New Year’s Eve Day

Knowing that we had a late night ahead of us, Ted and I let the kids sleep in while we had breakfast at the hotel. We woke them up around 11 and then went out to wander around. This was the coldest day of our trip and we were all bundled up.

We had no particular agenda, and first headed to Grand Place to see it during daylight. To me, it is even more charming during the day.

We then walked to the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a shopping gallery protected by an arched, frosted glass roof.  Supposedly it is the oldest of its kind.

One of the more interesting places was a small art gallery which featured collages using tiny photos of women’s scantily clad backsides.

But the real interest was in chocolates. So many shops, including the familiar ones like Godiva and Neuhaus. And then there were small handcrafted chocolate places along with the mass produced novelty places. We ended up buying from all three types. We bought a few boxes of artisanal chocolates and some bars from Pierre Marcolini, a jar of hazelnut spread from Neuhaus, and then milk chocolate Mannekin Pis candies from a gift shop. Can’t wait to try them all!

Famished by all this shopping (and frankly looking for a place to get warm) we popped into Arcadi Cafe for some lunch. Ted and I shared a huge pot of mussels, Kate had pasta but stayed away from pesto, and Ben accidentally ordered a Croque Monsieur.  I say accidentally because he thought he was ordering croquettes, which I’d had as an appetizer the night before and which he’d tasted. Imagine his surprise when he got a grilled ham and cheese sandwich instead of fried cheese fritters!  It all turned out well in any case, and we all washed it down with beer (vin chaud in my case).

We finished up our shopping with some purchases at a beer store, a fruitless stop at a deli for some jamon iberico de pata negra ( they had a French equivalent but we declined), and then more waffles!

Then it was time to head back to the hotel for some rest before the night’s festivities.

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Frost and Unclaimed Luggage

We woke up early, ate breakfast, and then headed to Gare du Norde via Metro to catch our train to Brussels. The trip to the train was uneventful (although Kate almost got caught in the turnstile as she was dragging her luggage behind her).  We arrived in plenty of time which gave Kate and I time to wander through a bookstore and patisserie.

Shortly thereafter, however, we noticed that our train was delayed. First by 30 minutes, then an hour, then 90 minutes, and finally, indefinitely. Train travel in Europe is normally very easy and punctual so this was a bit unusual. Turns out heavy frost on the tracks outside of Brussels had caused two trains to get stuck so of course no other trains could run on them.

We coped with the situation in classic fashion and got a table at a restaurant. I ordered a hot chocolate and the charcuterie platter. Both kids got the roast chicken which came with a cute little copper pot of mashed potatoes.  Ted got nothing!  The hot chocolate was very rich, almost as if they had just melted a chocolate bar and added a splash of milk. The kids swooned over the chicken and declared it the best roast chicken ever.  I wasn’t expecting much from a train station restaurant but I was quite pleasantly surprised!

Over lunch, we discussed what to do. We looked up car rentals and decided that if there was no progress on the train by 2 p.m. we would rent a car and drive to Brussels.  We were all excited about the potential adventure, except for Ted, who hates driving.

But finally we noticed that an incoming train from Brussels was due to arrive which meant that we would board that one going the other way.  Adventure foiled!  

All the people waiting for a train to Brussels began to mass on the platform, as well as those waiting for a train arriving from Germany.  We were all crowded on the platform staking out space, while the disembarking passengers wove their way through the crowd trying to exit.

Suddenly, an announcement was made and everyone began moving AWAY from the train. We asked around and it turned out that luggage had been left onboard and now it had to be contained and destroyed.  We were obviously hoping it was just a forgetful person’s bag but it was nevertheless exciting as we waited to hear an explosion. But alas, they put the bag in a container and destroyed it in there so we didn’t hear a thing.

Then there was a mad rush for the trains as we had all dispersed in different directions. There was lots of jostling and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran over someone’s foot with my suitcase. There was so much commotion that they didn’t even bother scanning tickets.

We got our seats and settled in and waited to leave.  And waited some more. Then an announcement in French made the older couple across from us burst out in laughter. We looked quizzically at them and they explained in English that the train driver had disappeared, but they had found a replacement. But first, he had to pass a test to make sure he knew how to drive the train!  We all agreed this was a prudent course of action.

After another 30 minutes or so, we finally pulled out of the station.

The ride itself was uneventful and we pulled into Brussels Midi without incident. From there we took a local train one stop to Brussels Central, which was just across the street from our hotel.

Because we were checking in so much later than anticipated, the hotel had already booked all the family rooms. But since things always seem to work in Ted’s favor when traveling, they gave us two adjoining rooms instead, one with two double beds and the other with a King. This worked out fabulously, even better than a family room because we got more space and two bathrooms.

The kids and I relaxed for a bit, but Ted was antsy after being on a train and went for a short walk. When he came back he had waffles, cooked fresh from a truck we could see out our window. It was Liege style, nice and crisp with caramelized sugar. Yum!

We then headed to the executive lounge for drinks and appetizers before heading out.

We first went to Grand Place where they have a light show every 30 minutes during the holiday season. This plaza is very beautiful and looks as if it were plucked from a movie set. Very magical at night at Christmas.

We then walked to see the famous Mannekin Pis. Smaller than you expect but a slightly silly must do, at least the first time in Brussels.

After a few minutes there we hunted for a dinner spot. We settled on a small cafe with decent food. It turned out to be a cash only place, however, so Ted had to dash out to an ATM. Luckily there was one just around the corner. We were all amused as Ted paid the bill by bowing to the waiter, as if he were in Japan.

After dinner we walked through a Christmas market where I had a vin chaud (mulled wine) and we all split a Belgian waffle with chocolate and whipped cream. Very tasty!

It had been a long day so we headed back to the hotel after that. Ted stepped out for a bit and then came back with frites! He ordered the special and it came with sauteed onions, Belgian ketchup (which tasted of curry) and aioli. We were all stuffed after that and didn’t even touch the Godiva chocolates that the hotel left as a welcome gift!

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Last Day in Paris

We couldn’t leave Paris without visiting the Louvre and seeing the Mona Lisa!  So just like yesterday, we hopped on the Metro after breakfast, this time heading for the Louvre.  We got off the Metro and rather than entering through the famous glass pyramid, we headed to the Passage Richelieu entrance.  Normally this is reserved for groups, but if it is empty the guards will let you through if you have advance tickets.  And always, always, have advance tickets to the Louvre if at all possible.  We waltzed right on in and checked our coats at the free coat lockers.  As an aside, I thought it was rather clever of the Louvre to also have umbrella lockers!  I failed to take a picture but these are basically little slots into which you slip your large upright umbrella, and then it closes with a combo lock.  So smart!

We then followed a walking tour from a guide book, hitting the major pieces.  The Louvre is vast and you could visit every day and still not see everything but we did see the highlights, including the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.  The museum was very busy and I can only imagine what it is like in the summer.  No thank you!

We finished right around lunchtime but were not hungry enough for a full meal.  We ducked into a nearby cafe and had crepes to tide us over.  After resting our feet for a bit, it was back to the Metro to see the catacombs.

The catacombs are not listed as a “must see” attraction in Paris, but I know my family and their art museum limits.  So rather than seeing Impressionist paintings or Rodin sculptures, we went off to see some bones.

The catacombs are in old mines underneath Paris, and was founded to address cemetery overcrowding.  There are supposedly 6 million people entombed here.

The sign at the entrance says, “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.”

After touring the catacombs, we went back to the hotel to rest up and have a drink.  After a few hours of rest, it was back out to do some shopping for Kate.

We went to Printemps where we didn’t buy anything but did get to experience their restroom system.  Unlike U.S. department stores, with bathrooms on every level, Printemps has restrooms only on the main level (there are 6 or 7 levels).  And also unlike store bathrooms here, with free entry, you have to pay to use them (maybe they are free if you buy something because I saw some people handing over small tickets).  Everyone has to stand in line and pay at a counter, where entry is also controlled.  You can only enter once someone else has exited.

We grabbed dinner at a nearby brasserie and then headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready for our train to Brussels the next day.

Ted actually was very happy to have a beer in hand, despite his expression.

Edit to add:  I almost forgot about a funny incident on the Metro on the way back to our hotel from the Catacombs.  The  night before, my Metro ticket didn’t work, so I just used another one.  This night, Ben’s didn’t work.  But because we had only exactly enough tickets left to last us through the remainder of our stay, Ted just told Ben to slide under the turnstile.  Poor advice, because as soon as Ben got to the other side, he was accosted by two Metro police who demanded a ticket not just from Ben but from all of us.  Ted tried the typical American tourist ploy of speaking in English, and the police brusquely waved him off with a “NO ENGLISH!”  We of course all had tickets, which they ran through a handheld scanner and then waved us on our way but that was a lesson learned.  We have dubbed it “The Time Ted Almost Got Ben Arrested.”

Another edit: We passed by a lot of Italian Renaissance art on our way to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and you can imagine that almost all had a religious theme. One painting depicted a saint receiving stigmata from Jesus, and Kate promptly dubbed the painting “Laser Jesus.” She also imagined the saint questioning indignantly in today’s vernacular why Jesus had to be “so extra”!

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