Showing posts with label Belgium. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Belgium. Show all posts

Europe by Car - Best Honeymoon Ever!

 Harley Street house                                              Port of Dover                               

It was a beautiful sunny day as we set off on our honeymoon from our house in Harley Street in Marylebone, London on Saturday September 13th, 1980. We made it to the English coastal town of Dover around dinner time. Luckily, we found a charming hotel called the Spinning Wheel and spent the night. We hadn't booked a single hotel in advance and took our chances each day. For most of the trip, we did pretty well and only once did we end up in less that ideal accommodations. Not bad for a three week road trip!

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast at a picturesque cafe in Dover with a magnificent view of the ocean, we found ourselves in a long line of cars and trucks to catch the ferry that would land us in Belgium, where we began our sojourn across Europe. It was smooth sailing as we pulled away from the white cliffs of Dover on the car ferry, and studied the maps to determine the best route to our ultimate destination, Venice, Italy.  

Arriving in Brussels in the late afternoon, we drove around the city to see the sights and found the Hilton Hotel that overlooked the Parliament building. Although Belgium is beautiful, we had no time for sightseeing the next morning and pushed on to Baden Baden, Germany.  

Driving our new Volvo, we listened to music suitably romantic for honeymooners. Our favorite CD was that of Anne Murray, a Canadian singer, that included her song "SnowBird", which was our favorite.

Hotel Haus Reichert in Baden Baden, Germany

Thanks to the amazing highway system in Germany, where speeding along at 80 miles per hour is your only option if you want to survive, we made it to Baden Baden by dinner time. Not having booked ahead, we were fortunate to find a lovely place in the heart of town, the Hotel Haus Reichart. This quaint family owned establishment was the perfect place for us. The room was cozy and comfortable and the staff were friendly and very helpful in guiding us to the best nearby restaurant. 

Our next stop was the picturesque town of Oberammergau, Germany, a picturesque little village located in the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, just to the north of the Austrian border. In 1632, the area was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague, so the village promised that, every ten years, it would perform a play about Jesus if only God would protect them from the plague. It is recorded that the death rate then dropped dramatically. Oberammergau has since kept its promise. Its Passion Play was first performed in 1634 and it continues to be performed in every year with a zero at its end. In September 2020, it was performed for the 42nd time.

Photo is a picture of the cover of the book we bought about the Passion play

The play runs for seven hours and takes over 2000 people to put it on. In order to participate, one must be a resident of Oberammergau by birth. What is remarkable is that the entire population of the village is only 5,000, which means that every family is involved in the production while continuing its normal life. Yet, when we saw the young man playing the part of Jesus riding his bicycle down the main street of the village, it seemed almost blasphemous. 

The village is also famous for its woodcarvings and its painted houses. We bought a charming carved statue of the Blessed Mother Mary, which we still have (Photo on the left.) Every house has a religious painting on one wall. The paintings are beautiful as if done by a master painter. Combined with the overflowing flower baskets, the village is one of the most picturesque villages in Germany. 

Blessed Mother

The next day we set off for one of Bob's favorite places, a ski resort town in Saalbach, Austria. He had many fond memories of going there in his twenties with his skiing buddies and couldn't wait for me to see it. Again, thanks to the super highway system, we made it to the Hotel Saalbacher Hof in time for dinner. 

Hotel Saalbacher Hof Saalbach, Austria

The hotel offered a fun and entertaining meal which was highlighted by music and men in costume performing a dance called schuplattling. It is a type of Austrian folk dancing where the dancers stomp, clap and strike the soles of their shoes (Schuhe), thighs and knees with their hands held flat (platt). 

Schuheplatting performance

They picked Bob out from the crowd and tried to teach him how to do it. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen Bob do, especially since he had several beers with dinner, which helped to instill in him a false sense of confidence as a novice schuplattler. He gave it his best shot and the guys were all very nice to him. The crowd even gave him a round of applause for his efforts. After dinner and all the dancing, we made our way to the indoor spa and hot tub so Bob could rest his weary bones and get ready for trekking into the mountains the next day.

The town of Saalbach sits in the shadow of the Gross Glochner, the highest mountain in Austria and the highest in the Alps east of the Brenner Pass. Like most ski resort towns, the ski lift runs all year long, taking people up into the mountains with well marked walking trails leading down. We were not really prepared for hiking in the mountains and didn't have the proper gear, but we went anyway. 

Gross Glochner

Looking back on it, we must have looked quite out of place, with Pat in her chic French pantsuit and Bob wearing his favorite shirt and trousers. Making our way down the mountain, we were frequently winded and out of breath, taking frequent rests at many of the benches along the way. Perhaps the most vivid memory was watching all the senior citizens in their lederhosen, passing us by, like cars in the fast lane speeding past the slower cars. They were obviously in better physical condition than us. At that time, Pat was 30 and Bob was 43 and we certainly couldn't keep up with those spry people in their 70's and 80's.

Hotel Londra Palace

After spending two nights in Saalbach, we drove over the Alps and down onto the plains of northern Italy. We arrived in Venice at the Hotel Londra at 4:00pm, exactly as planned. We set out immediately to inspect the famous old city, travelling its canals being serenaded by singing gondoliers. 

Walking in St Marks Square, we admired The Doge's Palace and quenched our thirst in Harry's Bar. Yet we hated Venice. Grand as its buildings undoubtedly were, the place was crowded with too many tourists and very overpriced. Even the water in the canals looked dirty; not very romantic at all and certainly no place to spend one's honeymoon. Our solution to the problem was quickly to leave Venice and to drive all the way across northern Italy from east to west, finally arriving at the little Italian frontier town of Ventimiglia on the French border. 

Trailer for the film "The Day of the Jackal"

The town looked familiar because Bob had seen it depicted in "The Day of the Jackal", a recently released film based on the novel of the same name by Frederick Forsyth, one of Bob's favorite authors. It was the border point through which the Jackal smuggled into France the weapon with which he intended to assassinate President De Gaulle. Unarmed as we were, we passed smoothly through the border point and into France. We were finally on La Cote d'Azur.

We never planned to visit La Cote d'Azur during our honeymoon, as our original plan was to spend at least 5 days in Venice, Italy. The picturesque French coast is little more than 125 miles in length. It's beautiful and offers magnificent beaches, a deep blue sea, and plenty of sun. Many of the rich and famous already live there or visit frequently. 

Located in the southeastern corner of France, it's known by the locals as La Cote d'Azur, in recognition of the azure color of the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. The English call it either the French Riviera or simply the South of France. It was always included in the Grand Tour of Europe, undertaken by every young English aristocrat in the 19th century. 

Beginning at the French/Italian border, we drove westward into France, along fine boulevards with the sea on our left and some of the world's finest hotels and restaurants on the right. Drivers should guard against the distraction provided by the spectacle of many topless lady windsurfers and water skiers bobbing about on the water.

Carlton Hotel in Cannes

During the rest of our honeymoon, we based ourselves at the Carlton Hotel in the town of Cannes, world famous because of its annual film festival. The hotel faces the sea and guests can simply walk across a boulevard to access its private beach and be served magnificent food and drinks all day by  well groomed waiters.  Many years later, in 2013, the Carlton was the scene of the world's largest jewel heist. The lone robber, who was never caught, escaped with jewels worth $136 million.  

We hired a boat with a driver to take Pat water skiing. However, it had been 17 years since she last skied and she had difficulty getting up on the skis. Once that was finally accomplished, the driver of the boat kept shouting at her to "bend zee knees". Needless to say, the next day Pat was sore all over from her exertions but she had a great time skiing in the Mediterranean. 

Mixed flowers in the field in Grasse

Up in the hills, only ten miles behind Cannes, lies the town of Grasse, known as the center of the French perfume industry. As we drove through the hills with our car windows down, the scent of an immense variety of fragrances permeated the air from the many locally grown flowers. It was a truly remarkable experience.

Comte de Grasse
This area also produced the legendary Comte de Grasse. He was the French admiral who greatly aided George Washington in his victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, which ended the American Revolutionary War. You can read more about this on our website under the title "Cape Henry, Virginia - The Battle of the Capes".

St. Tropez
Although Cannes was our base, there were many other places for us to visit on La Cote d'Azur, which ends in the west near the fishing village of St Tropez, hometown of Brigitte Bardot. 

Brigitte Bardot

In the 1950s, Bardot starred in a series of films which made her an international superstar. St Tropez used the publicity to promote the area, turning it into a fashionable tourist resort. Bardot has lived her whole life in St Tropez and is now in her mid-eighties. Meanwhile, St Tropez, in 2017, showed its gratitude by erecting a statue of her in front of the cinema. 

Brigitte Bardot bronze statue

Of all the other places we visited on La Cote d'Azur, by far the largest was the city of Nice.  Conspicuous on its seafront is the luxurious Hotel Negresco, whose great chandelier was originally intended for the Czar of Russia. Alas the Czar came to a sticky end in the 1917 Russian revolution and he was unable to take delivery of his chandelier, which has therefore spent the last century hanging in the Negresco. The famous hotel was also featured in the movie The Day of the Jackal.

Hotel Negresco in Nice

Czar of Russia Chandelier in Hotel Negresco

La Cote d'Azur is home to another country as well as France. Apart from the Vatican, it's the smallest country in the world with less than one square mile of land area and only a couple of miles of coastline. It lies between Cannes and the Italian border and is the Principality of Monaco, the capital of which is the town of Monte Carlo. 

Grimaldi Royal Palace in Monaco

The Royal palace of Monaco, perched high on a rocky promontory, began life as a fortress in 1191 to combat piracy. Granted the land by German Emperor Frederick I, Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297. They were one of the aristocratic families of Genoa who were originally traders and suppliers of money, ships and soldiers to many European monarchies.   

Over the centuries, the Grimaldis have fought several wars to keep their land and sovereignty. In 1793, on the heals of the French Revolution, the Grimaldi royal family was driven from their home and the palace fell into disrepair, at one time being designated as a Poorhouse. 

In May of 1814, under the protection of France, the Grimaldi royal family once again ruled Monaco. Renowned as collectors of all things beautiful, which included 700 works of art by Old Masters such as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and others, they continued their centuries old tradition to fill the palace walls and galleries with all things beautiful. 

Monte Carlo Casino

In 1854, a plan was hatched to generate income and save the royal family from bankruptcy. Princess Caroline, the brilliant business-minded spouse of Prince Florestan, came up with the idea of creating a casino and turning the area into a highly desirable destination for the wealthy elites of Europe to spend their money. Under Princess Caroline's direction, the Monte Carlo Casino was created. Original investors included the Bishop of Monaco and the future Pope Leo XIII. With the Church's money and blessing, Monaco became the glamourous destination of the rich and famous. 

In the 1890s, a song very popular in London music halls (vaudeville theaters) was "The man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." The song was inspired by the success of a British gambler who won too much money at this casino. A film of the same name, which depicted the story of how he did it, was released in the 1930s. 

We did not enter the casino and try to emulate the formidable gambler. Instead, we dined in a restaurant atop a building that overlooked the harbor, with a bird's eye view of all the pricey yachts moored there. As we strolled along the harbor, we spotted a US Navy ship, the USS Discovery. It was a public relations type of vessel used to promote goodwill for the USA around the world. At the time, Pat was on active duty in the US Navy, and we stopped to see the ship. Sadly, it was getting late we didn't get to go onboard, but it was fun to see the ship up close and to chat briefly with some of the crew. 

In 1956, Prince Rainier III married the stunning American actress Grace Kelly. The fairytale wedding drew thousands of tourists to the tiny principality. Tourism is still a mainstay of the economy. Sadly, Princess Grace died in a road accident in September 1982 while being driven in a car by her daughter Stephanie. Prince Rainier III was still head of state at the time of our visit. He died in 2005 and was succeeded by his son, Albert II.

For most of his life, the great author Somerset Maugham lived on La Cote d'Azur. He called Monte Carlo "a sunny place for shady people". That's because so many of its very wealthy residents are there simply to avoid taxes in their own countries. There is no income tax in Monaco and low business taxes.

We arrived on La Cote d'Azur by accident and have never returned. Yet the memorable part that it played on our honeymoon is something that we have remembered all our lives.   

On our final leg of our trip, we drove to Paris from Cannes. Before we were married, we did a 9-week Novena of the Miraculous Medal. We each prayed for a specific miracle and both were granted by the time we got back home. 

Miraculous Medal

The Miraculous Medal is a fascinating story about a young French girl named Catherine Laboure. She became a nun and lived in a convent in Paris, where she experienced several apparitions of the Blessed Mother Mary. The young nun was told to get the Miraculous Medal made and gave specific instructions about how it should look. This is where the novena was created. 

Catherine Laboure's body in glass case

Catherine Laboure's body is lying in a glass coffin in the front of the chapel. Her body has never decomposed and lies "uncorrupted" and on display.

Click on video link below showing the Chapelle de la rue du bac.

Our goal was to go to mass at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal (see video above) and to give thanks for our many blessings and the miracles granted to us. Before leaving our hotel, Pat had a premonition that they would lose the camera and not to take it. Bob insisted on taking it along. The camera was in a plastic bag with all the rolls of film from their entire 3-week honeymoon. Bob carried the bag and put it in the back window area behind the seats in the cab. They got out of the cab at the chapel and watched the cab pull away with the camera bag in the back window. It was lost forever and never recovered. We often wondered if someone ever found it and developed the film. At least we still have our memories of the best honeymoon ever!

Bastogne Brussels - Battle of the Bulge

This was the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. It is an amazing story of American determination and the will to win. Our troops were surrounded, outnumbered 4-1, facing an enemy who had superior equipment and firepower. At one point, the 28th Infantry Division were completely surrounded and the Germans tried to get them to surrender. General McAuliffe's reply was one word, "Nuts".  It's an amazing story and one that all Belgian school children are taught. I was told this by more than one of the Belgian re-enactors I met at the event. American flags were everywhere. It was such a nice feeling to know that America is held in such high regard here in Belgium.

Click on player to see a narrated slideshow of my trip to Bastogne to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Click on player to see a video of the 1st Belgian Field Battery reenactors commemorate the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium.

This piece, written by Pat, was originally posted on our website on December 21, 2009.