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.

Balkan Doživljaj, final chapter: All roads lead to…Istanbul?

I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.

Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative freedom afford.


Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.

It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.

I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.

Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.

Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.

The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.

We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!

My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.

Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.

In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.


When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…

Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…


Read the whole Balkan Doživljaj story here: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains of Montenegro | Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the Countryside | Part IV: Nature, Fog, and Maybe Going to Hell | Part V: In Which I Split