Living in the South of The Netherlands, the closest international weekend getaway location is Belgium. With a reasonably last-minute decision, a friend and I drove down to Antwerp and Gent for the weekend and throughly enjoyed exploring these two towns.
Arriving in Antwerp we parked the car and started exploring the city on foot. We parked at the Grote Markt and walked a big loop along the river Scheldt, through the area called Zuid, Sint-Andres and into the historic centre. In our wandering we enjoyed stops for food, coffee and of course Belgian chocolate bon-bons. We also stopped by some of the historic sights of the city, many of which are UNESCO Heritage listed.
Much to my disappointment there were no free walking tours running at the time of my visit, perhaps due to Winter. If you are headed to Antwerp, I’d recommend checking if they are running the tours.
Het Steen is a medieval fortress on the Scheldt river. Antwerp is one of Europe’s biggest ports, and Het Steen was previously used to control access to this port. It is a beautiful old building and is free to wander in for a look.
Near the entrance to the fortress is a sculpture called Lange Wapper, a Flemish folklore character. Inside the first courtyard is also the worlds oldest half-hour hourglass which I thought was beautiful.
The Cathedral of our Lady is a roman-catholic cathedral from the 1500s in the historic centre of Antwerp. The bell tower has quite a striking clock face and can be seen from various points around the city.
I enjoyed views of the cathedral from outside, but missed out on going inside as I got there after closing time.
Entry costs €6, check the opening hours.
Stadhuis & Grote Markt
The Town Hall of Antwerp can be found in a large open plaza called the Grote Markt.
The Stadhuis, town hall, is also from the 1500s and is another example of renaissance architecture. The Stadhuis has a beautifully structured and decorated gable.
Standing in the Grote Markt you have a beautiful view in all directions; a series of various shaped gables are a stunning silhouette against a sunny blue sky. This is a great spot to sit outside on one of the many terraces and enjoy a local brew.
The Sint-Anna Tunnel is a lesser known gem of the city. It was established as a pedestrian and bicycle tunnel to cross from one side of the river to the other, in the 1930s.
The tunnel is 572 metres long and is still in use today. The 30s architecture of the tunnel is super charming, along with the wooden escalators.
In addition to the charming tunnel, the view of Antwerp from the opposite side of the river is worth the walk.
Roughly an hours drive from Antwerp is the magical town of Gent. It reminded me of Bruges, as they both have canals winding through the town. Despite thoroughly enjoying my half day in Antwerp, it was Gent that stole my heart.
The town is wonderfully charming; it has a friendly feeling to it combined with old world character. Sitting at a cafe beside a canal watching the boats go by, drinking a latte and tucking into a Belgian Waffle was such a fantastic way to spend time.
The boat tours leave from either side of the Leie River near the Graslei. It’s a relaxing hour cruising up and down the canal learning about the history of the town.
Some of the more interesting things I learned included the fact that: the town has a whopping 53 churches, every guild in the town had its own church; the town has only one building with a wooden facade, all wooden facades were banned in Europe after the London fires of 1666; and the Dutch expression Stone Rich (Steenrijk) originated from historic times when only very rich people could afford to build stone houses.
Some sights to check out…
The Belfort of Gent is one of the three towers looking over the city’s historic centre. It is flanked by the Sint-Niklaaskerk (which I did not visit) on one side and Sint Baafskathedraal on the other side.
The Belfort was constructed in the 1300s and has been used as both a bell tower and fortified watchtower. The tower spire is adorned with a gilded dragon, which I consider to be such a charming feature.
My favourite aspect of the Belfort is that it is open for the public to climb, entry costs €8. The long way up a narrow winding staircase, is rewarded with stunning views over the historical city of Gent.
Sint-Baafskathedral is another cathedral of Gothic architecture, which is free to visit. The exterior of the cathedral is undergoing renovation, but what you can see is certainly beautiful.
It is a stunning cathedral to visit, with beautiful old artworks adorning the walls, and meticulously detailed sculptures, altars and alcoves. It is worth stopping by for a look.
Gravensteen is a castle in the centre of town. The current construction of the castle dates back to the 1100s, though the site first housed a wooden castle in the 900s. The restored parts of the castle have been open to the public since the 1900s.
Gravensteen is one of very few castles in the world that can be found in a city centre; it looks imposing yet dignified in the historic centre of Gent.
The castle has an entry fee of €10, and I chose not to visit it on this occasion.
On Big Canon Square (Grootkanonplein) you will find a 12,500kg Canon. The canon is rumoured to have been used once, on which occasion it shot a big bad canon ball that was so heavy it only fell 5cm from the mouth of the canon.
Now it serves only as decoration and has the nickname Dulle Griet, or Evil Woman.
The Korenmarkt is the main city square in Gent, and has beautiful historic buildings on all sides. When we walked through the square it was filled with tourists and locals enjoying a warm winters day out, and with children running after the clouds of bubbles floating through the air. Such fun and laughter!
After three short trips away, by the time we got back to The Netherlands it was time to take things easy for a few days.
I started off spending a day at home downloading the pictures of my camera, editing them and uploading them to my Facebook, writing my blog, and doing the mundane stuff like catching up on some washing.
That afternoon I was already ready for some more excitement. My cousin Quinty had organised something for all the girl cousins to do…but it was a secret. So dressed casually, ready for anything and toddled over to Quinty’s place. I soon learned that the afternoon schedule involved a cake decorating workshop followed by dinner with all the cousins and partners.
Starting our workshop we all had the choice of what cake shape to work with: round with a flat top or a dome. Considering the lady told us a dome shape was easier I put my hand up for that! We started by cutting our cakes into layers, then putting flavours into the layers, covering the whole cake in buttercream icing and putting it in the fridge to cool. By covering the cake in buttercream icing, it would make it easier to smooth a layer of marzipan icing over the cake. From there we had to decide how to decorate our cakes, and true to my name I decided to make a duck cake. I started by colouring and rolling out a light blue to cover the whole cake. Then I drew a duck on paper as a template, cut out my duck and then used this template to cut out a bunch of little ducks. I added little orange beaks and teeny tiny blue dot eyes (the person running the workshop made me an awesome duck to put on the top of the cake). By the time I put my ducks on the cake we were starting to run short on time, so Quinty, having finished her cake, helped me out with the waves and the clouds to finish off the cake. Consider I am not at all artistic and I really suck at cakes..I was incredibly proud of my efforts!!
Quinty’s cake had branches, leaves, flowers and birds; Maricia made a cake about her and Jeroens upcoming wedding, with champagne glasses, rings, the wedding date and their names on it; and Lianne made a hot orange cake with a Dutch flag in support of the European Championship football competition due to start that week.
Happy with our cakes we packed up, put the cakes in the fridge and headed out. With all the cousins together (most anyway, Pat and Anna were visiting Ann’s family) we went for dinner to an Italian restaurant in Papendrecht. We all ate delicious food and had a fabulous evening enjoying each others company.
Mum and I headed to Rotterdam the following day for a spot of shopping. I had been very restrained so far!! I got some awesome jeans, chinos, sneakers and few other odds and ends. With our bags full we jumped on the train back to Sliedrecht where my aunt Marjan collected us and we all headed to Ikea in Barendrecht. Ikea is totally my most favourite shop ever!!! So I bought a few bits and pieces but not too much..very aware of baggage limits when flying!
On Tuesday Anna was a little bit disappointed that I had gone to Rotterdam without her, so I went again, with Pat and Anna this time. The market happened to be on, so we ate some yummy hot chips, drank slushies and filled the last little gaps in our bellies with freshly made super stroop wafels. Anna had waited three years to finally try a fresh super stroop wafel, so she was pretty happy!! We also had a look at the cube houses, checked out a few shops and then realising the time quickly jumped ont he train back to Sliedrecht. That evening we had a family dinner with everyone on mum’s side of the family. We went to an all you can eat sushi restaurant called Shabu Shabu. It was actually pretty awesome. There were 4 rounds and each round each person could order 5 menu items. It was great fun, and so tasty! Also surprisingly filling, we all crashed and burned after round three!! At the end of the evening as we all waddled back to our cars, we grabbed a quick family photo. The first time in 20 years that we have had a full family photo! (Sorry it’s not actually the best quality picture in the world..but at least we are all in it!)
Some other things we crammed into that week included a guided tour of my uncle’s shackle factory. Mum, Anna and I had an afternoon in Dordrecht, eating poffertjes and checking out the shops. Pat went out on the boat in the Biesbos with the boys. We all checked out the local market for fresh bread, cheese, meat and of course….super stroop wafels! One night the Stam Clan and Ineke went to Quinty’s place for dinner.
Before we knew it, it was Friday June 8th. The big day for Maricia and Jeroen!
Maricia had spent her last night as an unmarried woman, in her family home (where Pat, Anna and I were staying). In the morning the make-up person and hair person arrived to make her look all pretty. Then Marjan and I helped her put on her STUNNING wedding dress! We laced up the back and then stepped back to look at the huge grin on her face. She looked amazing and was super excited and anxiously awaiting the moment when she would see her groom. She didn’t have to wait long before there was a knock on the door. Jeroen had turned up in a spunky white porsche to collect her.
They sped off to some stunning locations for their photos before returning to greet their guests. Together we all walked to town hall where we witnessed the official ceremony. The ceremony was really lovely and very personal, the celebrant had gotten to know them well and shared some great stories.
After they had exchanged rings and kissed…of course with much applause from us! We all walked down the street to restaurant Bellevue for the wedding cake/cupcakes and coffee. This was also the time we had for group and family photos.
Soon it was time to catch the party bus to the Hipper in Gorinchem, where we enjoyed a delicious BBQ buffet dinner. We were kept entertained by some nice poems about Maric and Jeroen as well as a powerpoint presentation with pictures. By the time our food had settled, the evening guests (everyone else who was invited) turned up to the reception to congratulate to the couple, celebrate their wedding and party on and have a boogie to the band’s great tunes!
A fabulous night was had by all…especially Maricia and Jeroen!
The day after the wedding there was no time for us Stam’s to relax, it was time for another family reunion. This time we caught up with the entire Stam clan (Dad’s side of the family) for the first time in 20 years!!
We started our Stam day at my aunt and uncles place for coffee where we met everyone. I think I had met almost everyone before; but for Pat and Anna it was a pretty steep learning curve trying to absorb so many new names and faces. After our coffee and introductions, we hopped onto our bus and headed out to a place called Hooghei. It is an activity centre, where they offer all sorts of activities for young and old, as well as offering buffet style meals. On arrival we started with some lunch, build up some energy stores before the games to come!
The first game of the day was 18 holes of football-golf (by football, I mean soccer). It was pretty entertaining, there was such a huge variation in skills level. The young ones had completed all the holes before we were even halfway through! I accidentally kicked my ball into a small canal…luckily Patrick helped me fish it out without getting wet! Some of the other boys had less luck than I did, kicking their ball into a big canal, which required stripping down to their undies and going for a muddy, cold swim to retrieve it!
Unfortunately for us, the field where we were playing had about 10 centimetres of water on it, so by the end of the game we all had soggy, cold toes. This certainly didn’t stop the Stams! Off we went for some farmers games: team football, three people per team, tied to each other, playing as one…that got a bit messy!; wheelbarrow races; the thing where you throw horse shoes onto pegs, pitchfork throwing into bales of hay to pop the balloons and a few more. We calmed down from all this excitement with a horse and cart ride. We finished the day with a tasty buffet dinner while we watched the first Netherlands game in the European Championships football. Once the game was over, with a not-so-favourable result, we took the bus back home.
Before we did that, we did manage to get a quick snap of the whole family.
After so much busy-ness, Pat and Anna had no time to slow down, they packed their bags and took a train to Frankfurt to continue on the last leg of their round-the-world trip. Their final destination was a second honeymoon in the Maldives. Though I was sad to see them go, I knew it would only be a few short weeks till we were all back in Tassie together, so determined to make the most of my holiday, I packed my bags, collected mum and off we went to Belgium.
Mum and I drove the short 1.5hours to Brussels, we found our hotel, parked the car, checked in, and set off to see the sights!
Brussels is cute little city, though I am sure we didn’t even see very much of what it has to offer. We wandered past some amazing old churches and watch towers, through the fish market, briefly checked out an outdoor concert/jazz festival and nibbled on some sugar dusted apple beignets. We continued our wandering and found the city center and the marketplace, with many cute cafes and beautiful old buildings, of course the streets were lined with chocolaterie’s offering so many tasty treats..this is where we had our first Belgian pralines. We wandered into a little store and asked “Which one is the best?” and that was the one we had. Using this method, I never got a dud!!
Before going too far, we sat down for some late lunch. What does one eat in Belgium?? Well, if you didn’t already know, I will tell you now, Belgium is known for several things: Chocolate, Waffles and Beer. Having already had chocolate, our lunch consisted of waffles and beer. I had waffles ‘mikado’ with ice cream, cream and chocolate sauce, I made sure to support the locals by selecting a local brew, Tongerlo.
Bellies full, off we went, exploring more streets at random, seeing more lovely old architecture. In our wanderings we of course tried some more chocolates and also visited one of the landmarks of Brussels: Manneke Pis. The statue of a pissing boy – who knows why that was ever famous, but the crowd surrounding the small fountain/statue was crazy!
Another thing that surprised me, were the Tin Tin murals I spotted on random buildings throughout the city. Very cool though!
After having explored many of the streets and soaking up some of the culture, also having walked off our food, it was time for dinner. We found a lovely little restaurant near the old fish market we had some amazing truffle ravioli with a fresh tomato sauce, and of course accompanying this meal was some beer. It was here that I found my most favourite ever, Pecheresse: peach beer. It was divine!!
The following day we had another bit of a wander around Brussels, enjoyed a few more chocolates and were even so generous as to buy some extra chocolates for friends back home. (Do you think those chocolates made it back to Tassie?)
By around 11am, we hopped back in the car and made the short 45 minute drive to Bruges. Again we found our hotel, checked in and set off to explore. Within a few minutes of leaving the hotel the rain started, it became a torrential downpour and we found a bridge/gate to shelter under. (The center of Bruges is a walled city, and this entire city centre is Unesco world heritage listed..it was under one of the gates to the city that we were sheltering) In the 10 minutes that we stood waiting for the rain to slow, I saw the water it the gutters build up and build up, until it was a third of the way across the road. The cars that passed slowed down and swerved to avoid the pooling water…all except for one… a range rover sped through the puddle, and we were showered in filthy street water! Soaked right through, we no longer had a need to shelter under the bridge and we continued our walk into town. Thankfully it was not too long before we found a nice dry cafe to sit, warm up, dry out and enjoy some lunch.
Having sat in a cafe for close to an hour, we were still a little damp, but the rain had stopped and os spirits high we went off in search of pretty sights. The first thing we spotted was the Belfry. The big tower at the central marketplace. (this is the tower featured in the movie In Bruges). I’m always a fan of climbing towers and checking out the view. Mum decided to sit this one out and sat in a cafe for a cuppa. Off I went, climbed 366 steps to the top and even with the rainy-grey sky it still had a pretty good view. Just as I was about to head back down, it must have ticked over to the hour because the bells began to chime. It was insanely loud and a terrible tune, I assume/hope that those things sound good at a distance when they sound so bad close up. The last bell chime was more of a resounding ‘clang’ ..the kind that vibrates through your whole body and deafens you! I was definitely ready to head back down!
When I met up with mum we resumed our wandering, stopped for a chocolate or two along the way. We went for a boat ride through the canals and learned a bit about the city. Such a beautiful old city! In our stay in Bruges we saw many beautiful buildings and experienced many different things: We saw Church of Our Lady which housed Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, one of his only works to leave Italy; we learned about the history of chocolate, and got a taste test at the Chocolate Museum; we tasted some interesting beer and learned about the brewing of beer at the Half Moon Brewery.
The Belgian people are very particular about the beers. You will never find a Belgian beer that is in a can. Also every beer (I do actually mean every beer) that is brewed also has a glass designed to match it. The brewmaster designs the glass to accentuate the flavour and smell of the beer, I assume he also factors in the look and the amount of head that the beer produces when poured into each different shape glass.Once the glass has been designed to match the beer, it is then also labelled with the name of the beer, so as not to confuse the drinker. No beer is ever served in the wrong glass!
After 3 days enjoying Belgium it was time to head back to Holland, pack our bags and head home. So I said “Proost” to a fantastic holiday!
Over four car loads (13 people), most of mums side of the family drove to a region in Belgium called the Ardenne, which is mostly known amongst the dutch for action adventure sports. My uncle rented a 12th century castle for us all to stay in, it was called Chateau de Rolley. It had something like 7 or 8 bedrooms, there was a living room, sitting room, kitchen, dining room, chapel and an armoury..of course containing a few suits of armour, spears and trumpets! I had planned on sleeping in a room by myself, until I found a secret door in my room leading to a bathroom, which also had a secret door to another little bedroom and yet another hidden door into an attic/storage space. After finding weird stuff stashed in there I was too creeped out to sleep in a room by myself, so I made my cousin rob sleep in the other bed!!
So the action adventure aspect of the weekend included two full days of activities: a high ropes course, archery, team challenges, rock climbing, abseiling and canoeing. The team challenges were pretty fun and hard! Things like getting the team from one small platform, via a central platform, to an end platform, using only two planks of timber and no one is allowed to touch the ground! Also things like tightrope walking, and rope swings. Hilarious!! I have a few scrapes and bruises from it all. But it was well worth it.
In the archery we also had individual competition. Six arrows each, best score wins. I was equal last with a few others on 10 points. Pat was the winner on something like 95 points. The canoeing was down L ‘Ourthe river and was the most amazing scenery. It was really pleasant to paddle down the river slowly and soak it all up. The serenity was occasionally disturbed by some evil cousins, Rob and Roel, who had an absolute blast splashing everyone with the icy cold river water!! Eeeek!
Around the castle we also wandered around the lake, explored the castle grounds and the castle itself and sat around chatting in the sun (of course I took every given opportunity to enjoy some rose beer). At one stage Pat found a random old wedding dress, so Maricia tried it on, then Jeroen (they are the two getting married next week) found a random priests outfit and put that on. My cousin Rob put on another priests outfit..then we had a pretend wedding and took photos in the old chapel. It was hilarious!!!
We arrived back in NL Monday evening, quickly did a bunch of washing and went to bed, as Pat, Anna and I had to get up at 0530 to get ready for a 7am flight to Barcelona.
It was a quick 2 hour flight to Barcelona, then we checked in at our bed and breakfast (brilliantly clean room!! always a bonus when you travel) After dumping the bags we started exploring. We started by looking at Sagrada Familia which was only a few blocks from our accommodation, it is a famous cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi. The building was started in 1882 and is projected to be finished sometime between 2020 and 2040. Gaudi got hit by a tram in 1926, so after that obviously other people had to take care of the project. It is solely funded by donation (my guess is actually that that means its funded by ticket sales).
Gaudi was an architect that designed some amazing weird and wonderful stuff, that was well ahead of his time. I really love his architecture, so visiting Gaudi works was pretty high on my list of things to do and see.
We spent quite a while at Sagrada Familia..it was all pretty amazing! And really interesting design, an amazing level of intricacy.
After Sagrada Familia we went to Casa Batlo. Casa Batlo was also stunning!!!! It had a sea theme, and it could be seen in everything, the shape of the walls and ceiling, the colours, the window and door shapes etc. The way he designed the lightwells was probably one of the most fascinating aspects, and demonstrates some very clever forward thinking. A light well (like a stairwell but without stairs) is open to a skylight at the top. Obviously the higher up floors get more light as they are closer to the top and lower floors get less light. So Gaudi designed the windows of the lower floors to be the same shape, but bigger than the higher floors, each floor you went up the wnindows got slightly smaller. This way the rooms would appear to receive an equal amount of light no matter which floor they were on. Another aspect was that the lightwell was tiled in shades of blue. The top floors that receive the most light were darker shades of blue (with the light buncing off them they would appear quite light in colour) and the lower floors a very pale blue (less light bouncing off them, they appear darker than they are). In theory this would also mean if you looked down the lightwell from the top, or up from the bottom, it should appear as the same shade of blue all the way. Pretty cool!!
I also saw more Gaudi works incl. Palau Guell, some lamp posts in Placa Reial, Casa Mila ..otherwise known as ‘La Pedrera’ and together with the three of us we went to Parc Guell. I loved it all!!!!!!!
At one stage Anna had a shopping day, and Pat and I had some brother-sister time. We did a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter and saw where the old roman part of the city was, learned some history of Catalonia and of some of the artists who came from Spain, like Picasso. (Catalonia is the area of Spain where we were. The people that live there will tell you they are Catalonian, not Spanish. and many are voting to be separated from Spain to become their own country). That afternoon we spent some time chilling at the beach and writing postcards. It was interesting to sit there and appreciate the beach, having just learned that the whole 5km of beach was man made using sand imported from the Sahara Desert. The Beach Promenade (as well as some other areas in and around the city) had beautiful palm tree, these are not native to the area and were imported from the Canary Islands. They imported so many palms that at one point The people from the Canary Islands had to say “No more” and the remaining palms were imported from Hawaii!! (these things changes to the city were completed to improve the city in preparation for the Olympic games held there in 1992)
For lunches and dinners we enjoyed quite a few different tapas…some good, some not so good. But I think the biggest decider in that was the restaurant itself. The Galician Octopus was the definite winner! Not sure how it was prepared but it was the most tender and tasty octopus I ever ate!!
Our last full day in Spain was spent on a ‘Dali’ day tour. Salvador Dali was the artist who painted the melting clock. The trip started with a 1.5hour drive to the Dali museum in Figueres. This was also where he lived in his last few years and died there. His tomb is in the center of the museum. There were some pretty awesome works in the museum. But it didn’t have as much of the colourful artwork and random sculptures as I had hoped for. Then we drove another hour to the coastal town of Cadaques. We stopped there for lunch. There were two other people on our tour, a mother and daughter from Texas. They had a cousin who lives in Barcelona who is a food writer, and he had recommended a few good restaurants in that town, so the 5 of us went to one of them..it was AMAZING!!!!!!
We had a welcome drink. A champagne cocktail with some frothy pink stuff on top. We ordered a few dishes to share…including juicy lobster paella, catalan tomato bread, “he best ham in the world” – joselito ham?!, poached egg in creme with black truffle oil, razor clams and croutons, rabbit ribs and some other stuff. All amazingly tasty!! We waddled back to the bus!
We got back to the bus a little late and our guide totally panicked that we would miss our appointment to visit Dali’s beach house in Port Lligat. So she hoooooned through all the back streets, and then we had to jump out of the bus and RUN to the beach house. Thankfully they still let us in!
The beach house was pretty interesting, he had developed it over a number of years. Every time he had enough money he would buy another fisherman’s cottage and then connect it to the other cottage(s) that he already owned..slowly developed it into a pretty big house. I think it was made up of 7 cottages all up. Part of what is interesting about his beach house is that there are two unfinished works there. When his wife died, he put down his paint brush and left the beach house never to return. She died at the beach house, but wanted to be buried in the tomb Dali designed in the castle he built/bought?? for her, so when she died he sat her up in his Cadillac and drove through the city, so people could see her ‘alive’. Then he took her to the castle and buried her in the tomb. It was designed so they would be side by side, with a little tunnel between them so they could hold hands.
Just before Dali died in his museum in Figueres, he had a private chat to the mayor of Figueres. After this discussion and Dali’s death, the mayor claimed Dali wanted to be buried there in the museum. As it was a private conversation..who knows if that is actually what Dali wanted?!
To end our day we drove to the lighthouse at Cap De Creus. This is the eastern most point of Spain, it also happens to be the point where the Pyrenees ends. It was quite a pretty area. After that we drove the 2.5hours back to Barcelona. I think most of us slept because we were so knackered! We left on the tour at 8:30am and got back to Barcelona at 9:30pm! We were so tired we just grabbed some maccas for dinner and were in bed around 11:30.
In Barcelona it is pretty normal to eat dinner around 10pm….so our bed time got later and later…but we didn’t end up sleeping in much and with all the stuff we crammed into each day we just got more and more tired! However tired we are, the adventure is all still worth it!!!