulled up right behind a car from Greece that had an Illinois State sticker.  How cool was that!?!  I felt bad taking a picture of the car with the driver still in it, so I waited until he got out and asked if it was okay.  He was a really nice Greek guy who was VERY proud of the fact that he had gone to ISU.  He was so surprised to hear that Marie and I were from IL and had gone to school there, too!

Our quick trip to Belgium was absolutely amazing.  I love that country.  I just love Europe.  I am so glad that Marie came to stay and that we were able to show her a part of the world that she might not have thought to visit on her own.

To view the complete album of photos from our trip, please visit my Facebook Album.