Stepping off our EasyJet flight in Brussels from Switzerland we quickly made our way off the tarmac and grabbed our bags. We were super relieved when our friend Erwin was waiting for us at the gate. It was cool to see him again and he was being super gracious and acting as our host and tour guide for the weekend.
Brussels was about an hour or so from Genk where we were staying and right away we made a stop in Leuven to check out the town. We explored around a bit and got a taste for the architecture before jumping back into his luxury diesel and heading for the next town. That night we ended up meeting up with some of Erwin’s friends for beers at an Irish pub and ate some authentic Belgian Frites. Completely exhausted we retired back to Erwin’s place where we were greeted by a private room with a double sized blow up mattress complete with bottles of water. We both fell asleep instantly. The next day Erwin treated us to a local traditional breakfast with a large assortment of food and drinks including scrambled eggs with chicken broth and tomatoes, asparagus pate, and a variety of cheese and breads. After breakfast we departed on the Belgian tour Erwin planned out for us.
Erwin’s friend Sophie came to join the tour explaining that she’d never seen our first stop, Gent, in the sober light of day. So this was a new experience for most of us. It was clear when we’d met Erwin in Palermo that he was a proud Belgian, but this side of him came beaming out as he guided us around one of his favorite Flemish cities. We wandered first through St. Baasfs Cathedral. After that, we wandered through the city admiring the old Flemish architecture with complimentary newer storefronts. He took us to Alden Biesen Castle where we passed through dank old guard rooms, chilly stone cellars and a room full of medieval torture devices. We drank some beers canal side then headed in search of lunch. Unfortunately, all the restaurants were full so we decided to move on to the city of Brugge.
When we got to Brugge I pretty much decided that this is where they modeled Super Mario Bros after. Everything is brick, there are castles all over the place, and even the storefront facades are stair stacked like the Mario stairs. We wandered around some more, Erwin would randomly see something that enticed him and would come out with chocolates, waffles, or other goodies in hand to share. It was fun, Erwin and Sophie seemed like they were just as much if not more interested in site seeing, even going into the souvenir shops (which was nice because Naomi and I didn’t feel like total tourists).
We finally gave into our hunger and settled on this nice little place ‘t Fonteintie where 3 out of 4 of us ordered the traditional Flemish Stew. The stew came with Belgian Frites (of course) and was similar to Irish beef stews I have had, it was very good. Naomi ordered rabbit with beer sauce (classic Naomi) which was good but I preferred the Stew.
Full and a little sleepy we headed to Brussels to round off our tour. Wandering around the capital we saw Manneken Pis, the little boy statue peeing and the hordes of tourist replicas in the surrounding shops.
Erwin pulled a quick stop for some white chocolate dipped strawberries which were delicious then we headed to drink more beer. We went to a bar with a phone book sized beer menu, over 2000 to choose from and each had a couple.
After driving us under the colossal “Atomium” built for the world’s fair we were an exhausted group, fighting nodding off in the backseat. I had another night of heavy sleep sinking into air mattress bliss.
For Sunday, Erika, Erwin’s sister joined us for the day and the plan was to head out to see some horses and an ass (there was a lot of joking about the latter).
Not at all sure what to expect we went with a bag of carrots and some apples and found first a donkey and Shetland pony hiding from the rain in their shack. Once they saw Erwin, they came trotting out ready for a snack. They lived on a large farm which also hosted rabbits, bees, several different horses and educational gardens. After feeding the rabbits some carrots too we sought out the big horses, the Brabamders.
They were huge and galloped around like dogs when presented with carrots. After we’d fed them everything we had we moved on to Tongeren, Belgium’s oldest city with a standing Roman wall. There we saw the statue of Ambiorix, the handlebar mustache sporting hero who once chased off Roman forces in Julius Caesar’s day.
Then we headed off to find an abby and drink beer. We found the Abby, meaning we could see it from the road, but the entrance road was closed. Erwin, not easily deterred, decided to take a farm road regardless of some signs that said no cars. Cruising along, next to a field, making good time on a road built for tractors, we hit an unexpected mud patch.
Wheels spinning, flinging dirt clods all over his clean white car it was quickly clear we weren’t getting out of this without a little struggle. So Sean, Erika and I hopped out and pushed first on one end then the other trying really hard not to slip and land face first in the gooey mud. We made it happen and after some further exploration of the paths Erwin brought us to the Abby…as it was closing. So we went to their local Polish pub where Erika’s Polish Dance group meets and tried out their homemade vodka, then a few other types of vodka…
We finished off the day with drinks at the Irish pub for our last night in Belgium.
Sophie came along again the next day to Dusseldorf where we had booked our next flight out of so Erwin would have company for his return trip.
While every time I say Dusseldorf I laugh a little at the name, Erwin and his friends would say “ah Dusseldorf” and get a knowing look in their eyes. Apparently this is where they come to party and to eat chili cheese nuggets from Burger King. After we’d checked at the train station about our departure time we went to drink some beers and tour the city.
It was a beautiful place with some distinctly German-looking people walking the streets. Between beers we walked around a city park that had some black swans and baby ducks that Erwin chased playfully among the busts of famous German composers that lined the paths.
After a last meal together, Erwin and Sophie bid us “adieu” and we prepared ourselves for a long night in the Dusseldorf airport and then Norway.
“I belong in the mountains.” Sean has said many times before when I’ve suggested trips to island beaches or rainforest jungles. He has never wavered on this point but he did “endure” almost 20 days of camping along southern french coastline and even managed to get a tan (sort of). While I basked in the sun and contracted new types of melanoma Sean’s alpine blood boiled and he squirmed under the rays like they were burning him (which they probably were, he’s very white.) During our last days on the beach I had trouble getting him to smile for photos anymore. Although his blond hair and tanned face looked like they belonged in the beach scenery, his numbed expression told a different story. Our stay in Collioure where we had been able to find hills and gain some elevation had helped us both but we needed a more serious fix now.
We had planned to visit the town of Chamonix since before we left home, and it had become like a beacon of hope. But we had to wait for the weather to warm up before going there because we weren’t equipped for straight winter. The train ride was long. It should have been quick, but we misread our tickets and missed the TGV we’d booked so we ended up with a mish-mash of transfers between regional trains ending with a bus ride. The final bus driver was not in the hurry we were in to get to Chamonix, instead sitting outside the bus talking on his cell phone. I speculated that he was waiting for a sandwich delivery that never came and he was forced to leave without it, huffing and puffing his way to the driver’s seat. He didn’t tell us when we’d reached our destination like I’d asked but left us sitting and wondering if we were lost as he gave another man directions then looked at us like we were idiots for not getting off the bus. But once that was behind us, we were in Chamonix.
There was crisp mountain air, a lively bar scene and a sense that the hills around us kept climbing up into the darkness. It was late, so we ate a gourmet meal at Subway and fell asleep in our alpine-themed room with the roaring Arve river outside. The next morning we both walked around loving the mountains and getting excited to do things again. Wherever we looked people were geared up for activity. There were para gliders overhead, skiers walking around town, mountain bikes parked outside restaurants, trail runners on the trails and hikers everywhere.
I got to work looking for a post season jacket sales to replace the one I lost in Collioure, soon discovery the absurdity in my mission. I found my the same jacket that I’d lost for literally three times what I’d paid for it. I gave up on hunting and we went hiking instead. It was nice, we found some snow, marveled at the steeps some people get to ride in the winter and then we went to the sauna in our hotel where I watched Sean suffer in a different kind of heat.
We had heard that this was the place to get fondue, so we did. But the tricky French mountain folk fooled us with their misleading menu writing and we ended up paying double what we’d intended for one pot of fondue. Not cool Chamonix. After that very overpriced pot of cheese and Sean informing me that he could make better (as usual) we decided to move on from Chamonix, but we hadn’t had our mountain fix yet. So we booked a train to Zermatt for the next day.
The rude sandwich-craving bus driver was luckily off duty when we boarded our first bus to Zermatt, instead we had a pleasant young man who told us when we were approaching our stop and then checked with our next driver for us to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We were off to a good start. Two bus transfers then we ran to a train that turned out to be the most scenic train of the trip so far. It climbed steep hills and hugged cliff sides looking down into idyllic Swiss mountain villages. When we finally got to Zermatt thoroughly awed by the scenery we were plopped in another ski oasis. I had found us a studio to stay in with a kitchen that had huge windows. So between hikes and river runs we could sprawl out in a spacious room and watch Swiss television (that got old fast.) When we hiked up the Matterhorn trail the sun was out and the clouds and lifted away from it’s peak so we had a clear view all morning. The trail passed through cabins and summer lodges and fields with curious marmots until finally we were stopped by a large snow field and turned back.
The studio was only available for two nights so we took it as a sign that the Eiger was calling us and we booked a studio in Grindelwald. The trains in Switzerland are expensive, but they were all on time, clean, scenic and easy to navigate. They make the French and Italian regional trains look like circus side shows.
The hotel I had booked in Grindelwald was another studio with deep discounts because of the slow season. We walked lugging our packs, not sure if we were in the right place, because our reservation was under a different hotel name. The friendly lady at the desk greeted us and offered us wine or tea as she checked us in. Sean and I looked at each other, definitely not sure we were in the right place anymore. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, I accepted and sipped away (backpack still on) while she told us about the hotels perks. Nearly four minutes later, she had finished telling us about the hotels features which included their “Selfness” spa and fitness area complete with a sauna and steam room, three restaurants and a free coffee and cake hour. That’s when she asked if we needed help with our luggage and I was sure we’d booked the wrong place. I went immediately to our large room and re-checked our reservation to see how much money we were bleeding.
After finishing my complimentary wine (quickly, just in case they discovered I’d been given it by mistake) we headed out for an Eiger hike. Which turned out to be 8 miles of the Swiss demonstrating how to make the steepest trails without switchbacks.
I had decided that I wanted to make it back in time for “coffee and cake, made by Grindelwald farmer’s wives” so I was hiking with a double mission. We were running too late for that so we decided to run straight to the grocery store to grab something to cook and I accepted that I would miss out on this local delicacy (farm cake). But it turned out to be a bank holiday so all the stores were closed (except expensive ski clothing stores). So we were forced to eat out.
Blah blah blah…
After falling in love with Biarritz and Collioure, I think we weren’t sure what to do next. We wanted to go eventually to the alps, but not immediately, so we decided to go to Avignon because I’d heard it was beautiful. I mean, if a pope decided it was worth it to move his entire operation there back in the day it must be nice. We had planned to go first to Arles and camp there and visit the Roman ruins, but that required transferring in Avignon. When we finally got off our first train we decided to just camp across the Rhone in Avignon. It rained on us a lot that night.
Poor Avignon, if it wasn’t the next stop after epic Collioure, it might have been more that just a city with some really cool looking buildings. The palace of the pope looked awesome and imposing and the medieval buildings were marvelous, but we had just been on an outdoor extravaganza and I was underwhelmed. At least they had an H&M.
We tried to get ourselves in the mood for some sightseeing. I read up on Avignon’s history to try to get excited, but then when we went to the sights neither of us wanted to pay the entrance fees. After being gorged so heavily in Rome, Florence and Paris and then spending so little while camping in Biarritz and Collioure we just didn’t want to go back to regular tourism. So we snapped some pictures of the papal palace from outside and what remains of the once spectacular Roman bridge and splurged on a Rhone-side picnic lunch of chevre, oranges, fresh baguette and fischer amber ale (also had one of the best Kabab’s of our trip).
We bought our tickets for Toulon planning to leave early the next morning and camp again. I had hoped to camp in Cassis but there was only one campsite and they provided no WIFI or electricity and we were ill equipped for proper camping. So we decided to go to one in Le Pradet, outside of Toulon that looked okay.
The next day we woke up, packed and headed out. I sighed sadly as we passed Cassis on the train, but thought “it’s fine, I’m sure our campsite will be great…” When we got off the train in Toulon it was a city. We tried to orient ourselves with no luck and finally spotted a McDonald’s and decided to abuse their WIFI again. They have consistently come through for us in our times of need. Once our route to the campsite was figured out we started walking…through the sketchiest stretch of city yet. It was a ghost town for one, with loitering youths and twenty somethings “mean-mugging” and every business that we walked by was open but had no more than one client that stared us down as we walked by. It was a little unsettling. We had a long walk, luckily the last third of it was on a bike path, not through the scary ghetto. Finally we climbed a hill to the address of our campsite to be un-welcomed by a large gate. There was a bell to ring reception and a number to call if they weren’t there…but we had no phone. We could hear children playing in the pool inside, see rows of happy cabins and in my tainted memory I smell barbecue too. We could hear the phone ringing in the reception area as we helplessly pressed the button outside the imposing gate.
I’d had it. I was done with this town, I said “let’s go to the station”. Sean was more level headed and we walked to two other campsites in the area and tried them as well, but they only accepted people in RV’s (because that’s camping). Finally we were both done trying so we walked to the next town over, hoping the SNCF station was still open. We made it, and the lady working there was super nice. She talked to us about different places we could go, how long they would take, “how about Antibes” I’d say, “oh yeah, it’s nice there”. Finally that was the one, we bought our tickets, hopped on the train and were off.
When we got to Antibes there were people around and straight out of the station a young man asked if we needed help finding our way as we stood looking at the cryptic map in our guide book. “This is better, fuck Le Pradet” I said, then we found out it was a French holiday, it doesn’t matter which one, there are too many to keep track. So after wandering around for an hour figuring out where we were and looking for WIFI or a place to sleep we figured out that all the hotels were booked. Luckily the hoteliers at one of the places we were trying to stay called around for us, they called 3 different places with no luck but finally found a room for us right when we were losing all hope.
We ended up staying in the hotel for 2 nights because it was raining pretty hard in the mornings and evenings. It was a nice break after being in a tent for the last 2 weeks. On the third day the weather seemed like it was clearing up so we decided to go find the campsites down the road. Not finding out about the nicer sea-side road until later we marched down the equivalent to the 82nd ave. of Antibes (and did so numerous times back and forth). The Camp that we were going to look at was rated as a 3 star site with reviews like “Our family loves this place! we wish we could reserve our spot for the whole summer!” & “Greatest camping, so relaxing- waiting for the step father to return with the cold beer.” As we got close to the camp things just got kinda weird. I swear I could hear a sea lion or seal barking, there was “Antibes Land” just across the street with sketchy rides like “Adrenaline” stretching wires and poles high into the sky, and the very real concern that our “campsite” was really just a carnie-filled trailer park. When we first got to “Camping du Pylone” we noticed all the lovely self-decorated single-wide trailers, they really went out of their way to make their “porch” or “deck” areas really show off their personalities- going as far as to name them “Cabernet Rosé Manor” or “Chez Magestique”- We are talking about loads and loads of dolphin decorations. We were also, very clearly the only tent “Campers” in the whole place. After setting up in our awesome gravel “pitch” some kids walked by with their dad “Ohh look a tent!” one of the small children said in a cute english accent “It’s kinda small.” with the younger brother agreeing quickly after “Yeah, its kinda small.” Naomi often thought that we were getting bad looks from the higher class trailer elites in the park. “Don’t worry, its just like in the wild- they are probably more scared of you then you are of them.” I reassured her.
The first day or two was pretty bad in and around the camp.
We wandered around on horribly small sidewalks through labyrinth like crosswalks (the french hate pedestrians) feeling like a Frogger reality show on busy roads into towns that had nothing to offer besides a Auchen “hyper” marché and a Subway (which we we’re eternally grateful for). It also had its highlights like drinking wine and beer in a gazebo during a lightning storm with just enough wifi signal to keep you hoping its going to work. We also walked around Antibes a bit more, swam a tiny bit and explored the nicer coast line. Actually by the last day or two we spent there we had figured it out enough that we had grown slightly fonder of the place, deciding that our previous thoughts of “damning it all to hell” were a bit hasty. Naomi-until we tried to walk to Juan Les Pins, because I decided it would be the ideal last stop on the Mediterranean. This trip resulted in blisters, cursing, hanger, resentment towards France…and we didn’t even make it to our destination. Rick Steve’s says “smart travelers take the bus”. Once again, we chose stubborn.
The morning we were supposed to depart on our train to Chamonix, Naomi got out the tent excited for her instant Mocha when I hear “shit, shit, shit!” I look up, train tickets in hand she continues “shit, shit, wait let me check… no, shit shit!” The train we both thought was leaving at noon, was actually leaving 10 minutes from now and there was no way we were going to make it (the guy who’d printed our tickets had also made us an itinerary, but it started with our first transfer, not our departure time). So without her coffee we packed up hoping we could catch another train and walked the couple of miles back to the station…