On castles and forests, fairytale villages and quite a lot of chocolate.

When I think about Europe, what arises is the semi-fascination I have with castles and old brick. I gravitate towards cobblestone pavements and the shells of old architecture as much as, perhaps, to the stories and secrets and folklore these contain. And so, rather than sites and landmarks and tourist hotspots, I wanted to experience the essence of Belgium in its culture and villages and the warmth of its red brick. All credit is due to my adventure-spirited Calvin, who (as he does) interpreted my indecisiveness and planned us a route through Belgium that Lonely Planet couldn’t have possibly outdone.

But first, the Ancestors.

Our ancestors are totally essential to our every waking moment, although most of us don’t even have the faintest idea about their lives, their trials, their hardships or challenges. –Annie Lennox.

My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Russia, via Poland and then Antwerp, on a ship called the SS Kroonland. The Red Star Line had a fleet of these ships; immigrant ferries, really, that transported fleeing Europeans to a land of new opportunities. On 12 December, 1921, Josel Widra travelled with his mother and siblings on a 10-day transatlantic journey that would seed my New York roots.

So when I was deciding where I’d go from Holland, I set my sights on Antwerp as a starting point, as this is where my travelling genes were pollinated. Maybe.

It turns out that the Red Star Line had a helping hand in the processing of emigrants as well as the shipping. There were lodging houses and disinfection stations and days, if not weeks, of waiting and cleaning and more waiting and more disinfecting. This, after many days’ journey in crowded trains, all the while the passengers were inspected (for lice and disease and of course proper paperwork) at each step of the way.

While I unfortunately didn’t learn any specifics of my grandfather’s emigration (the museum’s research room was closed due to COVID), I did learn about the collective journey, and thus emerged from the experience with more questions than answers about the lengths that a solo mother (my great-grandmother, Tillie), went through to ensure a safe passage from Eastern Europe to a new life on the other side of the ocean.

The hardest of my hardships pale in comparison.

Exploring.

As is our bent, C and I explored Antwerp on foot, basing ourselves in the center of the old city by the Cathedral of Our Lady, a brilliant and towering Gothic church which served both as home base and a lighthouse of sorts when our (read: my) navigational skills failed. We sampled local beers (thumbs up) and local sweets (ditto), perused local art (Rubenshuis), learnt about local legends (Brabo), and experienced a unique sort of local hospitality that I have not yet categorized in a Soup-Nazi-meets-Falafel-King experience that we’re not soon to forget (yet resulted in some of the best falafel I’ve ever had!).

The city is equally charming and confusing, its architecture is an ad-hoc mélange of step-gabled beauties and 1970’s mishaps, with a surprisingly large red light district that cuts a swath across the gray concrete near the harbour. Leaving, I was relieved that the Belgians seem to be taking this pandemic thing more seriously than the Dutch, and I looked forward to exploring both the Belgian countryside and its fairytale villages. Also pralines.

Napoleon was here.

My personal guided tour of Brussels and its surrounds began in the municipality of Rixensart and had us trapising through the lovely trails on the grounds and surrounds of the Château de La Hulpe (trees! flowers! gardens! ponds! and a castle! 5⭐) and then the magnificent remnants of the 1000-year old Villers Abbey.

“Si je n’étais pas l’homme representé dans mes images, j’aimerais être l’oiseau. J’ai toujours envie de m’envoler, de bouger, de partir dialoguer avec le vent.”

Folon

A short ride away, we explored the battlegrounds at Waterloo, my American education’s rendition of European History glaring in its unenlightenment, and then Brussels proper, where I was as equally stymied by the arbitrary architecture as I was in Antwerp. Even more strange was the reenactment of some obscure tradition we stumbled into at the Grand-Place, involving giant puppets, a speech, a parade, and some ceremonial carrying of cheese (or an egg or something) to Greece. I may have some of these details slightly wrong.

We perused the fantastic Cook & Book, saw Mannekin Pis (because, Brussels), and ate gaufres (ditto). After 1/2 a day, a torrential downpour and not enough castles, we were headed to Bruges.

Des pralines et les rues pavées.

The quintessential image of Belgium (in my head at least) is of the medieval cobbled streets and picturesque canals of Bruges. Apparently, after its main waterways silted up (500 or so years ago), Bruges lost out to Antwerp as a major trading/shipping city and this setback ended up preserving the area: its medieval façades remained virtually intact as other Belgian cities gentrified, and Bruges was spared most of the damage from WW1 and WW2 that other cities faced. Today, to say that Bruges’ centuries-old architecture delights and enchants is an understatement.

So we wandered, delighted and enchanted and content, through the rues pavées, over canals, along the river, and in and out of praline shops (n.b., we managed to find the absolute BEST pralines in Belgium)…my only regret of the trip was not buying an entire kilo, as we also managed to consume the lot by the end of the week.

And into the hills…

Fairytale villages, eclectic architecture, historical battlegrounds and loads of chocolate behind us, I had no idea what to expect for hiking in the Ardennes, except that it was to begin with a kayak trip “on that river by the castle”. I had seen pictures, and wanted to experience it for myself.

Fast forward, and we’re kayaking down a semi-bloated river which only weeks before had been the scene of horrific flash floods and unfortunate casualties (life and property). And while the cranky shoulder did complain, the sight of a castle as I’m kayaking down a tree-lined river in the heart of the Ardennes with one of my favourite people on the planet really put into perspective what’s important: the best things in life aren’t tangible, but instead are stitched together from these feelings of warmth and belonging, of peace and ok-ness even whilst floating on a river with a throbbing shoulder thousands of kilometres from home.

(photo courtesy of Chris G.)

The day continued with another castle (la roche en Ardenne), some of the best strawberries I’ve had this season, local beer, Dutch cheese, some borrowed butter, and deep sleep in fresh country air. More kudos to my tour guide for finding us the most precious and absolutely picture-perfect maison d’hôtes in a former farmhouse situated in the heart of rolling farmlands and quaint country villages.

We rounded out this leg of the adventure with a hike: it should be mostly flat…it’s just the perimeter of a lake, after all. Famous last words, but a quite enjoyable 15km trek around the lake/river, its ups and downs testing our wander-weary limbs. The climbs were technical, the views were lovely, and at the end of the day, its two adventurers were sweaty, muddy, hungry, but nonetheless sated…

So I said au revoir to Belgium, leaving things on a to-do list for next time: more hikes, a 1-month sojourn in said guest house to hunker down and study French, more storybook towns and ditto castles.

Next stop, Berlin: Unexpected detours and an experiment in remote work.

Sverige, del tre: A birthday and urban adventuring in Stockholm

 

The scene: Vete-Katten, est. 1928, Kungsgatan, Stockholm. 09:30. En kanelbulle, and a final (early) fika before I depart this fantastic city for a colder, wetter locale.


Swedes are known to drink a lot of coffee (according to this report, 8.2kg per person per year – nearly double what we drink in the US). I’ve read that most Swedes drink up to 5 cups a day! It only makes sense that they invented the fika: it’s afternoon coffee and cake, and almost a mandate here. I’d had my first proper fika the day after we exited the forest, replete with home-made apple cake from fruit picked in the family’s small orchard…we weren’t even allowed to leave for Stockholm without sitting for fika. An outsider’s perspective: I think it borders on religion. A sacrifice to the cinnamon gods? I’m in!

So, we’ve returned from the forest and spent the last couple of days doing some urban adventuring. Stockholm is a great city in which to do it. As I’ve already noted, Stockholm is bounded by 14 main islands and an archipelago with thousands more, each with its own personality. I stayed on a boat moored on Riddarholmen, a short hop over a bridge to Gamla stan (the old city), and a walk across the island (by the Palace) and over a bridge (by the opera house) gets you to what qualifies as the mainland. From there you can get to Djurgården (we’ll get there).

The flat is in a neighbourhood of glorious 18th and 19th century buildings (barring some 20th century insults to architecture), and I’m instantly enamored with the windows and the rooflines and the animal statues heralding the old apothecaries throughout the city. I’ve seen a stork and an owl and bear and a moose (apoteket storken, ugglan, björn och älg, respectively!). It’s almost worth going back for a scavenger hunt just to find them all.

My birthday morning, I’m treated to a makeshift Swedish brekkie (that my Swedish companion created sweetly – Swedishly – with what was in the fridge), and then we’re off to find a sunken ship.

But first, the birthday indulgences begin: we find the perfect kanelbulle. The shop smells of fresh bread and cinnamon. The piles of buns (as they are called here) are simply gorgeous. There’s a reason the sense of smell is so evocative. This is what I will picture whenever I smell cinnamon again.

Buns are walked off as we crisscross Stockholm towards Djurgården and the Vasa museet.

As the story goes, there was a king (Gustav II Adolf) who fancied himself the equivalent of a Swedish Hercules and commissioned a ship to be the grandest warship in the fleet, adorned with lions and Greek gods to illustrate the king’s power and instill fear in the enemy. I reflect that though we’ve advanced nearly 400 years, male hubris still has a long way to go.

In 1628, the Vasa sailed from Stockholm harbour and promptly sank before the eyes of the thousands there to view its maiden voyage. Apparently, the King’s visions of grandeur exceeded his knowledge of shipbuilding and its relationship to seaworthiness. The ship’s architects hadn’t the guts to go against his wishes. These were the days of “off with thy head” after all, so the directive to “make it TALLER” was heeded (collective eyes roll, heads remain intact). And so, the top-heavy flagship set sail, hit a spot of wind, listed, then expeditiously sank in 30 metres of water just outside Stockholm harbour. It lay in the mud for 333 years until it was exhumed in the early 1960’s.

The ship is remarkably well-preserved, having been ensconced in mud in the (low-salinity) Baltic, and meticulously restored – the museum houses the massive ship (over 50 metres high and nearly 70 metres long), puzzled back together in its entirety, and showcases its ornate carvings. We watched the film, took the tour, gaped at the intricacies and the craftsmanship. On the water (for those precious minutes anyway), she must have been a sight to behold.

All this touristing makes a birthday girl hungry. C takes me to a fantastic (and classic) lunch at the Operakallaren café by the Royal Swedish Opera House. It’s great people-watching and lovely local food. Me: fisk; C: kött. It reminds me, in some strange way, of Sardi’s in NYC, with the old opera posters on the wall and harried waitstaff.

By now, we’ve mastered the art of urban hiking, having clocked something on the order of 15km today, all around Stockholm’s waterfront and surrounding neighbourhoods. C has promised me princess cake (prinsesstårta) for my birthday, so we’re off to fika at the classic coffee house: Vete-Katten. Coffee is free-flowing, and the place is abuzz with chatter in a mingle of languages, tho svenska predominates. From the black-and-white tiled floors of the main bakery to the intimate coffee rooms out back, the antique furniture, mismatched chairs, and simple tablecloths, this place has a character all its own. Truth be told, I’m not really a chocolate cake fan. But the princess cake: layers of perfect whipped cream, raspberries, and light sponge cake…all topped with a thin sheet of marzipan (points awarded for the special birthday marzipan rose ❤); this is the perfection to which all birthday cakes should aspire!

There’s more walking, and birthday dinner at a nice place close to the flat, where my Swedish guise fails and I quickly use up the 16 words I’ve managed to mangle. The chatty waiter is still at it, greatly amusing the interpreter; he then resorts to handing me a new menu (this one in engelska). Jag talar inte svenska, I think, issuing a slightly defeated sigh. But I fall asleep sated and maybe still thinking about the princess cake a bit. There are not enough thank yous I can find (in any language) to adequately appreciate this day.

And so we wake, on a brighter (yet blustery-er) autumn morn. Determined to deliver on his promise to introduce me to all things Swedish, C makes traditional pancakes (pannkakor) for brekkie. I learn that they are not necessarily eaten as breakfast (rather, for lunch on Thursdays; who knew?!), and more often than not, eaten with just some butter, sugar and cinnamon OR strawberry jam (no butter, that’s a sin!). It’s nothing like our bready, sweet flapjacks here in the US. These delights are like a crêpe, but eggier somehow. With proper instruction on how to serve, fill, and fold (Swedes are nothing if not precise), we polish off the stack of pancakes before heading out for the day’s adventures: kayaking Djurgården!

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The winds have apparently scared all kayakers away from the task, so it seems we have the waterways virtually to ourselves. It is a fantastic way to see this city, and with Njord’s winds at our backs, he carries us swiftly down the Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, the canal that separates Djurgården from Stockholm’s mainland. Djurgården is the old royal hunting grounds, and has been turned into something of an island-park, housing a multitude of museums and things to do (Gröna Lund amusement park, an interactive Viking museum, and the Abba Museum, among others).

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It’s a brilliant day out, and we are literally the only kayakers on the canal, passed by just a handful of boats over the 2 hours we’re out. It’s such a spectacle that tourists are actually taking pictures of us. The city is sparkling, and the homes that line the canal are a sight to behold. C points out the home he will acquire when he wins the lottery, and I concur: this wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live.

We’ve been warned not to attempt a circumnavigation of Djurgården, as the winds (and boat traffic) will be even stronger out there, so we’re content to do an out-and-back on the canal. It’s the back part that’s the challenge: against the wind is an understatement, and it takes quite the effort to return to the kayak place. We’re greeted by a surprised kayak guy…I dare say he was impressed that we lasted that long, given the circumstances. But the views along the way were most definitely worth the effort. A pile of adventure points awarded for the 6 or 7kms paddled while braving the headwinds.

Urban hiking, it’s called, when you log at least 15kms traipsing across a city to take it all in. We spend the rest of the day exploring Djurgården, then wending our way, feet sore and with bright smiles on our windblown faces, back to the flat. I could not have asked for a better tour guide.


And so I find myself back at Vete-Katten, too early in the day for another slice of prinsesstårta and just too late to refuse to go West. I’m writing and reflecting on another week spent living in the NOW with my magical co-conspirator. And I’m soaking in these last moments of Stockholm before I board the Arlanda Express to take me towards the next leg of the journey: a 3-day stopover in the Nordic land of ice.

Hejdå för nu.

Read the earlier posts in this series: [Del ett: Sweden, Day 1]  [Del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden]