Drew’s special day

Our grandchildren have been blessed with an abundance of toys, games, and books so when two of them had birthdays this spring, we decided to be creative. Our gift to each of them was a special day on their own with Gram and Grandpa once school was out for the summer. Yesterday was 11-year-old Drew’s day.

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We left his Calgary home early in the morning and headed for Banff National Park where our day started with a hike in beautiful Johnson Canyon. Drew was beyond excited when we spotted a black bear crossing a hillside shortly before we arrived at the trailhead. The bear was too far away to get a good photo, but the entertaining little ground squirrels (like the one shown above) and red squirrels along the trail certainly weren’t!

Catwalks affixed to the limestone cliffs make the canyon easily accessible to everyone and the 1.1 km trail to the lower falls involves very little change in elevation.

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At the lower falls, a bridge crosses the creek allowing both an excellent spot from which to view the falls and access to a water-formed tunnel through the rock to a closer viewing platform.

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The crowd thinned out a little as we moved on toward the upper falls, another 1.5 km up the trail. Spectacular views continued to surround us as we climbed.

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We knew that the water level was much higher than when Richard and I did the same hike almost three years ago, but I didn’t realize how much until I compared photographs. Considering how much rain Alberta has been getting this season, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

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August 2016

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After reaching the spectacular upper falls, we stopped to enjoy our picnic lunch before continuing our adventure.

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As we started back down the trail Drew announced, “This is the best birthday present ever!” It was then that I realized that the day was as much a gift to ourselves as it was to him! It definitely filled my heart to overflowing.

In addition to the hike, Drew had been eagerly looking forward to relaxing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. I love this photo of his “floating head”!

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After soaking our tired feet and muscles in the hot pool, we made a quick stop at the Bow Falls Viewpoint then ended our day with a delicious restaurant dinner and a browse through a few gift shops before bringing a very tired boy home!

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Tomorrow we have a completely different agenda planned for his 9-year-old sister’s special day.

Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot

Just like the other European cities that we’ve visited, Amsterdam has major museums and galleries, but for our last two days before heading home, we were looking for something more laid back. We spent most of the day yesterday touring the city via Hop On, Hop Off bus and boat. We didn’t hop off a lot. We just took in the sights and got a feel for the city.

Amsterdam is sometimes called “Venice of the North” and actually surpasses Venice for number of canals. In fact, it’s the most watery city in the world with over 100 kilometres of canals and more than 1500 bridges.

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The tall elegant canal houses with their many different gable styles are so picturesque.

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Did you notice the beams extending out from some of the gables? Because the houses are so tall and skinny, staircases are steep and narrow. Moving furniture up and down them is often impossible, so the beams have hooks on them and winches are used to lift heavy or bulky objects to the upper storeys. There are very few private canal homes anymore. Most either contain offices or have been divided up into apartments.

Houseboats also line the sides of many of the canals. Some were clearly built as floating homes while others are old canal boats that have been converted for the purpose.

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Watching canal bridges open to let larger boats through was interesting.

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After yesterday’s tour of the city we enjoyed supper at the very popular Pancake Bakery in what was once a 17th century warehouse owned by the Dutch East India Company. The restaurant is just 300 metres from the Anne Frank House where young Anne, her family, and four other Jewish people were hidden in a secret annex for 25 months before being discovered by the Gestapo on August 4, 1944. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived the war. Photography is not allowed inside the house, but I would urge anyone who visits Amsterdam to see it for themselves. It’s a sobering, but very worthwhile experience. Just be sure to book your tickets and time slot well in advance.

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In her diary, Anne wrote about hearing the bells of Westerkerk, this nearby church, from the hiding place.

Before arriving in Amsterdam, we learned that there would be a nation wide public transit strike today. Buses, trams, and trains would not be running. As our hotel is some distance from the central part of the city, that presented a challenge. We didn’t want to spend our last day in Europe holed up in our hotel and we knew that taxis are expensive and that waits would be long, so we walked. And walked. And walked! According to Google Maps, we walked approximately 10 km! Fortunately, Amsterdam is flat!

Our main goal was to get to Museum Ons’Lieve Heer Op Solder, also known as Our Lord in the Attic. Built in 1630, it looks like any other canal house from the outside, but inside it contains a hidden secret, a church in the attic! Roman Catholicism and other non Protestant faiths were banned in Amsterdam during the 17th century, so people turned to small house churches hidden from the public eye. The authorities knew that they existed, but looked away. Well-to-do merchant, Jan Hartman, came to Amsterdam from Germany in 1661 and bought not only the canal house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, but also the two houses behind it. He had the top floors of the three buildings connected and they became the spectacular attic church. The museum, complete with 17th century furnishings throughout the houses, provides an interesting and thought provoking glimpse into history.

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We saw some other interesting things on our long walk today. This statue is located just across the road from our hotel. The inscription, “de verdwenen boer” means the missing farmer. As Amsterdam grew during the last century, the city annexed surrounding villages. Families who had been farming here for generations were bought out or had their land expropriated and were forced to move. Children and grandchildren of these displaced farmers had the statue erected as a tribute to them.

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Windmills are almost synonymous with the Netherlands and there are still a few of them in the city. We saw one while on the bus tour yesterday, but I was able to get better photos of this one when we passed by this morning.

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While we enjoyed Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot, we didn’t try the most common form of transportation; bicycle. Everyone here seems to ride a bike. In fact, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam and far more bikes than cars! There are fabulous bike lanes everywhere and there are even traffic lights for bicycles!

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Backroads of Belgium

At nine o’clock on Saturday morning the taxi dropped us off at the Avis car rental office in Bruges, Belgium where we picked up our wheels for the day, a brand new SEAT Ibiza with only 61 km on it!

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Sticking to smaller highways and backroads, we set off across country to the small community of Verrebroek, not far from Antwerp. It was from Verrebroek that Richard’s great grandfather, Joseph Leopold DeBock, emigrated to America as a young man. Here’s the very first thing we saw when we pulled into town!

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A bit of online research prior to our trip had taught me that there were large De Bock businesses in the area, but unfortunately they’re closed on Saturdays or we would have dropped in to say hello. Interestingly, the North American branches of the family that descended from Joseph Leopold spell DeBock without a space between the e and B while in Belgium it’s spelled with a space. We assume that, as often happened in the past, immigration officials probably made an error in recording Joseph’s surname when he arrived in the country.

We visited the Verrebroek cemetery and found a number of De Bock graves. Clearly, there must be an older cemetery somewhere in the area, but everyone we talked to directed us to the one we visited. One of the oldest graves there belonged to Leopold De Bock who was born in 1883 and died in 1960, no doubt a relative.

After eating lunch in a little sandwich shop in town, we set off again retracing our path partway back to Bruges and then turning toward the ocean and following the coastline. Just past Zeebrugge, we stopped to spend some time strolling on the wide expanse of sandy beach that seemed to go on forever. This misplaced coastal girl needs a bit of sea air once in awhile!

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Everywhere we went in Belgium, we saw bright red poppies blowing in the breeze. I took this picture beside the road where we parked when we visited the beach. As I walked the sandy beach trail, I recited bits of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields. Little did I know that within a couple of hours, I’d be standing by his grave!

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Just past Oostende we turned inland again and headed toward Ypres. Belgium is a beautiful country; a lush coastal plain where we saw sheep, goats, and dairy cattle and small fields in every stage of growth from recently seeded to approaching harvest. The easiest crop for us to recognize was the bright yellow canola in bloom. Belgium hasn’t always been so pastoral though. Our main purpose for visiting Ypres was to see the World War I cemetery there, a sober reminder that the beautiful countryside has been torn by war on more than one occasion. We weren’t sure how to find the cemetery, but suddenly before we reached the town, there it was.

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It would take hours to read every headstone and many of them are weathered to the point where it’s difficult to make out the names, but of the ones I read, there were some that stood out to me.

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“A Soldier of the Great War”

Like the other unidentified soldiers in the cemetery, the inscription at the bottom of the headstone says “Known Unto God”. All that is known for sure is that this young man was a member of the 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Whose son was he? Whose brother? Which family was left wondering what had become of their loved one? Where his body lay?

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These three newer headstones stand separately at one side of the cemetery and don’t actually mark graves. They have names on them, but the one on the left says “Known to be buried in this cemetery” across the top and the other two say “Believed to be buried in this cemetery”.

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This one says “Ein Unbekannter Deutscher Krieger” (an unknown German warrior). He was the enemy, but he was also someone’s son, someone’s brother. In death they’re all the same.

Visiting the cemetery and seeing the graves of so many young men was sobering, but realizing that a kilometre or so down the road, there was another one with more than 1200 more graves in it was overwhelming. This was the Essex Farm cemetery and it was in this vicinity that Doctor John McCrae penned his famous poem while working at the medical station that had been set up there. It was also here that I found his grave.

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Just over the rise behind the Essex Farm cemetery is this beautiful scene, but notice the white sign on the nearest tree.

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Here’s what it says:

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When we left the second cemetery, we turned back toward Bruges. We returned the car 11 hours and 327.5 km after picking it up. With the help of a paper map and the vehicle’s navigation system which didn’t speak any English, we’d covered a significant portion of Belgium and managed not to get lost!

More of beautiful Bruges

When we set out to explore Bruges after arriving yesterday afternoon, we had the Market Square (Markt) in mind as our goal, but like most of the European cities that we’ve visited, it isn’t laid out on a grid, and even with a tourist map in hand, we got completely turned around! That didn’t matter at all because every time you turn a corner in Bruges, there’s something beautiful to see. We simply wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets with names like Katelijnestaat, Zuidzandstraat, and Zoonekemeers and eventually ended up back at our hotel.

Today, we finally figured out the map and spent several hours strolling at a very leisurely pace. This time we had no problem finding Market Square which is dominated by the 13th century Belfry of Bruges tower. We have no doubt that the view from the top would be astounding, but we decided to forgo the 366 steps it would take to get there and limit our views to ground level.

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Its many canals add to the beauty and charm of Bruges and we walked along many of them today.

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This bend in the canal is known as the Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai) and is apparently the most photographed spot in Bruges. Though I can’t deny that it’s lovely with the belfry tower in the background, I think some of the other scenes I’ve photographed rival it for beauty.

As one who loves reflections on water, this spot was one of my absolute favourites.

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A visit to Bruges would be incomplete without taking one of the half hour boat tours of the canals. In addition to seeing this magnificent city from a different angle, the captain’s commentary was informative and interesting.

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The weather has been absolutely lovely since we arrived here and we’ve had little desire to spend time indoors. I did want to spend a little while in the Church of Our Lady though to see Michelangelo’s magnificent marble carving, Madonna With Child. Created in about 1503, it was the only one of his works that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime when it was brought to Bruges by a wealthy merchant. It was stolen for the first time by the French occupiers in 1794, but later returned after the defeat of Napoleon. It was removed a second time by the Germans toward the end of World War II, but once again it found its way home to Bruges where it is highly treasured.

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Bruges is known for chocolate, beer (there are two local breweries), lace, and the swans that have graced the canals since the 15th century.

If it’s Thursday, this must be Belgium!

If you’re of my generation, you probably remember the 1969 comedy, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about the humorous adventures of a group of American tourists taking an eighteen-day guided bus tour of nine European countries. Thankfully, our trip hasn’t been quite that frenetic, but today we took the train from Paris to Bruges, Belgium and had only twelve minutes to change trains in Brussels!

I’d been told how beautiful Bruges is and had seen lots of pictures, but nothing really prepared me for what I saw as we set out to explore. I felt as if I’d been dropped into a fairy tale! What an amazing place!

Come take a walk with me.

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I can hardly wait to go out again tomorrow, but first I’d better get some sleep!

 

Final day in Paris

After two very intensive days visiting the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, we wanted our final day in Paris to be more laid back and relaxed; a day of exploring a couple of interesting parts of the city and soaking up the ambiance. We had the pleasure of doing some of that with one of my former students who’s been living in Paris for the past five years!

We met Crystal midmorning to tour Montmartre, one of her favourite areas of the city. In the 1870s, Montmartre became a centre of bohemian life inhabited by impoverished artists and poets and visited by Parisians who came for its cabarets, cafes, and dance halls. Today it is officially designated as a historic district with limited development allowed in order to maintain its historic character.

Crystal told us the stories behind a number of the district’s best known establishments like the cabaret, Moulin Rouge, and the little pink restaurant, La Maison Rose, that has been immortalized by many painters over the years.

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She told us Marcel Aymé’s tale about the man who could walk through walls. You can read an English translation here.

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We climbed the steep, narrow cobblestoned streets up the hill that is Montmartre to the beautiful Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the top. Visible from almost anywhere in Paris, it is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

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Though there was a service going on inside, tourists were allowed to enter and walk around inside as long as we remained silent and didn’t disturb the worshippers!

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After leaving the church, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe in nearby Place du Tertre, a large open market area where artists worked on portraits, caricatures, and paintings of Paris’ most famous landmarks.

On our way back down the hill, we enjoyed beautiful views of the city like this one from below the Bascilica.

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After saying good-bye to Crystal, we took the metro to the Latin Quarter, centre of university life and home to many bookshops and cafes. There we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens where we spent awhile simply sitting in the sunshine. The Luxembourg Palace overlooking the gardens was built between 1615 and 1645 as a royal residence for the mother of King Louis XIII. Today, it houses the French Senate.

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Before returning to our hotel to begin preparing for today’s departure, we stopped briefly at the Pantheon, the final resting place of some of France’s “great men” including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo.

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Burning the candle at both ends

Yesterday morning we got up at 6:30 AM to make our way by train to Versailles in time for our prebooked 10:00 AM entrance time. The Palace of Versailles was the principal royal residence of France from 1682, under Louis XIV, until the start of the French Revolution in 1789, under Louis XVI. The incredible opulence of the place, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite overwhelming! Is it any wonder that the populace rebelled when their royal family were living in such luxury while they struggled to get by?

At this time of year, visiting Versailles on a Tuesday has its pros and cons. It’s definitely one of the busiest days of the week due to the fact that the Musical Fountain Show in the palace garden takes place only on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. That’s one of the reasons that we chose to go yesterday.

Before we even entered the Palace, we were blown away by the grandiose exterior.

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Inside was no different. After spending some time in the first section which focused on the history of the palace, we moved on to the royal apartments. Many of these rooms are now a gallery of portraits and paintings, but we also caught glimpses of how the royal residents lived. We could only peer through the doorway of the two storey royal chapel, but imagine having this in your house!

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Of course, as king and queen, your bedrooms would also be extremely lavish.

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By far the most amazing room is the incredibly ostentatious Hall of Mirrors, clearly a place meant to impress visitors to the royal residence.

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After making our way through the extemely crowded halls of the palace, it was lovely to exit into the gardens, but again, we were amazed by the extravagance. Imagine that this was your backyard and that it extended well beyond what you can see here.

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In addition to the palace and the gardens, we also visited the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint and rustic little village retreat commissioned by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place for her to get away from life at the palace. Apparently she would stroll around her perfect little world in simple peasant garb accompanied by her children totally out of touch with how the rest of the world lived.

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Nearby there’s also the Grand Trianon, a pink marble palace built as a retreat for King Louis XIV and his mistress.

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After spending most of the day at Versailles, we returned to our hotel and rested awhile before taking an after dark boat cruise on the Seine to see the city lights. Most remarkable was the Eiffel Tower. It sparkles for five minutes on the hour every hour so that was happening as our boat pulled away from the dock at 10:00 PM and again as our cruise ended an hour later. Definitely magical! Even when it’s not sparkling though, it’s something to behold all lit up at night.

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